Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Vikings in Greenland

From the Guardian:

New analysis casts doubt on theory that change in climate influenced Vikings to move to Greenland in 985, and posits it would have been relatively cold

The Vikings’ arrival and departure from Greenland was not heavily influenced by the so-called medieval warm period, according to new research that casts doubt that the climatic change was a global phenomenon.

Viking seafarers, led by Erik the Red, are understood to have expanded from Iceland to south-western Greenland around 985. The Norse population grew to about 3,000 to 5,000 settlers, harvesting walrus ivory and raising livestock. But the colonies disappeared by 1460, with the local Inuit population remaining as the only inhabitants before Europeans again arrived in the 1700s.

Previous theories have suggested that a warming climate allowed Norse people to push further north to the frigid expanses of Greenland, before leaving as temperatures dropped again. In what has become known as the medieval warm period, temperatures rose from around 950, with the generally balmier conditions lasting until 1250, before the arrival of what is known as the little ice age.

But new analysis of glaciers in Greenland shows that there was no significant change in their extent during the medieval warm period, suggesting that it remained relatively cold throughout the Viking colonisation of Greenland.

Hawaiian Fur Traders

At a lunchtime conversation today a colleague brought up a tidbit that he had learned: that “Canuck,” as a slang term for Canadian, came from the Hawaiian word for “person.” How on earth could such a word come into North American usage? It’s (currently) not on the Wikipedia page for “Canuck”, but one does find it on the Talk page:

Many moons ago, in Canada’s formative years when fur trading was all the rage, the fur trading companies searched for anybody they could hire who could wield a beaver trap. In the far west of Canada at that time, there weren’t a lot of crowds. There were several Hawaiian islanders who came to the western shores of North America… They worked out just fine. The Hawaiian word for “Hawaiian person” (or just a “person”) is “KANAKA”… [this eventually] became “Canuck.”

This etymology is derided by the next contributor as unreliable, and the main entry asserts that the word’s origins are uncertain. And yet, in the Wikipedia entry on “Hawaii,” we read that:

James Cook named the archipelago as the Sandwich Islands in honor of his sponsor. Cook published the islands’ location and rendered the native name as Owyhee. This spelling lives on in Owyhee County, Idaho. It was named after three native Hawaiian members of a trapping party who went missing in that area.

Furthermore, in the Northwest Hawai’i Times, we read about the City of Kalama, Washington, named after John Kalama from Maui. It also claims that:

Hawaiians had a big impact in the early history of the Pacific Northwest. Have you heard of the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, or the Owyhee Lake and the town of Owyhee in Nevada, or the river and town of Kalama and even the town of Friday Harbor? These were named after “Kanakas,” otherwise known as Sandwich Islanders, or Hawaiians.

In the voyages of discovery in the late 1700s and early 1800s, ship captains found the Sandwich (named by James Cook for his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich) or Hawaiian Islands a great port of call and quickly found the value of the “Owyhees.” This is why many Hawaiians became regularly employed on both merchant and whaling ships.

The first Hawaiians were recruited in 1811 by the North West Company, twelve for ship deckhands and twelve to work in the fur trade brigades. Part of their value was in their canoeing and swimming skills. The French Voygeurs had great canoe handling skills but could not swim. When a canoe flipped, everything would be lost, often even the men. But with Owyhees along, there would be excellent swimmers to save men and recover goods from the bottom of rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which merged with the rival North West Company, decided, as a “safety device,” to put an Owyhee in every canoe with the French Voyageurs.

During the fur trapping era, Hawaiians made many trips into the interior, to Fort Spokane and beyond to the Grand Tetons. This is how Owyhee and other Hawaiian names were attached to a number of interior geographic features such as rivers, lakes and even mountain ranges.

Interesting – I had no idea!



An interesting observation from Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2002), 12-13:

As Defoe observed in his Complete English Tradesman: ‘The tea-table among the ladies and the coffee house among the men seem to be the places of new invention…’ What people liked most about these new drugs was that they offered a very different kind of stimulus from the traditional European drug, alcohol. Alcohol is, technically, a depressant. Glucose, caffeine, and nicotine, by contrast, were the eighteenth-century equivalent of uppers. Taken together, the new drugs gave English society an almighty hit; the Empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine, and nicotine rush – a rush that everyone could experience.

