Lesson #426: The Double-Headed Eagle

If you’ve been reading for a while, it shouldn’t be a surprise how we got here and why this is of particular interest to me.*

The World Cup is on. I love the World Cup. It’s my favourite sporting event. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the popularity of football offers billions more eyes than usual to put politics on a global stage.**

My experience with Albania is limited. I’ve set very tired feet on the ground in Albania, but barely — it was very early in the morning, I had been dozing (at best) on a very uncomfortable overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Skopje (never again), and I literally didn’t know what country I was in until I saw a sign on the side of the road in a language I couldn’t read. But I know about Kosovo, if only because it’s related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.***

The Shakiri and Xhaka double-headed eagle gestures were a big thing yesterday (and discussions of match bans were on order today), but the politics of that are a separate post. Today, we’re touching on the history of the double-headed eagle.

I had assumed that the double-headed eagle was a Roman thing, but the Romans never used it. Sort of. There’s a fluidity in the Eastern Roman Empire that makes its use sort of Roman, but not really. Anyway, the origins go back to the Hittites, who occupied modern-day Turkey from roughly the 20th to the 7th centuries BCE. Scholars are in agreement that the double-headed eagle took on a later meaning of orthodoxy (in the Orthodox Christian faiths) and dominance (in the Byzantine Empire), but its original meaning has been lost — in part because there’s a two millenia gap in its use after the decline of the Hittites before the Byzantines started using it as a part of their heraldry. The double-headed eagle as heraldry spread into the Arab world and large swaths of Europe — particularly in Southeastern Europe — in the late medieval period (11th and 12th centuries), as a result of the Crusades.

In modern times, Russia’s association with the double-headed eagle is arguably the most recognizable — it’s even in their football crest.**** However, it also shows up on Albania’s flag (thus the ethnic Albanians playing for the Swiss team using it), along with Serbia and Montenegro‘s flags, and if you look at the not-so-distant past, in addition to the Russians, it was used by the Serbian kings, which remains on the Serbian flag; the Habsburg dynasty of Austria-Hungary; the Austrian Empire; the Montenegrin royals;  the German Confederation; and Yugoslavia, generally, up until they exiled their last king after the Second World War.

Fun fact: in this World Cup, five other countries have an (single-headed) eagle in their crests: holders Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and Tunisia.

For more on the history of the double-headed eagle, see here and here.

*If you haven’t been, the short version is: the sociopolitics of the Balkans as they’re reflected in football hooliganism. And also history.

**In this regard, it’s a shame the US are not participating.

***Serbia basically spent the 90s being a controlling ex until the rest of the world stepped in and were like, “guy…sit down” — and even then, they didn’t do a great job. I have many feelings on the Dayton Accords and not many of them are good.

****If they’re smart, Xhaka and Shakiri will say, “we were paying tribute to our host country!” Which no one will believe, but at least it’s a feasible explanation.

Lesson #425: Cherry Bounce

I have a college friend who does reenactments in and around New Jersey. This weekend is the celebration of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth,* so I drove up to see her do her thing. In part because I hadn’t seen her since we graduated — much longer ago than seems believeable — and in part because I’d never been to a reenactment. This was pretty much the perfect excuse.

It was super fun!

After the park had closed and I’d gone and gotten dinner with another college friend who drove in from New York, I went back to spend a bit of time with my friend’s regiment, drinking some beer around a campfire. Because I *love* drinking beer around a campfire.** So picked up some local beer and headed back, where the regiment — all still dressed appropriately — promptly tried to drown me — wearing shorts and a Michael Ballack Germany kit — in Cherry Bounce. Of which I took two sips and politely declined to finish. Because it’s delicious! And it also tastes like something that will kill me later, by which I mean it’s smooth and doesn’t taste very alcoholic, but you can tell it’s 100 proof by the smell.

Cherry Bounce is actually a fairly simple drink. It’s basically just brandy, vodka, or rum that’s had cherries and sugar added to it. And then left alone for a bit. It’s also said to be one of George Washington’s favourite drinks, and the recipe for it was found among Martha Washington’s papers. The regiment told me that Washington carried it in his canteen during the Revolutionary War, though I can find zero evidence for this. And since I don’t even trust the word of armchair historians who do this on a regular basis, I won’t go so far as to say that. But I will admit that potable water is a giant question mark throughout history, and Roman soldiers were known to carry wine, so it’s not beyond the scope of belief — or history — for soldiers to carry alcohol in their canteens.

