Category Archives: world history

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease.

Ebola is not quite a new disease – it was first identified in 1976 – but the current outbreak is far, far worse than anything that has gone before. There must be many people trying to tease out what we can learn about this disease by looking at previous plagues and pandemics. For what it’s worth, here’s my ten cents’ worth:

  1. Epidemics tend to have a far worse impact in cities than in areas with low populations. An epidemic disease can have a devastating effect on people in scattered villages or small family groups, such as the epidemic of smallpox that struck the Aboriginal people around Sydney in 1789, but without a large host population, the disease will run its course. The Black Death (1347-51) had much more impact in southern and western Europe than in eastern Europe, where the population was so much sparser.
  2. Disease follows trade routes – by land or by sea, and latterly by air as well. The Black Death arrived in Sicily on a ship from the Crimea, a key staging post on the Silk Road from Asia. AIDS has travelled along trucking routes wherever roadside prostitution is common. Any large-scale population movements will exacerbate the situation. The Spanish flu went home with demobilized soldiers at the end of World War I – and the pandemic eventually killed more people than the war.
  3. Quarantine is a ruthless deterrent to the spread of disease that suits the prejudices of authorities, since it lays the blame squarely on outsiders for causing infection. Sometimes it works, but it’s not always effective. The name comes from the 40 days of isolation that Venice imposed on incoming ships during the Black Death – but it’s one thing to quarantine ships and travellers, another altogether to keep the rats out, and tens of thousands of Venetians died from plague. The best guess at present seems to be that fruit bats spread Ebola. Unlike ships’ rats, bats are not usually intercontinental travellers.
  4. Epidemic disease is recurrent. There were nearly 800 years between the Plague of Justinian and the return of Yersinia pestis to Constantinople in 1347, but thereafter the plague came back fairly regularly. There was a minor outbreak in Europe in the 1380s, a generation after the first, and intermittent outbreaks after that, but it was less virulent, probably because those people who survived and reproduced had more genetic resistance to the disease than those who had died.
  5. The disease is worst the first time around – not just because of 4, above, but because in the first outbreak, there is nobody with any immunity, so no one to care for the sick or tend the fields or otherwise keep the show on the road. When smallpox struck the Aztecs, every age group was affected, whereas in Europe, where the disease was endemic, there were likely to be some scarred survivors from earlier epidemics who could look after the children and young adults who were its main victims.
  6. In illness, as in everything else, the poor are at a disadvantage. There’s nothing like a good diet, clean clothing and warm, dry shelter to give you an advantage, even in the face of infectious disease. The rich can also afford to run away. In The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote about a group of wealthy young people living in seclusion in a villa outside Florence, while the plague was ravaging the city. It’s always useful to have a Tuscan villa to retreat to.
  7. Despite this, infectious diseases don’t always respect rank and wealth. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. His doctor diagnosed his death as typhoid fever, a disease that was normally associated with poverty, poor housing and poor hygiene. His death shocked the Victorians, for if the Prince Consort was at risk, so was everyone else. Albert’s death didn’t cause the Victorian preoccupation with sanitary reform and urban renewal, which was already well underway, but it certainly helped it along. Typhoid, like cholera, did not discriminate. Neither does Ebola.
  8. Finally, new diseases terrify people and cause panic, and unfortunately, panicky people are often nasty people. Some of the more unedifying videos doing the rounds of social media at present show this clearly enough. Minority groups have born the brunt of such panic in the past: Jews were blamed for the plague in 14th century Europe, Chinese were blamed for leprosy and plague in 19th century Australia, homosexuals have been demonized for spreading AIDS. Even in a scientific world, there are still plenty of frightened people looking for explanations in the Book of Revelation, or its equivalent. The Four Horsemen have a lot to answer for.

*Yes, I know there’s debate about who the Four Horsemen are (except Death, everyone seems to agree on Death), but I base my categories on Terry Pratchett.

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia.

