I will tell you with no apology (and only a slight wiggle of nerdy embarrassment) that I love maps. I suppose it is theoretically possible to love history and not love maps. I just can't imagine how that would work.* After all, history happens in both time and space. A quick look at the right map can illustrate a culture's cosmography, the relationship between a region's topography and its political history, or how trade in a single commodity** can drive history.
Pulling books off the shelf nearest to hand, I find maps of:
- Possible Stone Age migrations through the Middle East based on the dispersal of blade tool technology
- Changes in the course of the Missouri River
- Railroads in India in 1857
- The movement of capital throughout the world between 1875 and 1914***
- The relationship between opera and nationalism in the same period
- Pilgrimage routes and shrines in the medieval Islamic world
Each of them adds a new layer of understanding to an historical moment. (Well, maybe not the relationship between opera and nationalism.)
Given my penchant for maps, I was delighted to find this blog post on the curatorial site Twisted Sifter: 40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense Of The World . Each map conveys information clearly. Some are merely curious. A couple made me sad. Many gave me an "aha" moment.
* If you're a map-hating history lover, could you please share your experience with the group? I'd love to get a little point-counterpoint going here.
** Tin, salt, gold, silk, pepper, petroleum--to name a few
*** For those worried about the influx of Asian capital into the United States today, it's worth pointing out that the US was an importer of capital prior to WWI.
Image credit: miluxian / 123RF Stock Photo
Recently I've been working on a piece about the Gettysburg Address.* As always, I've done more research than required,** wandered down some interesting by-ways that were not relevant to the project, and had my preconceptions about the topic turned upside down and shaken. As always, My Own True Love has convinced me to remove some bits that caught my imagination, but didn't belong in the article.
I came away with new ideas about battlefield cemeteries (apparently a Civil War innovation), Lincoln's reputation as a speaker, and the difficulty of finding saddle horses in a war-torn region. But the piece of information that knocked me off my metaphorical seat was finding out that the one thing everyone "knows" about the Gettysburg Address isn't true.*** Lincoln didn't write the speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. He apparently wrote several careful drafts over a matter of weeks--a process that Lincoln scholars have unraveled with careful textual exegesis, though they don't always agree on the details.
I don't know why I'm surprised. It sometimes seems as if none of the historical stories that appear in our elementary school textbooks--and that find a permanent home in our collective consciousness--are factually true, thought they are often emotionally satisfying. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock was certainly not the first Thanksgiving in the New World and probably didn't happen quite the way we learn the story. People will get into shouting matches (or at least pissy written exchanges) over whether Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, but the story still appears in history books as if it were unquestionably true. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a PR creation from the first.
I would argue that these stories survive and thrive because they are simple--something historical "truth"**** rarely is--and because they are, in fact, stories. We use story to understand the world. Just like traditional fairy tales give us a framework for a moral universe, historical tales give us a framework for the past. The fact that sometimes the framework needs to be rebuilt, doesn't make the need for stories less real.
What do you think about the gap between historical tale and the moving target of historical truth? What are some of your favorite examples?
*Coming soon to a copy of History Channel magazine near you.
**If you're interested in Lincoln's thought and use of language, I highly recommend The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words by Ronald C. White, Jr. and Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas L. Wilson. Both of them seduced me into reading far more than the chapters on the Gettysburg Address and reminded me of what a complicated man Lincoln was.
***Okay, the second thing everyone knows. Lincoln did, in fact, give the speech. Thank you, Amy Sue Nathan, for catching me on this.
**** A tricky concept at best since at some level all history is revisionist history.
Unlike many other shin-kickers from history, William Wilberforce was a card-carrying member of the privileged classes--wealthy, educated, male, white.
Born in 1759 to a wealthy merchant family in the Yorkshire port of Hull, Wilberforce spent his teen years and early adult life in what he later described as "utter idleness and dissipation". While a student at Cambridge--where he majored in gambling, drinking, and late night parties--he began a lifelong friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In Pitt's company, he discovered a new source of excitement: politics. He was first elected to the House of Commons when he was only 21 and showed every sign of being nothing more than a political playboy.
His life changed five years later, when he discovered Evangelical Christianity--then a source of political and social radicalism. His first thought was to leave Parliament and enter the ministry. John Newton, best known today as the composer of "Amazing Grace", and Pitt* convinced him that he could do more good from Parliament than he could from the pulpit. Wilberforce soon found his cause: the movement to abolish the slave trade.
It was no small task. The Atlantic slave trade was an important part of the British economy, even though slavery was abolished in Britain itself in 1772. Britain made enormous profits on every step of the triangular trade: shipping textiles and other manufactured goods from Britain to Africa, slaves to the plantation owners of the West Indies and the American South, and slave-produced cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane back to Britain.
From 1787 until he retired from Parliament in 1825, Wilberforce was the public face of the abolitionist movement in England. He proposed legislation outlawing the slave trade every year for eighteen years. He was backed by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of British subjects and opposed by the powerful shipping interest.
In 1807, Parliament passed a law abolishing the slave trade in British colonies and making it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. The practical impact of the legislation was limited. The statute did not change the legal position of those who were already enslaved. Brazil replaced Britain as the most important slave-trading nation and British slave traders continued to sail under foreign ship registrations. The efforts of the British navy to enforce the ban by patrolling the African coastline and treating all slave ships as pirates simply resulted in higher prices.**
Wilberforce and his colleagues turned their attention to the next step in their campaign: abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Wilberforce was on his deathbed when the Abolition of Slavery Act finally passed on July 23, 1833. Job done, he died three days later.
*Already prime minister at the age of 26. Hanging out in history can give a person an inferiority complex.
**Economics can be a bitch.