The Transsexual Emperor: Elagabalus, Topoi and Gender in Rome

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

The history of marginalised people can be pretty difficult to write. More often than not, it’s a challenge just to prove they existed: you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no black people in Europe before mass immigration in the 1950s, no homosexual love before the gay subculture of the 1900s, no desire for men and women to change the sex they were born with until…well, that’s something that a lot of people need persuading of today. But that kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous. The stereotypical image of traditional, parochial, white Europe has been central to the campaigns of the European Far Right and the dismissal of gay and lesbian figures in history only encourages those who think that homosexuality is an invention of some ‘permissive society’. It’s a poisonous way of thinking, and one that can only really be counteracted by paying attention to those marginalised people whenever they make it into the history books – be it as a black field marshal under Napoleon, a lesbian poet in 600BC, or a cross-dressing Chinese girl in the 640s who defeats the Hu…wait, that’s the plot of Mulan, but to be fair that’s a fantastic Chinese legend anyway. And so, in this spirit, we get to the life of Elagabalus. A teenaged Roman Emperor of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus – or Heliogabalus, if you’re feeling Greek about it, or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, if you’re feeling official – is probably one of the most interesting characters of his era. The young princeps was a foreign ruler in control of the Roman Empire at its height, and as politically divisive as the lovechild of Thatcher and Chavez. He was a devout sun-worshipper, openly denying the existence of the Roman gods. But most unusually for a Roman Emperor, Elagabalus was also transsexual – biologically male but identifying and behaving as a young woman. That alone carries amazingly important implications for the history of gender and our modern ideas about transsexuality. But the truth is always…complicated. The sources on Elagabalus’ life are far from perfect and Elagabalus’ gender has become the subject of hot debate. But the life of Elagabalus is undoubtedly an important one in understanding how we approach gender and historical fact in the ancient world. And in any case – the story of Rome’s teenage, foreign, sun-worshipping, lion-taming head of state is far too interesting to miss.


We’re talking LATE Principate here. This is an artists’s impression of Canterbury, which was basically the sticks at that point.

It would probably help to start with some context on the world into which Elagabalus came to power. The princeps was head of a Roman Empire pretty far removed from the relative peace and prosperity of the swords-and-sandals affair you might associate with Augustus, Antoninus and Asterix – by the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the empire was in turmoil, and it would remain so for Elagabalus’ entire reign. One of the key reasons for this was the sort of vicious circle of economic and military disasters: the army wants better pay, so it installs a new emperor, but the violent civil war stops people working on the fields and in the mines so there’s not enough money to even pay off the army, which, don’t you know, wants better pay. I’m sure you get the idea, but it got to the point that, through civil wars and backstabbing bodyguards, entire families were discredited and killed off (Sidenote: for the love of god, Roman Emperors, pay your bodyguards – the Romans assassinated a higher proportion of their rulers than any other polity to date). This extraordinary turnover, for want of a better term, may help to explain how, in the summer of AD 218, control of the empire was given to a fourteen-year old Syrian: the supposed son of the former emperor Caracalla. Elagabalus was one of the only surviving legitimate heirs. Then again, I suppose having a huge, loyal army and one of the era’s best politicians for a grandmother didn’t hurt. Despite this apparent support, though, Elagabalus wasn’t exactly typical Imperial stock. He wasn’t the first emperor from outside Italy – that’s either Claudius, Roman but born in Lyons, or El’s ancestor Septimius Severus, from a family of Italian-African nobles – but Syria was seen as distinctly foreign to the Roman elite. He was also a devotee and High Priest of El-Gabal – which is how he got his distinctive name. This association can’t have helped Elagabalus’ ‘foreigner’ image: for a start, it led him to reject all of the traditional Roman gods and his traditional duties as head of the Imperial Cult. On top of that, ‘El’ is such a generic Middle Eastern word for God you see it in not only Aramaic (hence Isra-el), but also Hebrew (hence el-ohim) and Arabic (hence Allah, or el-lah – kind of messy, but to be fair ancient Arabic didn’t have vowels). Admittedly, Rome would later be won over by monotheism from the East – by 274, the more West-friendly cult of Sol Incivtus and by 313, Christianity – but El’s open devotion to his god went down a lot worse than, say, Constantine’s more approachable henotheism. Elagabalus was also…well, just young. It was his grandmother Julia Maesa, who went to the Senate in his place and in a lot of ways ruled for him, which to a group of old men (because let’s not forget, America, that the word Senate literally means ‘Old Men’) was highly controversial. And like countless other young emperors, from Nero to Domitian to Joffrey Baratheon, Elagabalus seems to have developed a particularly cruel streak: his favourite prank was supposedly to move guests at his parties into bedrooms filled with tame lions and watch them freak out before they realised they were actually safe. This outrage, however, would scarcely match that which surrounded Elagabalus’ gender.