If you’re interested in making your own, the recipe can be found here. It really is good. But I was smart enough to only have two sips and give it over to someone who wasn’t driving 150 miles home later, so I can’t speak to how quickly it’ll get a person drunk or what the hangover is like.***

Even when they’re camping out, the reenactors are still true to their history. The regiment had absurd amounts of alcohol, all of it home brewed. On top of the Cherry Bounce, there was: beer, mead, rum, and grog. I thought this was really cool. They called themselves “a drinking club with a history problem” — which spoke to me as someone who would probably describe my supporters club as a drinking club with a football problem — but they’re very inventive in how and what they drink. And what they drink out of. My sips of Cherry Bounce came out of a salad bowl.

*Until yesterday, everything I knew about Monmouth, I learned from Hamilton. Which is not exactly the most historically accurate of stories. To the point that early last year, I saw a picture of Aaron Burr and was somehow surprised to see the face of a white man. It’s not like I don’t know he was a white man, but my future best friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, did such a great job of cross-racial casting that when I think of Aaron Burr now, I imagine him as black. Good work, Lin!****

**It’s second on my list after drinking in/on/next to water.

**Even though my tolerance has decreased significantly over the last few years, I actually don’t think I could drink enough of this to be drunk. It’s very sweet.

****The complete lack of people of colour yesterday was glaring to someone who lives in a city that is predominantly black and sees a lot more faces of colour on a day-to-day basis than people who look like me. My friends and I discussed it briefly, but it seems to be a case of while they’re not unwelcome to participate in reenactments, there’s not much of a place for them, historically speaking, which sort of makes them unwelcome by proxy. That said, the only civil war/WWII reenactors I know are black. So there *is* a place for people of colour in the reenactment world, but Revolutionary War history isn’t particularly inclusive of them, so neither are the reenactments.

Lesson #424: France Has the Most Time Zones

No lie, France exists in 13 time zones. Russia has 11.*

You may be wondering how this is even possible? Well, France has a lot of island holdings. Like Saint Pierre et Miquelon, off the Newfoundland coast. And Reunion off the East Coast of Africa. And Guadaloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean.

This would be a fantastic Jeopardy! answer. But also a great bet to make with people for free beer. It’s also an interesting look at the remnants of colonialism.

A list of the French time zones and the associated holdings is here.

*I’ve had this bit of information floating about in my brain for years for no discernible reason. I have literally never needed to know how many time zones are in Russia.


Lesson #423: 51158, Kinna

This is among the more random lessons I’ve posted here. I was doing nine things all at once the other day and heard a five-number string of numbers. If you live in the United States or you’re familiar with the US postal system, you know that zip codes (postal codes) are five digits long.

So, as I often do when I hear a string of numbers, I went to find out where that zip code was. Because things like that amuse me for no reason.

It turns out that 51158 is not a zip code in the United States. Oddly enough, it *is* a postal code for the Swedish town of Kinna. Which is in the same county as the city where The Swede lives. I don’t know what the odds are of hearing a random number and then finding out that the only place in the world where it’s a postal code is in the same county as one of my closest friends lives in a foreign* country, but I can’t imagine it’s very high. Maybe the universe is telling me it’s been too long since we were face-to-face.**

There’s not a whole lot I can find about Kinna, other than it has a population of around 15,000 and that it’s cold there in the winter. Like the rest of Sweden. It doesn’t also say that it’s dark most of the time in the winter, but I can assure you it is.

*Foreign to me. Sweden is not foreign to The Swede.

**It has, but I’d think that even if it had only been two weeks since we were last in the same place.

Lesson #422: Fruit Beers

It’s the holiday weekend, and some friends and I are headed to a zoo brew event tomorrow. They get money for the zoo, I get beer. It’s an excellent trade — though it would admittedly be better if the beer were allowed into the zoo! I want to drink with the giraffes, you guys!

As a general rule, I do not like fruit beers. I do okay with fruit sours* because they’re sour, but fruit beers that aren’t sours are generally too sweet and, well, fruity for me. And I despise radlers. The exception to this rule is the summer blueberry beers. I am a whore for blueberry beers. My friends make fun of me about this at length.

Fruit beer has an interesting history in that it’s not linear. There are enormous gaps of time between periods of fruit beer brewing. The ancient Chinese brewed an alcoholic drink related to beer with fruit and honey. The Egyptians used dates and pomegranate in their beer.** And then fruit beers fell off the map.

