Lesson #388: French Indochina

One of my favourite books (Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant) is set in Vietnam during the French occupation. And, oddly, Indochina came up among my friends last week because one recently bought a new suit from a company that was named something similar (I think it was “indochino?”) and two friends and I asked, legitimately, I felt, “were they Vietnamese?” and he kind of stared blankly.*

So I decided today to go searching for why Vietnam was called French Indochina during its colonial years. Well, not the French part. That part’s pretty obvious.

Turns out that technically speaking, Indochina — which is an actual geographical thing — is made up of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But because I learned history in American schools, I know way more about Vietnamese history than I know about the rest of Southeast Asia combined, so I never learned that Indochina is an actual geographical place.**

Fun thing I also never learned in school because America never fought a protracted war in Cambodia or Laos…French Indochina covered all of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as a small Chinese enclave, Guangzhouwan.

At its inception in 1887 — though the French had been in the area for more than 200 years before this — French Indochina was made up of Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia was annexed in 1893, and Guangzhouwan followed in 1900. It remained that way until Guangzhouwan was returned to China in 1946. And then there were a lot of people in the antebellum years — particularly in that part of the world…Africa didn’t join the party until about a decade later — who weren’t particularly impressed with the whole colonialism bit. This led to the First Indochina War,*** which ran from 1946 until an agreement was reached at the 1954 Geneva Conference — at which France agreed to relinquish control of all its holdings on the Indochinese peninsula. Unfortunately, neither South Vietnam, nor the United States agreed to the accords, so things went a bit south after that…

Not a lot of good sources online — most mention Laos and Cambodia as briefly as possible before moving on to Vietnam (this is what I was talking about above), but the wiki article actually has a pretty good bibliography listed. I’m slightly impressed.

*He’s delightful, but he’s not that bright.

**Though, if I’d thought about it for just a moment, I’d probably have realized that it being situated between India and China would make the whole thing pretty self-evident.

***Which included the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which you should be familiar with if you’ve ever listened to Billy Joel. Or Miss Saigon. Or you had any course in French or Asian colonial history. Probably one of the two former ones though.

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Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.

Lesson #382: The Mason-Dixon Crownstones

Among the other subjects that came up in the Facebook discussion that ensued as a result of my dad’s email on Friday was a discussion about barbeque. And how, though I live south of the Mason-Dixon line, I don’t live in what one would call “good barbeque country.” Which is somewhat disappointing because if there’s one thing Southerners know how to do well, it’s slather meat in sauce and then apply open flames. I can get decent barbeque, but that’s a very different animal from good barbeque.

Anyway…because the line of demarcation between the north and south is the Mason-Dixon Line, I wound up going back for a bit of a refresher on why it’s placed where it is (I was right…slavery) and discovered that every five miles along the line there are markers called crownstones. On the Maryland side of the marker, they have Lord Calvert’s coat of arms and on the Pennsylvania side, William Penn’s.

There’s really not that much more to say about them. They’re markers left to indicate the Mason-Dixon line. That’s pretty much it.

That said, the first thing I did when I learned the crownstones exist was call my mother about taking some time to go find some; we both live close enough that we could make a field trip out to find a few.

Read a fun article written by a guy who went hunting some crownstones, see here. For a list of some of them, see here.

Lesson #375: Kalaupapa’s Leper Colony

Years ago, before I started this blog, I was having a conversation with a friend about leprosy in the Bible and we got to talking about how you never hear about lepers anymore. So I did some digging and found that there were roughly 400,000 people living with Hansen’s Disease, the clinical term for what we call leprosy.* It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that most of these cases are found in rural India and sub-Saharan Africa. Well, it turns out that America still has its very own leper colony.

Sort of.

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, there’s a small village that is populated entirely by people who had leprosy. The colony was set up on the orders of King Kamehameha V in 1866, who, after leprosy arrived on the Hawaiian islands from China, issued an edict banishing anyone diagnosed with leprosy to the Kalaupapa peninsula. Over the course of a hundred years — the law was repealed in 1969 — Kalaupapa was home to about 8,000 exiled patients who were diagnosed with leprosy. As of 2008, there were only 24 remaining residents, all of whom have since been cured.

Today, you can tour Kalaupapa National Park, which contains the village of Kalaupapa, but you are still required to obtain a permit before you visit.

Fun fact: the only other animal on the planet that can contract leprosy is the aardvark. Do not ask me why I know that.

More here, here, and here.

*For the WHO fact sheet on leprosy, see here.

Lesson #374: The Time Zaire Lost 9-0 at the World Cup

Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer. 