Another image of Elagabalus - but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

Another image of Elagabalus – but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

In modern terms, Elagabalus’ behaviour would probably be interpreted as transsexual, or at least genderfluid. El dressed like an emperor in public but assumed a completely female persona in private: demanding to be addressed as ‘Lady’ and not ‘Lord’, wearing make-up and women’s clothing, even perfecting a traditional ‘womanly’ manner of speaking. He arranged to marry his male lover Heirocles, and in the ceremony was referred to as Heirocles’ wife. When excused from imperial duty, El took up traditionally female tasks – like spinning wool, in particular, was typical Roman ‘good virtuous woman’ fare – and spent a good deal of his time around other women in the imperial court. Most interestingly of all, the majority of the sources on the life of Elagabalus state that the princeps wished he could have a procedure closely resembling a modern sex-change. (Cassius Dio 80.16.7, if you’re interested) He is even accused of castrating himself in one of the sources on account of his femininity, although this is denied by others. But here we reach the issue with an otherwise convincing argument for Elegabalus’ transsexuality. It’s this disagreement and bias in the only literary sources we have on Elagabalus’ life which makes it so hard to know anything for certain. It’s all too easy to cherry-pick evidence for historical facts based on our own modern ideas – but there’s as much conclusive evidence that the emperor asked to be referred to as ‘Lady’, for example, as there is that he sacrificed children or chose ministers based on the size of their cock. It’s only our modern perspective that makes one of those believable and two unlikely. The sources are hardly reliable in any case, coming mainly from one writer (Cassius Dio) who worked for Elagabalus’ rival and one source (the Historia Augusta) which many consider to be an exaggeration or even a parody of other writers’ work. There are other sources, from coins and from other writers, but too often they fall into the trap of topoi – the stereotypical traits that historians assign to ‘bad’ emperors. Effeminacy is one of the topoi, and one particularly associated with Syrians like Elagabalus. So are dangerous pranks and letting women rule in your place – Nero was accused of both of those. An emperor from another country in an empire on the brink of civil war? No points awarded for guessing that that gets you a lot of rivals. But the story of Elagabalus is still undoubtedly valuable. Lukas de Blois writes that behind all of the topoi lies at least an element of truth. Elagabalus may have been transsexual, but may not have been, but the fact that so much was written about it strongly suggests that writers were aware of transsexuality as a concept, albeit a hated one, some 1,800 years ago. Ultimately, there can be no definitive answer about Elagabalus’ gender. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there’s a story alone offers some interesting evidence for the existence of transsexuality going back millennia. It’s certainly enough, for me at least, to dismiss those people who say it’s a modern invention. In the end, Elagabalus met the sort of sticky end that faced many 3rd century emperors, but also countless marginalised people throughout history – he was removed from society by his rivals, and ignominiously assassinated. He reigned for only four years, and he died when he was eighteen. Since then, his story has been reassessed and retold countless different ways, and often in ways that reflect the society which was telling the story more than his own. In the nineteenth century, during the era of empire and race theory, the focus was on his ethnicity. In the twentieth, particularly during the ‘moral panics’ of the 1920s and 1960s, the focus was on his sexuality. Now, in the twenty-first, the focus has been shifting to gender. It’s a testament to the life of Elagabalus – whether he was a tyrant, whether he was an activist, and even whether he was a she – that nearly two millennia later his experience can help us make sense of gender identity and its place in both history and the modern world. The history of the marginalised might be difficult to write, but it’s extremely important that we try.

Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.

Death or Taxes: Was the American Revolutionary War Really Britain’s Fault?

Holistic History is back, and while the finishing touches are being put on Phil’s returning post, here’s something that should break the formula a little. It’s a guest post – this blog’s first – and definitely longer, more detailed and more formal than you might be used to seeing. It’s a great introduction to the complexities of American Revolutionary Politics, and a really great argument against the idea that the loss of the American colonies was necessarily a failure of the British government. If you’re a teenager thinking of taking history to A-Level or University level, it’s also an example of the kind of work you’ll be doing, so I recommend giving it a look. -Phil


The British colonies in America on the eve of revolution.

The early part of the 1760s was a period of drastic change in the Americas, with the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian war) ending in victory for the British in 1763; borders shifted and the crippling debt left behind became evident. Britain’s national debt had increased from £72 million before the war to £132 million by its end and the interest rate alone on the money they had borrowed for the war took up half of their national budget. In the build-up to the War of Independence (1763-1775) stark changes to the governance of the American colony were made. The British wanted a stronger hold on both their subjects at home and abroad, attempting to clamp down on the security of the empire from within and turning their focus away from outside threats, such as France and Spain. Whilst the changes made to the way the British governed the colony were certainly significant in the way they demonstrated a change in direction and attitude to governance in the continent, these changes may have actually caused the crisis leading to the War of Independence. Lord North asserted that, “The Americans, by their subsequent behaviour, have not deserved any particular indulgence from this country.”For the crisis to have been averted some leeway was required on either side, since none was forthcoming a self-perpetuating situation, in which the actions of governance led to the actions of the colonials and vice versa, was created.

In order to assess whether or not the loss of the American colony to the British Empire was due to Britain’s poor management and governance, we need to examine the key reasons for the War of Independence. These can be thematically approached as: economic, instigators of opposition towards the British, a crisis of national identity to the empire and logistical difficulties. Once these causes have been established we can assess whether they are as a result of British governance; if so, whether they could have avoided it, or if not, whether they could have handled it more effectively.

Economic policy was very significant to the reasons that the colonials themselves gave for declaring independence. The most significant economic cause of the revolution was the Proclamation of 1763, the first major point of dispute between the British governing forces and the colonials following the Seven Years War, as it restricted colonial expansion of territory into Native Indian land. The colonials disagreed with this policy for a few reasons: firstly, they had just fought a war in order to gain these lands from the French and Spanish; secondly, there was an extremely prejudicial attitude among the colonials towards the Natives, which meant that few people saw taking their land as a moral infringement.

