Category Archives: world history

Emails and Paper Trails

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? A similar example happened recently at the University of Sydney, where Barry Spurr, a professor of poetry, had his racist, sexist, obese-ist and generally nasty and stupid emails revealed by the press. He resigned this week.

One of my favourite email stories comes from the 1980s, when news about a secret deal between America and Iran – the Iran-Contra scandal – was bubbling along. Oliver North’s secretary in the White House, knowing he was being investigated, shredded all the printouts of emails and documents, blissfully unaware that they were backed up to the White House computer.

As a historian, paper trails are my business, so even electronic paper trails are intriguing, but the implications for future historians are serious, if governments and business decide not to commit anything to print in future. Governments have no doubt learned from the Wikileaks affair that some things should not be put in an email.

I regret that as a historian, because it means that diplomats and other government officials will be less prepared to commit their views to print, even the ephemeral print on a screen, but will operate more on the basis of the truly ephemeral spoken word.

I also regret that as a global citizen, because often it is only when someone finds the right formula of words and sentences, and commits their views to writing, that they think through exactly what they are saying.

When government policy – or the policy of a film company – is formulated by spoken rather than written instructions, there’s no paper trail to check what was said. Just lost words in the ether.

Did Henry II really say ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ We will never know. We know only that Becket was later killed – subsequently or consequently? We also know it was a really stupid policy decision, but in an oral society, policy can be made on the basis of a rash statement – or no statement at all, just a nod and a wink. In current terminology, a case of plausible deniability.

Now it’s Sony. Business records are different from government records. Businesses don’t need archives in quite the way that governments do, because businesses don’t change abruptly in the way that governments change at an election. There is not the same separation between politicians, who come and go, and career bureaucrats, who are permanent, though this is changing.

Businesses need to keep records because a paper trail is necessary for legal and account reasons but informal discussions tend to get mixed up with the primary purpose of the correspondence.

The business records that I know, from 200 years ago, were full of incidental chatter about associates and rivals. I am always delighted to find occasional scurrilous reference to ‘our mutual friend’ – a common phrase in business correspondence, as Dickens clearly knew – and will be very sad if they disappear as a result of this latest data dump.

I doubt if they will though. We all chatter on the Internet, gossiping with our fingers, as once we did face to face. The consequence is occasional embarrassment and a loss of privacy, as FaceBook decides I can be tempted by advertisements for river cruises and reducing belly fat.

Suits and Sans Culottes in the long hot summer

Pity us, dear reader. The G20 gathering of world leaders is being held in Brisbane this weekend, so for the last week we’ve been in security lockdown: public transport disrupted, helicopters buzzing overhead, parts of the city barricaded off. It is currently illegal to carry eggs, tomatoes or reptiles in the lockdown area – which is hard luck for the many thousands who live in the inner city, though possibly good luck for reptiles. There has been a sort of bipolar anxiety. On the one hand, everyone has been avoiding the lockdown areas because we’ve been told by Brisbane’s mayor and Queensland’s premier to stay away, but at the same time, the very same mayor and premier are urging us to go into the city to show the rest of the world what a vibrant, lively, multicultural place Brisbane is.

But on top of that, we’re in the middle of a heat wave. It was 33°C yesterday and today is predicted to reach 40°C. Some parts of the state will have their highest November temperature on record today. I’ve written before about how weather and climate shouldn’t be conflated, so I can’t in all honesty attribute this heat wave to climate change, but it’s another straw in the wind.

G20 Leaders Brisbane 2014

Official photograph of G20 leaders in Brisbane, 14 November 2014

You would never know it from the official photo, when the leaders lined up for their Class of 2014 photograph, all but a few of them in dark suits and ties. Even the women wore long sleeved jackets and trousers.

