Tag Archives: History

400 – Japanese Whispers: Mapping the Forbidden Outside World

For two centuries after 1640, the official Japanese policy towards the outside world was known as sakoku (’closed country’), by which both Japanese leaving the country and foreigners entering it could expect the death penalty.

Although not quite as harshly absolute as that, isolationism prevailed until American commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Fleet sailed into Uraga harbour in 1853, forcing Japan to open up, first to commerce with the US, later to trade with other western countries.

This Japanese world map circa 1850, gives an impression of the country’s view of its place in the world on the verge of its forced reintegration into the international community. It is an intriguing mix of foreign knowledge and native perspective.

The Japanese archipelago is placed self-confidently at the centre of the map, banishing Europe from its usual central place to a marginal one, at the western edge. The American continent is banished to the map’s far eastern side.

The continents, each assigned a different colour, are generally in the right position vis-a-vis each other, but their contours are very poorly rendered, as if the map was not drawn directly from a contemporary western example, but via a system of Chinese whispers.

* Europe is an elongated mess, the Black Sea landlocked, the Greek peninsula melted, the British Isles fragmented into multiple rocks the very presence of which has smoothed out the continent’s northwestern shores to an almost straight line from Biarritz to Hamburg.
* Africa is intersected by giant rivers morphing into two fabulous (and fabulated) inland seas; South Africa’s Natal region is placed on its own island. Madagascar had bent out of shape, its northern cape aiming at a clutter of too-large islands.
* the Red Sea is coloured red, but the Arabian peninsula is coloured in as part of Europe – not to mention triangle-shaped. The Indian subcontinent (which actually is triangle-shaped) is rendered as a tired, sagging lump of land, much smaller than the huge Indochinese land mass.
* Unless one generously discerns the St Lawrence River in the giant wound gaping in North America’s eastern side, that continent shows hardly any resemblance to its actual shape (South America is shown much more realistically).
* By 1850, the British were busy colonising Australia, but this map still presupposed the area to be barely visited, showing it as a confused, semi-discovered muddle of land, attached to the Southland – the mythical Terra Australis Incognita of ancient – western – lore.

However flawed it may be, what this map proves by getting the general gist of the world’s geography right, is that Japan was not entirely cut off from outside knowledge.



(Hat tip: Akindynos)

Resting place of choice



Marx had arrived in London in 1849 as a German émigré and took up permanent residence there. He last lived in Kentish Town, in north London, not far from Highgate Cemetery. Marx had originally been buried in a far corner of the cemetery, some 100 yards from the current site, in the same grave as his wife Jenny, whose death had preceded his by 15 months. That grave was topped by a simple ground-level plaque that recorded their birth and death dates. But as the grave increasingly became a pilgrimage site, with visitors complaining of difficulties in locating it, the British Communist Party in the mid-1950s re-interred the remains of Marx and his extended family in a more prominent setting. The old gravestone was incorporated into the face of the new monument, designed by Lawrence Bradshaw.

In the last few decades, a number of leading international reformers and revolutionaries have chosen to be buried in the vicinity of Marx’s grave.

Just across the path from Marx is the impressive flat gravestone of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an evolutionary biologist and free-market proponent. The two would not have seen eye to eye in their lifetimes, but in death they remain fixed in each other’s sights. This eastern sector arguably contains the wider range of personages, if you add in people like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Sir Ralph Richardson, the actor.

Burials are ongoing, though the eastern half has the greater selection of available plots. One newcomer is Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident turned critic who was murdered in London by poisoning in 2006. All told, some 170,000 people are now buried here.

Highgate Cemetery remains a kind of masked ball of treasures. Increasingly it’s becoming a wildlife sanctuary, and the place continues to live on in the imagination. In Audrey Niffenegger’s forthcoming supernatural-tinged novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, the cemetery takes on the near-role of a character, as two American identical twins end up inheriting an apartment not far from its gates. As Melville wrote elsewhere, “Something further may follow of this masquerade.”

