Before They Pass Away

A friend of mine shared some great photos from Imgur of various indigenous and tribal cultures that are quickly disappearing in the face of changing times and social pressures.

I did some research and found that they are from a series I had heard about before called Before They Pass Away, a project that collects photos and accounts of some of the most remote and ancient civilizations in the world. It is the brainchild of British photographer Jimmy Nelson, who maintains a website for the series that documents his three-year journey across 44 countries.

There is already a book about the project that includes over 500 of these excellent photos (you can browse through some parts on the website). I definitely plan on buying it one of these days. The images are captivating both aesthetically and in the stories they tell; I love the expression and demeanor of the subjects — often proud and stoic, though sometimes hinting at deeper uncertainty and worry — as well as the sheer beauty of their settings, which are unsurprisingly some of the most isolated and pristine in the world.

That these groups have endured such typically harsh and untamed areas for generations (if not millennia) is a testament to their sophistication and tenancy.

Here are some of my personal favorites, although I fell in love with them all.

The Kazakhs of Mongolia.

The Huli of Papua New Guinea.

The Maori, New Zealand.

The Gauchos, Argentina.

Nelson also has an interesting TEDx Talk where he discusses his journey and the various connections he made and things he learned. I recommend you give it a listen. It is pretty inspiring and makes me even itchier to travel.

How The Ancient Egyptians Spoke

If you have ever wondered how the Ancient Egyptian language sounded, listen to the liturgical hymns of the Coptic Church, the only place it is still widely spoken.

First recorded in 3400 BCE, Egyptian is the earliest known language in history, rivaled only by Sumerian. Like all languages, it evolved over its long lifespan, becoming Demotic by 600 BCE and Coptic by 200 CE. It began to decline thereafter, going extinct by the 17th century and surviving only as a religious language, with very few fluent speakers outside of some clergy (my research suggests that only one family is known to speak it as a first language).

There have been sporadic but unsuccessful efforts to revive Coptic for mainstream use. Below is one of the few videos I have found of Coptic being spoken outside of a liturgical context. Superficially, it sounds a lot like Arabic, which isn’t too surprising since it falls under the same large language family of Afro-Asiatic and evolved during centuries of Arab rule (some things do sound familiar to me, such as the term for “and”). 

A Sobering Centennial

On this day 100 years ago, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, thus triggering the First World War, one of history’s deadliest conflicts.

The war lasted a little over four years and lead to the deaths of 16 million people (nearly half civilians), the wounding of 20 million more, and the end of four empires (Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, and Ottoman). Its political, social, and cultural impact remains to this day, with many of its unresolved consequences contributing to the even bloodier Second World War just 21 years later.

Time does not permit me to write as extensively about the topic as it deserves, but I advise you to scour the web for all the great articles and reflections concerning this seminal event in human history. Though often overshadowed by the much larger war that followed, its legacy remains strong to this day.

Haiti’s Underrated But Out-Sized Influence

It is a shame that so few of us know how unique and influential Haiti’s role in history has been. After gaining independence in 1804 – following a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world – Haiti became the first and only nation in history to be established as a result of a successful slave revolt; many of its first political leaders were former slaves.

Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere after the United States, and the second republic in the Americas. It produced such prominent military and political figures as Jean-Baptiste Belley (the first black representative in the Western world), Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West), and Toussaint L’Ouverture (brilliant military strategist and along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West).

Moreover, Haiti’s unlikely success against a major power inspired revolutionaries across the hemisphere, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. Many historians regard Haitian independence as a catalyst for independence movements across Latin America, which picked up pace shortly after; indeed, Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Notably, France’s failure to take back what was then the world’s richest colony contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in the West and sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

Needless to say, Haiti’s independence rocked the institution of slavery throughout the Americas, which would unfortunately contribute to its endemic poverty and instability: for obvious reasons, none of the racist or slave-owning nations that dominated that international system at the time wanted to support the first and only successful black republic, especially one born from a slave revolt.