I once wrote a paper in grad school about the advent of coffee in Europe. They posted it online, and I discover that it is still there! An excerpt:

Why did coffee become so popular, and come to fulfill a “progressive” social function? Why not tea or chocolate, or, as alcohol was never banned in Christendom as it was under Islam, wine or beer? One suspects that coffee may have become “fashionable” somewhat randomly. It was cheaper than tea and more caffeinated than chocolate (as contemporaries observed, it tended to be more caffeinated than tea as well). It is of course a stimulant rather than a depressant, which makes it more conducive to conversation (and some regulars at coffeehouses, like Voltaire, would consume up to fifty cups a day), and does not leave one with an alcoholic hangover. Coffee did have its detractors (who claimed it was nothing more than a slow poison), but its proponents were equally willing to extol its benefits, such as its ability to ward off plague or to dispel noxious odors.

Japanese Art

From my friend Gen Kanai, on Quartz: “150-year-old images reveal what Japanese artists once thought about exotic American visitors

Inspired by the dress and habits of visiting Americans, artists in 1850s Japan once dedicated themselves with an ethnographic intensity to the study of exotic Western newcomers. Today, the artwork provides Americans with a novel perspective on their ancestors, described in portrait titles like People of the Barbarian Nations – Americans, and Americans’ Love for Children.

This particular genre of woodcut is known as Yokohama-e, and was produced in the small fishing village of Yokohama, today one of Japan’s most international cities. Yokohama was one of the first ports that Japan opened to foreign trade, at the insistence of the American government. The US made several failed attempts to get Japan’s attention throughout the early 19th century before finally forcing Japan out of isolation in 1854.

And from i09, something sillier: Japanese fart scrolls prove that human art peaked centuries ago.

Approximately 200-400 years ago during Japan’s Edo period, an unknown artist created what is easily the most profound demonstration of human aesthetics ever committed to parchment. I am referring to He-Gassen a.k.a. 屁合戦 a.k.a. “the fart war.” In this centuries-old scroll, women and men blow each other off the page with typhoon-like flatulence. Toss this in the face of any philistine who claims that art history is boring.

Gassy competitions weren’t limited to the scenes of He-Gassen (which is hilariously named in retrospect). Fart wars were also used to express displeasure at the encroaching European influence in Edo Japan — artists would depict Westerners being blown home on thunderous toots.

I shan’t reproduce the art; you’ll have to click the links.

Indians on Seals

A followup to a post from May: at least Waleska’s seal is not like that of Whitesboro, New York. This was making the rounds recently, along with demands to change it:

Wikipedia says that “the Whitesboro seal displays a wrestling match between founder Hugh White and a local Oneida chief,” and village officials themselves “maintain that the wrestling match was an important event in the village’s history and helped build relations between White and the area’s Native American population.”

But I suppose that showing White actually winning is not good form. His name probably doesn’t help things either.

This reminds me of a paper I wrote for the International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences in Quebec City in 2008. I called it “One Defends and the Other Conquers: Native Figures in North American Heraldry and Sigillography.”* I divided my collection into three categories: 1. emblems that express conquest of Natives by Europeans (or desire for or voluntary submission to such conquest), 2. emblems that express partnership between Natives and Europeans, and 3. emblems that use Natives as simple representatives of the New World. All three of these are dodgy by today’s standards, some more than others – human figures can be very expressive, and can be manipulated into expressing things that may or may not be true; they may also be seen as objectifying to the people in question and therefore bad as such.