The colonials saw the victory in the Seven Years War as an opportunity for expansion and to increase their prosperity. Although the British had mostly funded the war and provided troops and equipment, the colonials had also invested some input and the war had been fought on their homeland. From their perspective, their men had died at war and the British were denying them the spoils of territory for their victory; their kinsmen had died for no gain, only to lose out on territory to a race that had been fighting against them and had posed a threat since their ancestors had arrived on the continent.

The French and Indian War shook the British government’s faith in their previously loyal Native American population.

The reasons for the British implementing the Proclamation however were well founded. Firstly, the Natives needed protection from the colonials, who, it seemed, were doing their best to entirely eradicate the Natives, taking their land for their own. While this moral justification is wholly admirable, it wasn’t however the primary reason for the Proclamation. During the Seven Years War, the Natives had been mostly allied with the French, who treated them better than the British; now that the French had left, the British felt that a degree of appeasement was necessary in order to prevent frequent attacks and general attempts to undermine their regime. Although the British believed that this policy would save them money, avoiding the costs of defending against the Indians, in fact they had to invest in militarising the borders in order to prevent colonials from crossing them and settling on the other side in native territory.

Despite the inflammatory nature of the Proclamation and its subsequent contribution to bringing about the revolution and war, at the time it was a necessary policy which was vital to establishing peace on the continent in a time when the British couldn’t afford to continue fighting wars. The Proclamation’s success in appeasing the Native Indians was proved to be beneficial in the long run when many of them, such as the Mohawk tribe, joined the British side during the War of Independence. On balance it was a policy which was more beneficial than detrimental.

Although the Proclamation went some way towards gaining the allegiance of the Natives, the colonials mistreatment of them up to that point and the British administration’s failure to prevent this had made them sceptical that joining the loyalists’ side during the war would be to their benefit. Their allegiance, although tentatively achieved, was a significant success for the British administration.

In order to decrease the financial pressure and establish a more stable government attempts were made to increase revenue from the colony. Arguably the British placed too large a tax burden on the colonials in an attempt to regain a closer control over the continent, after having spent so much on defending it as part of the empire. However some taxes implemented by the British,which the colonials strongly protested against,actually reduced their financial burden.The First Lord of the Treasury (between 1763 and 1765) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Grenville,  tried to clamp down on the enforcement of taxes and on the 5thof April 1764 these attempts manifested themselves in the Sugar Act, a revised version of the Molasses Act of 1733. This act actually decreased the rate of tax placed on tea from six pence per gallon, as stated in the Molasses Act of 1733, to three pence per gallon. Although the act decreased tax, it also largely increased the naval force tasked with preventing smuggling and tightened up procedures of trade in a variety of other goods on top of tea. So the effect of the act, although decreasing the legal price of tea, actually increased the price that most colonials paid. Furthermore, many colonials claimed they were being undercut by British prices, which they were unable to compete with due to Britain’s large manufacturing and trading base which gave it the benefits of economies of scale.


A satirical cartoon on taxes from the period.

The necessity of such an increase in the enforcement of these taxes is debatable. Some historians, such as Oliver M. Dickerson in, “The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution” believed that unlawful trade following the war was relatively small, however Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree in “Empire or Independence” argue to the contrary: “according to one conservative computation, in the years 1760-6 the colonists consumed annually about 1,200,000 lb. of tea: as only 275,000 lb. were imported from England, the balance- more than three quarters of the total consumption- was smuggled.”Based purely on colonial reaction to the Tea Act, Christie and Labaree’s assertion seems more plausible than Dickerson’s. If the extent of illegal trade was indeed to this extent then surely some action was required. Either nothing could be done; in which case the colonials would remain disrespectful of English law, but in the short term would be less moved to revolution; or the English could clamp down, in which case more revenue could be collected, attempts at a solution to the crisis of national identity could be made and if the colonials did respond (as they indeed did) with opposition and aggression, then adjustments, enforcements and repressions could be implemented. After all, Britain was an economic and military force to be revered during this period. In this respect therefore, an increase in enforcement was entirely justifiable and doesn’t constitute a failure in Britain’s management of its empire, but, in the short term perspective, an effective management of economic affairs.

The decision to implement the Sugar Act for this purpose may not have actually been the sole responsibility of Lord Grenville however. Although he actually implemented the act it was Lord Newcastle’s treasury, preceding Grenville’s term as First Lord of the Treasury, which had begun investigations into the lack of revenue being collected from colonial trade as a result of insufficient enforcement of regulations. Newcastle saw this issue as a priority and set measures in motion before the end of the war. Then after 1763, the Secretary of State, William Pitt and the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Lord Anson, were the ones who pushed for the suppression of smuggling in America and the Caribbean. They saw this decision as an essential step for compensation for the Seven Years War. Therefore, whether the increase in the enforcement of taxes on trade was necessary or not, it could be argued that it wasn’t a failure of effective governance of Britain at the time, but rather a direction of policy which had already been set in motion before the crisis had developed to any notable level. Newcastle’s treasury had set this direction of policy during the war, when funds were required in order to secure victory; Thus, had acts such as the Sugar Act gone through earlier, the policy wouldn’t have been too strongly opposed by the colonials because victory was in their best interests in order to protect their territory. In the first half of the decade following the Seven Years War, William Pitt and George Lord Anson were pushing the borders of what came under their jurisdiction by pressing for an increase in enforcement.A slight overlap in the definition of their jurisdiction meant that they were able to press their own priorities through. George Lord Anson for instance had the responsibility, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, to prevent crime at sea, such as piracy, or more importantly smuggling. This meant that he was effectively able to intervene in the making of economic policy, which was officially the responsibility of Lord George Grenville before 1765.

