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.
There is something timid about Costa Rica.
Costa Ricans never fought for their independence from Spain nor even declared it. The Mexicans did the former for them, defeating Spain in the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, and the Guatemalans did the latter when they declared independence for all of Central America. Costa Rica was tentative about independence even after that until its northern neighbor Nicaragua embraced the new state of affairs.
Like other Central American states, Costa Rica had its period of violence. Except civil war in Costa Rica in 1948 lasted all of 44 days. When the war ended, the country abolished its military. To this day Costa Rica remains demilitarized.
When we think of Singapore, we think of the Southeast Asian city state with its gleaming high-rises and strict laws — “no chewing gum!” is what I hear most commonly from people who have never spent time there. Even those who know a few things about Singaporean history and politics usually begin with Lee Kuan Yew, the Chinese-descended, Cambridge-educated lawyer who became the country’s first prime minister in 1959 and led it to independence.
What few outsiders know is that the island just off the coast of Malaysia also has a fascinating Jewish heritage. And before there was Lee Kuan Yew, there was David Saul Marshall.
It’s a well-known story in Russia. But I assume that most non-Russians haven’t heard it. And in this age of ours when Russia appears to be instigating white supremacist movements abroad, maybe even Russians need a reminder.
Abram Hannibal was a black man born in today’s Cameroon in 1696. At the age of seven he was kidnapped by Ottoman Turks before being presented to the court of Peter the Great as a gift. In Russia he came to be known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian language has a way of changing Hs to Gs, so much so that “Harry Potter” in Russian is “Garry Potter”). Peter took a liking to the young African boy and took him into his household. He faithfully served the Tsar and later his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, first as a valet and eventually as a general in the Russian army.
Fast forward a hundred years to Abram’s great-grandson Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Like so many Russian aristocrats of his day, as a child Pushkin knew French better than he knew Russian, a defect he would remedy soon enough. By the age of fifteen he had published his first poem and gained a literary reputation. But his politics were far too liberal for the Tsarist autocracy, and he got himself exiled to the Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasus, that romantic part of Russian imperial territory where I am as of this writing, a place that would inspire other Russian writers as well, like Mikhail Lermontov.
In this peculiar age of ours, when Neo-Nazis are apparently getting a new and sympathetic hearing, it’s worth remembering those remarkable individuals, even national icons, who were not the race we typically think of them. There will be more posts like this one coming up.
Let’s begin with Alexandre Dumas, pere, the most popular French novelist of his time and author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils, the great French writer and playwright.
He was black.
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."