Sometimes the name you give to an historical event says a lot about where you stand in relation to that event. Is it the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression? The Sepoy Rebellion, the first Indian war of independence, or (my personal choice) the violence of 1857?
Other times, what you call an event can be the marker of a cultural blind spot. I certainly felt like I'd received a well-deserved smack up the side of the head when I recently picked up Amin Maalouf's
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and read on the very first page that medieval* Arab historians and chroniclers "spoke not of Crusades, but of Frankish wars or 'the Frankish invasions' ". Duh!
As I believe I've mentioned, I've been reading seriously about the Crusades for several years now. I am well aware that the term "crusade" derives from the red cross worn by warriors who had "taken the cross". If pushed to choose a side, I'd back the cultured Muslims against the barbaric "Frankish invaders" any day. But I'm also a product of my time, my place, and my education. In my head, it's the Crusades. Or at least it was until an expatriate Arab Christian from Lebanon pointed out the obvious. Thanks, Mr. Maalouf. I needed that.
What cultural blind spots have you found lately?
*Another culturally charged word. Technically the Middle Ages refers to the period in European history between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
When King Mausolos of Caria * died in 353 BCE his widow decided to honor him by building a marble tomb more wonderful than any building known to man. (We've seen this kind of thing before. Taj Mahal anyone?) She sent to Greece for the best architects and sculptors. When it was completed the Mausoleum (literally, the tomb of Mausolos) at Halicarnassus was declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. **
[Brief pause while I do the math] The tomb of Mausolos amazed travelers for more than 1500 years. Travelers commented on its beauty well into the twelfth century CE, even after an earthquake or two damaged the walls and sent the sculptured chariot on the roof crashing to the ground. The tomb ceased to be a wonder in the thirteenth century, when the Knights of Malta arrived at Halicarnassus. From the crusaders' point of view, the ruined tomb was a great source of building materials.
Today, the only things left of Mausolos' tomb are an archaeological site, some carved pieces of marble in the walls of the crusader castle, and the word "mausoleum"
Mausoleum: A tomb of more than ordinary size or architectural pretensions, especially a grand monumental structure.
* Now the modern Turkish resort town of Bodrum
** On one list, at any rate. Listing the seven wonders was a favorite pastime for traveling Greeks in classical times. One man's wonder was another man's Wonder Bread.
In The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies Matthew Parker, author of Panama Fever and Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II, uses the rise and fall of the sugar dynasties of the West Indies as a framework for the intertwined histories of sugar, slavery, the industrial revolution, and Britain's American colonies. The story is occasionally horrifying but never dull.
Parker begins with James Drax's first experiments in growing sugar cane as an alternative to tobacco on Barbados in the early 1640s. He ends with the decline of the West Indian sugar industry following Britain's abolition of slavery in 1838. In between he tells the story of how West Indian "white gold" transformed the British economy, not to mention the British diet. Along the way, he introduces the reader to pirates, Dutch financiers, dissolute planters, Quaker reformers--and the thousands of African slaves on whose backs the Sugar Revolution was built.
In my mind the most fascinating aspect of The Sugar Barons is the on-going relationship between the West Indies and Britain's North American colonies. In the world of British colonialism, the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard were the West Indies' poor cousins. By the late eighteenth century, the West Indies were responsible for eighty percent of Britain's colonial income. Not surprisingly, Parliament was quick to pass laws that sacrificed the interests of the northern colonies in favor of those of the West Indies, ending with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the first step on the road to the American Revolution.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.