Road Trip Through History: Jamestown Settlement

For reasons too complicated to go into here and now, I‘ve been yearning to walk the deck of a late sixteenth-century sailing ship.    No late sixteenth-century vessels were available, so My Own True Love and I headed for the next best thing:  the replica ships at Jamestown Settlement, located ten miles away from colonial Williamsburg.

Once there, I headed straight for the working replicas of the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery:  the ships that brought English settlers to Jamestown in 1607.  Let me tell you, those ships are very small. (For those of you who are sailing types, they are 120 tons, 40 tons, and 20 tons respectively.  For those of you who aren’t sailing types, they are really small, really-really small, and frighteningly small.) They sailed from London* just before Christmas and arrived on the coast of Virginia in April:  they spent three weeks of the journey stuck in the English Channel due to bad weather. Passengers slept in the hold on top of the cargo and weren’t allowed on deck without the captain’s permission.    The smell!  The claustrophobia!  The impossibility of getting away from other people for an hour or two! (Talk about introvert hell.)

Jamestown Settlement has more than just reproduction seventeenth century sailing ships. **  Once we’d learned everything about the ships that we could think to ask, we moved on to reproductions of James Fort  ca. 1614and a seventeenth century Powhatan Indian village, both of them manned by yet more patient and well-informed costumed interpreters.  We ended the day with a couple of hours in the site’s exhibition galleries, leaving no for time for the archaeological site at Historic Jamestown, just down the road.

Tomorrow?  Colonial Williamsburg.


*According to a costumed interpreter dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh, the ships didn’t actually sail down the Thames, they were pulled by men on shore.

**Though really, how much more do you need for a day of history geek entertainment?

The Peasants Are Revolting

In September, 1773, three months before American colonists dumped tea in Boston harbor, Russian serfs in the Ural mountain region rose up and demanded emancipation from bondage.

Discontent had been brewing among the serfs since 1762, when Tsar Peter III passed legislation that many serfs (mistakenly) interpreted as the first step toward their emancipation. Several months later, Peter was murdered and his wife, later known as Catherine the Great, ascended the throne.

As far as the serfs were concerned, Catherine's rule wasn't so great. One of her first acts on ascending the throne was to annul Peter's legislation. Instead of gaining their freedom, serfs suffered from increasing burdens of compulsory service and imaginative taxation. Serfs were even taxed for wearing a beard. (A sure fire way of solving the financial crisis. Write your congressman today.)

As conditions worsened, rumors spread that Tsar Peter wasn't dead  and that he would return to complete the emancipation of his people. Between 1762 and 1774, multiple imposters appeared claiming to be the murdered tsar. (I picture this as a variation on the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "I'm not dead yet".) The most successful of these pretenders was Yemelyan Pugachev, who led the serf revolt in 1773-4.

Pugachev was welcomed as a liberator by many serfs, who rose in the name of the "true tsar", Peter III. Violent bands of serfs roamed the countryside. Landowning nobles were killed or put to flight. In the end, Pugachev's Rebellion accomplished nothing. Pugachev was defeated by imperial troops a year after the initial rising and sent to Moscow in a cage. He was tried several months later and executed. Without its leader, the revolt collapsed.

Pugachev's only permanent legacy was a historical adventure novella by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter, in which Pugachev is portrayed as a larger than life romantic villain. (Pushkin also wrote a serious history of the revolt in which Pugachev is a thug "with no other merits, except for some military expertise and extraordinary audacity."  Poetic license is a wonderful thing.)

Pugachev's Rebellion failed, but discontent among the serfs continued. Russian peasants revolted more than 500 times between Pugachev's defeat and Tsar Alexander II's edict  declaring their emancipating in 1861.

The Great Sea

As so often happens when I pick up a history book, I was recently whacked over the head by a factoid that was both obvious and illuminating: the name Mediterranean literally means "the sea between the lands". It's a good name, but it's by no means the only name that sea has gone by. The ancient Egyptians called it the Great Green. The Romans, always a bit grabby, simply called it "Our Sea". For the Ottomans it was the White Sea (At the height of the Ottoman Empire, Europeans referred to it less happily as the "Muslim lake." And, as historian David Abulafia points out in the introduction to his excellent history of the Mediterranean, his Jewish ancestors called the Mediterranean the "Great Sea."

Abulafia tackles history on a grand scale in The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

Abulafia takes the reader on a journey that begins with Neolithic Sicily in 22,000 BC and ends with the transformation of the Mediterranean into a tourist destination after 1950. Summarizing his subject as "those who dipped their toes into the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it," he considers islands, ports and wind patterns, sailors and merchants, the exchange of goods, religions and ideas, and the rise and fall of empires. He tells new versions of old stories: the fall of Troy, the founding of Carthage, the mysterious origins of the Etruscans, the emergence of Dubrovnik as the "Jewel of the Sea", the impact of the Barbary Corsairs, and the building of the Suez Canal.

Comparison with French historian Fernand Braudel's groundbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II is inevitable.  Abulafia deals the question head on. He describes Braudel's work as horizontal history, focused on cultural continuity based on regional geography.  In contrast, he claims that his own work is vertical, emphasizing change over time. . In fact, the two books differ in both scope and focus.  Where Braudel concentrates on the hinterlands that support the Mediterranean shore, Abulafia focuses on the sea and the men who crossed it.

Whether horizontal, vertical, or upside down, The Great Sea deserves a place on the shelf next to Braudel's classic work


A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.