Pirates of the…Mediterranean?

by pamela on October 24, 2014

Barbary corsairs

In response to my recent post on nineteenth Chinese pirate Cheng I Sao, Margins reader Davide reminded me of another highly successful pirate* and then made the provocative comment that the subject of piracy in the Mediterranean is very interesting and often  neglected by historians.

Challenge accepted. It’s a big question, but let’s take a quick look:

Piracy was a problem in the Mediterranean as early as ancient Egypt** and remained a problem for the next thousand years.   By 67 BCE, pirates were such a threat to Roman navigation and commerce that the Roman senate sent  Caesar’s ally and rival  Pompey to find a solution to the problem.  They agreed to provide him with up to 500 ships for up to three years.   Pompey divided the Mediterranean into thirteen zones, which he systematically cleared of pirates over the course of three months using fifty warships and fifty transports.  (He also used the war against the pirates as the jumping off point for Roman expansion into Syria and Palestine–but that’s another story.)

Pompey reduced piracy to a low grade irritant during the lifetime of the empire,  but it picked up again during the Middle Ages when there was no central power strong enough to patrol the seas.  Muslim and Christian corsairs alike attacked merchant vessels and sold captives as slaves–sometimes in the name of religion, sometimes because they could.  (There is of course, always a question of whether a ship was a pirate or a legitimate warship of a hostile power: both sides were quick to point fingers and say “pirate”.)

The “golden age” of Mediterranean piracy dates from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries when the Barbary corsairs (and their European counterparts, the Knights Hospitallers) terrorized the waves.  Just as Elizabeth I of England used licensed privateers as an economical way to  fund her lifelong , the Ottomans co-opted the corsairs of Algiers and Tunis as a way to strengthen their navy and expand their influence westward.

The Barbary corsairs were finally repressed in the early nineteenth century, but piracy remains a problem today on a smaller scale, as a quick Google search will reveal.

Anyone have something they’d like to add?

* Barbarossa (Redbeard), a sixteenth century Barbary corsair who worked his way up from pirate to emir of Algiers (1519)  and eventually grand admiral of the Ottoman fleet (1533).   A successful pirate by any standard and worth a blog post in his own right.  Coming soon to a history blog near you.

**At least that’s our first documented reference to piracy. An Egyptian document from 1075 BCE describes the voyages of an Egyptian emissary from Karnak who narrowly escaped an attack by pirates from the Phoenician city of Dor, located in modern Israel. In fact, pirates probably existed from the moment that humans tried to ship valuables by water.


A while back, My Own True Love and I had to abandon our plans to take a three week drive down the Great River Road, which winds from Minnesota to Louisiana along the Mississippi.  This last weekend we treated ourselves to four days and the brief stretch of the river that runs along the edge of Illinois from Nauvoo to Quincy.  Instead of roots music, regional food, and lots of historic sites, we had a home-grown musical, a Maid-Rite sandwich, missing (or at least elusive) historical markers, and lots of Mormons.

We spent most of our time at Nauvoo, where the Mormons built a thriving community from 1839 to 1846, after being driven out of Missouri.  They spent a  number of years in Nauvoo before once again being driven out, this time making the trek across the plains to Utah.  Today, Nauvoo is effectively a Mormon pilgrimage site.

There are two different clusters of sites commemorating the Mormon history of Nauvoo, run by two different off-shoots of Joseph Smith’s original congregation. The Church of Latter Day Saints offer twenty-some reconstructed buildings and businesses with volunteer docents–the general feel is a small-scale Williamsburg with a Mormon emphasis. The surviving historical sites are in control of the Community of Christ, which broke off from the Latter Day Saints in the early 1850s .*  Community of Christ volunteers give walking tours of the sites.  We left knowing more about Mormon history than we knew when we arrived–and with several big unanswered questions about the relationship between the Mormons and their neighbors in both Missouri and Illinois.

A small but useful exhibit run by the local Chamber of Commerce  puts the Mormon years of Nauvoo in a larger context that included a communal settlement of Icarian socialists,**  immigrants who fled the 1848 revolutions in Germany,  and an engineering project on the Mississippi led by then Lt. Robert E. Lee.

Some of the high points of the trip included:

•    A brief ride in an oxen-drawn wagon, with a very knowledgeable guide.  We were surprised to learn that oxen are simply cattle trained as draft animals.  Oxen were cheaper and stronger than horses, easier to drive,** and able to feed themselves by grazing on a long trek.
•    A living history program about making bricks.
•    Driving on a county road along the Mississippi early on a beautiful Sunday morning
•    The Villa Katherine in Quincy Illinois:  a home built in the Moorish style in 1900 by a man who can most politely be described as an enthusiast.

villa katherine

We’ve got lots of River Road left to travel.