For a long, long while. The Germans were (and remain) decidedly anti-bastardization of their beer, so no fruit in the modern tradition until…

…the Belgians came along and started brewing lambics and krieks in the 1930s. And people liked those. So for about 70 years, that was the standard. And then the American microbreweries started in with pumpkin beers in the fall.*** And those were really popular. So more breweries started playing with more fruits.

The recent trend of adding fruit to beer is a decidedly American thing — as are most of the trends like the spate of sours that have come out over the last three or four years, and the addition of chiles**** and lactose.*****

For more, read here, here, and here.

*But not watermelon sours. Watermelon does not belong in beer. It’s delicious on its own and disgusting in beer. It is also not a vegetable.

**I have a can of a special pomegranate sour release a local brewery did while my dad was visiting two weeks ago in my fridge.

***I’m very picky about pumpkin beers. If they taste of pumpkin, I like them. If they taste of pumpkin spice, I don’t.

****I am a big fan of putting chiles in beer. The Midwest has some great chile beers. Crow Peak in Spearfish, SD makes a really good one, as does One Well in Lansing, Michigan. The one at Bent River in Moline, Illinois is also decent. All three you’ll have to travel for. If they’re still making them. We were at all of these almost a year ago.

*****These are hit and miss for me, but one of the only IPAs I’ve ever liked was a coconut lactose IPA I had last summer at Drekker in Fargo, ND. They also had a great blueberry basil sour called Purple People Eater, which was both delicious and amusing.

Lesson #421: Find Out the Temperature From A Cricket

This week’s lesson I learned from one of my nine-year-old students, who learned it on a field trip he was very excited to tell me about: if you count the seconds between a cricket’s chirps, you can tell the temperature.*

Crickets are cold-blooded. Because they’re insects. And, as the temperature increases, it allows for more frequent initiation of the chirp mechanism. Think of it as operating the same way heartbeats do in cold-blooded creatures. Because science knows by how much each degree of temperature increases the cricket’s ability to chirp, it also knows how to gauge temperature from the rate at which the cricket chirps.

The actual figuring takes some effort, but here’s how to do it with degrees Fahrenheit.

Step one: Find a cricket.

Step two: Count the number of chirps the cricket makes over a 14-second span.

Step three: Repeat the second step twice more and average the numbers.

Step four: Add 40. This is the temperature.

To ascertain the temperature in degrees Celsius because you live in a sane country that uses the metric system, follow these steps:

Step one: Find a cricket.

Step two: Count the number of chirps the cricket makes over a 25-second span.

Step three: Repeat the second step twice more and average the numbers.

Step four: Divide by three, and add four. This is the temperature.

Disclaimer: this information is accurate only between 55-100 degrees Fahrenheit/12-38 degrees Celsius.

More here and here.

*In this situation, you have been separated from your phone. Or are hiking with no reception. But you have a stopwatch on you.

Lesson #420: Oklahoma’s State Vegetable

Buckle up, guys, because we are in for some serious ??? here.

The state vegetable of Oklahoma is…the watermelon.

I know.

In 2007, the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill by a vote of 78 people who clearly don’t know what a vegetable is to 19 sane people who have eaten watermelon before, declaring the watermelon the state vegetable.*

I think the best part of this is that the man who introduced the bill in the Senate was all “FAKE NEWS!” about watermelon being a fruit nearly a full decade before Donald Trump decided that facts are optional. Nothing to see here. Move along.

It has not, however, been smooth sailing for the vegetable watermelon. In 2015, a bill designed to revoke the watermelon’s official status — on the basis that everyone except for the 78 people in the Oklahoma House who voted for the bill in the first place knows that watermelon is a fruit — was put forth in the Senate. It seems not to have passed. The watermelon remains listed as the state vegetable.

*For the record, the state fruit is the strawberry. Which is a fruit. Batting .500, there, Oklahoma.

Lesson #419: The Oldest Palimpsest

I was reading an article this week about the only known palimpsest that effaced the Bible to create a copy of the Koran. Which got me wondering about the oldest known palimpsest.

A quick note for those of you who don’t read a lot about religious history: a palimpsest is any document in which the original text has been scraped off and replaced with a later text and in which the original text may be read — in the days before technology, this often had to be done by eye, but now technology allows for the original text to be read more easily and without damaging the current text. Palimpsests are often religious in nature — the largest collection (around 130 texts) is at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt — particularly on the surface text, but don’t necessarily have to be. Palimpsests are usually written on parchment, though some have appeared on paper or papyrus. The reason parchment is the most frequent source of palimpsests is a combination of both its durability and its cost. Because parchments were expensive and in short supply and because they were durable, the original writing could be stripped from the medium (using oat bran and milk) and a new document could be written over top.