I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**

Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):

In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.

Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.

If you’re interested, the scoresheet is here. You can read more about this madness here, here, and here.

*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.

**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.

***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.

****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.

Lesson #372: The Right-Hand Man

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes questions will pop into my head for no reason at all and nag me to answer them; I was literally washing my dinner dishes when this question wandered into my brain unprovoked.

Western culture* has a tenet that one’s most loyal and trusted advisor/soldier/business partner is one’s “right-hand man.” But why? My immediate thought was that it’s born of religion because I’ve studied both the Tanakh and the Bible at some length, and I know the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.** It’s also the most obvious answer because that phrasing shows up nearly three dozen times over both scriptures.***

But it’s not the right answer. It seems those two documents absorbed some combat history.

In all likelihood the concept of the person to your right being the person you trust the most because he’s the person on whom you rely the most (and therefore being your “right-hand man” comes from the phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the person on your right was the one using his shield to protect your entire right side — including, since roughly 85% of the population are right-handed****, your sword hand. This actually raises a whole separate question about where they put lefties. Did they have entire phalanxes of lefties that were mirror images of the right-handed phalanxes? Did they simply train lefties to fight right-handed? If I can find that answer, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

Anyway…

Interestingly, though we generally associate the phalanx with the ancient Greeks — specifically the Spartans if you payed attention in grade 9 World History — the first known depiction of the formation is actually a fragment of the Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, which dates to the 25th century BCE.

You can read more here. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s no definitive answer to this question and if you google the origins, many, many (most) people submit JESUS! as the answer. Which is fine, if not particularly logical. Just because it appears in scripture doesn’t make it the origin; I choose logic.

*I don’t know enough about Eastern culture to comment on the validity of the idiom there.

**I’d urge you to take those two pieces for what they’re worth.

***1 Kings 2:19, Ezekiel 16:46, Ezekiel 21:22, Zechariah 3:1, 1 Chronicles 6:39, 2 Chronicles 18:18, Psalms 16:8, Psalms 77:10, Psalms 80:17, Psalms 91:7, Psalms 109:6 and 109:31Psalms 110:1 and 110:5 — the first of which is directly referenced in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34, and Hebrews 1:13  — Matthew 26: 64, Mark 14:62, Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33,  Acts 5:31, Acts 7:55 and 7:56Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Lest you think I just know those offhand, remember I’m really good at finding things and very patient in my research. Also, given that John is our non-synoptic friend, his absence from this list shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

****Though, as with the blue eyes, a disproportionate number of actors are lefties. Pay attention the next time you see an actor writing something onscreen. I promise you more of them will be left-handed than is representative of the actual population.

Lesson #370: Hitler’s Record Collection

I absolutely love this kind of history. In part because I find the way things change hands over time fascinating. Like how a painting by one of the masters gets written off as a forgery and then spends 200 years in someone’s personal collection before being stuffed in an attic. Or how Hitler’s classical record collection wound up in Moscow. But I also find it interesting because I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a person by what books they have, what’s on their iPods, what TV shows/movies they watch religiously, and what football club they cheer for.*

The story itself isn’t particularly exciting. After Hitler’s bunker was captured, a bunch of Russian Intelligence officers took it upon themselves to liberate some of Hitler’s possessions. For strategic sheep purposes or whatever.** Anyway, 60 years later, upon the officer’s death, his daughter came across the records in the attic (naturally).

What I find most interesting in this is the inclusion of the Russian greats like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky (who wrote my favourite piece of music ever), Borodin, and Rachmaninov (who is responsible for a surprising piece of pop culture), as well as some recordings of other peoples’ work by prominent Jewish artists like Huberman and Schnabel. In case you’ve all forgotten everything you learned in school, Nazism considered both the Jews and the Russians subhuman.

So it turns out that if you’re a brutal dictator spearheading a campaign to rid Europe of all the groups of people you don’t like, you don’t actually have to take your own orders. You can listen to Russians, Jews, and Russian Jews to your heart’s content. Because who is going to complain and to whom?

You can read more here, herehere, and here.

*I like things that are very, very dark. Which you probably should have picked up on by now if you’ve been reading for a while. But also, come to my house, take a look at my library, skim my iPod, and/or have me list off my favourite TV shows for you; you won’t be at all surprised by most of what you see and hear. Except for where Clueless is concerned. It’s the Zdeno Chara of my collection — the outlier that’s going to skew all the rest of the data.

**I love the internet. I literally just googled “strategic sheep” and it came back with exactly what I was looking for. Technology!