*One of the sources of disagreement was over who was Joseph Smith’s legitimate successor after his murder.  The splinter group who became the Community of Christ believed that Smith had anointed his eleven-year-old Joseph Smith III as his successor and were prepared to wait until he had grown old enough to take his rightful place.  This reminded me of the Sunni/Shia split over Mohammed’s successor.  Déjà vu all over again?

**Worth a blog post of their own.  Coming soon to a history blog near you.

***As long as they’d been trained to yoke.  If  you were desperate and hooked an untrained pair of cattle to a yoke, you were asking for trouble.


History On Display: Amazing Grace, the Musical

by pamela on October 18, 2014

Earlier this week, My Own True Love and I took a chance on the “pre-Broadway world premier” of a musical by a new composer/playwright based on the historical story of John Newton (1725-1807), the slave trader turned Anglican minister and abolitionist who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”.  At a minimum, we knew there would be at least one good song.

Newton’s story–complete with love story–would be a gripper even without the personal transformation that inspired the song.  He was impressed into the British Navy in 1744.  After deserting ship, he was captured, flogged, demoted and eventually traded to a merchantman involved in the Triangular Trade between England, West Africa, and the West Indies.  Dogged by bad luck–often brought about by a bad attitude and questionable choices– he became the prisoner of a powerful and highborn West African woman, worked as her factor in the slave trade, was rescued,* and almost died in a horrific storm at sea.

Amazing Grace, the musical, turns Newton’s story into a powerful drama, with themes of love, redemption, and freedom.  It does an excellent job of portraying the brutality of the West African slave trade, the lesser brutality of the British Navy in the mid-eighteenth century, and the heroism of those involved in the British abolitionist movement.  I suspect that some of the details of Newton’s life were tweaked to make a more dramatic story.  For instance, nothing I’ve read suggests that Newton’s father headed the mission to rescue his son or that his life-long love Mary Catlett was part of the abolitionist movement.**  (The production makes up for slight in accuracies by providing an excellent study guide on line.)

Two aspects of the play bothered me, though both made for good theater.  Both Newton and Mary Catlett are attended by loyal family slaves who serve as their owners’ consciences, as well as surrogates for parents who are present but inadequate.  The African scenes, particularly those involving the evil Princess Peyai,  had overtones of old adventure movies like King Solomon’s Mine.

All caveats aside, Amazing Grace is worth seeing if it comes your way.  If you can stand at the end and sing “Amazing Grace” with the cast tears in your eyes or at least a lump in your throat, you’re a tougher history buff than I am.

* Or perhaps just convinced to come home, depending on which version you read

**And if she was, I want to know more.  Anyone?


Listening to a recent news report on the quarantine and eventual death of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died last week from ebola in Dallas, the aspect of the story that struck me most was how a single individual stands at the center of a circle of contacts—and possible contagion—many of whom never knew the infected individual.

The idea of a single carrier and contagion made me think of Mary Mallon, the first known “healthy carrier” of typhoid. You known her by the nickname Typhoid Mary.

typhoid maryTyphoid Mary was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1884 at the age of 15. She had never had typhoid and as far as she or anyone else knew she was healthy. Like many Irish immigrants at the time, she went into domestic service, where she quickly discovered she had talent as a cook—a prized position because it was more highly paid than most domestic work. She moved from job to job—not unusual for a domestic worker at the time. What was unusual was that typhoid outbreaks followed Mallon from job to job.

Mallon was first identified as a possible carrier in 1907. New York banker Charles Henry Warren rented a Long Island summer home for his family and hired Mallon as a cook for the season. In late August, one the Warren daughters came down with typhoid fever. She was the first: eventually six of the eleven people in the house became ill. Mary Mallon was not among them.

Typhoid was known to be spread by contaminated water or food. The owners of the home were afraid that they would not be able to find more tenants unless they identified the source of the contagion. They hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in tracing the source of typhoid fever outbreaks. As part of his investigations, he traced Mallon’s employment history and found that between 1900 and 1907, she had worked at seven jobs at which 22 people came down with typhoid.

Soper didn’t think this was a coincidence, but he needed stool and blood samples from Mallon to prove she was the carrier.