As for the oldest known palimpsest, this is a bit tricky. Of the known palimpsests, many — including the Archimedes Palimpsest — originated in the 4th – 6th and 9th and 10th centuries BCE. From what I can find, the oldest is a second century BCE Greek grammar text produced for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is housed in Vienna.

You can read more here, here, and here.

Lesson #418: The Korean Languages

For some reason, the first thing I thought of when I saw the photos of the leaders of the two Koreas meeting today was about how the languages differ. Given what I know of the evolution of English in the last twenty years and North Korea’s isolation from the world, the languages have to be very different by now. My assumption was that North Korean Korean is a lot like Canadian French in its rejection of English loanwords in favour of Korean — though this is probably less rejection of loanwords and more a lack of exposure to them at all — but that their isolation may also mean they’re missing cultural touchstone words entirely.

There are times when living in the age of information is wonderful. There aren’t a lot of solid academic sources to clarify this, but there are plenty of common sources that discuss it from an experiential standpoint.

This article is probably the best side-by-side comparison of the anglicized South Korean and Korean North Korean words for the same thing, the outdated use of some language in North Korea, and the cultural touchstone words that are missing from North Korean Korean as a result of its isolation. For me, the most interesting part of this is which words take the English in Korean compared with which do in Continental French. Self-service makes sense as a loanword. Skin lotion does not.

This is an article on the linguistic struggle North Korean defectors face in a globalized South Korean culture. There’s an app for that. Because of course there’s an app for that.

This article addresses the discrimination defectors can face, especially as a result of their accents. This is a point that’s reflected in a lot of other cultures. But I find especially interesting in the face of knowing what it’s like to try to soften your accent in a place where you speak the language.*

*There are lingering effects of that. It’s an affectation in how I speak that I know is there, but I got so practiced at it that parts of it are still there. I’ve noticed one of the hangers-on starting to slip out of use recently, so it’s an evolution.

Lesson #417: Cockroaches Can Swim

This is a lesson I learned when I watched a cockroach jump into a pool and walk on the gutter cover. Which is under a half inch of water.

How we got here: I teach and coach swimming in the evenings. I also tend to be the person who cleans the scum line in the pool every week because it’s easier to clean in the water than on the deck, and I’m the person who spends the most time in the water. As I was cleaning between my swim and my lessons today, I came across a cockroach. So I commented to the head lifeguard about it, and when I turned back to shoo it off to whatever dark corner it crawled out of, it jumped into the pool. At this point, our curiosity won, and we watched it. It seemed to be doing okay for a bit. And then it sank down to the gutter cover. At which point, I felt kind of bad and sent the lifeguard to get the skimmer. And then it started walking. Underwater.*

It turns out cockroaches can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. Which…explains a lot, but also WHY?!? I hate cockroaches. This is nightmare fodder.

*This story ends badly for the cockroach, which got itself too close to the filter suction and ended up getting sucked down before the lifeguard could get the skimmer. Plus side, it reminded me of the time The Swede ended up standing on the bed in our hotel in Berlin until I disposed of a(n admittedly fairly large, but not *that* large) spider.

Lesson #416: The Ethiopian Regiment

I’ve read roughly four and a half chapters of the book I’m currently reading. It’s ostensibly about a particular subject, but thusfar that subject has not been discussed even peripherally. But…what I have learned is that the British were shady AF in their dealings with black loyalists after the Revolutionary War.* Also, there was a Loyalist regiment known as the Ethiopian Regiment.

The Ethiopian Regiment had exactly nothing to do with Ethiopia or Ethiopians. At all. The Ethiopian Regiment was a regiment made up of escaped slaves who fought for the British side during the Revolutionary War. But it was called the Ethiopian Regiment for (probably totally racist) reasons.

The regiment was formed by Lord Dunmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia, in November of 1775. The Earl of Dunmore made a declaration that any slave who joined the regiment would be freed. Of course, volunteers first had to survive a war. And also smallpox, which had all but wiped out the regiment by June of 1776. There’s not a lot of information about troop movement, but the Ethiopian Regiment participated in battles in and around Virginia, including a victory at Kemp’s Landing and a humiliating defeat at Great Bridge.

In a fun little bit of dissidence, the Ethiopian Regiment’s uniforms were embroidered with the slogan “Liberty to Slaves”.

