Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A Very Late Apology: The Komagata Maru, Canada and Racisim

Today, something happened. Canada said sorry...again. For another bad screw up. This one has been 102 years in the making.
As reported by the CBC:
Nearly 102 years after the Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered a full apology in the House of Commons for the government of the day's decision to turn away the ship, which was carrying hundreds of South Asian immigrants, most of whom were Sikhs.
The Komagata Maru arrived on Canada's West Coast on May 23, 1914, anchoring in Vancouver's Coal Harbour. Nearly all of the 376 passengers were denied entry and the ship sat in the harbour for two months. It was ultimately forced to return to India and was met by British soldiers. Twenty passengers were killed and others jailed following an ensuing riot.
The Maru was a Japanese steamship chartered by wealthy Sikh businessman, Gurdit Singh, who was then living in Hong Kong. Its passage was a direct challenge to Canada's immigration rules, which had grown increasingly strict — and discriminatory — at the turn of the century. 
Canada needed immigrants to cultivate western farmland but preferred those from the U.S, Britain or northern Europe. 
India had been a British colony for almost 200 years at this point, and Singh believed British citizens should be able to freely visit any country in the Commonwealth.
Komagata Maru passengers
Passengers from the Komagata Maru, shown in 1914. (James L. Quiney/City of Vancouver Archives) Too bad if you think you're all equal to us superior white did...this is awkward...
The steamship departed Hong Kong on April 4, 1914, making stops in Shanghai and Japan. Previously used to transport coal, the Komagata Maru had been transformed for the long journey.
Word of the ship's intended destination quickly reached Vancouver, where anti-Asian sentiment was already in full swing. Local newspaper headlines of the day decried its arrival as a "Hindu invasion."  Yeah - like Hindus and Sikhs are the same...
In Vancouver, the Komagata Maru was immediately greeted by immigration officials who refused to let its passengers disembark. Twenty people determined to be returning residents were eventually permitted entry, but no one else stepped foot off the boat.  
For two months they sat there. Eventually, they gave up and headed back home to Calcutta. Where they were promptly arrested, and 20 people were killed. Thanks Canada.

Party Boat? The Komagata Maru sits in Vancouver's Coal Harbour in 1914. The ship became a spectacle for locals during its two-month stay at the waterfront. 
The Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, founded in 1990, has been lobbying for an apology for nearly 25 years, working with local, provincial and federal politicians.
Finally, after everyone is dead, Canada gets around to apologizing. While I am glad of it, and for my Sikh friends, it's a typical move by our country to apologize for being shits to certain groups of people long after the fact. I have an idea: maybe we should stop being racist shits. Maybe?

Thursday, 28 April 2016

History News: 'Lost' Medieval Music Performed for First Time in 1,000 Years

I'm a huge classical and ancient music fan, which is code for geek. Big news then for me is that a lost piece of Medieval music has been reconstructed and performed. After a 20-year reconstruction effort, Sam Barrett, a senior lecturer in music at the University of Cambridge, has brought "lost" songs from the Middle Ages back to life.

Get down, get down, and bring the house down.

Reported by LiveScience writer Kacey Deamer, the "Songs of Consolation" were recently performed at the University of Cambridgein the United Kingdom. Reconstructed from "neumes" (medieval symbols used to represent musical notation), the tunes accompanied poems from Roman philosopher Boethius' magnum opus, "The Consolation of Philosophy."
A millennium ago, music was written in melodic outlines and not the modern "notes" that musicians rely on today. Music in medieval times was then shared through aural traditions and musicians' memories. Since these traditions died out hundreds of years ago, it is nearly impossible to decipher music from this era, because the pitches are unknown, experts have said.
Sam Barrett, a senior lecturer in music at the University of Cambridge, spent the past 20 years painstakingly identifying the musical techniques and melodies for "Songs of Consolation." He then worked with Benjamin Bagby, a member of Sequentia, a group of performers who have built a working memory of medieval song. Together, the two tested theories of the music with practical accompaniment.
"Ben tries out various possibilities, and I react to them — and vice versa," Barrett said in a statement. "When I see him working through the options that an 11th-century person had, it's genuinely sensational; at times you just think, 'that's it!' He brings the human side to the intellectual puzzle I was trying to solve during years of continual frustration."
The researchers faced one major hurdle in their reconstruction project: a missing page from an 11th-century manuscript called "Cambridge Songs," the final part of an anthology of Latin text. The lost page included vital notations used to understand the musical principles of the era.
Barrett said the notations allowed him and Bagby to "achieve a critical mass" that may have been impossible without that puzzle piece. 
"There have been times while I've been working on this that I have thought I'm in the 11th century, when the music has been so close it was almost touchable," Barrett said.