Paolo Poloni conte l’histoire des Juifs de Thessalonique


Le film de Paolo Poloni, partant des individus, de leur vie et de leurs souvenirs, rend compte d’un monde englouti, de la perte des relations d’un peuple, de sa culture et de sa langue, contant une histoire au carrefour entre les Balkans, l’empire ottoman et le monde hellénique.

L’histoire des juifs de Thessalonique, ville grecque sur la Méditerranée posée au sud des Balkans. Fondé sur le parcours existentiel des protagonistes, le film brosse un panorama historique et politique, une fresque cinématographique.


* Salonica, the trailer


(Hat tip: mgpolitis)

Who Lincoln Was

The past three generations of historians have agreed that Abraham Lincoln was probably the best president in American history and that Franklin Pierce was one of the worst. Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat, gave political cover to fractious slaveholders and their violent supporters in the 1850s. His softness on the slavery issue encouraged the southern truculence that later led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. Apart from their closeness in age–the bicentennial of Pierce’s birth passed virtually unnoticed four and a half years ago–about the only things that he and Lincoln had in common were their preoccupation with politics and their success in reaching the White House.

When Pierce ran for president in 1852, Lincoln, naturally, campaigned against him. But the cause of the Whig party was extremely feeble in Illinois that year. (The Whigs, originally formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson, were a national coalition of pro-business conservatives, reformers who supported economic development, and moderate southern planters. Lincoln remained a staunch Whig loyalist until the party crumbled in 1854.) And so Lincoln limited himself to a long speech in Springfield–it took him two days to deliver it!–which he abridged and repeated in Peoria. The speech did nothing to affect the outcome of the election, in Illinois or in the country at large. But it deserves to be remembered in these days of Lincoln idolatry, because it can be disturbing reading to anyone inclined to worship Father Abraham.


* Related: Lincoln Bicentennial 1809-2009

Revolutionary Republic of July 4 Should Eschew Empire’s Errors


On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who four years later would sit as the nation’s 6th president) reported to the Congress and the American people on the role American was taking with regard to world affairs.

Adams’ statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.

Above all, Adams reminded Americans that, while they have a responsibility to speak up for democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoils of other lands. Echoing the warnings of George Washington and James Madison, the secretary of state warned that such entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States – as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy.

After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, Adams said of America:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. (But) she well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…


The New Democrats


The roots of Iran’s current divide to a great extent lie at the turn of the century, when the country’s ayatollahs essentially split into two camps on questions of religion and politics. The first was led by Ayatollah Na’ini, an advocate of what is called the “Quietist” school of Shiism–today best exemplified in the character and behavior of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. According to Na’ini, true “Islamic government” could only be established when the twelfth imam returned. Such a government would be the government of God on earth: Its words, deeds, laws, and courts would be absolute and could tolerate no errors. But humans, Na’ini said, were fallible and thus ill-fitted to the sacred task of establishing God’s government. As the pious await the return of the infallible twelfth imam, they must in the interim search for the best form of government. And the form most befitting this period, Na’ini argued, was constitutional democracy. The role of ayatollahs under this arrangement would be to “advise” the rulers and ensure that laws inimical to sharia were not implemented. But it would not be to rule the country themselves.

Opposing Na’ini was an ayatollah named Nuri. He dismissed democracy and the rule of law as inferior alternatives to the divine, eternal, atemporal, nonerrant wisdom embodied in the Koran and sharia. As Ayatollah Khomeini would declare more than once, his own ideas were nothing but an incarnation of Nuri’s arguments. But for the moment, at least, those ideas were on the defensive. It would be decades before they would reemerge to dominate Iranian politics.

Na’ini’s paradigm, and the idea that Shiism must reinvent itself, continued to beget newer and more radical interpretations. During the Reza Shah period (1925-1941), as the clergy came under direct pressure from a forced secularism modeled on Ataturk’s Turkey, a number of ideas critical of traditional Shiism began to take shape. Iranian reformers at the time called for a more rational, less rigid Shiism, and an end to the self-mutilation that takes place annually in honor of the third imam’s martyrdom. They went so far as to advocate abolishing the dominant role of the clergy. Even in the conservative city of Qom, reformist ideas about Shiism found popularity in a magazine published by the son of a cleric. Ayatollah Khomeini’s first book was a response to these arguments, calling them sacrilege and asking the pious to cleanse the nation of such heretical ideas.

