Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Captain Francis Austen, Royal Navy, commanding the HMS St. Albans, sailed to Canton at one point in the years leading up to the Opium War. The Chinese government obliquely sought his assistance against the pirate queen of the Pacific, but in the end the British sailed away again without helping. Francis, who would eventually rise to the rank of fleet admiral, had a little sister by the name of Jane. That’s right, Jane Austen. Her novel Persuasion, about a naval captain coming home after years at sea, comes to mind.
Jane Austen’s big brother is just one on a long roster of fascinating figures that populate the portrait that the historian Stephen Platt paints of the Opium War. His new book, Imperial Twilight, is terrific reading for anyone interested in this episode in history.
Platt’s central thesis is that the Opium War was a highly contingent event that didn’t need to happen at all and certainly didn’t need to happen in the way that it did. Had the former prostitute Shi Yang, known to history as Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sau (“wife of elder brother Zheng”), not rise to become a pirate queen commanding 70,000 men, the British might not have been impressed with how weak Chinese naval defenses were. Had Captain Austen understood that it was official policy in Beijing not to seek foreign help in dealing with the pirates, so that the governor in Canton could not openly meet with him, he might not have returned home to report on what he thought was insolent treatment by the Chinese.
I have been very slowly catching up on Homeland. Slowly mostly because of the inconsistency of Netflix: in one country, one set of shows would be available, and in another it would be a different offering. So I would follow Carrie Mathison’s adventures for a third of a season and not be able to find out what happened next for weeks or months.
So I was five years late to the remarkably thinly veiled reference to the British bank HSBC in season 3 episode 2 of the series. “HLBC,” the fictional bank on the show caught laundering money for terrorists (as HSBC was charged with doing in real life), one character says, “has been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars.”
The Opium Wars! That’s a turn of phrase enough to prick up any pair of Chinese ears. The history of modern China, as told in textbooks both foreign and domestic, typically begins with the First Opium War or simply “the Opium War,” which ended in 1842 with the first of many “unequal treaties” that would plague China for over a hundred years to come — the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” (The Second Opium War or the Arrow War of 1856-60, though also significant, did not mark the beginning of a new era.)
Regular readers of this blog, if any exist, should not be surprised by now that sometimes I nerd out about one thing or another.
Last week I was in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and it quickly climbed the chart of my favorite cities in the world. I won’t suggest that it was solely because of what Edinburgh represents in the annals of human achievement, but I won’t say that it didn’t play a role either.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
Anyone who has watched season one of Netflix’s “The Crown” surely knows that Queen Elizabeth II, back when she was Princess Elizabeth, lived for a while in Malta. At the time, Malta was still a British possession and an important base for the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth accompanied Prince Philip here during his naval service.
But most of us are likely unaware, not before visiting, of the other historical personages connected to this tiny island country.
First up, St. Paul. In 60 A.D., Paul set sail from Crete to Rome to face trial. A storm blew the ship off course. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27—28:5) tells the story:
In 1947, a young Norwegian and five fellow Scandinavians whom he recruited went down to Peru. There they built a raft with balsa wood using traditional Native American techniques. Then they set sail on the raft for French Polynesia. One hundred and one days and eight thousand kilometers later, they reached their destination, demonstrating at least the plausibility of the young Norwegian’s theory that Polynesians originally came from the Americas.
His name was Thor Heyerdahl, and the name of the raft was the Kon-Tiki. The voyage made him a legendary adventurer, even if it didn’t quite prove his ethnological theory.
Decades later, Heyerdahl came up with another theory. This one had to do with his native Norway and the country of Azerbaijan.
My post a while back on the real Mulan gave me an idea to do an occasional series on the most badass women of ancient China. You’d think that ancient China was all patriarchy all the time. But there were exceptions in the form of the most ambitious and most talented of women.
And the grandmother of badass Chinese women has to be Empress Wu Zetian, although I don’t necessarily mean this as a compliment. In over three millennia of monarchy, the emperor was always a man, except her. Although sometimes women dominated politics from behind the scenes, often in the capacity of mother of the emperor when the emperor happened to be a child, none but her openly took power for herself. You can imagine the level of political acumen and ruthlessness required to do this. Cersei Lannister is but a pale shadow compared to her.
Every city in Lebanon can rightfully claim to be one of the oldest in the world. Tyre is no exception.
Consider this: The name “Tyre” is of ancient Greek origin, which is old enough. But that’s actually the new name for the city. In Arabic it is still called “Sour,” which comes from the original Phoenician name.
According to Herodotus, Tyre was founded around 2750 B.C. A city that ancient overflows with stories, more stories than I can learn, let alone tell.
Being in Lebanon has put in my mind once again the legend of Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, of Syria and Lebanon, or as she styled herself, “Queen of the East.”
I first came across Zenobia in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He introduces her as follows — and once you get past the prejudices unsurprising in an 18th century Englishman, you can sense Gibbon’s admiration for Zenobia in the striking portrait he paints of her:
Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire. . . . But. . . Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study. She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."