A Student of History

June 23, 2006

Gods and Generals

Filed under: The strange place called the South — John Maass @ 7:07 pm

In the Chronicle of Higher Education is a great article, "Rebel General, College President, Gentleman," which is about Washington and Lee University (pictured above) and its two great namesakes: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. (If you can get a hold of the paper version of the Chronicle, its Vol. 52, Issue 42, Page A-56.) It starts out like this:

By the time Robert E. Lee reluctantly became its president, five months after surrendering at Appomattox, the institution then known as Washington College had a long history and a striking campus. It traced its origins, somewhat uncertainly, to a Presbyterian boys' school founded about 1749, and with more assurance to a school that existed in a different location by 1773. The pleasing row of colonnaded college buildings that greeted Lee in September 1865 had been finished in the 1840s, complete with a statue of the college's famous benefactor, George Washington, that stood atop the cupola of the center building. Flanking the row were four handsome Greek Revival houses, one of which had been promised to Lee.

Most of the article is about Lee, not Washington, although it does mention that Washington donated 100 shares of James River Company stock that was worth tens of thousands of dollars. That was really GW's only involvement, as he was not a visitor to the school and never served as a president or trustee.  His money did have an impact, however. Lee's influence is much more present there, as the college still abides by many of his rules–including the famous honor system, which simply states that one does not lie, cheat, or steal.

I graduated from W&L in 1987 with a BA in history, and manage to get back there about once a year. It is the 7th oldest college in the U.S. The full article is here.

A tangled web….

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 1:16 pm

From the BBC: "Ancient web spins evolution story."  The article is about the fact that "The oldest-known spider web with prey still entrapped has been found preserved in a chunk of amber in Spain."  The 110-million-year-old spider web snared three of the four orders of flying insect, suggesting that the evolution of spiders and flying insects is inextricably linked.

The article is here.

More on slavery and apologies….

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 4:41 am

Just yesterday I posted some information on the BBC website's poll of readers on the subject of slavery.  Should modern nations/peoples/governments do more than apologize?  One man at least says "yes."  He is the descendant of Sir John Hawkins, a 16th century Elizabethan seaman who was also of the pioneers of the slave trade, "becoming the first person to buy slaves in west Africa and sell them to Spanish landowners in the Caribbean." 

Andrew Hawkins, a youth worker from Cornwall, has delivered an extraordinary personal but public apology for his ancestors' involvement in the trade, kneeling in chains in front of 25,000 Africans in a stadium in Banjul, the capital of the Gambia.  Mr Hawkins's apology took place during a trip this month to west Africa organised by the Lifeline Expedition, a charity project aimed at achieving reconciliation over the slave trade.

David Potts, the founder of the Lifeline Expedition said: "We do not think there has been a really sincere apology from Europeans to Africa and we want to do our part in trying to redress that.'' Next year, the group plans a walk between London, Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth to mark the 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

Andrew Hawkins kneeling and making his apology 

Read more here in The Independent.  (For a BBC article on this event, click here.) The Lifeline Expedition was created by David Pott, long involved in "reconciliation issues."  Pott with his wife Pam currently leads the Fountain Gate Community (Youth With A Mission) in south-east London.  David describes the origins of his vision in a very interesting story (from the website of The Lifeline Experience.)

In the autumn of 1997, I was half awake, half asleep one morning with a very clear picture in my mind of the serpent twisting around the pole from the Bible story in Numbers 21:4-9. I had no reason to see this image – I had not been thinking about the story. As the picture was very insistent I asked the question, "Why am I seeing this?" Straight away the pole turned into the Greenwich meridian line and the serpent into a path encircling the line, with people from different nations walking along the path.

It took me some weeks thinking about those few seconds of revelation to work out what it was all about! Here are some of the things I became aware of…

1. The serpent on the pole is a universal symbol of healing.

2. The Greenwich meridian line nations show a marked contrast between the wealth of England, France and Spain and the poverty of nations like Mali and Burkina Faso. The 3 empires of England, France and Spain covered more of the surface of the globe than any other empires and their languages have been most influential.