The seal of Whitesboro clearly belongs in the first category. Other examples include the seal of Minnesota, showing a settler watching an Indian riding into the sunset, while his gun leans against the stump of a newly cut tree:

The seal of the brief Dominion of New England (1686-89):

The seal of the province of Georgia:

And the chained Indian supporters of the arms of the infamous Lord Jeffery Amherst:

The Christian religion, with its universal imperative, inspired a number of hopeful emblems, such as the seal of the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel, showing natives flocking to the shore to hear a missionary preaching from a boat (cf. Mark 4.1), while believing that he was “coming to help us” (Acts 16.9):

The same sentiment is placed into the mouth of a native on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

(Speaking of this sort of thing, St. Louis University has recently removed a statue of Pierre-Jean De Smet, who was depicted as acting a little too self-confidently. I took this picture a couple of years ago:)

Much more palatable to current sensibilities is the second category, the idea of partnership between natives and Europeans, along the lines of the myth of the original American Thanksgiving, a coming-together of two distinct peoples to create a new and amicable political reality. The supporters of your average coat of arms can useful in this regard, viz. the arms of Toronto:

The arms of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan:

Or the arms of New York City:

If you have a seal, you can even show Natives and Europeans embracing, as on the seal of the Grand Lodge of Kansas:

Or the seal of Oklahoma Territory:

But although we are edified by these seals and coats of arms, do we risk putting a happy face on a potentially ugly political reality – like with the myth of Thanksgiving itself? The seal of the Oklahoma Territory is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of such things as the Dawes Act (whereby the federal government expropriated Indian land for white settlement) and the Land Runs that followed. New York City’s arms do not show the $24 worth of beads with which the Dutch famously bought Manhattan Island.

Then there’s the third category, whereby Natives simply represent the “New World,” in the same way that New World flora and fauna do. Often natives will be placed as supporters for the arms of colonies, or trading companies, such as the French East India Company:

The Scottish Darien Company:

The Dutch Society of Surinam:

The province of Newfoundland:

Or the province of Carolina, whose supporters were recycled in the arms of the senate of North Carolina in 2006:

Of course, such usage can be quite objectifying, especially when natives are placed as supporters of European enterprise. (A related issue: when European colonists adopted native symbolism to represent themselves in their dealings with the metropole. This controversial tradition continues in the use of Native American sports mascots like the Chicago Blackhawks or the Florida State Seminoles.)

But as I wrote in the paper:

Does all this mean that North Americans of European descent should abjure the use of Native figures in any sort of identifying symbols? Should the use of Natives be restricted to Natives alone? Admittedly this paper has been rather skeptical about the use of such figures by non-Natives, but I believe that they can still appear in heraldry, provided that designers employ a little wisdom and sensitivity. It is always best, of course, to be specific – rather than a generic “Indian,” a member of the band in question, dressed accurately for the given period (which should be specified in the blazon) – and only if the current leadership of the tribe gives its approval. Obviously the ideas of conquest, or desire or support for conquest, or the idea that Indians really represent white people, are not to be encouraged. But is the remaining idea, that of partnership, too much of a euphemism – does it paper over an unpleasant reality? Sometimes, perhaps, but not necessarily: the history of European-Native encounter is not one of continual oppression by the former over the latter. Many instances of genuine partnership may be enumerated: that of Brock and Tecumseh has already been mentioned; another is the alliance of Loyalists and Mohawks during the American war of independence, acknowledged in the crest of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association. Certainly, to return to the point made at the beginning of this paper, most places in North America have Native heritage – acknowledging that heritage is simply a matter of being honest.

* The title was taken from Nova Scotia’s motto, a translation of Munit Haec et Altera Vincit, referring to the supporters:

Gateway Arch

A visit to St. Louis prompts a post about the famous Gateway Arch, international symbol of this fine city:

From Wikipedia.

Technically it is a catenary arch, as long as it is high. One can take a tram capsule up the interior of one of the legs to an observation deck at the top. St. Louisans love it!

They’ve even built their baseball stadium so that there’s a good view of it (I took this photo in July):

The arch was finished in 1965 after many years of negotiation over the land acquisition, design, construction, etc. It is in fact only the most obvious part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which also includes a park, a underground museum, and the Old Courthouse (seen on the right in the top photograph), where the Dred Scott case was heard. The whole thing is supposed to commemorate Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, the ensuing Lewis and Clark expedition, and subsequent waves of white settlers conquering the West and fulfilling America’s Manifest Destiny (this is why I think that the arch is less of a “gateway” than an updated version of a Roman triumphal arch). Actually, the whole thing does strike me as a relic from America at midcentury – beautiful modern architecture (by Eero Saarinen, no less) in confident celebration of American achievement, before everything went to pot in the late 1960s.

