Cities

post at a blog called A Fine Theorem contains an interesting nugget:

The Romans famously conquered Gaul – today’s France – under Caesar, and Britain in stages up through Hadrian. Roman cities popped up across these regions, until the 5th century invasions wiped out Roman control. In Britain, for all practical purposes the entire economic network faded away: cities hollowed out, trade came to a stop, and imports from outside Britain and Roman coin are near nonexistent in the archaeological record for the next century and a half. In France, the network was not so cleanly broken, with Christian bishoprics rising in many of the old Roman towns.

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the Middle Ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

This prompted an interesting comparison from Steve Sailer:

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don’t require a society to be good at cooperating, so even anarchic Somalia can have decent cell phone service. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired. The ocean repairs itself.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively calm and warm. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren’t as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

Maybe, but Venice and Genoa did dominate maritime trade on the Mediterranean in the high and late Middle Ages…

For my part I am interested in how little influence the Roman Empire ultimately had on Britannia, certainly when compared to Gaul. I assume this is one reason why French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic one.

Pirates

Via Instapundit, an interesting article on pirates, from Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities (so you should probably visit the site while you still can):

A Lot of What Is Known about Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What Is True Is Not Known

By Mark G. Hanna

In 1701, in Middletown, New Jersey, Moses Butterworth languished in a jail, accused of piracy. Like many young men based in England or her colonies, he had joined a crew that sailed the Indian Ocean intent on plundering ships of the Muslim Mughal Empire. Throughout the 1690s, these pirates marauded vessels laden with gold, jewels, silk, and calico on pilgrimage toward Mecca. After achieving great success, many of these men sailed back into the Atlantic via Madagascar to the North American seaboard, where they quietly disembarked in Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston, and made themselves at home.

When Butterworth was captured, he admitted to authorities that he had served under the notorious Captain William Kidd, arriving with him in Boston before making his way to New Jersey. This would seem quite damning. Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to quickly try Butterworth for his crimes. But the swashbuckling Butterworth was not without supporters.

In a surprising turn of events, Samuel Willet, a local leader, sent a drummer, Thomas Johnson, to sound the alarm and gather a company of men armed with guns and clubs to attack the courthouse. One report estimated the crowd at over a hundred furious East Jersey residents. The shouts of the men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to examine Butterworth and ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local Monmouth gentry.

Armed with clubs, locals Benjamin and Richard Borden freed Butterworth from the colonial authorities. “Commanding ye Kings peace to be keept,” the judge and sheriff drew their swords and injured both Bordens in the scuffle. Soon, however, the judge and sheriff were beaten back by the crowd, which succeeded in taking Butterworth away. The mob then seized Hamilton, his followers, and the sheriff, taking them prisoner in Butterworth’s place.

A witness claimed this was not a spontaneous uprising but “a Design for some Considerable time past,” as the ringleaders had kept “a pyratt in their houses and threatened any that will offer to seize him.”

Governor Hamilton had felt that his life was in danger. Had the Bordens been killed in the melee, he said, the mob would have murdered him. As it was, he was confined for four days until Butterworth was free and clear.

Jailbreaks and riots in support of alleged pirates were common throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

There were less materialist reasons, too, why otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists feared that crack-downs on piracy masked darker intentions to impose royal authority, set up admiralty courts without juries of one’s peers, or even force the establishment of the Anglican Church. Openly helping a pirate escape jail was also a way of protesting policies that interfered with the trade in bullion, slaves, and luxury items such as silk and calico from the Indian Ocean.

Much more at the link. It’s interesting how such popular violence was a part of life in early America.

Oh, They Built the Ship Titanic…

From The Independent:

The sinking of the RMS Titanic may have been caused by an enormous fire on board, not by hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic, experts have claimed, as new evidence has been published to support the theory.

More than 1,500 passengers lost their lives when the Titanic sank on route to New York from Southampton in April 1912.

While the cause of the disaster has long been attributed to the iceberg, fresh evidence has surfaced of a fire in the ship’s hull, which researchers say burned unnoticed for almost three weeks leading up to the collision.