3. The Greenwich meridian is central in terms of our conception of the world, in terms of geography, time travel, history etc.

4. I was also interested in the links with John's gospel 3:14-16, where Christ's reconciling act of love for the world is likened to the bronze serpent incident.

5. Later on I also noted that the Israelites who were dying from snake bites, had recently escaped from slavery in Egypt. The serpent on the pole may well have reminded them of the snake-like whips of the slave masters and also of the power of Pharoah whose headdress incorporated a serpent. Although they were no longer slaves, the Israelites were still influenced by the legacy.  

At the website above is a map that illustrtates what Potts is talking about here.  Regardless of one's feelings on the controversial notion of slavery reparations (I oppose them), to say nothing of Pott's "revelation", reconciliation in this case is not a bad idea….Looks like Pott is trying to live his faith, and do so for the betterment of others.

Here is a photo of the apologists, wrapped in chains:

Men and women in chains and yokes

June 22, 2006

Giving Up the Ship

Filed under: Wars — John Maass @ 9:56 pm

Experts now say that they can find the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard is, off the coast of NE England, and it is on about 150-200 feet of water. The ship sank in 1779 off Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire as John Paul Jones famously said: "Surrender – I have not yet begun to fight." See the BBC article here.  There is also a JPJ Museum near Dumfries, Scotland.

Bonhomme Richard is the French equivalent of "Poor Richard." John Paul Jones gave the famous ship this name in honor of Benjamin Franklin.  According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, "The first Bonhomme Richard, formerly Duc de Durae, was a frigate built in France for the East India Co., in 1765, for service between France and the Orient. She was placed at the disposal of John Paul Jones 4 February 1779 by the French King and renamed Bonhomme Richard."

Is “sorry” enough for slavery?

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 3:26 pm

The BBC on its website has for some reason decided to poll (unscientifically) anyone who reads its pages about a thorny issue:  is apologizing for slavery anough or is more needed for atonement?  As the site points out, next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the UK.  The responses so far are interesting though some are a bit intemperate.  Looks like one must register to give a written opinion, but not to read the responses.

History in a Bank Vault

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Maass @ 1:40 pm

There is a great article in the Washington Post of June 20 about a trove of documents in a bank vault in DC, belonging to the now defunct Riggs Bank.  In it are letters and checks written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Brigham Young and Gen. John Pershing.  The article notes that "Lincoln, among 23 U.S. presidents who were Riggs customers, opened an account shortly after his inauguration in 1861, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, closed his."

June 21, 2006

Revolutionary Characters: a review

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 11:59 pm

In a previous post  I referred to a review of Gordon Wood's new book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different.  There is another favorable review of this new work here, from the L.A. Times by Mark Luce.  He writes:

Gordon S. Wood thoroughly understands the intellectual, political and, most important, sociocultural underpinnings of our emerging nation. The author of "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (which won him a Pulitzer) and "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787," Wood has made the Revolution his bailiwick, providing analysis as studied and deep as his research. Now, he delivers "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different," a "greatest hits" of energetically reworked, previously published essays that should be required summer reading for all elected officials. 

I hope to get a copy this month….

There's also an article on Wood here.

Professor Gordon Wood, one of the University´s most well-regarded history professors, is slowly phasing out his classes in preparation for retirement.

More on those Rev. War flags…

Filed under: The strange place called the South,Wars — John Maass @ 10:52 pm

 I previously posted some information on the much-reported sale of 4 Revolutionary War battle flags for over $17,000,000 (which is more than I make in two years!). An additional account is here, and here, with a picture as well.  I just stumbled over aome additional inforamtion though, that is a little interesting: the Virginia legislature, or at least some of its delegates, expressed a wish to get the flags of Col. Buford's Regiment back to Virginia. This was House Joint Resolution #106, from January 2006.  It was for the purpose of "Encouraging the return of the four American Revolutionary War flags captured by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in 1779 and 1780 to their rightful homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Connecticut."  The text of this proposal is at this spot.