Check out the tune here on You Tube. Beautiful!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

High Plains Drifter: Revisionist History in Wraith Form

I've been so busy with the two theatre companies I'm involved with, that history had taken a back seat. Well, here I am in the saddle again, and what better way than to write on my favourite supernatural western - High Plains Drifter.

High Plains Drifter poster.jpg
And don't forget there is no historical accuracy.

Yep, that's what I said: Supernatural Western. They are rare but this one is the best in my opinion. Eastwood plays a wraith that is looking to payback the townspeople who didn't help him as three men whipped him to death. It's a gritty, dark film that I first saw at the age of 12. Which explains my love of revenge movies and westerns. Even then, I knew this was revisionist history: the real American Western frontier was rough but it was more about colonialism than shoot em ups.

The Real American West

High Plains Drifter is a film about one white town in California sometime around the 1870s. People are still screwed up from the huge changes: completion of the railroads to the West following the Civil War opened up vast areas of the region to settlement and economic development. White settlers from the East poured across the Mississippi to mine, farm, and ranch. African-American settlers also came West from the Deep South, convinced by promoters of all-black Western towns that prosperity could be found there. Chinese railroad workers further added to the diversity of the region's population. These two groups are missing from the film, but some Mexican men who are treated very kindly by Eastwood are present. Their stories, however, are  not explored as they are background characters. 

The Library of Congress says that this time period, while pivotal in the creation of the USA as we now know it,  was not a win-win for everyone:

Settlement from the East transformed the Great Plains. The huge herds of American bison that roamed the plains were virtually wiped out, and farmers plowed the natural grasses to plant wheat and other crops. The cattle industry rose in importance as the railroad provided a practical means for getting the cattle to market. 
The loss of the bison and growth of white settlement drastically affected the lives of the Native Americans living in the West. In the conflicts that resulted, the American Indians, despite occasional victories, seemed doomed to defeat by the greater numbers of settlers and the military force of the U.S. government. By the 1880s, most American Indians had been confined to reservations, often in areas of the West that appeared least desirable to white settlers. 

I Wanna Be A Cowboy

By the middle of the 1870s, the term “cowboy” described the young mounted riders driving cattle out of Texas. This term was originally used east of the Rocky Mountains; the preferred term on the other side of the Great Divide was “buckaroo,” coming from the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero. But this did not last for long. By the early 1880s, bolstered by the mostly mythical image of the “wild west” portrayed in dime novels, the love affair between the general public of North America and Europe and the “cowboy” had begun.
The cowboy became the symbol for the West of the late 19th century, often depicted in popular culture as a glamorous or heroic figure. The stereotype of the heroic white cowboy is far from true, however. The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros, who had introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. Black cowboys also rode the range. Furthermore, the life of the cowboy was far from glamorous, involving long, hard hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship.

And no women to dance with. But I wonder if some didn't mind so much,as the source FairClassrooms points out.

The myth of the cowboy is only one of many myths that have shaped our views of the West in the late 19th century. Recently, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as a frontier, a "meeting point between civilization and savagery" in the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. They have begun writing about the West as a crossroads of cultures, where various groups struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance. 

So, in High Plains Drifter, there is no gay cowboys, no Indians, no Chinese, no African historical accuracy. It's pure fantasy and myth building, and it's fun. Or is it a bad thing? All this violence is very self-indulgent I admit.

In the ongoing historical analysis, the culture of violence in the American West of the late nineteenth century was created almost entirely by the U.S. government’s military interventions, which were primarily a veiled subsidy to the government-subsidized transcontinental railroad corporations. Should we point out the controversial genocide against the American Indians that's happily ignored in every film? (Controversial because was it intentional or just a "happy coincidence?")

But the one part they do get right is the need for a bath. Eastwood's character needs one and a shave. You can just see the stink coming off him. I'm sure the bath scene made my mom swoon though.