While experts have previously acknowledged the theory of a fire on board, new analysis of rarely seen photographs has prompted researchers to blame the fire as the primary cause of the ship’s demise.

Journalist Senan Molony, who has spent more than 30 years researching the sinking of the Titanic, studied photographs taken by the ship’s chief electrical engineers before it left Belfast shipyard.

Mr Maloney said he was able to identify 30-foot-long black marks along the front right-hand side of the hull, just behind where the ship’s lining was pierced by the iceberg.

He said: “We are looking at the exact area where the iceberg stuck, and we appear to have a weakness or damage to the hull in that specific place, before she even left Belfast”.

More at the link.

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….

Tall Ships on the Great Lakes

From MLive.com:

Fleet of 20 tall ships to race across Great Lakes this summer

At least 20 tall ships are scheduled to visit each of the Great Lakes this year; a fleet that includes a replica Viking longship and a 170-foot Spanish Galleon making their debut on America’s freshwater seas.

The El Galeon Andalucia, a 495-ton, authentic wooden replica of a galleon that was part of Spain’s West Indies fleet, and the Dragon Harald Fairhar, a replica Viking longship built in Norway, are crossing the Atlantic Ocean this year to join the Tall Ships Challengereturning to the Great Lakes in 2016.

The fleet will sail the lakes over the course of four months, with scheduled port stops and races on lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior between July and September.

The organized tall ships show last visited Michigan in 2013.

“In between each of the ports, they will be racing,” said Erin Short, challenge manager for Rhode Island-based Tall Ships America.

Although there are numerous tall ships that are home-ported around the Great Lakes, the challenge brings them all together into a large, international fleet with a structured schedule, said Short.

The entire roster has not been announced, but the fleet will make port at least 8 times in the Great Lakes this summer.

More at the link, including photos of the ships and the actual schedule of where and when they will all be stopping.

Here is a photo of Lake Ontario that I took on Christmas Eve at Port Hope, Ontario:

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Another Arctic Discovery

Hot on the heels of the discovery of one of the ships of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, the NOAA has announced the discovery of two nineteenth-century whaling ships on the north shore of Alaska. From the National Post:

Two whaling wrecks (worth $33M in today’s U.S. dollars) found off Alaska

When the ice opened for the last time, the local inhabitants urged the ships’ captains to get out before it returned and trapped the whalers against the northwest coast of Alaska for the deadly Arctic winter.

It was September, late in the season, but the wind had always kept an escape channel open that time of year. Plus, the whaling was finally going well. The Yankee skippers decided to wait.

It was a poor decision, which could have claimed hundreds of lives.

On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that it had discovered the wrecks of two of the 32 ships that were crushed by the ice that late summer of 1871 in one of the 19th century’s worst whaling disasters.

More than 1,200 mariners and their families barely escaped in small whale boats through narrow and rapidly closing channels in the ice to reach rescue ships 130 kilometres away, according to NOAA and old newspaper reports.

But the trapped whalers, many of which were owned by merchants of New Bedford, Massachusetts, were destroyed, ruining the owners financially and damaging the 19th century whaling industry, NOAA said.

The loss of the ships equalled about $33 million in today’s dollars, Brad Barr, the project’s co-director, said Wednesday.

The vessels, with names such as Concordia, Eugenia and Minerva, were left behind in the ice with their American flags flying upside down, a sign of distress, according to an old account in the New York Times.

NOAA said the discoveries, near Wainwright, Alaska, were made possible, in part, because climate change had melted ice in the area and made wreck sites more accessible to archaeologists.

Barr said that scientists had gone to the remote shores of the stormy Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle, in August aboard a chartered research vessel.

He said experts used state-of-the-art sensing techniques to locate underwater remains of the wooden ships, anchors and tell-tale implements carried by whaling ships of the 1800s.

Among other items, the researchers found the iron braces, or “knees,” that supported the brick box in which the huge iron “try pots” boiled blubber into whale oil.

The finds provided a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten era in seafaring history.

More at the link.