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.

Flaggery

As regular readers know, I am a great fan of heraldry, flags, and identifying emblems in general. On a recent road trip from Georgia to Texas and back again, I was pleased to note a lot of historic flags in use.

1. As we passed into Texas on I-10, we saw six flags flying at the Welcome Center, representing the six sovereign entities that have ruled Texas in the past.

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These are, from left to right: the United States, Texas, the Confederacy, Mexico, France, and Spain. Some notes:

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Flag of Texas (Wikipedia).

• Texas, of course, acted as its own country from 1836 to 1845, between its secession from Mexico and its joining the USA. It retains this former national flag as its state flag. The design is wonderfully simple, even striking, and consequently flown quite a lot by Texans (including massive ones at car dealerships). This positively reinforces civic pride, as Roman Mars notes.

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First national flag, CSA (Wikipedia).

• The Confederate Flag flown is the first national flag with seven stars, which is appropriate as Texas was one of the original seven signatories to the CSA in early 1861. Displaying the Stars and Bars helps to avoid the appearance of the ever-controversial Confederate Battle Flag, which appears on the canton of the second and third national flags.

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Second national flag, CSA (Wikipedia).

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Third national flag, CSA (Wikipedia).

• The Mexican Flag (Texas was a Mexican state between 1821 and 1836) is actually the version flown in the 1820s, i.e. this:

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Flag of the Mexican Republic, 1823-1864 (Wikipedia).

And not this:

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Flag of the United Mexican States, from 1968 (Wikipedia).

I appreciate such attention to detail!

• Bourbon France is represented by Argent semé de lys Or, i.e. a white field strewn with gold fleur de lys, one of the flags that the regime used:

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Wikipedia.

The “Six Flags” display is popular in Texas; other royal French flags employed elsewhere include Argent three fleur de lys Or (i.e. a white field with only three gold fleur de lys on it) and Azure three fleur de lys Or (i.e. a blue field with three gold fleur de lys). This last one makes for the best flag in my opinion – you want a dark color to contrast with the sky, and with the fleur de lys, even though this one is technically a banner of arms, and not a flag. Here it is at the Alamo:

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• Finally, there are several options for the flag of royal Spain. The flag displayed, according to Wikipedia, is Spain’s “navy and coastal fortifications flag 1785-1843, and national flag 1843-73 and 1874-1931.”

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Ensign of Spain, 1785-1843 (Wikipedia).

Elsewhere, Texans fly a quartered flag of Castile and Leon:

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Outside the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

An elaborate war ensign:

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From a display at a Spanish mission in San Antonio.

Or, best of all in my opinion, the Cross of Burgundy Flag. It’s simple, distinctive, and historically accurate.

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At Misión San José in San Antonio.

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From a display in Misión San Francisco de la Espada in San Antonio.

2. The Louisiana Welcome Center on I-10 flies two flags, the current Louisiana flag, and the Bonnie Blue Flag (apparently upside down!).

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The Bonnie Blue Flag was used by some Confederates as an unofficial emblem; it is immortalized in a song. What people tend not to realize, however, is that this flag had been used earlier by Fulwar Skipwith’s breakaway Republic of West Florida for a few months in 1810, and the I-10 welcome center is in one of these so-called Florida Parishes.

Interestingly, in the Louisiana State Capitol, the Bonnie Blue Flag is shown as light blue. Apparently this was the actual shade of the flag of the Republic of West Florida. Thus, it appears that the RWF and Somalia have something in common.

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3. To the immediate left of the Bonnie Blue Flag in the photo above is a flag the reader has probably not seen before.

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Flag of Louisiana, 1861 (Wikipedia).

This is the flag flown by Louisiana between its secession from the Union, and its joining of the Confederacy, in 1861. Not a bad design – I wish they had kept it as their state flag, in the mode of Texas.

(You’ll also note the flag of Republican France on the right in the photo above – Napoleon reacquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, but then sold it to the United States in 1803.)

(You’ll also note the third national flag of the CSA. It would not surprise me if this gets changed sometime soon.)