1700s parliament

William Pitt addresses the British Parliament in Westminster

Britain’s failure therefore was not from a direct decision from the man appointed to make such decisions (about the enforcement of an economic policy which would insight unrest, leading to revolution) but in a failure of governmental structure: a structure in which bureaucracy led to key figures in government becoming detrimentally fractious and a government which was unable to effectively adapt its policies quickly enough from a direction set in motion during a period when contemporary issues (the developing crisis leading to American Independence) had not yet arisen.

Furthermore, between 1763 and 1782 Britain had been through four different Lords of the Treasury. Grenville’s office was brought to a sharp end in 1765 by King George III, who replaced him as First Lord of the Treasury, or “Prime Minister”, with the Marquess of Rockingham, who lasted for one year. By the time that Lord North took office in 1770, controversy in parliament over the crisis in America was rife. Sporadic changes in power was a limitation to the effectual governance and management of the American colonies, as each Lord of the Treasury would lead the management in a different direction. While Grenville believed the economic issues in America required more immediate attention,“nothing could be worse than the inactivity of the present ministry”, North took a more relaxed approach to the issue. Peter D. G. Thomas argues that the latter was actually a wiser choice, “The American trade boycotts collapsed by the end of 1770, and little was heard of troubles in the colonies for some years. Not until 1773 did parliament again debate America.”Although I would agree with this assertion to the extent that, at least in the short term, this policy would stabilise the crisis, I would fall short of the judgement that this policy would have been the most effective in the long term; the end of the Seven Years War had already brought about a change in the way both British governance and American colonials viewed the situation of international rule. George III’s direct role in the administration of the empire was strictly limited, his only real involvement being his reception of letters and petitions from aggrieved colonials. However his petty toying with Britain’s domestic political structure caused a lack of continuity throughout the period, which may have been one of the most detrimental contributions to the cause of the crisis.

However, due to the debt and the threat of revolt in England, it could be argued that the British had no choice but to increase revenue from America, they could have implemented these taxes more effectively. Had the British been consistent with their policies, following through their legislation by effectively and consistently enforcing policies such as the Stamp Act of 1765, then the colonials may have taken them more seriously. By not following through with taxes, mostly repealing them after opposition was shown, the British demonstrated weakness, giving the colonials the impression that protesting would get them what they wanted. Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labree point out that, “By the early 1760s the experience of half a century had shown that the machinery for enforcing the laws of trade in the colonies was inadequate, that illegal traffic was considerable, that the law could be violated almost with impunity, and if most colonial trade still flowed in lawful channels, this was due to convenience and complaisance, not to fear of coercion.” This judgement seems well supported in light of their statistic that more than three quarters of the colonies’ total consumption of tea was smuggled.

bloody code

The Bloody Code saw execution for minor crimes such as petty theft.

From the perspective of the British, they were completely within their rights and entirely morally justified to implement more taxes on the colonials because the Seven Years War had been fought for their benefit, in order to prevent their lands from being taken by the French. Furthermore, the British people were already being taxed to the point of revolt. From 1688 to 1776 the Bloody Code saw the number of crimes punishable by death in England quadrupled. This epitomises the stance that the British government were taking over this period. Although the crime rate wasn’t particularly high, the emergence of the landowning classes as the true rulers of the country meant that the law was influenced by their invested interests i.e. the strong protection of property. The higher classes feared what they perceived (incorrectly) as an increasing crime rate, as the population grew and rural community culture faded. This fear of revolt also extended to the wider empire.

Ultimately the British were short sighted in their use of the American colony for gaining profit. Rather than helping its economy to develop and then taking an administrative role from which they could gain revenue, they tried to step into the market themselves as a monopoly power. Graham Greene comments in “Our Man in Havana”, “What accounted for the squalor of British possessions? The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.” This observation, although made in response to the “squalor” of a city of the British Empire hundreds of years after the American Revolution, captures the British attitude towards its empire in the west throughout its life time.

So although it can be concluded that the British had no choice but to begin implementing stronger enforcement of taxes in order to regain both control over the colony and revenue lost in the war (a decision which can be considered a success), the way in which they went about trying to achieve these goals was their primary failure. A slower transition was required, something which was holistically over looked by the bureaucratic, cross intentioned and motivated, British governance.

The USA is arguably the most militantly capitalist nation on earth, its foundations strongly rooted in a free market economy, with the “American Dream” based on a laissez faire attitude and rugged individualism. Although this could be construed as an example of Whig History, this is indicative of the primary reason for both the revolution and the War of Independence, instigated by the white, rich upper classes who, not by coincidence, remained rich and upper class after independence was achieved. The motives of the key revolutionaries therefore were somewhat ambiguous. Were they merely campaigning for the colonials’ rights against a tyrannical rule, or were they making a well calculated business decision in order to cut out a monopoly in the markets?

founding fathers

Many of the future Founding Fathers in the Constitutional Congress.

