Monday, July 03, 2017

Pity Poor Iceland (1707 Edition)

When I teach my students about the impact of Old World diseases on Native Americans, I stress that the lethality of these illnesses resulted from Indians’ geographic isolation, not their genetic background or lack of medical knowledge. Without prior experience of maladies like measles and influenza, indigenous peoples became vulnerable to the “virgin-soil” effect, where no-one had acquired immunity to a disease and thus everyone in an infected community became sick. Any similarly isolated population, even a European one, could suffer a deadly virgin-soil epidemic. As Exhibit A, I present the case of Iceland. Hard winters (especially during the Little Ice Age) and rough northern seas cut Icelanders off from the European mainland, allowing them to develop their distinctive and venerable culture*, but also allowing generations to grow up without exposure to crowd diseases.

In 1707 this led to disaster. A ship from the mainland brought in smallpox, one of the most dangerous Eurafrican maladies. Smallpox is airborne and highly contagious in confined spaces, like the smoky interiors of Icelandic farmhouses. It kills around a quarter of those who become infected without modern medical treatment - more if they lack food, water, and warmth. Those who survive usually suffer permanently disfiguring scars on their faces, hands, and feet, the result of the weeping pustules that characterize the final stages of the disease. Relatively few Icelanders bore these scars in 1707. The island had experienced several smallpox epidemics in the past, but the last outbreak ended in 1670, so almost no-one under 40 had an immune system that could recognize the disease.

The disease spread slowly, but relentlessly, through the countryside. By 1709, when the last cases of sickness were recorded, variola (the virus that causes smallpox) had killed 12,000 people, nearly one-quarter of Iceland’s population. Most likely there were enough survivors of the earlier outbreak to take care of the sick, which kept the death rate slightly below its usual pre-modern level. Still, so great a loss, especially of children and young people, must have been a heavy blow to so small and rural a society. The only benefit was the immunity conferred to the survivors, which made the next few incidences of smallpox less lethal.

Visiting officials kept a good record of the 1707-09 epidemic, but this probably didn't produce major changes in Icelanders' behavior. Epidemics rarely do, somehow. In any case, warnings about the dangers of smallpox would not have helped the survivors' grandchildren when they faced the next great disaster in their island's history, a concatenation of natural disaster, famine, and disease that slaughtered cattle, poisoned the land, and left 10,000 people dead. 

Arguably, Iceland would have been better off if the eighteenth century had never happened.

Sources: Alfred Crosby, "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 33 (1976): 289-299; J.N. Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics (ABC-Clio, 2005), 131-133

Image above by Diego Delso (, License CC-BY-SA.

* Icelanders preserved to the present day their medieval language, their sagas, and their mythology, including the famous Norse myths that became lost or corrupted on the mainland.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bright and Bounded World: Exploring a Rachel Ruysch Still Life

The painting to the left bears the distinctive style of one of Europe’s most accomplished still-life artists, Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). The daughter of a Dutch naturalist, Ruysch studied with the professional artist Wilhelm van Aelst and became one of the few prominent female painters of the eighteenth century. She specialized in paintings of flowers, which her Dutch patrons valued for their beauty and as a symbol of gentility. Holland had by the sixteenth century developed a market in medicinal and aromatic blooms, and during the Netherlands’ age of maritime ascendancy, florists introduced rare and attractive foreign species (like the tulip) into the nation's market in decorative luxuries.

Flowers are ephemeral, but paintings can endure much longer. Ruysch completed at least 250 still-lifes during her sixty-year-long career, and her canvasses now grace museums and collections throughout Europe. The 1706 painting included here, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, shows both the artist’s technical virtuosity and her talent for spontaneity - for making her arrangements appear natural. The white carnations draw the viewer’s eye to the painting’s center, whence it can wander to the peripheries; the variegated tulips remind us of her homeland’s passion for that strain of flower; the violet morning glories provide chromatic contrast to the red peonies; and the grapes and pale peaches near the bottom of the painting offer variety of type and texture. The flowers’ stems bend and intertwine, providing dynamism to the composition, while some decline as though starting to wilt.

At the bottom of the picture, atop the table on which the bouquet’s vase sits, an inquisitive snail and a yellow-winged moth approach the fruit and flowers. Another, larger moth with black-speckled wings perches on one of the lower stems. Insects and snails feed on plant, and their presence suggests that the bouquet will not long go unmolested. Death always creeps on the edges of life, and in this painting the snail and moths place a temporal boundary around the beauty of the flowers, which will be eaten if they do not decay first. Ruysch didn’t just include these little predators as symbols of vanitas, however. She developed an interest in entomology early in her career, and included insects in many of her paintings. Her buggy subjects she draws with as much grace and precision as the other parts of the bouquet, indicating that in the little worlds she renders on canvas, Ruysch intends to make mortality just as attractive as beauty.    