At about the same time, throughout the Pacific, missionaries were busily introducing Islander women to the delights of the Mother Hubbard, a shapeless, loose cotton dress with a high neckline and long sleeves that concealed all those parts of the female anatomy that the women concerned had not previously realised needed concealing. Eventually most Pacific Island women adopted the Mother Hubbard, because it became a symbol of Christian conversion. Variants like the Hawaiian muu-muu are still worn. I wonder how other women felt about the new outfit? Forms of clothing that emphasize extreme modesty can feel like an implied rebuke to those who don’t wear them.

On the other hand, Pacific Islanders had their own scrupulous notions of modesty and privacy that governed their lives. In 1851, the adventurer Ben Boyd seems to have unknowingly blundered into the women’s quarters on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was where the women went to bath, to toilet, and where they stayed during menstruation. It was an area absolutely taboo to all men, and when he ignored the islanders’ attempts to keep him away, he was speared to death.

Modesty takes many forms. Currently there’s a debate in Australia – and many other parts of the world – about Muslim women and their distinctive forms of dress, summed up in some extremists’ demands to ‘ban the burqa’ – which is nicely alliterative, but not at all accurate since there are probably no women in Australia who currently wear a burqa. Perhaps a few hundred wear the niqab, and many more wear other traditional forms of dress, more or less concealing, though it’s by no means universal amongst Islamic women.

Burqa sewing pattern

Clothing, particularly women’s clothing, carries so many meanings – class and respectability in the case of a bonnet, religious conversion in the case of the Mother Hubbard. It can also be a symbol of modernity or of rebellion. I can just remember, as very little girl, a family holiday at the beach, when my two grandmothers saw their first bikini. I can remember them both peering out the window at a young woman walking by in what – I now realize – was probably a very modest two-piece. ‘Look, you can see her navel!’

swimsuit pattern from Women's Weekly

Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 December 1961

It was at about the same time, in the 1950s, that Greek and Italian immigrant families began to arrive in Brisbane. Inevitably, given the long years of war in their homelands, there were many older, widowed women amongst them. These women dressed in their traditional widows’ clothing of a black dress, black headscarf, and black stockings and shoes. They were a haunting alien presence, and locals found their clothing confronting.

No one forced a Mediterranean widow to wear these clothes, any more than the 1860s governess was forced to wear a bonnet. On the contrary, in either case to force her not to wear the clothing of her choice would imprison her, in a ship’s cabin or within the family home.

It’s not always women’s clothing that becomes the focus of attention. Men’s clothing has sometimes been politicised too, often as a symbol of modernity. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the turban as old-fashioned and inappropriate in the modern world, and replaced it with the fez. A century later Ataturk banned the fez as old fashioned in modern Turkey, and recommended the Homburg hat instead. There was a religious dimension to this change too, part of Ataturk’s drive to secularise the nation: an observant Muslim can place his forehead on the ground in prayer while wearing a turban or a fez, but not while wearing a hat with a brim.

But it’s usually women whose clothing is policed – or who police themselves. Men play a role in this, especially when a form of clothing is treated as an outward and visible sign of religious faith, for men are the traditional gatekeepers in religious observance.

Older women play a role in the policing too. Modesty takes many forms, and it is deeply internalized. Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a bikini. I like to think this is a personal decision – and an aesthetic one, believe me. But I never wore a bikini, even in my long ago youth, and I suspect there has always been a faint memory there of my grandmothers at the window tut-tutting – ‘Look, you can see her navel!

The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. Continue reading

The end of the United Kingdom?

In 1698 a group of Scottish businessmen established a colony in Central America, on the Isthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien Project’, named after its location on the Gulf of Darien, turned out to be a disaster – fatally so, for most of the men and women who went out there between 1698 and 1700, but a financial disaster back in Scotland as well.

A bit like the South Sea Bubble, which caused such embarrassment for investors in England a few years later, the Darien scheme had involved a lot of lowland merchants and members of the political class, and with the collapse of their investment, they faced ruin. The term ‘sovereign debt’ hadn’t been invented, but effectively, so did the Scottish nation itself.

Since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England with the death of his cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the same Protestant branch of the Stuart/Stewart dynasty had ruled both Kingdoms, but they did not yet form a United Kingdom. Continue reading

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway. Continue reading

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier. Continue reading

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Continue reading