Suits are the uniform of political power. They are an all-purpose camouflage behind which politicians and businessmen conceal themselves in an enforced homogeneity that is really quite spurious. At home they may be democrats or dictators, polygamists or puritans, but in public they all look alike. So bravo to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for bucking the trend and dressing as he damned well pleases in traditional Arab gear. The summer temperatures in Riyadh are similar to Brisbane’s temperature today, so it’s a sensible move too.

Meanwhile, outside in the heat, demonstrators wore a much wider range of clothing, from Guy Fawkes masks (Anonymous) to angel wings (Climate Angels) to moon suits (Ebola). The most appropriately dressed were the Aboriginal protestors, since brown skin streaked with finger marks of ochre and ash is definitely best suited to Brisbane’s weather this weekend.

Aboriginal protest at G20

Aboriginal protest against black deaths in custody, in Brisbane Times, 14 November 2014

The protests so far have been orderly and peaceful, and relations between police and protestors seem to be fairly amiable, perhaps because they are fellow sufferers outside on the hot pavements. You don’t often hear security forces urging protestors to make sure they drink enough to stay hydrated in the heat.

It made me think, though, how much air conditioning has changed the language and the landscape of protest. Until air conditioning, riots generally occurred during the long hot summer. As the heat rose, tensions rose and tempers frayed, like characters in a Tennessee Williams play. In the poorer areas of cities, the poor lived in crowded tenements with little sanitation or ventilation. In many parts of the world they still do. In places like Tunis or Cairo, access to air conditioning still separates rich from poor. The best solution to summer heat in crowded slums is to come out into the streets to cool off – and to gossip and complain to each other.

Communal riots often followed. Sometimes there was a political agenda. More often summer riots focused on food prices. The weeks before the autumn grain harvest were the most dangerous time as food shortages pushed up the price of bread. The fall of the Bastille took place during the northern summer on 14 July 1789. I’m currently writing about the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales, which took place late in the southern summer, on 26 January 1808. Like all mutinies, it had multiple causes, but the ragged tempers of late summer can’t have helped, particularly for soldiers forced to endure the heat in unsuitable uniforms designed for British conditions.

The rich and powerful can afford to wear unsuitable clothing – jacket and trousers, long shirt and tie – because they live in an air-conditioned bubble. In France in 1789, there was no air-conditioned bubble, but the homes of the rich were warm and airy, and they had laundry maids. So the powerful wore silk knee breeches (culottes) and waistcoats of exquisite workmanship which cost a fortune to make and to maintain – the 18th century equivalent of power dressing.

The humble artisans who stormed the Bastille were given the name of sans culottes because they wore loose shirts and long trousers instead of the culottes of the court. The uniform of protest today seems to consist of jeans and tee shirt, with hoodies replacing the traditional anorak, as a defence against the omnipresence of CCTV cameras. But in 40° heat, all bets are off.

Revolutionary Tourists

In the summer of 1790 William Wordsworth was 20 years old, and half way through a fairly undistinguished Cambridge degree, when he and a friend, Robert Jones, set out to walk across France from Calais to the Alps. It was to be a gap year, an opportunity to postpone the serious business of growing up and settling down. Each of them had just £20 to pay their way, and most of their journey was on foot, walking 12 to 15 miles before breakfast.

The French Revolution had broken out a year before – they reached Calais on 13 July, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – but the revolution was still largely a constitutional affair, and in the countryside they weren’t seriously affected by the political changes going on around them.

More than a year later, Wordsworth went back to France, reaching Paris at the end of November 1791. By this time, the French Revolution had moved on – and so had Wordsworth. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and when she got pregnant in the spring of 1792, followed her south, first to her home in Blois, then to Orleans. While Annette prepared for the shame of an illegitimate birth, Wordsworth went back to Paris.

The events in France were chaotic for any outsider, but Wordsworth got swept up by the revolutionary fervor. He went to meetings of the Jacobin Club, souvenired a piece of the Bastille, and met members of the society ‘Les Amis de la Constitution’. Most liberal Englishmen had great hopes of the original revolution of 1789, which seemed to promise the overthrow of an autocratic ruler and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, just like in England. His excitement comes through in his famous lines from The Prelude:

Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

But by 1792, events had become much more complicated, with violent factional divisions in the cities, and the provinces descending into civil war. There were curious religious aberrations, too, with the revolution attacking the traditional church and introducing a Cult of Reason that was anything but.

