I currently have my head down trying to finish a big project that I’m excited about. Instead of driving myself crazy trying to write blog posts at the same time or, worse, “going dark” I’ll be running some of my favorite posts from the past for the next little while. Enjoy. And I’ll see you soon.


Commemorative stamp in honor of al-Khwarizmi issued by the Soviet Union in 1983

Quick: multiply DVII by XVIII. Before you could work the problem you translated it into Arabic numbers didn’t you?

The person you can thank, or blame, for your ability to multiply and divide is the mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (ca. 783-847), whose name lives on in a mangled form as “algorithm. (Honest. Take a moment to sound it out.)

We know very little about al-Khwarizmi’s life. His name suggests he was born in the region of Khwarazm in what is now Uzbekistan. There are suggestions that he was a Zoroastrian, who may have converted to Islam.

We know a lot about al-Khwarizmi’s work as a scholar in al-Mansur’s court in Baghdad. He introduced what were then called “Hindu numerals” to the Muslim world. He produced an important astronomical chart (zij) that made it possible to calculate the positions of the sun, the moon and the major planets and to tell time based on stellar and solar observations.

Al-Khwarizmi’s most important contribution to science was a ground-breaking mathematical treatise: al-Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Hisab al-Jebr wal-Muqabala. The title translates to The Compendium on Calculation by Restoration and Balancing, but the book is most often referred to as al-jebr, or algebra. His treatise was a combination of mathematical theory and practical examples related to inheritances, property division, land measurements, and canal digging. He was the inventor both of quadratic equations and the dreaded word problem. (Some of his word problems became classics, which meant they were still giving schoolboys grief several centuries later.)

So, the next time you need to calculate “how long it will take for two cars to meet in Dubuque if one car leaves Minneapolis going 60 miles an hour and the other leaves Peoria traveling 75 miles an hour?” remember to thank al-Khwarizmi.


I currently have my head down trying to finish a big project that I’m excited about. Instead of driving myself crazy trying to write blog posts at the same time or, worse, “going dark” I’ll be running some of my favorite posts from the past for the next little while. Enjoy. And I’ll see you soon.

Karl Bodmer

Aquatint by Karl Bodmer. Fort Pierre on the Missouri and the adjacent prairies c. 1833

Why is Omaha on my travel list? Two words, okay three: The Bodmer Collection.

In 1832, German naturalist Prince Maximilian zu Weid-Neuweid led one of the earliest expeditions to the American West.* As anyone who has snapped a picture of the Grand Canyon or the Grand Bazaar knows, expeditions need to be recorded. Instead of a Canon Powershot, Prince Maximilian brought along Karl Bodmer, a young Swiss artist with a talent for watercolor.

Prince Maximilian and Bodmer traveled the rivers of the American West for two years, going from Saint Louis to North Dakota and back. They saw an Indian raid, a wild prairie fire, and herds of buffalo and elk at close range. They suffered through a harsh winter in North Dakota, trapped by snow and bitter cold. At one point their boat caught fire.

Bodmer painted through it all, even when it was so cold that his paints froze solid. He captured images of the landscape, the animals, and. most notably, the Native American peoples they met. Bodmer’s depictions of the early American West have been described as the visual equivalent of Lewis and Clark’s journals. Although originally intended as “notes” to Prince Maximilian’s account of their journey, Bodmer’s paintings and sketches are now seen as the most important work of the expedition.

Today the Bodmer Collection is housed at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Put it on your list.


*Prince Maximilian wasn’t just a rich man with a yen for travel. He had a bee in his bonnet. He thought the native peoples of the Missouri and Mississippi river basins would help him prove that humankind developed from a single set of parents, presumably Adam and Eve.

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In Manchuria

by pamela on February 25, 2015


Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland And The Transformation of Rural China is a beautifully written blend of memoir, travel account, history and social commentary.

In 2011, Meyer moved to his Chinese wife’s hometown–a Manchurian village with what proved to be the inappropriate name of Wasteland. He had lived in Beijing for several years and written about change in urban China (The Last Days of Old Beijing). Now he was interested in the question of rural China, which was slowly disappearing as a result of forces familiar to anyone who knows the blighted farm towns of the American Midwest.