Mallon was once again working as a cook in a private residence. When Soper approached her, she threatened him with a carving fork. After a second attempt, Soper turned his data over to the New York City Health Department. Mallon again refused to cooperate, and responded with violence, profanity and the carving fork that appears to have been her weapon of choice. It took the Health Department doctor and five police officers to capture Mallon* and take her by ambulance to a hospital, where specimens were taken and examined.** Having confirmed that Mallon carried typhoid bacilli, the health department transferred her to an isolated cottage on North Brother Island, where they tested her stool samples regularly for typhoid.

Mallon was held against her will and without a trial. She had broken no laws, and did not understand how she could be a carrier of a disease for which she showed no symptoms. She sued the health department, with no effect. The judge agreed that she should be confined for the public good.

In 1910, a new health commissioner decided Mallon could go free as long as she never worked as a cook again. Not surprisingly, she agreed to the conditions if that’s what it took to gain her freedom.

Five years later, typhoid fever broke out in the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan. Twenty-five people became ill; two of them died. Evidence pointed to a recently hired cook as the source of the infection: Mallon working under the assumed name of Mrs. Brown. She was sent back to her isolated cottage, where she remained imprisoned for 23 years.

Mallon was not the only healthy carrier identified in New York in this period. She wasn’t the only healthy carrier to ignore health department restrictions after learning she was contagious. She wasn’t even the most deadly. But she was the only one isolated for life. And the only one to become a synonym for contagion.

*According to Dr. S. Josephine Baker, “I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”
**None of the accounts describe how you get a stool sample from an unwilling subject. The mind boggles.

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A History of New York in 101 Objects

by pamela on October 7, 2014

New York Times reporter Sam Roberts makes it clear that A History of New York in 101 Objects is not the history of New York City, but his history of New York City, shaped by a 50-year career of reporting on the area. Inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project of the British Museum and the BBC, Roberts established criteria for selection that he describes as highly subjective but not arbitrary. Objects could not be much larger than a breadbox (a criterion he often ignores), could not be a person, and had to still physically exist in some form. Most importantly, objects had to illustrate a transformative moment in New York’s past.

The resulting history is charming, idiosyncratic and remarkably comprehensive. Roberts begins with a piece of the rock on which Manhattan is built and ends with a masonry Madonna that survived Hurricane Sandy. Some of the objects and their stories are predictable: the letter documenting the “sale” of Manhattan to the Dutch, the New York Public Library’s lions, a subway token. Many are surprising, such as the impact of the mechanized cotton picker on northern cities.

The format of A History of New York in 101 Objects is deceptive. While it is easy to dip in and out at random, Roberts tells a story that is not merely episodic and not solely about New York. The book could alternately be titled A History of the United States in One City.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the great men of the twentieth century, though he is virtually unknown in the west.


Ambedkar was born into the “untouchable” caste of Mahars in the Indian state of Maharashtra. At the time, untouchables suffered under legal restrictions that made the Jim Crow laws of the United States look mild by comparison. They traditionally performed jobs considered “unclean” by Hindu theology: a religious and economic catch-22 in which they were ritually unclean because of the work they did and could only do certain types of work because they were ritually unclean. They were not allowed to enter Hindu temples–in some regions they couldn’t even walk on the road in front of a temple. In the South Indian state of Travancore, untouchables had to carry a bell that announced their presence so higher caste Hindus would not be defiled by their proximity.

Like African-American reformer Frederick Douglas, Ambedkar became a spokesman for an oppressed people thanks to education. At a time when fewer than one percent of his caste could read, Ambedkar was supported in his quest for education by both his family and high caste Hindu reformers who recognized his talents. Between 1912 and 1923, he earned a BA in Bombay, an MA and PhD in economics from Columbia University, and a MA and D.Sci in economics from London University–and passed the bar from Grey’s Inn in London.


Back in India, Ambedkar devoted himself to improving the lives of untouchables. He soon found himself in conflict with Gandhi, who had declared himself an untouchable by choice. They disagreed at both the symbolic and the practical level. Both men recognized the power of abandoning the term “untouchable”. Gandhi proposed Harijans (people of God) as a substitute. Ambedkar rejected Harijan as patronizing, preferring the term dalit (oppressed). Gandhi wanted to improve the lives of Untouchables by appealing to caste Hindus to abandon untouchability. Ambedkar recognized that it was easier to change laws than to change people’s hearts and heads. He preferred to lead dalits in campaigns designed to improve access to education and to secure basic civil and religious rights, including the right to use the public water system and to enter temples.

In 1935, after an unsuccessful five-year campaign to gain the right to enter Hindu temples, Ambedkar decided if you can’t beat them, leave them. He declared “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu” He urged untouchables to “change your religion”: reject Hinduism and convert to a religion that doesn’t recognize caste or untouchabliity.