I'm a very dirty cowboy...

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Any Excuse: The War of Jenkins' Ear

Today in history, a man lost an ear which started a war.

So lend me an ear and give a listen to my tale of woe...

In April of 1731, British Captain Robert Jenkins loses an ear to a band of Spanish brigands, starting a war between Britain and Spain: The War of Jenkins’ Ear. Asked to appear in Parliament to recount his tale in 1738, he reputedly displayed his ear during his testimony. Yuck: he kept that ear for seven years? In what? A hanky, a box, his coat pocket?

During the war, there was a lot more to worry about then your ear. 

War of Jenkins’ Ear, war between Great Britain and Spain that began in October 1739 and eventually merged into the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). It did not start over an ear, as detailed by Historian Kennedy Hickman:

As part of the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, Britain received a thirty-year trade agreement (an asiento) from Spain which permitted British merchants to trade up to 500 tons of goods per year in the Spanish colonies as well as sell an unlimited number of slaves. Though the asiento was in effect, its operation was often hindered by military conflicts between the two nations. In the wake of the Anglo-Spanish War (1727-1729), Britain granted Spain the right to stop British ships to ensure that the terms of the agreement were being respected. 
Believing that the British were taking advantage of the agreement and smuggling, Spanish authorities began boarding and seizing British ships, as well as holding and torturing their crews. This led to an increase in tensions and an up swell of anti-Spanish sentiment in Britain. Though wishing to avoid war, First Minister Sir Robert Walpole was pressured into sending additional troops to Gibraltar and dispatching a fleet to the West Indies.In return, King Philip V suspended the asiento and confiscated British ships in Spanish ports.
Wishing to avoid a military conflict, both sides met at Pardo to seek a diplomatic resolution. The resulting Convention of Pardo, which was signed in early 1739, proved unpopular in Britain and the public clamored for war. By October, both sides had repeatedly violated the convention's terms. Though reluctant, Walpole officially declared war on October 23, 1739.
So - in reality - the ear issue really was an excuse or incident that added wax to the drum...ahahahah. No.

Public opinion had already been aroused by other Spanish outrages on British ships, and the Jenkins episode was swiftly exploited by members of Parliament who were in opposition to the government of Robert Walpole. By declaring war, Walpole hoped to appease the public and the opposition.

But here's the shorter version of events.

Monday, 4 April 2016

New Viking Settlement In Canada Located- Pointy helmets not found yet

The internet is exploding with news of a new Viking site in Canada.

Otherwise, it's all about an epic text conversation over boyfriend buying makeup for his girl. ZZZZZZZ

Archaeologists have used satellite imagery to identify a site in Newfoundland that could be the first new Viking site discovered in North America in over 50 years.

Satellite imagery, magnetometer surveys, and a preliminary excavation of the site at Point Rosee in Southern Newfoundland last year could point to a potentially fascinating discovery.

Until now, Newfoundland has the only Viking site in North America, found in the 1960s at L’Anse Aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, about 300 miles from Point Rosee.

Discovery News online reports that the new site was identified by Archaeologist Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, used high-resolution satellite imagery to spot ruins as small as 11 inches buried below the surface:

From Discovery. To the trained eye it still looks like..a mossy bog.

The archaeologists’ investigation will feature in “Vikings Unearthed,” a special of PBS’s NOVA science series, co-produced with the BBC, that premieres online on April 4. The special will air on PBS April 6.
Satellites positioned around 478 miles above the Earth enabled Parcak and her team to scan a vast section of America and Canada’s eastern seaboard.
The satellite images, two magnetometer surveys, and preliminary excavations suggest “sub-surface rectilinear features,” according to the experts, who also identified possible evidence of ironworking in the form of roasted iron ore. Radiocarbon technology has dated the site to between 800 and 1300 AD. 
The project was led by Parcak and co-directed by Gregory Mumford, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Frederick Schwarz, of Black Spruce Heritage Services. Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and historian Dan Snow also participated in the investigation.
Less in the middle of Nowhere, Newfoundland than the other one as the ferry dumps you off in Port-au-Basque.

We all know that the vikings brought the fun in New-Fund-land...ok bad attempt at pun. But the fact that if this data is confirmed as Norse by further research, the site will show that the Vikings travelled much farther in North America than previously known, pushing the boundary of their explorations over 300 miles to the southwest.