In his account of his months in Wasteland, Meyer walks the fine and often funny line between being both insider and outsider, telling a story that is at once intensely personal and broadly political. He explores the unexpected agricultural richness of Wasteland, learning the fine points of rice cultivation in the process. He searches for the surprisingly illusory traces of Manchuria’s history as China’s frontier. (Only remnants remained of the Manchu dynasty’s Willow Palisade, Japanese and Russian colonial cities, and a POW camp where survivors from the Bataan Death March were held.) And to his surprise, having expected to find the remains of China’s past in Manchuria, he instead finds China’s future in the form of Eastern Fortune– a privately owned rice company that is in the process of transforming Wasteland from a commune to a company town.

In Manchuria is an engaging account of rural China poised on the brink of change.

This review previous appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


The End of French Algeria

by pamela on February 21, 2015

Algerian Revolution

Barricades in Algiers, 1960
Photograph courtesy of Christophe Marcheux under Creative Commons license

The Algerian Revolution, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was one of the bloodiest of the anti-colonial wars that broke out in Asia and Africa after the end of World War II. *

Algerian resistance against colonial rule in Algeria was nothing new. Abd al-Qadir fought against French expansion in North Africa for fifteen years in the mid-nineteenth century. And small-scale uprisings were a regular occurrence throughout the French colonial period.

But Algerian resistance took on a new face after World War II. The war had weakened France and reduced its authority in the empire. On May 8, 1945, when French Algerians celebrated Germany’s surrender, Algerian nationalists staged a protest against a return to French rule that resulted in a small Algerian uprising and brutal French retaliation.

In years immediately after the war, the French government attempted to negotiate with the elite-based nationalist movement by offering a small degree of political reform–a classic case of too little, too late. Algerians rejected French offers as a ruse to maintain minority French rule over a Muslim majority ten times its size. For those of us familiar with the Indian nationalist movement, this all sounds very familiar. What came next was very different from the Indian experience.

A growing number of nationalists came to believe armed insurrection was the only way to get the French out. On November 1, 1954, only a few months after the crushing defeat of French troops by Vietnamese nationalists at Dien Bien Phu,** the National Liberation Front (FLN) called for independence from France. The organization requested diplomatic recognition for the establishment of an Algerian state from the United Nations. At the same time, the FLN began a guerilla war against French control.

France was not willing to let Algeria go easily. The interior minister, François Mitterand , summed up the popular French position, “Algeria is France”. He then declared “the only possible negotiation is war.” Not surprisingly, war is what he got.

The trigger point for escalating violence on both sides occurred in August, 1955, when the FLN, which had previously targeted public buildings, military and police posts, and communications installations, attacked a small European mining settlement near the city of Phillipeville. The nationalist forces slaughtered seventy-one European civilians, including a five-day old baby. The attacks were up close and personal: slitting a civilian’s throat is not generally recognized as an act of warfare. The French army went on a killing rampage in response, shooting down as many as 12,000 Algerians–more than the entire membership of the FLN.

Like most wars of independence, the Algerian Revolution was a David and Goliath contest, with the caveat that both sides were ruthless. With limited resources, the FLN fell back on the tactics of guerilla warfare: planting bombs in public places, ambushing government forces, killing and then blending back into the civilian population. Determined to protect the large community of European settlers in Algeria, the French government increased its military presence to 500,000 troops. French tactics in the Algerian War were shaped by their recent defeat in Vietnam, where many of the officers had served. These tactics included the use of napalm, the large-scale destruction of villages, and the relocation of almost two million Algerian civilians into so-called “pacification hamlets” in an attempt to cut the FLN off from its civilian base. *** The worst of the fighting occurred in Algiers itself, a bloody dance of FLN terrorist attacks and equally violent French counter-terrorism known as the Battle of Algiers.

By 1958, the French seemed to be winning the war in Algeria, but were losing the war at home. With the barbarism of the German occupation fresh in their memories, the French public began to question the methods used in the Algerian war, and the government that waged it. (Please note, this is not the same as questioning French rule in Algeria.) The government began to move toward compromise; the army and the pieds noirs did not.**** That April, former president Charles De Gaulle seized in power in a bloodless coup fueled by the Algerian paradox and backed in large part by the French settlers and pro-colonial elements of the army . The joke was on them. In 1959, de Gaulle pulled a political switcheroo and declared Algeria had the right to determine its own political future.