Both Christianity and Buddhism fit the description, but Ambedkar leaned toward Buddhism, which had ceased to be a living religion in India when Muslim invaders destroyed its temples and monasteries in the twelfth century, On October 4, 1956, after twenty years of study and writing on the subject, Ambedkar and thousands of other dalits converted to Buddhism in a massive ceremony. In the following years, more than four million dalits declared themselves Buddhists and stepped outside the mental framework of the caste system.

Founding Father

Ambedkar fought bitterly with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress on issues of dalit rights and representation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But when India achieved independence, Nehru named Ambedkar India’s first Minister of Law. More important for the position of dalits in independent India, the new nation’s temporary assembly elected Ambedkar chairman of the committee that drafted its constitution. Under his leadership, the constitution legally abolished untouchability and included safeguards for depressed minorities.

Since independence, India has implemented affirmative action programs for the benefit of what are officially called the “Scheduled Castes and Tribes”. In 1997, fifty years after independence, India elected its first dalit president–an event what would have been unthinkable during Ambedkar’s lifetime. Nonetheless, dalits still suffer from discrimination on many fronts. (Does any of this sound familiar to my fellow Americans?)

Ultimately, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were right: in order to abolish untouchability or other types of political and economic discrimination, it is necessary to change not only laws but also people’s hearts.


Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors

by pamela on September 27, 2014

If you’ve spent much time here in the Margins, you know that I’m fascinated by historical boundaries: the times and places where two cultures meet (peacefully or, more often, not) and change each other. One of my favorite examples of a historical boundary is Islamic Spain, where Dar al Islam and Christendom met in exciting and productive ways. Recently I read a new book that shifted my vision of this period by several important degrees.

Popular conceptions about the role of religion in the Middle Ages take two basic forms. One version looks at the medieval world in terms of crusade, jihad and pogrom: a violent collision between mutually intolerant communities of Christianity, Islam and Judaism with long-term consequences for the modern world. The alternate vision, popularized in works such as María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World and focused specifically on medieval Spain, is that of the convivencia–a culture of mutual tolerance and reason. In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad, religious historian Brian A. Catlos convincingly argues that neither image is adequate to understand the shifting political, economic, and religious alliances of the Mediterranean world from 1050 to 1200.

Catlos looks at the complex relationship between politics and religious identity in the medieval Mediterranean through the stories of men who straddled communal boundaries in pursuit of power. Muslim and Christian kings made alliances against common enemies of either (or both) religion. Latin Christians went on crusade against other Christians. Sunni Muslims declared jihad against Shi’ites. Jews served as governors, generals, and administrators in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms–and in one case came close to ruling a Muslim state. Mercenary warriors, including the legendary El Cid, switched sides whenever it was in their own interest.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors is a fascinating and complex account of diversity, collaboration and conflict in the period when medieval Christianity met the Islamic golden age.

Well worth the read.

Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Who Was The Most Successful Pirate in History*

by pamela on September 23, 2014

Any guesses?  Edward Teach, commonly known as Blackbeard?  Captain Kidd?  Captain Morgan?** Grace O Malley, aka the Pirate Queen?    Sir Francis Drake?***

None of them are even close, though Drake has the distinction of capturing what may well have been the largest prize taken in a single raid: the Spanish galleon Cagafuego.  The title goes to Cheng I Sao (aka Hsi Kai Ching, Ching Shih, Lady Ching,  or Mrs. Ching depending on the vintage and quality of the account you read.), who terrorized the South China Seas in the first half of the nineteenth century–a time when many Chinese women were literally hobbled by bound feet.****

Cheng I Sao

Piracy was a family business in nineteenth century China.  Pirate clans lived on their boats–some of them lived their entire lives without setting foot on land.  Within the world of the pirates. some women held rank, commanded ships, and fought shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.  Cheng I Sao took female participation in the family business to a new level.

According to popular accounts,  Cheng I Sao was a Canton prostitute who married the successful pirate Cheng I in 1801 and soon became his partner in building a successful confederation of pirates from competing clans. When Cheng I died in 1807, his widow took over. She avoided succession struggles by appointing her adopted stepson as her second in command and later marrying him.

At the height of her success, Cheng I Sao controlled 1500 ships and more than 70,000 men, organized in six fleets, each with its own flag and commander. (Talk about a pirate queen!) Her fleets attacked ships of all kinds, from small traders to imperial war ships, and ran a protection racket along the coast.