(My thanks to Dr. Susan Livingston for her essential advice on this post.)  

(Above painting via the Web Gallery of Art,

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Niall Ferguson is Still Looking for a Secret Fascist Boyfriend, and Donald Trump Might Just Be The One

Into the Times (of London) Herr Doctor-Professor Niall Campbell Elizabeth Ferguson has just slithered, bearing an essay on Salman Abedi, perpetrator of the May 22 Manchester bombing, and Donald J. Trump, failed casino developer and President, for the time being, of These United States. Abedi, by Ferg’s account, was a rather loutish young man radicalized by jihadist propaganda and a visit to Syria, where he learned to make bombs like the one he used to dispatch 22 people. A familiar story, surely, but one that must alarm all right-thinking people. Abedi, Our Niall tells us, was merely one explosive node in a network of religious evil, a web of conspiracy and terror extending from Manchester to Germany to Libya to, presumably, one of the deeper Demonweb Pits ™. Scary!

Moreover, Abedi and his cohorts didn’t merely poison themselves with a toxic political ideology. What drives the jihadis, says the Still-Sexy-Scotsman, what motivates the bombers of Boston and Manchester and Paris, is actually an “evil” religion, Islam. Oh, Mssr. Niall doesn’t say this in so many words, but one can easily deduce it from the rest of the essay. He praises DJT for denouncing “Islamic terrorism,” rather than joining the “liberal media” and the “politically correct” in calling it “Islamist terrorism.” The -ist suffix, you see, indicates that one refers to a political ideology; the -ic, a religious faith. By insisting on the latter suffix, Ferg implies that there is something specifically wrong with Islam and the Quran. Indeed, he asserts that Christians have done nothing comparable to the Islamic jihadis “since the seventeenth century.” I suspect Professor Niall has heard of Northern Ireland and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, but his prejudices and his newfound affection for Donald Trump have obviously erased his memories of these recent and quite bloody sectarian conflicts within Christendom.

The same emotionalism causes our overwrought essayist to miss a rather important point about the Manchester bombing: Abedi’s Muslim neighbors knew he was becoming violent, and his family actually warned security officers to keep an eye on him. British officials apparently ignored the tip-off, and Ferg ignores its implications: the vast majority of Muslims, like the vast majority of humans everywhere, are peaceful and ordinary, and don’t care for the tiny minority of violent zealots their communities periodically throw up. Treat that majority with respect and consideration and you have not only a more productive and well-integrated immigrant population, you also have a powerful potential ally against terrorists.

Of course Our Boy Niall doesn’t care. What he wants is a strongman to expel the Bad People from Europe, and Hair Furor looks like the right kind of guy. Ferguson quotes approvingly from one of DJT’s speeches: “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your Holy Land. And drive them out of this earth.” Something tells me the Trumpster doesn’t mean “Deport them to Mars.” Something tells me that neither he nor Ferguson would much mind if an extended urban hunter-killer campaign against jihadists also killed a large number of their family members and neighbors. (After all, the United States has killed thousands of innocent people during just the last few years of its War on Terror.) Something also tells me that His Scottishness would like to see such a campaign conducted in Europe. Actually, Niall explicitly says so: “This seems like advice that European leaders could also use.”

Having experienced a frisson of excitement from Trump’s fascist rhetoric, Ferg decides he must add some intellectual respectability to his new crush. He observes that everyone in the “liberal media,” everyone but Niall Himself, missed the point of Trump’s famous photo op in Riyadh, in which we saw him touching a mysterious glowing orb within a cavernous Strangelove-esque building. Well, actually, N.C.E. Ferguson informs us, the building in question was the new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, and the Orb its ceremonial “go button.” The message behind Trump’s Orb, which Trump’s Secret Kissinger is just the man to decipher, is that Saudi Arabia has decided - no doubt under DJT’s powerful intellectual influence - to stop exporting extremist ideology and start fighting it instead. The Donald will help persuade the Saudi government to redirect its energies away from proselytism, and toward partnership with Israel and the United States against Iran. Niall has been preaching a Crusade against Iran and its nuclear program for at least six years, and now its hour has come round at last!

