Dreamtime voyagers: Australian Aborigines in early modern Makassar

The coast of Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia – scene of first contact between Australian Aborigines and Makassan fishermen sometime around 1700.

The coast of Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia – scene of first contact between Australian Aborigines and Makassan fishermen, probably some time before 1700.

If there’s one thing that most people think they know about the early history of Australia, it’s that the continent remained suspended, in unchanging isolation, for countless thousands of years before the arrival of the convicts of the First Fleet early in 1788. Cut off from the rest of humanity ever since the end of the last Ice Age, the Aboriginal population lived on for generation after generation in a hazy, mythic stasis: a “Dreamtime” in which the passage of the years, and even the notion of history itself, had practically no meaning. Theirs was a pure, pristine existence; the first Australians were part of the land itself, rather than living off it and exploiting it. And when the British arrived and claimed the continent, they sullied an Eden, degrading the noble savages who lived in it.

There is plenty that is wrong with this portrait of pre-contact Australia. It owes more to the New Age enthusiasms of the 1970s than it does to the realities of history. It lumps together hundreds of tribes, and dozens of major language groups, into one undifferentiated mass – conflating lives lived in an almost infinite variety of landscapes, from the deserts of the red centre to the lushness of the tropical north – and it perverts a rich, complex mythology, turning what we inadequately term “the dreaming” into little more than a synonym for the whole period before the days of Captain Cook. Most dangerously of all, it imposes striking limitations on the Aborigines themselves. In insisting they were pure, it makes them primitive; in sketching them as absolutely isolated, it encourages us to think of them as people so alien that they were barely capable of interacting with the rest of the world.

"The source of life." A paintig by Zhou Xiaoping from the Melbourne Museum exhibition "Trepang: China and the story of the Macassan-Aboriginal Trade" (2010).

“The source of life.” A painting by Zhou Xiaoping, from the Melbourne Museum exhibition “Trepang: China and the story of the Macassan-Aboriginal Trade” (2010).

All this is a distortion of a less straightforward but vastly more compelling history. Australia was never entirely cut off from the rest of the world; there is evidence of frequent contact with the peoples of New Guinea and, beginning in the 17th century, there were also sporadic encounters with Dutch mariners along the western and northern coasts. Most remarkably of all, the Aboriginal peoples of the far north – what Australians today call the “Top End” – were, for several centuries at least, part of a vibrant and extensive trading system, one that brought them into annual contact with seagoing merchants from Indonesia, and linked them to civilisations as far away as China and Japan.  Continue reading

Blonde cargoes: Finnish children in the slave markets of medieval Crimea

Testing a female captive's teeth in an eastern slave market.

Testing a female captive’s teeth in an eastern slave market.

The horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have left an ineradicable mark on history. In the course of a little more than three and a half centuries, 12.5 million prisoners – at least two-thirds of them men destined for a life of labour in the fields – were shipped from holding pens along the African coast to destinations ranging from Argentina in the south all the way north to Canada. It was the largest forced migration in modern history.

When we think of slavery, we tend to think of this African traffic. Yet it was not the only such trade – nor was it, before 1700, even the largest. A second great market in slaves once sullied the world, this one less well-known, vastly longer-lasting, and centred on the Black Sea ports of the Crimea. It was a huge trade in its own right; in its great years, which lasted roughly from 1200 until 1760, an estimated 6.5 million prisoners were shipped off to new and often intensely miserable lives in places ranging from Italy to India.

Slavery in the Crimea, however, differed in significant ways from the model made so familiar by the trans-Atlantic trade. The slaves sold there were drawn for the most part from the great plains of the Ukraine and southern Russia in annual raids known as the “harvesting of the steppe.” Their masters were successively Vikings, Italians and Tatars – the latter being, for nearly half of the trade’s life, the subjects of the Crimean Khanate, a state that owed its own long life to its ability to satisfy demand for slaves. And most of the slaves themselves were not male labourers. They were women and children destined for domestic service – a fate that not infrequently included sexual service. The latter sort of slave was always fairly commonplace in the Crimea. When the Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi toured the north shores of the Black Sea in 1664, he noted down some examples of the local dialect that he hoped other travellers to the region might find useful. Among the phrases that Çelebi selected were “Bring a girl” and “I found no girl, but I found a boy.”

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Queen Victoria’s £5: the strange tale of Turkish aid to Ireland during the Great Famine

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

The most striking thing about the ghastly blight that ruined Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 was that the harvest had seemed healthy, even robust, when it was lifted from the ground.

Within a day or two, however, rot set in. Potatoes that had looked firm and edible turned black and then disintegrated into a stinking, liquid mess. No one knew why. John Lindley, the editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, guessed that this “wet putrefaction” was a disease borne in from the Atlantic by torrential gales. Others thought that the blight had somehow risen up from underground, so that the soil itself was now infected.

The one certainty was that every measure tried to save the harvest failed. “All specifics, all nostrums were useless,” the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith observed. “Whether ventilated, desiccated, salted, or gassed, the potatoes melted… and pits, on being opened, were found to be filled with diseased potatoes–‘six months’ provisions a mass of rottenness.’” The blight struck everywhere that year, from North America to Belgium, and the Irish had long been distressingly familiar with disastrous harvests; twenty-four previous crop failures had been recorded between 1728 and 1844. Several of these had caused suffering “horrible beyond description,” and it has been estimated that very nearly half a million people died during Ireland’s “Year of Slaughter” (1740-41), when a freezing winter caused the oat crop to fail. But the catastrophe of 1845 was was remembered as the greatest of them all, and it affected Ireland more profoundly than it did anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Scottish Highlands. Continue reading

Friedrich Engels’ Irish muse

Portrait of a young revolutionary: Friedrich Engels at age 21, in 1842, the year he moved to Manchester–and the year before he met Mary Burns.

Friedrich Engels lived a life replete with contradiction. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox-hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. As a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie, he provided, for nearly 40 years, the financial support that kept his collaborator Karl Marx at work on world-changing books such as Das Kapital. Yet at least one biographer has argued that, while they were eager enough to take Engels’s money, Marx and his aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, never really accepted him as their social equal.

Amid these oddities lurks another—a puzzle whose solution offers fresh insights into the life and thinking of the midwife of Marxism. The mystery is this: Why did Engels, sent in 1842 to work in the English industrial city of Manchester, choose to lead a double life, maintaining gentleman’s lodgings in one part of the city while renting a series of rooms in workers’ districts? How did this well-groomed scion of privilege contrive to travel safely through Manchester’s noisome slums, collecting information about their inhabitants’ grim lives for his first great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England? Strangest of all, why—when asked many years later about his favorite meal—would a native German like Engels answer: “Irish stew”? Continue reading

Islam’s medieval underworld

Arab city

Arab city

An Arab city of the early medieval period. Urban centers in the Middle East were of a size and wealth all but unknown in the Christian west during this period, encouraging the development of a large and diverse fraternity of criminals. From a contemporary manuscript.

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Guessing that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.

We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods. Continue reading

The crucifixion of Prince Klaas: Antigua’s disputed slave rebellion of 1736

Prince Klaas, leader of the supposed slave rebellion on Antigua, on the wheel.

Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.

“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.
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White gold: how salt made and unmade the Turks and Caicos Islands

The remains of a windmill, once used to pump brine into the salt pans of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Photo credit: www.amphibioustravel.com.

Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.

Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.

Raking salt on the Turks and Caicos Islands in about 1900.

All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.

The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. Continue reading