By 1809, Cheng I Sao was powerful enough to threaten the port city Canton (now Guangzhou).  The Chinese government turned to the European powers for help, leasing the 20-gun ship HMS Mercury and six Portuguese men-of-war.  Big guns were not enough to defeat the pirate admiral’s fleet.  In 1810, the Chinese changed tactics and offered the pirates amnesty.

Cheng I Sao decided it was in her best interests to negotiate peace terms with the Chinese empire.  She proved to be as effective at the bargaining table as she was on the deck of a ship: the Chines granted her pirates universal amnesty, the right to keep the wealth they had accumulate, and jobs in China’s military bureaucracy.  Cheng I Sao retired in Canton, where she reportedly lived a peaceful life until her death at 69 “so far as was consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.” *****

*  If I had my act together I’d have written this post in time for Talk Like A Pirate Day, which was last Friday.  All I can say to that is —-aaargh!

** Not just a brand of  rum

***After all, a privateer is just a pirate with a license to steal

****They were also barred from holding public office and had limited opportunities for education and employment, but this didn’t make China unique.

*****What?  You expected her to take up knitting and mahjong?


When Paris Went Dark

by pamela on September 19, 2014

When Nazi troops marched into Paris in June, 1940, the city surrendered without firing a shot.*

In When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 , historian Ronald C. Rosbottom explores face-to-face interactions between occupiers and occupied, the effect of the Occupation on daily life in Paris, its psychological and emotional impact on Parisians and its legacy of guilt and myth.

Drawing from official records, memoirs, interviews and ephemera, Rosbottom tells a story that is more complicated than simple opposition between courage and collaboration, though he offers examples of both. He discusses the fine line between survival and collaboration, the distinction between individual acts of resistance and the Resistance and how occupiers and occupied utilized the hide-and-seek possibilities of Parisian apartment buildings. He considers the act of waiting in line both as an illustration of the difficulties of everyday life and as a replacement for forbidden political gatherings. Above all, he describes the Occupation as gradual constriction of Parisian life within ever-narrowing boundaries.

Rosbottom does not limit his discussion to the Parisian perspective. Some of the most interesting sections of When Paris Went Dark deal with the German experience in the city, a complex mixture of tourism, conquest, envy and isolation. His account of Hitler’s early-morning tour of the capital soon after its surrender is particularly illuminating about the Nazi Party’s ambivalence toward cities in general and Paris in particular.

When Paris Went Dark is an important and readable addition to the social history of World War II.

*I will admit with only the slightest embarrassment that when I think “Nazi occupation of Paris” the images that come to mind are straight out of Casablanca. That will probably never change. Because putting pictures in our heads–accurate or not–is one of the things great art does.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Edith Cavell: “Patriotism Is Not Enough”

by pamela on September 16, 2014

Edith Cavell

Not all the heroes of the First World War fought in the trenches.

Forty-nine year old British nurse Edith Cavell was the director of the first nurses’ training school in Belgium. When Germany occupied Brussels in the first month of the war, Cavell refused to leave. She turned her clinic into a Red Cross hospital and cared for wounded soldiers from both armies.

On November 1, 1914, Cavell took her heroism to a new level when a Belgian resistance worker brought two British soldiers to her door. Hiding Allied soldiers was punishable by death, but Cavell took the soldiers in without question. She hid them for two weeks while plans were made to take them across the border into the Netherlands, which remained neutral throughout the war.

These two soldiers were the first of more than 200 Allied soldiers whom Cavell helped escape from German-occupied Belgium during the first year of the war. Working with a resistance network, she provided medical care for wounded soldiers, hid the healthy until a guide could escort them over the border, and made sure they had money in their pockets for the journey.
Catching Cavell in the act became a priority for the German political police, who assigned an officer to the task full-time. Searches of the clinic became more frequent. (On one occasion she hid a wounded soldier in an apple barrel, covered with apples.)

On August 5,1915, the Germans arrested Cavell. Told that the other prisoners had confessed, she admitted during interrogation that she had used the clinic to hide Allied soldiers. Ten weeks later, Cavell and 34 other resisters were tried for assisting the enemy. Five, including Cavell, received the death penalty.

American and Spanish diplomats tried to get her sentence commuted without success; her execution was scheduled to be carried out the next day at dawn. When an English chaplain visited her that night to offer her comfort, he was surprised to find her calm and collected. Cavell told him, “I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” As he left, Rev. Gahan told her,”We will always remember you as a heroine and a martyr.” Cavell answered, “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Cavell’s hope to be remembered “only as a nurse” was idealistic–and unrealistic. The British propaganda office at Wellington House used her story both to increase enlistment in Britain (the number of volunteers doubled in the weeks after her death) and to increase anti-German sentiment in the United States.