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. I don’t presume to speak for the Saudi government, but I find it hard to believe that its Global Center will provide much more than lip service to the “anti-extremist” cause. Saudi Arabia has invested beaucoup bucks in the mosques, madrasas, and other institutions that help spread the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, not because its government wants to breed terrorists but because it considers Wahhabism a conservative faith and a prop for conservative (and pro-Saudi) Islamic states. An “anti-extremist” center, in the Saudis’ eyes, would simply advance the same policies their government thinks it’s been pursuing for decades.

Apparently, though, Niall’s infatuation with His Trumpishness has become strong enough that he will believe nearly anything. I say this because the Dimestore Kissinger believes not only that Trump has intellectual depths only he can fathom, but that DJT might be willing to listen to his own expert advice: “He needs,” writes Ferg, “to rethink his policy on Muslim immigration” if he wants to win Muslim hearts and minds. Anyone still in possession of his or her faculties could see the preposterousness of Niall’s notion. President 45 cannot “rethink” his policies toward Muslim refugees, Hispanic immigrants, and African-Americans because no real thought went into producing them. Instead these policies grow from hatreds that DJT acquired early in his life, that became foundational to his ego, and that played a huge role, I am ashamed to say, in getting him elected. Ferg’s assumption that a smart conservative (yes, I know that’s now an oxymoron) like himself could persuade our fascist president to change doesn’t just demonstrate infatuation; it displays the kind of blind king-worship that went out of fashion in most Western countries in the nineteenth century.

Ferguson, however, long ago ditched his professional training and devotion to reason in favor of sucking up to the powerful. In the 2000s he courted rich businessmen, in the 2010s he became BFFs with fellow sycophant Henry Kissinger, and now he apparently wants to squirm into the good graces of an out-and-out tyrant. This is not, alas, a unique fate for intellectuals. Or pseudo-intellectuals.

(Above photo of Donald Trump, King Salman, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Niall Campbell (Douglas) Elizabeth Ferguson by Nik Gowing, 2010. He's much more rugged now.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tourists and Indigenes: What I Learned in Taiwan

And now some more pleasant travel memories.

Qianlong-era polychrome vase, ca. 1760-80
Last December, my partner Susan and I took a long-planned trip to Taiwan, partly to visit our friend Anne and partly because we’d heard the country had much to offer visitors. We heard correctly. During our week- and-a-half stay we admired northern Taiwan’s lush green hills and precipitate coastal cliffs, walked around the picturesque old coal-mining town of Jioufen, and toured the National Palace Museum, beloved of tourists from mainland China. (I assume they want to see all the treasures the Kuomintang took away in the 1940s.) I discovered an unexpected fondness for the beautiful, delicate polychrome porcelain of the Qianlong era (1735-95); perhaps I took to heart John Adams’ remark that he studied war and politics so that his descendants could study porcelain. Anne and her parents treated us to two outstanding meals, including such delicacies as chicken feet, black eggs, tree fungus (better than it sounds), soup dumplings, and kumquat tea.

On our own, Susi and I visited Longshan Temple, a three-century-old wooden compound packed with tourists and worshipers.* The devotees filled the central temple with incense and piled long tables with flowers, fruit, biscuits, and other offerings. And why not? Prayers are well and good, but seem more sincere when accompanied by cookies. In the realm of the secular, we visited Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, and admired the city from 91 stories up. The view impressed us but was blurred by pollution, which Anne’s father told us had blown in from the mainland. If we had stayed in Taiwan a day longer we could have enjoyed watching the skyscraper lit up in rainbow colors, a gesture of support from its proprietors to the supporters of marriage equality. The Taiwanese parliament was then debating a same-sex marriage bill, a momentous issue given the country’s cultural conservatism. Between that debate and some saber-rattling by the People’s Republic, there was no room in the country’s newspapers, at least not in its English-language press, for Donald Trump. This pleased us.
Taipei 101, late December 2016

Like most cities, Taipei primarily exists for the sake of commerce, and I did my fair share. Anne and Susan and I went to the famous Shilin Night Market and several other open-air emporia, and to several old factories that investors had converted into art & craft markets. We stocked up on souvenirs and gifts, indulged a new-found obsession with miniature wooden toy sets, and overindulged (in Susan’s case) in crane games and vending-machine baubles. I didn’t spend much time on the latter, until I discovered that some Taipei vending machines dispense off-brand Lego-like figures of SS officers. Including a faithful Nazi dog. These I found in such bad taste I had to buy some.