The Algerian War effectively came to an end on March 19, 1962, when the French government and representatives of the FLN signed the Évian Accords, which called for an immediate cease-fire and negotiations regarding the transfer of power to an Algerian government. A group of French Algerian extremists, with the tacit support of the army, launched a brief, brutal counter-terrorist campaign against both the FLN and the French government in Algeria in an attempt to stop the movement toward independence, but French control of Algeria was over. The French public approved the terms of the Accords in a referendum on April 8. On July 1, six million Algerians voted in favor of independence in a second referendum. Two days later, De Gaulle announced Algeria independence.

Following independence, some 900,000 pied noirs fled to France, which was totally unprepared for the flood of refugees. They left behind an economy shattered by 100 years of colonialism and eight years of war. Ironically, a few years later thousands of young Algerians began to leave their newly independent homeland in search of a better life–in France. French rule in Algeria was over; France’s relationship with Algerians was not.

* If you want a visceral depiction of the revolution, I recommend you skip my post and go straight to the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo. I have not seen it, because I am a wimp about filmed violence, but by all accounts, it is a powerful work of art that looks at the war from both sides.

**If you’re interested in learning more about the siege of Dien Bien Phu or the background for the US involvement in Vietnam, My Own True Love and a great many other history buff, recommend Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place. It’s on my personal To Be Read list. (I’m less of a wimp about violence in the written word.)

***A civilian internment camp by any other name is still morally questionable.

****It is important to point out that European settlement had been a fact of Algerian life for almost 100 years under French rule. Many of the European settlers were second and third generation pied noirs. They might have thought of themselves as French but their feet were deeply rooted in Algerian soil. The parallels with white South Africans are instructive.


Lincoln’s Greatest Case–Sort Of

by pamela on February 17, 2015

Mississippi steamboat race

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brian McGinty (The Oatman Massacre) uses his skills as both attorney and historian in Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, The Bridge and The Making of America.

In May, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton hit a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge–the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi. Both steamboat and bridge caught fire. The Effie Acton sank, with all its cargo. The Illinois side of the bridge collapsed onto the wreck of the steamboat the next day. In the trial that followed, the powerful steamboat interest fought the developing railroad industry for control of the Mississippi, and the nation’s shipping business.

McGinty sets out the complicated story with the clarity of a legal brief. He places the trial and its issues solidly in a historical context that includes the role of the Mississippi in American economic life, the Dred Scott case, Abraham Lincoln’s career, and westward expansion. He leads readers through the intricacies of legal principles governing interstate commerce and judicial jurisdiction, steamboat operation, bridge construction and river currents with a sure hand. He reports the day-to-day unfolding of the trial with an eye to both the personalities and the issues involved.

Lincoln’s Greatest Case tells an intriguing story that will appeal to anyone interested in the commercial and industrial history of the United States, but the title is misleading. Anyone expecting a courtroom drama with Lincoln at its center will be disappointed. There’s a reason the Effie Afton trial is little more than a footnote in most Lincoln biographies: Lincoln was not the lead attorney in the team defending the Rock Island Bridge. He is simply the best-known character in a colorful cast.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Woodrow Wilson in Love

by pamela on February 14, 2015

Woodrow Wilson

In honor of Valentine’s day, I want to share one of my favorite stories about President Woodrow Wilson, reported by Secret Service agent Edmund Starling in his memoir of the Wilson White House:*

En route to his honeymoon destination with his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the president was seen dancing a jig by himself and singing the chorus of a popular song: “Oh you beautiful doll! You great big beautiful doll…” Starling reports that the president even clicked his heels in the air.

Look closely at the portrait of the president at the top of this post. Add a top hat, pushed back. Picture him dancing and singing. Makes me smile every dang time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to give My Own True Love a kiss. I may even click my heels in the air and sing a love ditty.

*My apologies to those of you who’ve read it here before or heard me tell the story in person (complete with song and dance step).



by pamela on February 11, 2015

If you dismiss history told in comic book graphic form* as the non-fiction equivalent of Classic Comics, you’re missing out. At its best, graphic non-fiction uses visual elements to tell stories in new and powerful ways.**

In her graphic memoir, Fatherland: A Family History, Serbian-Canadian artist Nina Bunjevac tells the blood-soaked history of the former state of Yugoslavia through the lens of one family’s story.