Thus, Haiti would remain isolated and periodically preyed upon for much of its history. Two decades after expelling the French, it was forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its political and economic isolation. Though the amount was reduced in 1838, Haiti was unable to finish paying off its debt until 1947, leaving the country deeply impoverished — but no less proud and culturally rich.

National Pride Around The World

With the rise of the nation state — whose conceptual origin is disputed but typically traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century — has emerged the idea of patriotism and pride in one’s civic and national identity — equally contentious and amorphous concepts.

As a life-long American, I am intimately aware of the impact, prevalence, and subsequent controversy of patriotism — indeed, national pride is seen as one of the definitive elements of American identity, coinciding with and emerging from notions such as American exceptionalism and the American dream.

But how deeply is patriotism ingrained in the  U.S. collective consciousness, especially nowadays, amid so much declinism and cynicism about our future? What of the effects of globalization on our and other nations’ sense of national belonging: in an increasingly globalized world — with so many people traveling and living abroad, exchanging one another’s cultures, and forging deep emotional and social ties across borders — how influential is the nation state on our psyches?

Well, data from the 2010-2014 World Values Survey (which is still being completed) offer some interesting insight on how citizens of select countries feel about living there. Citizens in 52 participating countries were asked the following: “How proud are you to be [insert nationality]” to which they could select “Very Proud”, “Quite Proud”, “Not Very Proud”, “Not at All Proud”, or “Unsure”.

Here are the maps courtesy of Vox.com.

Note that this only signifies people who selected the highest option of “very proud”. The total percentage of citizens who are proud of their country is much higher when you add the follow data showing those who are “quite proud” (the second highest option, although it does not sound that much lower than “very”).

Moreover, a redditor named DMan9797 put together the following custom chart based on the total responses, which I feel does a better job of giving us the bigger picture globally and for each individual country (click the image to see it bigger).

So in total, there are 48 out of 52 participating countries in which 70 percent of respondents are proud or very proud to be a part of; the four notable exceptions are Japan, Germany, Ukraine, and Taiwan (although Russia, Estonia, and Belarus were not that far off). The Vox articles offers some interesting  explanations as to why these countries stand out:

For Germany and Japan, it suggests that the post-World War II hangups about nationalism may have not quite gone away. Since their defeats, both countries have developed a much more complicated relationship with national pride — in some ways, German and Japanese nationalism run amok were responsible for the whole thing. This sense of national guilt, or at least a wariness of too much national pride, might be making it harder for German and Japanese folk to feel immense amounts of national pride.

In Ukraine, the issue may be the country’s ethno-linguistic divides. As many know by now, eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans tend to be more sympathetic to Russia than the rest of Ukraine. That divide was one of the underlying causes of the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia. So it’s likely that eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans, many of whom were less than thrilled about being Ukrainian even when the survey began in 2010, reported abnormally low levels of Ukrainian pride. Estonia’s results may support that theory as well: the Baltic country just barely dodged the sub-70 percent prideful club, and it has a significant ethnic Russian minority.

Then there’s Taiwan, whose results are almost certainly about tension with mainland China. 20 percent of Taiwanese outright favor reunification with China, and 43.5 percent of Taiwanese also identify as Chinese (“Zhongguo ren,” which could mean Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, or both). This complicated relationship with the People’s Republic probably explains why Taiwanese people aren’t quite as proud of their country as other peoples are.

Personally, I think these explanations make sense, although it is interesting to note that Germany’s national pride has presumably been growing in light of the country’s renowned economic performance and subsequent international clout. It may be that Germans are simply sheepish about being more explicit in their patriotism.

In any case, it is interesting to see such a mixed bag of countries at the top: Qatar, Ghana, Ecuador, Uzbekistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Philippines could not be any more different from each other. Whether a country is authoritarian or democratic, rich or poor, or developed or underdeveloped doesn’t seem to impact peoples’ sense of national pride; nor are certain linguistic, ethnic, or religious compositions more or less likely to feel strong national pride.