And another tourist site for Newfoundland to promote the hell out of.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Minnie Vautrin - The Goddess of Mercy in Nanking

Vautrin and the memorial to her in Nanjing

It's not a well known story outside of Asia or among non-historians: the actions of a few brave foreigners trying to hold off the massacre in Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937 to 1938. One was Minnie Vautrin, an American woman who was the Principal of the Ginling Women's College. The Chinese call her the "Goddess of Mercy".

On December 13, 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanking and the ensuing six weeks became known to history as the Nanking Massacre. Estimates by the Tokyo War Crimes is that 20,000 women and girls were raped. The general consensus among historians is about 200,000 to 300,000. The rape and looting was so nightmarish that the stories that came out are worse than any horror movie. I had to study it in university and I wish I never had in some ways.

Goddess of Mercy

A group of foreigners, mainly missionaries and businessmen, created the Nanking Safety Zone. The Japanese authorities never formally recognized the Zone, but did say that they would not attack an area which was not occupied by Chinese troops. On this narrow margin of agreement, the Chinese promise to evacuate the area and the Japanese statement that they would not intentionally attack an unoccupied place, the Safety Zone was finally put through.

Central to saving thousands of people, Was Minnie Vautrin. Her biography on the Yale Divinity site tells of her bravery but sad end:

Minnie Vautrin was born in Secor, Illinois on September 27, 1886.  She worked her way through the University of Illinois with a major in education, graduating with high honors in 1912.  Vautrin was commissioned by the United Christian Missionary Society as a missionary to China, where she first served as a high school principal for a few years and then became chairman of the education department of Ginling College in Nanking when it was founded in 1916.  She served as acting president of Ginling College when President Matilda Thurston returned to America for fundraising.  
With the Japanese army pressing on Nanking, Vautrin again was called on to take charge of the College campus, as most of the faculty left Nanking for Shanghai or Chengtu, Szechwan.
Minnie Vautrin's writings provide a detailed account of the situation in Nanking under Japanese occupation. In the last entry of her diary, April 14, 1940, Minnie Vautrin wrote: "I'm about at the end of my energy.  Can no longer forge ahead and make plans for the work, for on every hand there seems to be obstacles of some kind.  I wish I could go on furlough at once, but who will do the thinking for the Exp. Course?"Two weeks later, she suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the United States.  A year to the day after she left Nanking, Vautrin ended her own life.

She was so tough: accounts of her not even backing down, even when the soldiers insisted on taking girls under her care as prostitutes. The Japanese soldiers slapped her, threatened to murder her and all the other foreigners, and to destroy the safety zone. She did not give in: only once was she fooled into letting women return home by the Japanese to disastrous results as many were killed or raped when they left her protection.

She was eventually forced after 6 weeks to give up the zone but Vautrin and the others are credited with saving approximately 250,000 people. However, I can understand why she committed suicide: what human could survive this level of insanity and be sane?

I find it amazing what she did and I think often of her amazing bravery. We like to pat ourselves in the back in Canada a lot for letting in Syrian refugees, or bitterly debate the issues over taking them in. Then I read what happened in Nanjing and what Vautrin did, and I think we have done the minimum of what our humanity demands. We have everything and she had nothing but saved 250,000 people in a war zone. Yeah, that's real sacrifice.


The best archive for Minnie Vautrin's personal letters and material is online now through the Yale University Divinity School Library's Special Collections. There are first hand accounts and photographs from Westerners who remained in Nanking after the Japanese invasion. These resources do not provide a comprehensive understanding of what occurred in Nanjing during 1937-1938, but the observations made by these men and women provide an important historical lens to complement additional research.

As well, there is a good list of sources that you can look up and read further on the actions of Vautrin and the others.

Just a huge warning: I've purposely kept a lot of horrific details out of this blog to focus more on Vautrin, but the other sources do not. Unless you have a strong stomach don't investigate too much unless you want to be crying your face off in a matter of seconds and hating humanity.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Too Bad For You: It's A History Holiday In Cambodia!