Those who survived the war were granted freedom in Nova Scotia, which is how I got here. There’s a very interesting history of blacks in Nova Scotia that reads exactly how you’d expect. Former members of the regiment were given significantly less land than they were promised, white Loyalists (and Nova Scotians who didn’t care one way or the other about who won the war, I guess) were not super thrilled with black people living nearby, and the white people solution to having to see black people was literally to be like, “oh, you don’t love it here? It’s cold? And we gave you the shittiest land we could? You could always go back to Africa. Here! We bought you passage on a ship to Sierra Leone! Go! Be among your people (who may or may not actually be your people, but where we don’t have to see you)!”

For more, see here, here, and here.

*That’s an enormous subject to unpack, and I am not the person to do it.

Lesson #415: The Conch Republic

I’ve lived (nearly) 36 of my (nearly) 38 years under the impression that Key West has always been part of Florida and, consequently, the United States. I have been wrong.

In 1982, members of the Key West government were in a snit and seceded from the US. This is amazing!

The short version of the story is that in an effort to curb the tide of illegal Cuban immigrants and refugees and the influx of drugs (cocaine) from South America, Border Patrol (now CPD) up a checkpoint on the only road off the island and subjected vehicles to searches and their occupants to ID checks. Displeased by this, the mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, called around and got no answers, so reached out to Border Patrol, who were like “none of your business”. This was not the answer Wardlow wanted to hear, and after a Miami judge refused to issue an injunction, Key West seceded on 23 April.

Now, their secession was rather cheeky. Government officials were assigned new job titles (Minister of Underwater Affairs is my favourite), but they were also serious. The Federal government sent monitors in to make sure things didn’t escalate, the US flag was swapped out for that of the Conch Republic, and (now-) Prime Minister Wardlow declared war on the US by breaking stale Cuban bread over the head of a man in a Naval uniform? Because I guess that makes as much sense as anything else in a declaration of war. One minute later, Wardlow surrendered to a US Navy officer and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid, as well as restitution from the US government.

The money was never paid out, but the publicity the stunt attracted effectively forced the government to remove the checkpoint out of Key West.

On the heels of this, Key West began to capitalize on the notoriety. The town has always been reliant on tourism, but after secession, it began issuing passports — including diplomatic passports — and other kitschy things to commemorate their independence, and the town still celebrates independence day every year.

In 1995, there was an “invasion” by a US Army battalion on maneuvers — which was somehow received both with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, but also with some seriousness that prevented the Army from reaching their training ground until they apologized. The Conch Republic’s website lists refers to this episode as “The Great Invasion of ’95”.**

I think the most mind-blowing part of this whole story is the fact that some people somehow used their Conch Republic passports to travel internationally as if they were legitimate documents. But I’m old enough and made frequent enough border crossings to remember how lax pre-9/11 travel was. I could get into and out of Canada with just my green card or my driver’s licence for identification. I could get on an international flight with just my ID. And I remember when that changed in because I was told by the border agent in Texas that after the new year (2006), I’d need to travel with my passport. These days, I often travel with both.*

More here, here, and on the Republic’s own website, here.

*Depending on where I’m going, it’s often easier — though coming back into the US as a citizen with stamps in a non-US passport made my return from Bosnia more snarky than it should have been when I had an American customs officer at the airport in Toronto who took umbrage with the fact that I had an American passport at all if I was going to travel on my Canadian one. He felt I didn’t deserve an American passport and expressed that. In those words. What I wanted to respond was, “well, no one asked you”. But because I wasn’t looking to spend a night at the Toronto airport — though I wouldn’t have…I’d have called my people for a spare bed or couch — what I said was, “well, sir, with all due respect, the Federal government disagrees.”

**All I can think of when I read this is the time the Swiss Army accidentally invaded Liechtenstein after they got lost in bad weather on night maneuvers in 2007, which remains, a decade later, one of my favourite news stories.

Failed Research #1: Pasta Salad

I am having a moment where I am legitimately angry with the idea of pasta salad. Bear with me, here; this is going somewhere.