All this probably speaks to the complex factors that go into one’s sense of belonging to a nation and feeling proud of it. Plenty of poorly governed and impoverished nations are nonetheless rich in culture, history, or national achievement (Qatar is an outsized player in the Middle-East affairs, Ghana paved the way for African independence movements, etc).

Conversely, having a high quality of life and an enviable socioeconomic system, even in combination with a rich culture and much accomplishment, doesn’t mean everyone will feel a strong sense of national identity or pride — Germany and Japan can speak to that, albeit for reasons unique to themselves.

Of course, every country — like every individual — has its own unique characteristics, history, social dynamics, and other factors that explain its standing among its own citizens and the world at large. It goes to show just how complicated the concepts of nation and state are, let alone the political and psychological relationship with these entities and ideas.

What are your thoughts?

 

The Treasure Voyages

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Treasure Voyages, an incredible series of diplomatic and commercial expeditions undertaken by the Ming Dynasty during the 15th century that reached Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle-East, and East Africa. The scale, scope, and technical sophistication of this fleet — which involved over 27,000 personnel — was unprecedented in known history, and remained so for centuries.

The outward route of the fleet during the seventh and final voyage. Source: Wikipedia

The ships involved were marvels of engineering, reflecting the sheer technological might of what was then the world’s most advanced and powerful civilizations. See how the Treasure Voyages’ flagship compares to that of Columbus’ ship, St. Maria, used just decades later:

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to devote myself to writing more about this fascinating event or time period. Instead, I invite you to check out this detailed but succinct blog post about it, or listen to this great 45-minute BBC Radio post. The hyperlink to Wikipedia in the first sentence offers an extensive guide as well (it seems to be one of the better written and cited articles on the website).

Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie

Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, also known as Alexandre Dumas (not the author), was an influential general in Revolutionary France. Born in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) to a white French nobleman and an enslaved mother of African descent, he ranks among the most successful military commanders of the 18th century, playing a pivotal role in the French Revolutionary Wars. 

In addition to being the highest-ranking person of color in continental European military history, he is the first non-white person in the French military to become brigadier general, the first to become divisional general, and the first to become general-in-chief of a French army. Dumas was the highest-ranking black officer in the Western world, an achievement shared only with fellow Haitian Toussaint Louverture until 1975 (when Daniel “Chappie” James Jr became a four star General in the U.S. Air Force, the closest American equivalent to Dumas’ rank of Général d’Armée).

Dumas joined the military as a private at the age of 24, which set him apart from most noble-born men, who tended to opt for officer ranks. By age 31, he rose through the ranks to command 53,000 troops as the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps. Dumas’ victory in opening the strategically vital passes through the Alps enabled the French to initiate their Second Italian Campaign against one of their major rivals, the Austrian Empire. During the battles in Italy, Austrian troops nicknamed Dumas the Schwarzer Teufel, or “Black Devil”.

Meanwhile, the French – including Napoleon, whom he served under – nicknamed him “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”, after the hero who had saved ancient Rome, for single-handedly defeating a squadron of enemy troops at a bridge over the Eisack River in Clausen.

On top of his already impressive legacy, Dumas fathered a son who was also named Alexandre – he went on to become one of history’s greatest authors and playwrights, known for such seminal works in as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Many of novels’ chief characters were inspired by the life of his father.

Jean-Baptiste Belley

Belley, with the bust of the philosophe Raynal, by Girodet

Jean-Baptiste Belley, also known as Mars, was a native of Senegal and former slave from Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) who during the French Revolution became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred, France’s legislative chambers.

After buying his freedom and serving as a captain of the colonial infantry, he was elected to the Convention in 1793 during the height of the revolution. He was perhaps the first African and first former slave to be elected to a legislative body in any Western country. He presided over the Convention’s unanimous abolition of slavery and served as an active supporter of the rights of Africans in the French Republic.