Sign me up for this. From Beach Cambodia
This week on the " Historical Places I Can Never Go" list is one I have cherished for a long time. When I was young, many of my friends were immigrants, and many were from Cambodia. I never asked why they came to Canada, but I assumed that the whole French Resistance/Killing Fields/Khmer Rouge/Vietnamese thing had a lot to do with them fleeing in the early 1980s. I hope that one day the lovely people of Cambodia will get to have peace and fat tourists coming to spend money in their country. Again, I don't hold my breath.

According to the Cambodia Tourism website, it's the "kingdom of wonder. There's lovely buses to take tourists to lovely places and see their lovely historical and artistic places. And that's true. It looks incredible.

Cambodia also has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Angkor and Temple of Preah Vihear.
The City of Angkor. Copyright UNESCO. So don't steal it.
Angkor is an "important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations." But these awesome faces are also being eaten by trees. Because the forest just does not give a shit.

One of the trees pulling a Cthulu on a sculpture at Angkor Wat. Mmmmm...history is yum.

Temple of Preah Vihear, and this is a bad picture compared to what else they have. Copyright UNESCO

The Temple of Preah Vihear is "dedicated to Shiva. The Temple is composed of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and staircases over an 800 metre long axis and dates back to the first half of the 11th century AD. Nevertheless, its complex history can be traced to the 9th century, when the hermitage was founded. This site is particularly well preserved, mainly due to its remote location. The site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation."

Why I Can't Go

Cambodian soldiers clash with protesters during a garment workers' protest to demand higher wages in front of a factory in Phnom Penh on 2 January 2014.
And welcome to 2014, Cambodian Style. So much for Human Rights for these garment workers. 

Well, the years of war have really fucked this place up. Right at the Temple of Preah Vihear there have been frequent clashes between Thailand and Cambodia over a border dispute in this region, including exchanges of gunfire and artillery, which resulted in numerous fatalities and the evacuation of civilians. In 2013, the International Court of Justice ruled that Cambodia has sovereignty over the entire territory of the Preah Vihear temple. While the situation has improved, tension may remain. 

Thanks to the wars, the presence of landmines has been reported everywhere.Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Landmines can be found in rural areas, especially in the provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap (except in the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples, which are safe), Battambang, Kampong Thom and Pursat. The border area with Thailand is especially dangerous. Do not walk in forested areas or in dry rice paddies unless you want your leg gone. And forget visits to outlying temples, particularly in the areas of Phnom Kulen and the River of a Thousand Lingas, as they are heavily mined.

"It will break your heart"

The other reasons: personal. The human rights there suck balls. The dude in charge is ex-Khmer Rouge. Yeah - the guys that make the clown from the movie IT look like a perfect option to entertainment kids.

Fuck off.

Also, the people have not been educated enough about tourism development or sustainability. Things like waste management, food safety, and historic preservation are largely ignored, even in areas that are seeing lots of tourists. For example, more and more people (millions of them) visit the Angkor temples each year, but the infrastructure in Siem Reap — not to mention the preservation of the temples themselves — remains quite basic. What's going to happen 10 or 20 years from now due to over-visitation and unsustainable development? And do I really want to just add to it?

Angkor Wat - home of the Gods or home to the fifth ring of hell? You decide.

The blog A Dangerous Business I think sums up why I can't go there yet: I don't want to break my heart. I've already had that done in China, which I will write about one day. The author of the blog writes:
Seeing stark economic disparity broke my heart. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, for example, is immaculately well manicured, with buildings covered in gold and filled with valuables. But then you walk out into the city, where there is trash all over the streets and people living in extreme poverty. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, Cambodia only ranks #138 out of 195, with 23% of people living on less than $1.25 per day...According to the Corruption Perceptions Index from 2013, Cambodia ranks in the top 20 most corrupt nations in the world, and it’s painfully evident if you look for it. 
And there are plenty more heartbreaking examples: kids begging on the streets (many of whom do this “professionally” instead of going to school); touts (hawkers) pestering tourists inside religious sites; locals — including tour guides — throwing rubbish on the ground. Add to this rampant exploitation of the poor and the weak (Cambodia has one of the worst reputations in the world when it comes to child sex trafficking) and it’s beyond heartbreaking.
So, maybe instead of holding my breath to see the historical beauty of Cambodia I can at least donate to something to give to that country regardless. I'm sending off some money to a charity a friend gives to after they saw the good work they did: Cambodian Children's Fund.  And then maybe I can go one day, if not, there's always this: