Haiti’s Imposing Citadelle Laferrière

Some of the largest and most sophisticated fortresses in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Haiti, of which the most famous is Citadelle Laferrière. Located in the north of the country, this defense network was built not by the powerful French Empire that ruled this lucrative colony with an iron first, but by the newly freed Haitians themselves.

Citadelle Laferrière

Citadelle Laferrière (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after achieving independence in the early 19th century, Henri Christophe, a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, briefly took control of the northern part of the country as a self-appointed king. Like most Haitians, he knew full well how shaky the country’s newfound freedom was: it was second only to the United States in liberating itself from European colonialism in the hemisphere. It was history’s first successful slave revolt and first black republic, having managed to fight off three leading powers (France, Britain, and Spain). Needless to say, these factors did not endear the Haitians to the European-dominated global system. Continue reading

The First and Only U.S. Museum on Slavery

I was surprised to learn recently that the United States has only one permanent museum dedicated to the history of slavery: the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana, which opened just this past December.

According to The Atlantic, the museum is the brainchild of a white, 78-year-old lawyer named John Cummings, who has spent 16 years and $8 million of his own fortune to build the project. Partnering with Senegalese-born scholar Ibrahima Seck, who serves as the museum director, Cummings hopes to use the Whitney Plantation to educate people on the realities of slavery, both historically and in terms of its modern legacy.

You can see a great short film about it here or below.

While American society is known for its poor historical memory in general (though especially as it pertains to uncomfortable matters like slavery), it still intrigued me that there has never been a museum about this seminal topic in U.S. history.

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading

Birthright Citizenship in the U.S. and Around the World

As a nation of immigrants, it is not surprising that the United States adheres to a concept of citizenship known as jus soli, or birthright citizenship, whereby anyone born on American soil is automatically a U.S. citizen — regardless of their parents’ legal status. My making it easier for people to become politically and civically integrated after just one generation, the U.S. has been able to harness the ideas, skills, and labor of the world, whilst also securing the loyalty and contributions of millions.

Birthright citizenship has been (an albeit controversial) bedrock of U.S. law and identity since the mid-19th century, around the time that immigration kicked into high gear. Before the U.S. Civil War, African Americans — even those freed from slavery or born to freed slaves — were emphatically not citizens; the Supreme Court ruled as such in Scott v. Sandford in 1857.

Only with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 — one of the three post-Civil War “Reconstruction Amendments” that greatly expanded political rights — were “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”, to quote the first sentence of the amendment.

While the language of the amendment made it very clear that black Americans would enjoy U.S. citizenship, things weren’t so cut-and-dry for other groups. In particular, it did not address the status of Native Americans born on reservations, which were and remain legally sovereign entities (a very complex arrangement that is often subject to disputes to this day). And what about children born to Chinese immigrants, who were explicitly prohibited from being naturalized citizens via the 1882 Chinese Exclusion ActContinue reading

The 95th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in America

On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, prohibiting U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote based on sex, and thereby guaranteeing women’s suffrage in the country. It was authored by leading suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and first introduced in Congress in 1878 by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent.

Although the American women’s rights movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York, it truly began to take off after the U.S. Civil War, when activists advocated for universal suffrage to be included in the Reconstruction amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments).As part of this “New Departure” strategy, groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Stanton and Anthony, pursued legal cases arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted universal citizenship) and Fifteenth Amendment (which granted the vote irrespective of race) together served to guarantee voting rights to women. Continue reading

Why Americans Do Not Appreciate World War One

While Europeans marked the centenary of the First World War with a series of often solemn and contemplative exhibits, ceremonies, and other formal commemorations, the United States was auspiciously absent in any such major remembrances. This is despite the fact that the war cost some the lives of around 115,000 American soldiers — more than in all other post-1945 conflicts combined — and that the U.S. ostensibly played a major, if belated, role in the conflict.

David Frum of The Atlantic goes over four main reasons why the U.S. has left the once widely revered “Great War” out of its noted pantheon of venerated conflicts. Continue reading

On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction

To mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australian historian and author Paul Ham penned an article at The Atlantic that explores the debates and discussions among U.S. scientists, officials, and military officers regarding the fateful use of these new weapons of mass destruction.

It is both fascinating and chilling to see all the different ways in which the participants justified one position or another, and how this juxtaposes with their own private remarks or writings (for example, despite the cold calculus and pragmatism that characterized the decision-making process, at least some of those involved admitted privately to concerns about the moral and ethical consequences). Continue reading

The Western Hemisphere Before Columbus

While everyone knows that the “New World” had long been inhabited prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492, most of us Westerners do not give the matter much thought. The people living here — who spanned a vast and culturally diverse assortment of tribes, kingdoms, nations, and advanced civilizations — have been as casually swept aside in present consciousness and historical memory as they were in actuality following the mass arrival of Europeans.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece that touches on what life was like in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans “discovered” it. Although it is a long read — albeit insufficient to capture the entirety of indigenous experience across two continents — I highly recommend it, for it fleshes out the pre-Columbian Americas in a way most history books fail to.

Take for example demographics. Though widely regarded by Europeans, and indeed their contemporary descendents, as having been a mostly empty and untouched place, scholarly research going back to the 1960s discovered that the hemisphere numbered more people than even Europe. Continue reading