Although he was recognized as a full citizen of the Republic, Belley had to struggle against institutional racism. He remained steadfast in helping the new country stay true to its formal claim of equality and liberty until losing his seat in 1797.

In the above painting by Girodet, he stands with the bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a prominent Enlightenment thinker and abolitionist. His stylish relaxed pose was a popular way of portraying figures of the revolution. Many art critics also see in the painting the idea of the noble savage.

Celebrating Fourth of July? You’re Either Two Days Late or One Month Early

Fourth of July factoid: the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain technically occurred on July 2, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a formal resolution of independence, which had first been suggested a month earlier.

The Declaration of Independence was hammered out two days later to explain this decision and subsequently signed July 4. Since what occurred July 2 was private, the American people saw the day that the public announcement was signed as the true day of independence — although John Adams allegedly preferred July 2 as the date. As he wrote on July 3:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

It gets more interesting: despite the claim of the Founding Fathers, many historians believe that the Declaration was actually signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776. Coincidentally, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the only signers of the Declaration who would later serve as Presidents – died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration (moreover, although not a signer of the document, James Madison also died on July 4).

Anyway, have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Source: Wikipedia, Quartz

The Real First World War

In my recent post about the First World War, I alluded to there being a previous conflict that had been global in scope, which, while not as bloody and costly, had nonetheless spanned the globe long before the better known war of the early 20th century. The Economist conveniently went through the trouble of highlighting history’s first true global conflict in a recent post:

Though fighting did not start in Europe until 1756, and for this reason the conflict is known as the Seven Years’ War, it was truly global. Every inhabited continent except Australia saw fighting on its soil, and independent powers on three of those continents were active participants.

The first action of this first global conflict involved a young officer whose name may be familiar to some readers. On May 28th 1754 a small group of soldiers from the British colony of Virginia, under the command of a man called George Washington, engaged a group of French troops who were interloping from New France (ie Canada) into territory the British considered theirs. Instead of peacefully repelling them as he had been instructed, Washington ended up killing several of them, including their commanding officer. This campaign in North America then continued, with both sides in alliance with local Indian nations, until, two years later, Britain’s ally Prussia attacked the small German state of Saxony, bringing Saxony’s ally Austria, and thus Austria’s ally France (and therefore France’s enemy and Prussia’s ally, Britain), into the conflict. It is a sequence of events eerily similar to the way that in 1914 an attack by Germany’s ally Austria on the small Balkan state of Serbia brought in Serbia’s ally Russia, which then threatened Germany, which then declared war on both Russia and Russia’s ally France.

The war rapidly globalised. Both Britain and France reinforced their colonial troops in North America, and started attacking each other’s colonies in the West Indies and trading stations in Africa and India. In India, some of the princely states which had recently emerged from the dying Mughal empire also got involved, and Britain ended up taking over one of them, Bengal. The war came to South America when, near its end, Spain joined the French side and attacked one of the American colonies of Britain’s ally, Portugal.

Like the first world war, this global conflict reshaped the globe. Indeed, it is the reason why the modern world is an English-speaking one. As a colonial power, France was destroyed, and did not return seriously to the business of overseas conquest until it attacked Algeria in 1830. All of North America east of the Mississipi became British, save the city of New Orleans, which became Spanish. And the foundations of British rule in India were laid as well. As for George Washington, he ended up leading a rebel army put together by colonials who, freed from fear of French encirclement, unwilling to help pay for the war that had given them that freedom, and frustrated by British protection of the lands of their Indian allies from encroachment by colonial property speculators (including Washington himself), decided that they would rather go it alone.

While counterfactuals are always difficult to speculate on, I suspect that if the technology and military innovations of the early 20th century been available, the Seven Years’ War would have likely been as destructive and bloody as its 20th century successors.