Fatherland centers on Bunjevac’s father, whose involvement in a Canadian-based Serbian terrorist organization led her mother to flee with her daughters to Yugoslavia in 1975 and ended with his death in a bomb explosion. Moving back and forth in time and place, from modern Toronto to Yugoslavia during both the Nazi occupation and the Cold War, Bunjevac explores the steps that led to her father’s extreme nationalism and its tragic consequences. Using a combination of strong lines, pointillism and cross-hatching that evokes the feeling of an old newspaper, she tells a story in which there are no heroes and every choice, personal or political, has traumatic consequences. (Bunjevac’s mother is forced to make a classic “Sophie’s choice”: the only way she can take her daughters to Yugoslavia is to leave her son behind.) Both the country and Bunjevac’s family are torn apart by the bitter divisions between Serbs and Croats, partisans and collaborators, royalists and communists.

Bunjevac makes no moral judgments about her family’s choices. Instead she approaches their history from several viewpoints, introducing increasing complexity and moral ambiguity with each new layer. The only thing that is black and white in Fatherland is Bunjevac’s exquisite and often grim illustrations.

*As opposed to what we call “comic book history” here at the Margins–stories that are culturally entrenched and often emotionally satisfying but untrue.

**At its worst, graphic non-fiction is garish and heavy-handed. But if we abandon entire genres of literature based only on the worst examples we’ll have nothing left to read.

Much of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


Abandoning the Algerian Model

by pamela on February 8, 2015

French MoroccoTunisia and Morocco came under French control much later than Algeria, in 1883 and 1912 respectively, as part of the great “scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century.*

From the French perspective, the imperial experience in Tunisia and Morocco was very different than that in Algeria.** In both states, French investors became concerned about the security of their investments under the rule of what they perceived as a weak Muslim government. In both states an internal crisis combined with imperial rivalries with Britain in Tunisia and Germany in Morocco triggered occupation by French troops and a “now what?” response by French administrators.

Fifty years of rule in Algeria had taught French politicians that direct rule by French administrators and colonization by European settlers was expensive. Instead of being integrated into French territory as colonies, first Tunisia and then Morocco were placed under protectorate status: a ambiguous term that suggests a stronger power protecting a weaker power. The reality was the stronger power protecting its own interests in the weaker power.*** In theory, the Bey of Tunisia and the Sultan of Morocco remained the rulers of their respective states with the support of a French civil service and the French military. In fact, both rulers were puppets under the control of their French advisers–a position that was soon made clear in Morocco. When Sultan Mulay Hafid refused to cooperate with French plans for administrative, legal, educational and military reforms, he was forced to abdicate and replaced by his brother.

The bottom line: Tunisia and Morocco were possessions, but they never became part of the French identity. François Mitterand once claimed “Algeria is France.” No one ever said “Morocco is France”. As a result, in the unraveling of European empires that followed the end of the Second World War, Tunisia and Morocco were relatively easy to let go. (The key word there is relative.)

Algeria? That was another story.

*If you’re interested in the big picture on this, I strongly recommend Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912: a Big Fat History Book that’s well worth the time.

**My guess is that the experience from the perspective of the colonized looked much the same.

***The phrase “protection racket” comes to mind. Or is that just me?


Even the most eclectic history buff has periods that draw her back time and time again. if you’ve spent much time here at the Margins you know the late eighteenth century is one of those times for me. Regency England and Revolutionary France, colonial expansion in India and losses in North American, Enlightenment thought and the roots of Romanticism–all call my name.

Since this is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I’ll be spending more time than usual thinking/reading/talking about the long eighteenth century.* I suspect I won’t be the only one. In fact, I’ll bet the on-line discussion this July will equal that surrounding last year’s centennial anniversary of the assassination of the Grand Duke Ferdinand at Sarajevo.**

Jenny Uglow. In These Times Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 is a good place to start the discussion.