The 1940s in Iran were a period of rising political aspirations. Marxist ideas began to dominate the intellectual discourse, while democratic ideas began to permeate middle-class life. Faced with these new challenges, Shiism again tried to reinvent itself in ways that made it intellectually competitive. Mehdi Bazargan, at the time a professor of engineering–and destined to become the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic–tried to use the laws of thermodynamics to prove the existence of God. Another activist, based in the city of Mashhad, founded a group called the Movement of God-Worshipping Socialists, arguing that, long before Marx, Muhammad had been a proletarian revolutionary. In the smithy of this city’s rapidly changing intellectual landscape, two young men were educated. One was named Ali Khamenei, and the other was named Ali Shariati.


Home Again?


Vicente Serrano’s documentary A Forgotten Injustice chronicles our ability to turn against our brothers and sisters during times of social panic. The film tells the hidden history of the mass deportation of more than 2 million Mexican immigrants in the 1930s. More than 60 percent of those given the boot were U.S. citizens who ended up living in Mexico as illegal aliens.

Serrano’s own grandmother was deported from Los Angeles in the 1930s and ended up living in Mexico for 70 years as an illegal alien. It was her story that, six years ago, inspired the Chicago-based, Emmy-winning Telemundo journalist to start working on A Forgotten Injustice.

“When I learned about the magnitude of the injustices of the ’30s. I felt a responsibility to tell the story of my grandma, her brother and the more than 1 million people,” says Serrano. “I always wondered why my grandmother’s stories ended with tears.”


Still not free – Why post-’89 history must go beyond self-diagnosis

All of this concerns us more that we are ready to admit. The current global crisis is no longer merely about how many billions should be pumped into the economy so that we can go back to accumulating wealth; it is increasingly about the societal processes that will have a far greater impact on the world than the fall of communism. To my mind, this is something very few people in the post-communist world are prepared to acknowledge. It seems to me that we still differ from the West in the delay and reluctance with which we reflect on our own blindness. This applies both to our perception of the past twenty years of building capitalism, as well as to our perception of communism.

Perhaps there is certain logic to this reluctance: we simply do not want to relinquish our position at the top of the league table of the great events of the past half-century. During a recent panel discussion in Vienna, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash said that 1989 was the greatest moment in European history. “Can you suggest another date?” he asked, noticing several raised eyebrows in the audience. Garton Ash is right: however much you rummage through European history you won’t find a more fitting date.

However, that was twenty years ago, and we cannot halt the flow of history just because we wish to. In fact, we should be glad that history has granted us those twenty years as a kind of preparation for worse times. For instance, we have been lucky that Nato was enlarged ten years ago, at a time when Russia was too weak to stop it. We have been equally lucky that the EU enlargement took place at a time of economic euphoria. Had the crisis hit in 2000, we might still be knocking on the doors of Brussels, because the West would have been preoccupied with its own problems.

Central Europe has never experienced the degree of political freedom it enjoys today. If the world and Europe do not descend into chaos – and the threat today is more real than we are ready to admit – we will be able to say in a few decades that the achievement of central European nations has been truly stunning.

Yet this performance, though stunning, has so far been more or less conformist in nature. Of course, there have been lively and at times emotional debates about the appropriate course of action, but the terms of this debate have always been framed by the West and its values. ()

The British Ladies’ Football Club

By March 1895 the club members were ready for their first public exhibition. Posters advertising the game were widely distributed, and on the allotted day, March 23rd, ten thousand people made their way to Nightingale Lane, where they were more accustomed to see their local team take on the likes of Tottenham Hotspur. The game was preceded by a match between Crouch End and the 3rd Grenadier Guards, and the ladies did not kick off till nearly quarter to five, when their two teams, designated “North” and “South” took the field wearing all-red, and light and dark-blue outfits respectively.


The North Team

The South Team

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Girls challenging traditional views on football in Uganda

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) by Gurinder Chadha (Trailer)