4. A similar situation prevails in Mississippi. We drove most of the way from Mobile, Ala. to New Orleans, La. along a coastal scenic route. We thus passed Beauvoir, President Jefferson Davis’s retirement home and now Presidential Library. I did not get any pictures, but Beauvoir doesn’t mess around: flying out front are large versions of the Bonnie Blue Flag, the three national flags of the CSA, the Confederate Battle Flag, the current Mississippi flag, and the Magnolia Flag:

Wikipedia.

Magnolia Flag (Wikipedia).

According to Wikipedia, this flag was Mississippi’s official flag from 1861 until 1865; it remained in unofficial use until 1894, when the current state flag was adopted. And we all know the problem with the current flag.

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The Confederate Battle Flag on the canton survived a referendum in 2001, but I would have no problem with the governor changing it by fiat anyway, because Confederate symbols have no place connected to current symbols of sovereignty. Furthermore, the Confederacy lasted all of four years, was in defense of a horrible cause, and went down in flames. (Why not a canton of the Union Jack, or the Cross of Burgundy? Those were also episodes in Mississippi’s history – and probably happier ones.) The Magnolia Flag is a nice design and especially appropriate to the state: eleven states were in the Confederacy, but there’s only one Magnolia State.

In the meantime, when displays of all the state flags are needed, the Mississippi flag should probably be placed a little more discreetly than it was at the Superbowl this year:

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Or at this citizenship ceremony:

immigration5. The City of New Orleans has a nice flag, even if it has gold fleurs de lys on a white background:

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6. In 1965, Thomas J. Arseneaux designed the flag of Acadiana, that is, a flag for those of Cajun ancestry:

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I was pleased to learn about this one, because there is a similar flag in Canada: the flag of Acadia is a French tricolor, defaced with a gold star.

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Wikipedia.

7. We spent the night in Gonzales, Texas, and thereby discovered the existence of the Gonzales Flag.

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Wikipedia.

In 1831, the Mexican government had given the residents of Gonzales a cannon for defense. At the outbreak of the Texan Revolution in 1835, however, the Mexicans sent a force to take it back, and the Gonzalans replied with a suitable Laconic phrase, embroidered on an improvised flag. The Battle of Gonzales was the first military engagement in the Revolution, and inspiring for the Texans, as the Mexicans were forced to retreat without their cannon.

I’m surprised that this flag is not more popular among right-leaning Americans (cf. “Don’t Tread On Me“). Current residents of Gonzales certainly cherish it:

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8. Finally, the Louisiana state history museum exhibits an unofficial flag celebrating Louisiana’s admission as the eighteenth state of the Union in 1810.

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You’ll notice that this flag has eighteen stars – and eighteen stripes! Actually the official flag of the United States stopped with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes when Kentucky was admitted in 1792, but people kept adding both stars and stripes anyway out of pride. Only in 1818 did official word come down that the number of stripes should revert to thirteen, and the number of stars increase to twenty, for the number of states by that time.

Happy St. George’s Day

In honor of this auspicious day, a gallery of images of St. George from my collection. Apologies for the poor quality of some of them.

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A statue of St. George by Alexander Scott Carter, in St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Huron St., Toronto (photo by my friend Bruce Patterson).

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From my graduate school colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Mead of the Australian army.

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Family friend Laine Rosin took this photo on a trip to Ethiopia.

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Allen and Unwin printer’s mark.

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This is from the spine of a volume in the great Victoria County History series.

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My five-year-old found this Russian fifty kopek coin last summer. “Look daddy,” she said. “St. George!” That’s my girl!

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Bruce Patterson took this photo in a Catholic church in London.

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My colleague Pam Wilson took this photo in Barcelona.

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This sculpture of St. George is carved on the facade of the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. I took this photo in 2006.

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A war memorial in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, taken by Dr. Anne Good.

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I acquired this label on an airplane once. I like it especially because dragons are associated with water. 

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If there is Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, then why shouldn’t there be English whisky too? And what better a character to represent it than St. George?

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One of my favorite representations of St. George comes from shortly after the Russian Revolution, when Christian saints had not been entirely eradicated, but could be repurposed for Communist ends. Here St. Trotsky kills the Counter-Revolutionary dragon, complete with top hat. From Wikipedia.

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From my friend Chris Berard, via Facebook. Happy St. George’s Day!