For a good book on the arch see Tracy Campbell’s The Gateway Arch: A Biography which came out in 2013 in the Icons of America series from Yale University Press.

The Vikings Again

From Medievalists.net, via my friend Roman Kovalev:


Thousand-year-old crucible provides more evidence of the Vikings in Canada’s Arctic

Although it was found about fifty years ago, archaeologists have just determined that a small stone container discovered on Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic region was actually part of metallurgical equipment used by the Vikings around the year 1000 A.D.

The findings were revealed in an article published in the journal Geoarchaeology, by archaeologist Patricia Sutherland. She and her co-authors report that scanning electron microscopy was employed to determine if metal traces were present in a small stone container (about 48 mm tall) from an archaeological site on Cape Tanfield, part of the southern coast of Baffin Island.

They found that the interior of the vessel contained fragments of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, as well as small spherules of glass which are formed when rock is heated to high temperatures. The object is a crucible for melting bronze, likely in order to cast it into small tools or ornaments. The crucible appears to have been broken while in use, suggesting that it was likely used at the locality where it was found.

The artifact was originally excavated during the 1960s and identified as the fragment of a small soapstone pot made by the local indigenous people, the Palaeo-Eskimo who occupied the area in the centuries around 1000 A.D. However among the Palaeo-Eskimo artifacts Sutherland has identified a wide range of specimens that resemble those used by Europeans of the Viking and medieval periods. These include lengths of yarn spun from the fur of local animals, whetstones bearing metal traces from tools that had been sharpened, and tally sticks of the type used for recording transactions.


More at the link.

We Got Here First!

Columbus tried to get to Asia by sailing across the “Ocean Sea” in 1492, and he’s lucky that the New World was in the way, because he would have starved to death before he ever got to Asia. No, he did not “discover” “America,” given that there were plenty of people living here already. But by this point in European history his sponsors were in a position to capitalize on the event, and so now a majority of the people in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as their native tongue.

But was Columbus the first non-native to gaze upon the New World? There have been plenty of attempts to claim that he wasn’t, for various reasons. I remember finding a book in the library at U. of Minnesota claiming that fisherman from Bristol had discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 1480s, and made annual trips there (but who kept the discovery under wraps as a trade secret, which is why no one knows about it). Gavin Menzies has made a nuisance of himself by claiming that one of the Chinese treasure fleets rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1421 and made it to the New World. The Vikings did indeed make it to Greenland, and Newfoundland, in the tenth and eleventh centuries – but both of these settlements were later abandoned.

Now Muslims have gotten in on the act. The latest, from a Facebook friend:

Muslims found Americas before Columbus says Turkey’s Erdogan

Muslims discovered the Americas more than three centuries before Christopher Columbus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

He made the claim during a conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul, pointing to a diary entry in which Columbus mentioned a mosque on a hill in Cuba.

Mr Erdogan also said “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178”.

He said he was willing to build a mosque at the site Columbus identified.

The Turkish president – whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam – gave no further evidence to back up his theory, instead stating: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th Century.”

Columbus is widely believed to have discovered the Americas in 1492, while trying to find a new route to India.

But in a disputed article published in 1996, historian Youssef Mroueh said Columbus’ entry was proof that Muslims had reached the Americas first and that “the religion of Islam was widespread”.

However many scholars believe the reference is metaphorical, describing an aspect of the mountain that resembled part of a mosque.

No Islamic structures have been found in America that pre-date Columbus.

Mr Erdogan said he thought “a mosque would go perfectly on the hill today” and that he would like to discuss building this with Cuba.

Needless to say, Mr. Erdogan’s opinion is about as accurate as Holy Blood, Holy Grail.