Uglow describes In These Times as “a crowd biography”. For much of her career, Uglow has looked at the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the lens of individual lives. With In These Times, she expands her talent for biography into a broader account of how the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars affected those who remained at home. The big names of British history–William Pitt and Willaim Cobbett, Nelson and Wellington, Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen–appear in their proper places. But Uglow focuses on less celebrated lives from all levels of society, from factory boy to aristocratic lady, as recorded in letters, memoirs, diaries, and parish records.

In This Times is not another version of “daily life in the time of”.*** Instead Uglow looks at how twenty-two years of constant warfare shaped society in fundamental ways. She not only describes direct effects of war such as enlistment practices and the economic impact of government military contracts; she also places events that are normally described in terms of their domestic impact, such as the social disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution, within the context of war. She looks at newspaper distribution, shoe manufacturing, the impact of war loans on private banking and the ethical dilemmas of Quaker gun manufacturers,

Depicting a society in which war is as pervasive as permanent bad weather, In These Times combines social and military history in a manner that will appeal to readers of both.

*Roughly 1688 to 1815, or 1832 depending on which historian you talk to. Sometimes centuries are an awkward time division when you’re talking about historical events instead of the calendar. .

** Normally I’d link to my own post on the subject. But this one is much better: Two Bullets, Eight Million Dead.

*** If that’s what you’re looking for, may I recommend Jane Austen’s England?

The heart of this post previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Rabindranath Tagore

Few people in the modern world attain the degree of celebrity that allows them to be known by a single name: Napoleon, Gandhi, Madonna. Even those who reach single-name celebrity in their own country may be largely unknown to the rest of the world. Take the example of Bengali poet, novelist and composer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who is known in India simply as Kabi, the Poet. Every Bengali language speaker, all 250 million of them, knows a line or two of his poetry. By contrast, most westerners know Tagore only (if at all) as the recipient of the Nobel Prize, but have no sense of either the poetry for which he won the award or his broader career.

Born in 1861, to a prominent Calcutta family, Tagore was a leading member of the late nineteenth century literary, cultural and religious reform movement known as the Bengali Renaissance. He is generally considered the father of the modern Indian short story, he pioneered the use of colloquial Bengali in literature, and created a new genre of popular contemporary music known as rabindra-sangeet that draws on traditional Bengali folk and devotional music as well as Western folk melodies. (After independence, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all chose songs by Tagore as their national anthems.) He is often compared to Tolstoy, and seen as a precursor to Gandhi,

Tagore became famous as a writer when he published his first novel in 1880, at the age of nineteen. In 1905, he became involved in nationalist politics after the British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal province in two, effectively cutting the power base of the Bengali elite who headed the early Indian nationalist movement. In response, Indian nationalists boycotted British goods and institutions, a protest known as the Swadeshi (of our own country) movement. At first Tagore threw himself into the Swadeshi cause, leading protest meetings, writing political pamphlets and composing patriotic songs. His initial enthusiasm for the movement failed when the Bengali population was torn by increasing communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Despite bitter criticism from nationalist activists., he withdrew from the movement in 1907, concentrating instead on experiments in economic development and education in the villages on his estate.

Tagore made the leap from national to international fame in a single year with the help of one important admirer. He traveled to London in 1912 with a collection of English translations of 100 of his poems, which became the collection known as Gitanjali. While he was in London, he met William Butler Yeats, who became a passionate advocate of his poetry. In part as a result of Yeats’ championship, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature on November 13, 1913. Tagore’s Nobel Prize sparked a brief, but intense, period of popular and critical interest in his work in the west. It was soon translated into many languages, including a French translation by André Gide and a Russian translation by Boris Pasternak. Tagore himself became an international literary celebrity, traveling around the world on lecture tours and revered as the embodiment of the mystical east. His critics accused him of collaboration with the enemy, especially after he was knighted by King George V in 1915.

Accusations that Tagore was an imperial collaborator ended in 1919. On April 13, Brigadier General Reginald Dwyer ordered soldiers under his command to fire on an unarmed crowd of 10,000 Indians who had assembled in an enclosed public park in the Punjabi city of Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu religious festival–an event that became known as the Amritsar Massacre. The soldiers fired 1650 rounds in ten minutes, killing 400 and wounding more than 1000. Tagore resigned his knighthood in protest.

For the rest of his life, Tagore criticized British rule in India while refusing to reject Western civilization, a position that often placed him in opposition to Gandhi.