The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

When Cities are as Powerful as Nations

Before the emergence of the political units we now call countries, humans organized themselves in a variety of other ways, ranging from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires. Most of these entities were not proper countries as we think of them today, lacking a cohesive political or national identity, a firm boundary, or much in the way of an organized government.

The ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, China, Mesoamerica, the Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia were among the exceptions, which is why they are recognized as “cradles of civilization”, places where the first features of what we consider modern society emerged: agriculture, urban development, social stratification, complex communication systems, infrastructure, and so on.

The urban character of civilization is what I find most interesting, because cities were where power, both political and economic, was concentrated. Urban centers were the places from which rulers asserted their authorities. Cities are where democracy and republicanism took root, and where civic engagement survived through the Middle Ages in places like Florence, Venice, Krakow,and Hamburg.

This dynamic has changed little in the 21st century; in fact, it is arguably stronger and more pronounced than ever, as globalization, population growth, and advanced technology come together to create metropolises as populous, wealthy, and powerful as entire countries.

The following map, courtesy of CityLab, draws on data from 2015 to prove the incredible growth and prestige of modern cities (the data for cities comes from the Brookings Institution’s Redefining Global Cities report, while the data for nations is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators; the map was compiled by Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute).

A few highlights noted by the article:

  • Tokyo, the world’s largest metro economy with $1.6 trillion in GDP-PPP, is just slightly smaller than all of South Korea. Were it a nation, Tokyo would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world.
  • New York City’s $1.5 trillion GDP places it among the world’s twenty largest economies, just a tick under those of Spain and Canada.
  • Los Angeles’ $928 billion GDP is bit smaller than Australia’s, with $1.1 trillion.
  • Seoul ($903 billion) has a bigger economy than Malaysia ($817 billion).
  • London’s $831 billion GDP makes its economic activity on par with the Netherlands ($840 billion).
  • Paris, with $819 billion in GDP, has a bigger economy than South Africa, $726 billion.
  • The $810 billion economy of Shanghai outranks that of the Philippines, with $744 billion.

To put things in further perspective: if you added up the ten largest metropolitan areas, you’d get an economy of over $9.5 trillion, bigger than the Japanese and German economies combined. Add the next ten largest metros, and you get the second largest economy in the world, at $14.6 trillion, less than four trillion shy of the U.S.

In other words: Cities really are the new power centers of the global economy—the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. But when it comes to fiscal and political power, they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world.

The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.


Very relevant question as the balance of power both within and between countries shifts to certain global cities, especially in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

The Mexican Phoenix

Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) was a self-taught scholar, philosopher, composer, poet, and nun who lived in colonial Mexico (then called New Spain). She was known for her remarkable intelligence, wit, and courage to challenge opinions and speak out for her beliefs, which is why she is known by such monikers as “The Tenth Muse”, “The Phoenix of America”, or the “Mexican Phoenix”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born an illegitimate child of a Spanish captain who was absent from her life, Juana was raised mostly by her mother and maternal grandfather. As a child, she often hid in her grandfather’s chapel and read books from the adjoining library, which was forbidden to girls. She was a child prodigy, learning how to read and write Latin by age three; do financial accounting by age five; and compose a poem by age eight. By the time she was a teenager, she mastered Greek logic, knew Latin well enough to teach it to children, and even learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl.

At the age of 16, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. Her insatiable appetite for knowledge remained strong, and she even asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a boy so she could go to university. Having been forbidden from doing this, she continued to study privately. The Viceroy of Spain took interest in the precocious teen, and she was invited to a meeting of esteemed intellectuals of every background, where she managed to hold her own and answer various scientific and literary subjects unprepared. Her quick-thinking and intelligence were impressive for anyone, let alone a young woman, and she subsequently became well known through colonial Mexico (she garnered several marriage proposals, all of which she rejected).

Juana’s thirst for knowledge drove her to become a nun, wanting “no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study,” since nuns were historically given far more autonomy and leeway than they would have in society. She joined the Hieronymite Nuns specifically, a Catholic order known for its relaxed rules. Far from being stereotypically quiet and pious, she continued writing, learning, and even challenging social norms through poetry and prose (note the sheer number of books in the portrait). She touched on topics such as love, religion, and feminism, criticizing the misogyny and hypocrisy of men in both religious and secular power.

Unsurprisingly, she earned the ire of clerical and political authorities who thought she should know her place and focus on quiet prayer. In response, she wrote “Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country” if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students, remarking that such dangers “would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities.”

Juana was ultimately condemned by the Bishop of Puebla and forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity to the poor. She died a year later after contracting the plague while helping the sick. Though many of her works have not survived, her legacy as an unusually outspoken proto-feminist lives on for women in Mexico and beyond.

The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia

Tyrus Wong

Today I learned that the lead artist for Disney’s “Bambi” was a Chinese-born illegal immigrant who drew inspiration from the art styles of the Song Dynasty.

Tyrus Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo on this day in 1910, in Taishan, Guangdong, China. When he was nine, he and his father immigrated to the United States, where they were initially detained, separated, and questioned due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigrants from China. They assumed false identifies as “paper sons”—relatives of Chinese Americans already legally resident in the U.S.—and were subsequently released, ultimately settling in L.A. Continue reading

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

khaled_al-asaad_2012

Wikimedia Commons

 

As Rich as Croesus

The Iron Age Kingdom of Lydia, located in what is today western Turkey, is hardly a household name, especially compared to its neighboring Greek and Persian contemporaries. Yet as far as we know, the Lydians were the first and only people to invent money as we know it: a standard, universally-accepted medium of exchange whose value is backed by a recognized authority.

Invented sometime in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C.E., Lydian coins were of high quality and stamped with the sigil or image of their ruler, allowing even the illiterate to recognize them as legitimate legal tender. They facilitated commerce between strangers by allowing them to make transactions without needing to barter goods or weigh some commodity like gold. Coins also made it far easier to travel long distances to buy things, rather than lug around cattle, gold, wheat, or some other valuable commodity. Continue reading

Where Most Sporting Goods Are Made

The Pakistani city of Sialkot may not be a household name, but it is the source of the Adidas footballs that are being used in the World Cup (as they had been in the last one).

In fact, Pakistan’s twelfth-largest city — with less than 700,000 residents — is the world’s largest producer of footballs, manufacturing of 40-60 million footballs annually, about 60% of global production. Sialkot is also the world’s biggest maker of surgical tools. Even Germany’s iconic lenderhosen are best crafted by the leather-workers of the city. Unlike many other manufacturing hubs, most of this work is done by family-owned small and medium sized enterprises, often clustering together to pool their resources. Continue reading

When Schizophrenia Isn’t a Mental Illness

Culture may play a huge role in how schizophrenia manifests, according to one study published in a leading British psychiatric journal. It interviewed 60 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia – 20 each from the U.S., Ghana, and India – and found one stark difference between the nationalities: while American subjects were likelier to report violent, sadistic, and hateful voices, most of the subjects from Africa and Asian claimed to hear generally positive voices – which not a single American reported. Continue reading