Although economic policy and the reactions to these policies were the primary cause of the crisis leading to the War of Independence, other factors played a key role in increasing the tensions. Significant instigators of opposition towards the British caused a wider awareness of revolutionary movements and of the actions of the British, deemed by many to be; in the earlier part of the decade, detrimental to the English constitution; then later on as suppression from a foreign tyrannical rule. These instigators were exceptionally intelligent men, often following professions such as lawyers or publicists; they were usually skilled with rhetoric, well financially supported and in good positions of power and respect in order to convincingly spread the revolutionary word. Although many colonials felt they were being economically suppressed by the British, this general feeling would not have materialised into any sort of opposition, besides minor gossip and grumbling, had there not been a select few, highly educated men, to lead the revolution, inspire and lead the people and establish a new nation. Men like George Washington were key military leaders against the British, while figures like Patrick Henry inspired the general populace through memorable speeches to support the revolution and the war. In this respect there wasn’t a lot the British could have done in order to suppress such opposition, short of suppressing free speech and other liberties which would have only added fuel to the revolutionary fire.

On the other hand, these men were unquestionably motivated, at least in part, by the increasing financial burden placed on them by the British, perhaps Britain’s failure was not in allowing these figures of opposition to utilise their influence, but in giving them motivation to do so. Furthermore, key figures in America, such as Patrick Henry, were inciting the crowds with powerful rhetoric, “give me liberty or give me death!” No such prominent figures emerged to rouse the spirits of the public in support of the British; either of colonial nationality, or appointed by the British. So not only had the British failed in their governance by giving such intelligent and influential men cause to oppose them, but they had also failed to provide any impassioned counter movement to anywhere near the level of vigour demonstrated by these key revolutionaries.

Between the years of 1765 and 1776 the colonial’s respect, depicted in their letters and petitions to the king, George III, deteriorated.It is clear that over this period the colonials started thinking of themselves less as British and more as American. This was a very significant change and arguably the one that was most influential among the causes of the crisis leading to the War of Independence. Whilst before they had been fighting for a change to the regime under which they lived, therefore without the intention of doing it harm, when they decided that they were no longer British, they began fighting against Britain rather than for it.


The Treaty of Paris, formal end of the American Revolutionary War – the defeated British delegation refused to pose.

Bernard Bailyn asserts that the colonists were not exclusively fighting for their own freedom, but for the protection of the English constitution from corruption. In this interpretation the colonists didn’t actually see the British as the oppressors, but likewise victims of a conspiracy against their liberty; which should have been guaranteed to them under the English constitution. Whilst I would agree with this judgement to a certain extent, the changing nature of the tone in many letters sent from colonials to the king demonstrate that Bailyn’s judgement was only true for a decade or so after the Treaty of Paris.

We can conclude therefore that, since prior to the end of the Seven Years War British parliament had managed to maintain the colonists’ sense of nationality, heritage and loyalty to their rulers, that it was the fault of the more recent government, from Grenville onwards, that this patriotic feeling was lost. J.H. Elliot supports Bailyn’s view, but neglects to go as far as to distinguish that this motivation didn’t continue right up until the Proclamation of 1763. He affirms that, “it was precisely because they saw themselves as British that the Americans would stand up for their rights.” By applying too much economic pressure on the colony the British administration had highlighted to the colonials the disparity between the way they were treated and the way which British citizens were treated in Britain.

Many colonials at the time even argued that the new taxes would have been justifiable, had the subjects of the taxes been treated like and given the same rights as British citizens living in Britain. The colonials’ main demand in this respect was representation in parliament, leading to the popular revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation”.Britain’s failure to allow the colonials a stake in the empire, by granting their wish of a vote or at least some form of representation in parliament, may well have been the deciding factor in the change of their self-perceived nationality. Representation was essential to maintaining the peace and unity of the empire; if the colonials weren’t British then they were being occupied by a foreign power.

The flag of the Constitutional Congress - the original flag of the United States displaying a mixed identity.

The flag of the Constitutional Congress – the original flag of the United States displaying a mixed identity.

Yet increasingly even some hope of representation wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy the aspirations of many colonials, “There is no longer any room for hope”. It is possible that a model similar to that used for Scotland, in which representatives were sent to the Westminster parliament, would have been accepted by the British administration in return for subordination to the implementation of British tax. Benjamin Franklin, however, as Pennsylvania’s agent in London, was of the belief that even this level of appeasement would no longer be enough. Since it was plain that a more lenient policy of appeasement in regards to representation was not possible; as the Scottish, who were geographically so much closer than the Americans, were unable to attain more than what the colonials had, we can infer from Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that most colonials were already set on a path of intention towards independence. John Green points out that the American Revolution and War of Independence were separate events, with the revolution preceding but overlapping with the War of Independence. This meant that before the war had even begun, the colonials were already a self-governing nation, with a strong sense of a separate nationality. On September 5th 1774, Continental Congress met for the first time in Philadelphia. This was effectively the first American government, creating and enforcing policies. If this is the point at which we start to consider the Americans as a separate nationality to the British then the War of Independence was lost long before the fighting had ended, or the declaration in 1776. Whilst economic factors may have been the earthquake under the ocean, the subsequent crisis of national identity was the tidal wave which carried the revolutionary crisis.


The use of civilian militia known as “Minute Men” gave the Revolutionary Army a significant advantage over the slow-reinforcing British Army.

As important as it was to maintain the colonials’ perception of themselves as British, it could be argued that the British had no choice in the firm stance they took against giving the colonials representation in parliament. A strategy of appeasement on the matter of representation in parliament could have been dangerous, as it may have given an impression of weakness, not only towards the colonials, but more importantly towards British citizens on the verge of revolt. Whilst the Bloody Code may have been due to the disillusionment of the upper landowning classes, the precarious economic situation following the war meant that it was particularly important to tread a careful line in order to please the British population, who, after all, had to take priority over the nation’s colonial citizens.  Lord North took a relatively firm stance on repealing taxes as a result of colonial demonstration, “I never will be driven to repeal a duty by downright force.”He even went as far as to claim that had the Stamp Act not been repealed it would have been in effective operation.The historian J.H Elliot on the other hand disagrees, “Already aware of the logistical problems in the way of reinforcing from England the army in America to levels which would enable it to contain the rising tide of disorder, the administration rightly came to the conclusion that the act was unenforceable.”Elliot’s judgement is more convincing given their financial state following the Seven Years War, thus creating these “logistical” problems of enforcing the act.