I’ve been generally passively apathetic about pasta salad in the past. But I was talking to a friend about it today and commented that pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it (the former ends up with a consistency I can’t handle and the latter I just don’t like). And then it snowballed. Pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it. Or anything else that loses its texture. Or if it has a sweet dressing. Or if it’s too dry. Or if it’s too wet. And then it was just this realization that pasta salad is just sucky cold pasta. The noodles are never cooked right, there are like a million ways to prepare it and somehow none of those is especially good, there’s always something in it that is texturally jarring, it’s always too something, and it’s never anything more exciting than “bland”. So now I’m feeling aggrieved by the years of picnic pasta salads and demanding answers as to who (the Midwesterners, I am absolutely certain) is responsible! My Google search went, “who is responsible for pasta salad” like I have been personally attacked (which, incidentally, made Google think that I’m trying to organize a neighbourhood BBQ and have lost track of the fact that Jan is responsible for the pasta salad and/or need a dozen recipes for pasta salad with tomatoes).

Here’s the kicker: I can’t seem to find a good answer. The best information I could find was that pasta salads have been appearing in American cookbooks since at least the mid-1910s, but didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s. A 1916 pasta salad uses a vinegar base and is “folded into whipped cream“, which sounds…hideous. Also, there’s apparently a designation between macaroni salad (mayo based) and pasta salad (vinegar based), which…WHAT? WHY?!?

Whatever we’re calling it, there are no academic sources to be found on this pasta dish that definitely came from somewhere in the Midwest, which makes me as much of an expert on this as anyone. I’m just going to say it came out of the Midwest — because, be honest, where else would it have come out of?* — and be done with it.

*Are you familiar with Cincinnati chili?

I know I’m behind. I’ve been crazy busy and have about a half dozen half-written posts. I’ll get back to them when I get my life back next month.

Lesson #414: Medieval Testicle Removal

A coworker brought me to this lesson when she told me that people in medieval times believed that the left testicle was responsible for female children and, consequently, had a gonadectomy of the left testicle to help ensure a male child.

I know what you’re thinking. That is patently absurd! Sources or GTFO!

Sources for this are…awful. At best, this is a gobbet passed around the interwebs with some uncited small basis in historical fact. More likely, this is the same complete bullshit as the idea floating about the internet that the boiling point of saliva is three times that of regular water.

The best information I can find on this is a single sentence reference to it in a larger response on a page of The Tech Museum of Innovation’s site. But if we look at this logically, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if a bunch of men in medieval Europe — this is an assumption based on the fact that the medieval period in the Eastern world is far more advanced than Europe is — had their left testicles removed, statistically speaking, they still stood a 50% chance of coming out with a female child at the end of gestation. Surely people with some brains would have gotten together and said, “so…that didn’t work” and stopped with the lopping off of testes.

Obviously, I don’t have access to any primary source materials. But lots of places with lots of scholars do. And if there were primary source materials that said, “for a while there, we thought we’d get all boys if we castrated ourselves”, that information would be all over the place. Because the west loves to talk about balls. So let’s just go ahead and take this for what it is — a story that seems good for a light chuckle on the surface while it simultaneously disparages medieval culture for being seemingly lacking in common sense and enforces the patriarchal and historical notion that female children are worth less than male children.

So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to settle on the fact that men in medieval Europe didn’t go about removing a testicle so they could have male children. Cool? Cool.

Lesson #413: Armed Yachts

As promised, this week we take a look at armed yachts. Because it amuses me when disparate things come together to make a frankenthing.

Sometimes when I look into things, I come out of it feeling like I don’t have a good understanding of what the story is. This is one of those times. I think maybe my understanding of what a yacht is not as fluid as it should be. I also think I’m unclear about who actually owns the yachts, particularly in relation to the Royal Yacht Squadron. All the reading makes it seem like membership in certain yacht clubs — in this particular case, those yacht clubs that are part of the Royal Yacht Squadron — means that one’s vessel may be commandeered by a country’s Navy in times of need. So I guess I own the boat until I don’t, but then I might again? But also, these vessels were staffed in ways that suggest that these yachts were not the size of the boats I’m imagining in my head, so how big were they and what function were they serving in peacetime? I have a lot of unanswered questions.

Anyway, the requisition and use of private yachts in times of war has been used by the American, British, and Canadian Navies. The former two used them in both the First and Second World Wars, the latter in only the Second World War. While the British Navy appear to have operated under a volunteer system — in which a yacht-owner would become a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, which could commandeer the vessel at any point — the US Navy appears to have bought most their yachts from the previous owners and then retrofitted them with weaponry. The Royal Canadian Navy seems to have done the same, though they had only a small fleet of a dozen armed yachts.

The earliest reference I can find to armed yachts is a tally of yachts belonging to the Royal Yacht clubs in England in 1846, which the authors of The Royal Yacht Squadron estimate had a total of 530 vessels carrying 1500 guns. These yachts were outfitted with guns anywhere from one-and-a-half pounders to nine pounders. Some World War II era American armed yachts were outfitted with .50 caliber guns. That seem like a lot for a yacht, but, as previously mentioned, my yacht knowledge is nil. So, you know, what do I know? Scholars suggest that arming yachts was a remnant of the days of privateers and piracy — which will come full circle later.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find out how many of the 700 vessels of the Little Ships of Dunkirk were armed yachts because I felt like that would give me a better grasp of exactly what I was looking at, as far as the size of the vessels. Most of what I found was about the historical accuracy of the use of the Little Ships in the film Dunkirk. I could find only one mention of armed yachts, a record of the sinking of the HMS Narcissus off the coast of Dunkirk on 1 June, 1940.

I can find no information on the Royal Yacht Squadron’s website about whether their vessels are still armed, nor whether vessels belonging to the Royal Yacht Squadron may still be commandeered in times of war.

There is actual art dedicated to armed yachts, in case that sort of thing interests you.

Finally, armed yachts are not a historical blip, though obviously there’s a different context for arming yachts these days.

I just wrote a whole lesson about something I still don’t understand at the end of it. This a. must be how astro- and theoretical physicists feel all the time and b. is why I was never good at bullshitting research papers. This post feels like it’s five separate posts that only vaguely connect together, and nothing is clear at all. This is the point in writing where I’d scrap the entire thing and go back over the research to find a different topic.

Lesson #412: The Shortest War in History

Generally speaking, we’re a fan of conflict around these parts. I guess fan isn’t the right word, exactly, but it makes up literally all of my graduate schooling over three different degree programs. But for all the destruction and resulting problems wars bring with them, they are not always the protracted affairs the likes of say, The Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, which accidentally lasted 335 years because everyone forgot they were at war. Case in point, the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted a total of 38 minutes.

The story is a bit like every story you’ve probably heard about colonial powers attempting to control local rulers in Africa and install men sympathetic to colonial interests. In 1893, with newfound control over Zanzibar* after the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, Britain declared Hamad bin Thuwaini Sultan of Zanzibar. Because our man Hamad was pro-British. In 1896, bin Thuwaini died suddenly — most likely because his cousin and successor Khalid bin Barghash poisoned him in order to claim the throne.**

Anyway, after installing himself as his cousin’s successor, bin Barghash went about it like he owned the place, and the British government were a bit, “hang on a moment”. Bin Barhash, undaunted, started amassing his army. By all accounts, the Zanzibaris were surprisingly well armed, though I can find no explanation for how or why this was the case. Meanwhile, Britain were bringing in five warships, mostly as a show of strength, thinking bin Barghash would look at the harbour and think, “this is a spectacularly terrible idea”. Except bin Barghash was fully invested in being the Sultan and instead went, “you’re not actually going to shoot us”, and Britain replied, “well, we don’t want to, but we will“.

When bin Barghash refused to abdicate by 9am on 27 August, 1896, British Men of War positioned in the harbour fired on the palace. By the time the shelling ended 38 minutes later, bin Barghash had escaped out the back door and the 3000 remaining members of his armed forces and civilians yanked down the Sultan’s flag, ending the Anglo-Zanzibar war.

In addition to being the shortest war, it might be the war with the highest death rate per capita. In the course of 38 minutes, 500 Zanzibaris were killed. To give you some perspective, before the civil war began in 2011, the population of Syria was 23 million. At the rate of 500 casualties per 38 minutes, the entire population of Syria would have been wiped out in 1214 days (or a little over three years and four months).

Our friend Khalid bin Barghash got himself to the German consulate — at the time, Germany controlled Tanzania — which secreted him off to Tanzania and refused to extradite him back to Zanzibar. He was eventually captured in 1916 when British Forces went schlepping through East Africa during the First World War. He was exiled on Saint Helena for a while, but died in Zanzibar in 1927, so it’s unclear how much time he was exiled.

I think the most interesting tidbit in this entire thing is that the Zanzibari navy consisted of a single vessel: an armed yacht gifted by Queen Victoria to Hamad bin Thuwaini. Armed. Yacht! Is this a thing? As someone who doesn’t make anything close to yacht money and isn’t pretty or powerful enough to weasel her way in to yacht money circles, my experience with yachts is nil. But it turns out there is a pretty fascinating history of armed yachts, you guys! Join me next week for a look into Commonwealth types arming their yachts.

Back to the topic at hand, there isn’t a lot of solid academic information on the Anglo-Zanzibar War online, but the Wiki page is well-sourced if you’re looking for references. More here and here.