Yes, this is a real thing.
They will make good fodder for my off-brand Lego-type Xenomorph figures.

My favorite find was Taipei’s Museum of Formosan Aborigines, whose exhibits and artifacts celebrated the lives of the indigenous Taiwanese. I knew that Taiwan had an indigenous population before the Han Chinese and Japanese colonized the island - the 2016 NAISA conference had a panel or two devoted to their culture - but I did not realize that the island’s sixteen nations belonged to the same ethnic family that colonized Indonesia, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar. Indeed, given the longevity of Formosa’s aboriginal peoples, their homeland was probably the “culture hearth” from which all of the far-flung Austronesian peoples originated. We admired the displays of stone and (early-modern) metal tools, fishing gear, and bright clothing, and the photos and early films of Taiwanese lifeways. I was surprised to learn that several of the island’s First Nations, such as the Saisiyat, have their own versions of the jingle-dress dance, something I thought confined to the Ojibwas of North America.

Friezes of some of Taiwan's First Peoples in
The Aboriginal Museum aimed to entertain, given that it expected an audience of casual visitors and tourists. Tourists, of course, rarely scratch the surface of a nation’s culture or history. As I subsequently learned, Taiwan’s indigenes possess a distinct but endangered culture, and a history fraught with exploitation and misery. The yuanchuminchu (First Peoples) first colonized Taiwan about 5,000 years ago, sustained themselves through a mixture of hunting (especially deer), fishing, and millet cultivation, and gradually grew their population to about 100,000. In the early-modern era they held their own against Dutch and Han colonists, with whom they traded and intermarried; some even worked as ethnic soldiers for the Qing Dynasty. In the late nineteenth century, however, the Qing and the Japanese began a long military campaign against the Taiyan, Taroko, and Bunun nations, whose homelands produced valuable supplies of camphor. Japanese offensives killed 15-20,000 Tarokos in 1914 and 1930, and the Imperial Army confined other First Peoples within a constricting ring of land mines and electric fences. During the Second World War, the Japanese regime began exploiting indigenous Taiwanese directly, conscripting men into the army and forcing women into sexual slavery.

Japan proved the most vicious of Taiwanese indigenes’ exploiters, but after 1945 Chinese settlers and Kuomintang emigres tried to efface the indigenous Taiwanese people’s culture. The national government relocated First Peoples to the lowlands, and pressured them to adopt the Chinese language and abandon their “superstitions.” Racial discrimination against aboriginal Taiwanese remained widespread. (As Mark Munsterhjelm notes, fewer than half of Chinese parents in a 2000 survey said they would allow their children to marry an aboriginal spouse.) Since the 1990s, the national government has tried to reverse its previous campaign of cultural imperialism, encouraging First-Peoples language instruction in schools and promoting musical performances, cultural festivals and museums like the one Susi and Anne (and Anne’s father) and I visited. The Taiwanese elite have tried to make indigenous identity “cool,” perhaps less out of a desire to redress past wrongs than because the First Peoples make good symbols of an independent Taiwanese identity. The cultural revival the government promotes tends to emphasize performances and displays that please non-indigenous audiences, rather than preserve and deepen older traditions. 

Bunun woman sifting millet
The mechanics of settler-colonialism - exploiting indigenous peoples’ labor, destroying their settlements, taking their land, and co-opting their identities - seem to follow a universal progression. The actual Saisiyat, Taroko, Bunun, and other First Peoples aren’t going away, however. Their current population of 400-500,000 represents a greater percentage of the national total than does the American Indian population of the United States, and as with other indigenous peoples in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and North America, they appear determined to defend their land rights and make their own history.   

Sources: M. Munsterhjelm, “The First Nations of Taiwan: A Special Report on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, June 2002, online at See also Andrew Abalahin, “Sino-Pacifica: Conceptualizing Greater Southeast Asia as a Sub-Arena of World History,” Journal of World History 22 (Dec. 2011): 659-91, esp.675-77; Shu-Yuan Yang, “Cultural Performance and the Reconstruction of Tradition among the Bunun of Taiwan,” Oceania 81 (Nov. 2011): 316-330.

(Above image of Taipei 101 via Photo of Bunun woman from the Digital Museum of Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples. All other photos by the author.)

* We visited Longshan on Christmas Day, which in Taipei was attended by clear skies, bright sunshine, and 80-degree temperatures. One should plan to visit Taiwan in the late fall or winter.