Wordsworth was fascinated and appalled by the political upheavals underway there: the September massacres, the proclamation of the Republic, the rise of Robespierre, the Terror.

Eventually repelled by the violence and the threat of war, Wordsworth left for England. His daughter, Anne-Caroline, was born on 15 December 1792 about the time he arrived back in London. Louis XVI was executed 5 weeks later, on 21 January 1793, and Britain declared war on France. Wordsworth recollected the exhilaration of revolution in tranquility, in The Prelude. He settled down, became a famous poet, and gave up his radical politics. Eventually, in 1843 he became Poet Laureate.

Byron in Albanian dress

The Romance: Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron in Albanian dress (1813)

A generation later, the poet Lord Byron wasn’t as lucky as Wordsworth. His thrilling encounter with other people’s revolution – in this case the Greek rising against the Ottoman Empire – led to his death. Brought up on the standard British schoolboy’s diet of classical Greek literature, Byron too probably saw the Greek independence movement in the black and white terms of the outsider. And he also used his travels abroad as an opportunity for sexual adventures – though in his case, his sexual adventures were more transgressive, whether at home or abroad.

In July 1823 Byron sailed to Greece with some companions, a number of servants, 4 horses and 2 dogs, and ‘several splendid uniforms including a fine Homeric helmet’. They got as far as Missolonghi, a marshy coastal area where he fell ill from fever, possibly malaria. He died there in April 1824.

The Reality (if you forget the laurel wreath and the lyre): Joseph Denis Odevaere, Lord Byron on his Death bed (1826)

The Reality (if you forget the laurel wreath and the lyre): Joseph Denis Odevaere, Lord Byron on his Death bed (1826)

At present, in Australia and around the western world, the public is concerned about radicalized young men going abroad to participate in the revolutions and wars that are convulsing the Middle East. It is a serious problem, for the individuals and their families, and for the wider society as well, but it is not new.

Wordsworth and Byron are exceptional, because they were both famous poets, but over the years, certainly since travel and communication have made it possible, many more humble and anonymous young men have been fired by idealism or ideology to go to fight – or to watch – other people’s wars and revolutions.

During the Russian Revolution, revolutionary tourists went to Russia to get involved. John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World, 1919) is perhaps the most famous; the dancer Isadora Duncan perhaps the most unlikely.

In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War attracted idealists into an International Brigade. The aristocratic Jessica Mitford and her cousin, Esmond Romilly, ran away to Spain, but so too did the village boy Laurie Lee. Like Wordsworth, Lee found revolutionary Spain both exhilarating and scary, a mixture of pretty girls and inexplicable violence. ‘I don’t know who you are”, a sailor told him, “but if you want to see blood, stick around – you’re going to see plenty.

There are probably no general principles to be drawn from this collection of examples, except perhaps, the historian’s last cop-out: ‘Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose.’

I’m struck, though, by a few points of similarity. For most of these young men (and a very few women, like Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris), other people’s revolutions turned out to be much nastier and more chaotic when viewed up close. Simplistic ideologies tend to dissolve into a seething mass of local tensions and resentments, and payback takes place under cover of ideology. For those who survived to return home, the experience was transformative, but often they were transformed into more wary witnesses to the tragedies they had seen.

The boys and young men currently rushing to the Middle East are sad as well as dangerous. Some will die; some will find their ‘very heaven’ becomes a living hell. Many will find their youthful idealism has been unforgivably co-opted by ideologues, usually older men much further removed from the front line.

Above all, revolution is exciting, a time for throwing off the traces, overthrowing your parents’ world, setting the world to rights and remaking it in your own image. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s rage; sometimes just raging hormones.

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: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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