When the British realised how the colony was drifting further from its control and identity, its subsequent attempts to reaffirm its position and dominance actually caused the colonials to realise themselves how separate the two nations had become. In this instance Britain’s failure is the same as for its economic strategy: too much too fast.

The simple logistical issues regarding distance made effective governance of the American colonies all the more difficult. Technology was not at an advanced enough stage to cope to the extent required for communications and supplies over the distance separating the Americas and Britain of over 3000 miles. These logistical issues could have been managed better however, had the British invested properly in establishing a controllable and powerful enough sub-body of government, based in the colony itself, in order to help reduce reaction time and better improve informed decision making, based on more specific local knowledge. Those left to run British affairs on the American continent were not given the necessary assistance, “Local customs officials were too few on the ground. Often they received little or no support from colonial governors.”This lack of support perhaps even increased the tensions leading to the Boston Massacre, undermining the Bostonians’ reverence of British authority.

Ultimately the crisis leading to the revolution and War of Independence was due to the ineffectual management of a necessary movement towards a more unified and controlled empire. The colony was lost due to desperate attempts to keep hold of it. In opposition to Lord Grenville, Charles Townsend observed that, “if parliament were to ever give up the right of taxing America, then he must give up the word “colony”- for that implies subordination.” This definition of a colony, requiring “subordination”, was a limitation to the duration of time for which the British could rule. Had the colony been viewed as more of an extension of Britain itself, then arguably it may still be part of Britain today.

Lord North - the final agitator or just the last straw?

Lord North – the final agitator or just the last straw?

“Men in London were more alert, perhaps, than those in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, to the fact that what had been won had to be held.”Whilst this interpretation is certainly correct in reference to men such as Lord George Grenville, it is not a description which can be attributed to men such as Lord North. Some members of the British administration therefore were successful in the sense that they realised that there was a crisis brewing, although they failed to prevent it. Whilst in contrast other members of parliament, although less aware of an ensuing crisis, actually did less to inflame it as a result. Lord North even fell asleep during a Parliamentary discussion about the levying of taxes in relation to the developing crisis and although the Declaration of Independence happened during his term in office, the policies which had caused the crisis were inherited from Newcastle, Grenville and Rockingham.

The aim of parliament and George III at the time was to maintain the Americas as a colony of Britain, making its loss a failure in this sense; it could also be argued that the loss of the Americas was in fact beneficial at the time and for the nation’s future welfare. The cost of maintaining a colony so far away, especially one so hotly contested by other colonial powers, was running Britain into the ground; despite contradictory intentions on Britain’s part, the crisis that led to America’s independence may well have been an overall success rather than a failure. France’s choice to financially prioritise their affairs in America was a significant factor in bringing about their own revolution, deposing the monarchy. Had the British been as tenacious, a similar consequence may have occurred.

The Lion of Zion, Part 2: Rastas and Revolutionaries

To read the first part of The Lion of Zion, click here.

We left Ethiopia on the verge of what historians call the Late Modern Period, which is somewhere in the late 1700s (because when you’ve been studying Egyptian tributaries or Inca agriculture for half your life you kind of lose perspective of what “recent” is). Perhaps it would be better to call it the Recognisable Age, because so many of the things our lives are based on – empirical science and automatic machinery, global diplomacy, mass politics and ideology- originated around then. They’re easy to take for granted but either didn’t exist or wouldn’t have been the same at all in an age of manpower and mercantilism and the divine right of monarchs. While it’s usually seen as a European thing, the Modern Age would have repercussions all over the world. In Ethiopia it would bring famines and boons, conquests and tragedies, bandit emperors and a son of God. It would begin in earnest, as many great sagas do, with a clash of kings.

I'm sorry, Tewodros II can't hear you over all the swag he has.

I’m sorry, Tewodros II can’t hear you over all the swag he has.

Sparked by a debatable line of succession – which coincidentally coincided with poor harvests, religious intolerance and a weak administration – the Ethiopian Age of Princes can be seen in the same light as the Time of Troubles in Russia a century earlier. Local nobles declared themselves Kings, Princes and Emirs in a battle royale for the…well, for the royalty, and the people of the country suffered massively. Muslim fought Christian, North fought South, and roving groups of bandits called Shifta fought freaking everyone. The Beta Israel even came out on top for a time, recreating their ancient Kingdom of Semien. It makes sense, in a conflict of local power, that the winners should be the ones who brought with them modernised, centralised structure. What makes less sense is that the winner would actually be one of the bandits. But Emperor Tewodros II was just that, a former Shifta and royal heir who – if you believe royal accounts – was basically Ethiopia’s Robin Hood figure before his systematic conquest of the petty states to restore order to the country in 1855. He was also, as it turns out, a sneaky moderniser – he asked for British weaponry and skills so he could “protect Christian interests on the borders of Victoria’s empire” and tried to separate the church from the state – and an impulsive badass – he filled his court with live Ethiopian Lions, a tradition that would last right up until the 1970s. But he was a new sort of Ethiopian leader, and like the new kind of Ethiopia he was far from stable. In his diplomacy with the British Empire, hindered already by Ethiopia’s unique alphabet and Britain’s obstinate refusal to ever learn anyone else’s language, he offended Queen Victoria’s aides, who decided to invade. Not wanting to be the Emperor who unified and destroyed Ethiopia in a single lifetime, Tewodros shot himself in his castle in 1868.