A few of the facts that this resolution claims are, well, in dispute even today. Here's whatthe JR states:

WHEREAS, on May 29, 1780, the three Virginia flags were captured in a controversial battle on the North Carolina-South Carolina line at Waxhaws, where Tarleton's troops crushed Colonel Abraham Buford’s force of about 350 Continentals, consisting of the 3rd Virginia Regiment and two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment; and

WHEREAS, the facts of what happened after Buford’s regiment raised a flag of surrender at Waxhaw are disputed–Americans contended that Colonel Tarleton ordered the slaughter of more than 100 Virginia soldiers who had already surrendered; while Colonel Tarleton maintained that his Loyalist troops ran amok when they believed he had been killed after the truce was declared; and

WHEREAS, Colonel Tarleton’s alleged conduct during his command of the battle came to symbolize British cruelty in the Revolutionary War and earned him the epithet “Bloody Ban or “The Butcher”; and

WHEREAS, after the British surrender at Yorktown, Colonel Tarleton, with the four flags, returned home to England as a hero; and

WHEREAS, Colonel Tarleton’s military exploits were commemorated by Sir Joshua Reynolds in a famous portrait of the colonel painted in 1782, in which the captured American flags appear at his feet…..

Then the JR asks that the flags' owner (who has by now sold the flags) "Captain Christopher Tarleton Fagan, the great-great-great-great nephew of Colonel Tarleton, be encouraged to return the four American Revolutionary War flags captured by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in 1779 and 1780 to their rightful homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Connecticut."  Gee, I wonder if the person who just spent $17,000,000 is going to turn over the flags to their rightful homes?  I hate to tell the Virginians this but when the battle flags were captured, they no longer have a rightful home in the Old Dominion!  Had Buford's men defeated or rebuffed Tarleton, they could have kept the flags in a much more efficient and rightful manner.  This is just plain embarassing silliness from my home state, I hate to admit. 

Now, about those "facts" stated above in the JR, it shows why history should be left to those who can do history.  I'm not just talking about professional historians–I include those who can research and interpret facts, which they presumably will get right. For example–the battle occurred in SC, not NC and not "on the North Carolina-South Carolina line." Yes, it was near the line–but couldn't the Virginia Assembly get that part right?  In addition, there is no truth to the claim that "Tarleton ordered the slaughter of more than 100 Virginia soldiers who had already surrendered."  I haven't seen anything definitive that Tarleton ordered the alleged post-surrender fighting.  Then the account jumps to this claim: "Colonel Tarleton’s alleged conduct during his command of the battle…."   Who is alleging this?  Some popular histories that get it wrong, and of course the Virginia delegates.  In other words, the Resolution rehashes a few old claims, then treats them as facts in order to get the flags back! 

While it may be true that Tarleton's men roughly handled the Virginians who refused to surrender at first, and the casualties were quite high, there is strong evidence that the "massacre" took place after the Virginians had given up, because a Virginia Continental took up his musket and shot at Tarleton, killing his horse. Once this violation of standard conduct took place, all bets were off at least for some time.  I do not see mention of this in the Resolution…

June 20, 2006

Where’s the Beef?

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 6:41 pm

OK, that is an obvious pun for this story, in the Toronto Star, about the manipulation of the past to fit what is politically or socially needed for the present by powers that be.  This is a striking example, though.  The story is this:

References to the beef-eating past of ancient Hindus have been deleted from Indian school textbooks following a three-year campaign by Hindu hardliners. For almost a century, history books for primary and middle schools told how in ancient India, beef was considered a great delicacy among Hindus — especially among the highest caste — and how veal was offered to Hindu deities during special rituals.  The passages that offended the Hindus, who now shun beef, have been deleted from new versions of the books delivered to schoolchildren last week.