*I’m going to assume that everyone’s knowledge of Zanzibar can be summed up thusly: it’s an island, Freddie Mercury was from there, and there’s a reference to it in a Tenacious D song.

**Lesson 412b: there is no express word for the murder of one’s cousin, despite the fact that there are words for the murder of pretty much everyone else in one’s family. Parricide, which refers to the murder of one’s parents can also apply to other close family members, though I think it rarely does.

The Revolutions Are Coming!

The other week, I mentioned that I would be starting to look at South American history because I know nothing about it. The problem is, when you know nearly nothing about a subject that’s already broad, you also know nearly nothing about where to start.  I figured the best approach was to start with what I know. And I know revolutions.

Right, now’s your chance to bail before I fully nerd out. I don’t get to play with revolutionary theory very often anymore. You’ve been warned.

There was a bit of my brain that went insane over this. Because once you start applying a context you know well to a situation you don’t, it’s a really fun intellectual game of if and how the construct of revolutionary theory — specifically western (and if you’re familiar with the concept of the north/south divide, that also becomes a factor) revolutionary theory — applies to South American revolutions. And where and why they overlap with other revolutions and where and why they differ. There’s a lot to look at, and I am here. for. it.

Starting with Chile in April, I’m doing a monthly series on revolutions! We’re going on a trip around the world to look at the patterns of revolution and see what we can do about sorting out what the fifth generation definition of revolution might be. I had wanted to look at this as my thesis project when I was doing my second MA, but it was WAY too big a topic for the amount of time we had. My advisor told me that what I was staring at was a PhD project. So that idea was scuttled.* I still don’t exactly have the time — thus the monthly aspect — but I have no academic pressures and no deadlines. I learn what I learn at the pace I learn it. Of course, the downside to not having academic pressures or deadlines is that I also don’t have access to academic databases that would be helpful.

BUT! I’m smarter than the average bear. I’m only two years outdated on the academic research because I saved PDFs of every single article I pulled for my initial research phase of that scuttled project. I may also be able to persuade a friend who is taking some extra coursework in tax law to download an article or two for me.

These entries are going to be more academic and more detailed than most of what I’ve posted here. Because I want the challenge of it. You’re free to skip them (I mean, you’re free to skip any and all of my posts, really). They’ll be drier than my normal posts. But if you want to “watch” me work through an academic process, as it were, hang out! See what happens!

*It ended up being about nationalism and violence in second- and third-culture football fans in North America.

Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.

Lesson #410: The Winged Hussars

Midweek, my mother texted me a blurb without any context. As she’s wont to do. Just sort of a “here’s a thing”. Credit where it’s due, these things are usually interesting.

This week, it was about the Winged Hussars. This is exactly what it sounds like. Hussars who wore wings into battle.

The Hussars were cavalry units in Eastern and Central Europe* that date to at least the 16th century. Their first mention appears in Polish treasury documents in 1500. They were originally made up of exiled Serbs and Hungarian mercenaries, but, as a rule, most people talking about the Hussars are talking about the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry unit that existed from the 16th to the 18th centuries. After the collective reforms of the Polish king and the Lithuanian Grand Duke in the mid-16th century, the Hussars were considered an elite cavalry shock unit that drew heavily from the Polish nobility.

The Winged Hussars wore wings on their backs. They were wooden frames into which eagle, goose, or ostrich feathers were mounted. The purpose of the wings is unclear. Many historians argue that they were a psychological scare tactic. The wings clattered and the wind rushing through them while at a gallop made a humming noise. Also, they looked pretty badass. Another suggestion is that they helped to protect the soldiers’ backs against enemy weaponry. Another is that the wings served to inoculate the Polish horses to the noisemakers employed by the Ottomans and Tatars.

There aren’t a lot of good sources in English or French available online. A lot of what’s available in English is drawn from the Wikipedia page. But the Wiki page cites a whole slew of academic work in Polish, so if you’re interested, you can read that page here. There’s also this page. Most of what’s available in French is about the French Hussars, which were (and remain) light cavalry regiments that do not have wings.

Random note: I realized in conversation — about the Far East — with a friend and fellow travel junkie today that I know nothing about South American history. Like at all. I often end up learning about European and Ancient religious history because those are my areas of expertise/interest. But I bet the South Americans have some cool stuff going on too. Keep your eyes peeled for some lessons from that part of the world in the coming weeks.

*Though there are currently Hussar units in: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Ireland, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and Venezuela.