Ethiopia’s golden ticket of diplomacy worked worse in a secular, modern world – the “Prester John” card had failed, and protecting the Ethiopian Christians seemed less valuable to the Great Powers once they had become great enough to cross its mountains without habitually dropping dead. Ethiopia survived the British invasion only by installing a pro-British Emperor, who ironically had been given all the British supplies Tewodros had requested as payment, and life went on precariously. The rest of Ethiopia’s 19th century was spent expanding – expanding its army, expanding is borders, expanding its population. But it could only expand where there was space for it to do so, and the eyes of secular powers were still fixed on the now quite populous country. But one group of Westerners approached Ethiopia in a new light, and a unique light. Let’s give a warm, Holistic History welcome to Jamaica – and the movement who found God incarnate in Ethiopia.

Groundation Day: one hog away from a Bill Murray movie.

Groundation Day: Not to be confused with movies about Bill Murray’s repetitive life.

Ethiopia came under the control of Prince Tafari, later crowned as Halie Selassie, in 1916. Many saw him as another good Ethiopian diplomat – he had spoken out against the use of chemical weapons and for African independence at the League of Nations, and had become one of the most famous Africans in the world. But a literal reading of Bible verse had led some Jamaican Christians to believe he was something more. They believed he was nothing less than God in human form, and that Ethiopia was the “Zion” or holy land to the “Babylon” of the Western world. Combining Afrocentric philosophy, egalitarianism and the imperial colours of Ethiopia – red, yellow and green – they formed a religious movement which they named after the Prince which, in Amharic, made it “Ras Tafari”. Even more interesting is that Halie Selassie never accepted his role as God: he negotiated with Rastafari leaders, even offering them land to settle in Ethiopia, but remained a strict Coptic Christian his entire life. He visited Jamaica, an event still known as Groundation Day, but refused to speak to the crowd until the “cloud of ganja smoke” drifted away. Ras Tafari, the god who didn’t want to be, would spread his message of peace to a whole movement. But his mortal life was just as interesting.

In 1936, the Country That Couldn’t Be Conquered was occupied by that eternal latecomer to the imperial party, Italy – at the time, calling itself the New Roman Empire under the control of the prime minister and “Duke of Fascism” Benito Mussolini. The invasion would be one of Ethiopia’s bloodiest and most brutal, with both sides using illegal weaponry – the Ethiopians used expanding bullets, the Italians chemical weapons. The fight lasted for the whole of the Second World War, and Halie Selassie – from exile – raised the profile of Ethiopia considerably by denouncing the Italians. By the end of the war, with Italy’s defeat, Selassie’s diplomatic cunning allowed Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, a former Italian colony, and propelled it into being one of Africa’s most influential states, a model for the ambitious leaders of newly forming African nations. But Selassie, like so many of the leaders of post-war Africa, was good and dictatorial in equal measure. He passed the laws of Ethiopia, he took part in the nobles’ intrigue – he passed a law in 1967 which allowed him 75% of the country’s crops should he require it. In many ways, Selassie ran the country just like a pre-modern absolute monarch, right down to the Imperial Pillow-Bearer who carried cushions and bedding wherever he went. The modern world, however, is a world of ideology, and Ethiopia was about to experience one of the 20th century’s most dogmatic and powerful. In the ranks of an unhappy and powerful military, Communism was brewing.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

The Derg presented themselves as loyal servants to the Emperor. A group of army officers and generals, they claimed to be helping Selassie administer his country in his declining years. But one by one, imperial assets seemed to disappear – his shares in industry were taken by the state, his law-making powers transferred to the Derg. In 1975, they declared themselves the true rulers of Ethiopia, imprisoning Selassie in his own palace. Many claim he was killed by suffocation with one of the imperial pillows. The Derg then ran Ethiopia with as iron a fist, and a great deal more extravagance – borrowing money for ridiculous projects and personal gains under the leadership of Mengistu Halie Mariam that it could never sustain. In their attempts to retain power, they were also brutal. They are estimated to have killed between 30,000 and 500,000 people, most notably and first of all the communist Revolutionary Party that had been collecting mass support in secret under Selassie. Mengistu would later be found guilty of genocide, and his entire rule known as The Ethiopian Civil War. A great – and somewhat related – tragedy came in the Ethiopian Famine of 1984. Famine caused by drought is common in subtropical Ethiopia, but during this famine the Derg insisted on a large quota of all the grain grown. They also tried to use it to settle more Amhara Ethiopians – those of the ethnic majority – in the less populated south and, in many cases, simply starve potential rebels from other ethnicities to death. When international aid did arrive – thanks to Live Aid and the work of film-makers like Mohamad Amin, it did in huge amounts – it went too often into the hands of the Derg itself.