Every generation writes its own history, as its been said, and looks like in India it is true.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (II)

Filed under: Ireland,Wars — John Maass @ 4:01 am


In an earlier post, I mentioned the new film The Wind that Shakes the Barley.  There's a bit more info on this film now here, and here.

The film was shot in Cork, where it happens Michael Collins was killed. Director Ken Loach is a member of a left wing British political party called RESPECT, which has as its hoped-for policies a number of socialist goals. In the Socialist Worker on-line, an interview with Loach appears here. With such overt political affiliations one might ask: Is this film truthful? Well, click here for a stab at the answer.

Washington’s Spies

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 3:43 am

The Nation Review On-line has an interview with Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring author Alexander Rose.

The Story of America's First Spy Ring

From publisher's weekly:

The unfamiliar terrain of Britain's American colonies made it vital for both sides to gain knowledge of enemy troop movements during the Revolutionary War. But acquiring that information called for a level of espionage that neither side was prepared for, requiring both to make up many of their operational procedures as they went along. Rose focuses on a small band of Americans, longtime friends who created an intelligence network known as the Culper Ring to funnel information to George Washington about the British troops in and around New York City. The author quotes extensively from their correspondence, showing how contentious the relationship between the general and his spies could get, especially when Washington thought they were underperforming. Rose also delves into technical aspects of the Culpers' spycraft, like their attempts at cryptography and invisible ink.

This book comes at the same time as another work on Revolutionary War spies, called George Washington, Spymaster.  Its for younger readers, but still does a poor job over-emphasizing the role espionage played in winning the AWI.

June 19, 2006

All they have is not what we see

Filed under: Ireland — John Maass @ 7:26 pm

According to the Irish Independent, "Despite having vast collections running to millions of items, the public only see a fraction of our national treasures. But now some museums plan to throw open their stores. Both the Natural History and the Archaeology and History museums, which between them have accumulated over three million items in the past two centuries, have less than 1pc of artefacts on public display." Other museums in a similar boat include The National Gallery on Dublin's Merrion Square, The Country Life Museum, and The Museum of Decorative Arts and History. In part this is a result of the so-called "Celtic Tiger," which has fueled the Irish economy for the past 10 years or more.  As they get more prosperous, the Irish build more, and when they build they dig, and when they dig they find lots of cool old stuff.

Decorative Arts and History The Museum of Decorative Arts & History

The rest of the article is here.

On a somewhat releated note, on the Isle of Wight a 13th century gold brooch was recently discovered by metal detectors in May:

The 13th century annular brooch with its inscription.

The piece found by Allan Hall in the parish of Godshill will be anaysed by experts at the British Museum and made subject of a treasure inquest.
The brooch is inscribed with the letters AGLA, each letter separated by a cross potent (a sort of Medieval full stop), which comes from the Latinised version of a Hebrew phrase, Atha Gebri Leilan Adonai, or Thou Art Mighty Forever o' Lord.
These words are known to have been considered to be a powerful charm against fever in the Middle Ages. Mr Hall, of Newtown, a member of the IW Metal Detecting Club, said: "I have a friend, Rob, and we are always joking who is the best metal detector. Every time he comes over to talk to me, he finds some good coins. "On this particular day he was coming towards me and he was dragging his spade in the soil making a furrow. He was about 10ft away from me and we both got a signal so we started digging but it only turned out to be a couple of pieces of lead.
"When he walked off I trained my detector on the furrow he had made and found this amazing brooch."  Dave Clark, group chairman, said: "Frank Basford, the IW Council finds liaison officer, says he doesn't think there has been another gold one found on the Island. Ruth Waller, county archaeologist, has only seen one before on the mainland in London and that is plain while ours is inscribed."  May has been a fruitful month for the club with members also unearthing a Medieval posy ring, a James I gold coin, a Roman bracelet along with some unique Roman fibula brooches and six Saxon sceat coins

From: Isle of Wight County Press.

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