There are few absolute bad guys in history. To be honest, the Derg can be seen as an extreme continuation of Amharic Ethiopia’s expansion and conquest from the invader state of Dmt onwards. Tewodros II showed the benefit of the modern world’s centralised power, ideology and structure, the Derg merely showed the other side of the coin. But the Derg years, which lasted until Mengitsu was run out of office by an army composed mostly of Ethiopia’s minorities in 1991, were atrocious in a unique way. The way Ethiopia is seen today is mostly the result of these years. In reality, Ethiopia remains at the same time both unique in Africa and a totally interconnected part of it – it has a somewhat alien religion to some, and a somewhat alien alphabet, even a somewhat alien history, but it’s got the same ancient roots, the same astounding cultural diversity, and faced the same issues of independence and colonial power, albeit in a slightly different way. Ethiopia may seem to defy being put into boxes. But there’s some things that connect all across history, and no country shows it better.

The Lion of Zion, Part 1: Ethiopia and Idiosyncracy

Ethiopia is a country that defies being put into boxes. It’s seen as one of the poorest countries in Africa, but it has the 12th highest GDP. It’s Christian in the majority, but about as close to Madagascar as Jerusalem, and it’s been that way for longer than Rome itself. It was home to the messiah of a world religion who never believed in the faith built around him, and it continues to contain the only part of Africa to have never belonged to “civilised” colonists from another continent. And despite its unique features, it’s likely the place where all human life originated, which is the kind of bragging right even Ancient Greece would envy. It might seem weird to look at Ethiopia holistically. You can’t generalise its history to the countries around it, you can’t really see themes and connectivity as clearly in a mountain kingdom that even the continent-conquering caliphs and imperialists left alone. But in a way Ethiopia is the best portrait of Africa you can get, not because it conforms, but because it’s so diverse and unusual. It’s so far from the stereotype of Africa as to make the stereotype look ridiculous, and if you start breaking preconceptions like that you can start to see the area less as a continent and more as a collection of states with individual needs, desires and histories. Welcome back to African history. But more specifically, welcome Ethiopia.


Ethiopia and the Egyptians: One Frankincense short of a Nativity.

Ethiopia has been inhabited by humans since “inhabited by humans” meant “there are some tall, hairy monkeys here and when they’re not getting eaten by sabre tooth cats they’re actually pretty good at making tools”. The first records of civilisation there come much later, but considering that they were Ancient Egypt’s main source of myrrh and gold we can safely say that there’s been some kind of recognisable state there for  about 5,400 years. Originally occupying both sides of the Red Sea, what the Ancient Egyptians called Punt or Pwenet was a bountiful land of mountains, mummies and monkeys, but history about it kind of goes dark again when the Egyptians literally forgot that it was a real place (which seems ridiculous, but ask someone if Timbuktu is real and that suddenly gets more believable). In around 700BC, Ethiopia was rediscovered intact by settlers from what is now Yemen, who brought with them their kings, their genes and their alphabet to create the land of D’mt – incidentally, the genes and unique South Arabic alphabet remain in Ethiopia to this day, both long dead in their home country. At some indeterminate point later came the Beta Israel, a distinct ethnic group of black Jews who were either converted ethnic Ethiopians or southbound exiles from Jerusalem, who would become one of Ethiopia’s most interesting and unexpected minorities. But the first real records come from the Kingdom of Axum, a successor state of D’mt from around the turn of the first century AD. Axum, where D’mt created Ethiopian language and ethnicity, would create two of the most important traditions of Ethiopian history – Christianity, and diplomatically kicking ass.


Prester John, like Jesus, evidently acquired the ability to turn from a Middle Eastern man into a white beardy guy to please Europeans.

Axum, truly the hipster of nations, was Christian before it was cool. It was one of the first Christian nations in the world, probably adopting it as a state religion before even the Roman Empire did (which, as we all know, they did in AD391). This early Christianity led to some interesting situations further down the line – including a rather ironic song that asks if Ethiopians even know it’s Christmas time, because they sure as hell knew before Bob Geldof’s ancestors did – and was probably the source of medieval European rumours about the Kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian utopia in the east surrounded by Muslim lands. It also led to an uneasy alliance with the Roman Empire, who bordered Ethiopia after they aggressively expanded towards each other. You can perhaps see why they got along. So diplomacy saved Ethiopia for not the last time, and brought the country back in touch with the Middle East via…well, via the via, because that’s literally the Roman word for road. In an ironic inversion of the D’mt invasion some 400 years earlier, the Ethiopians even teamed up with Rome to take over Yemen in the AD 600s, all the while growing as a regional power. But that power came at a cost, and Axum’s growth was threatened by its declining fertility and the slow advance of the Sahara desert. Axum couldn’t feed its population, couldn’t plant trees to match its deforestation, couldn’t survive the plagues that its burgeoning trade with the north brought it. Axum, again the hipster of nations, was destroyed by its declining environment 1,200 years before we began to worry that it could happen to us.

What replaced Axum was a series of monarchies and tribal divisions. Groups like the Beta Israel built their own towns and nations in the North, newly converted Muslims did the same in the East while the remaining Christians settled in the central highlands. But as the remnants of a now shattered Roman Empire in Africa and the Middle East were being eaten by the Islamic Caliphates, Ethiopia still managed to pull a legendary trick of diplomacy: because they had sheltered early Muslim refugees and promised to pose no threat to the Caliphate, the Prophet Muhammad specifically declared that attacking Ethiopia was against Islam. Ethiopia, where their old trading partners Egypt and Eastern Rome had fallen, remained unconquered throughout the Dark Ages.

What is remarkable was that that truce lasted, with one Ottoman-shaped exception, for the next millennium.

church ethiopia

When they’re not being churches, the carvings at Lalibela make for great helipads.

And so Ethiopia bumbled along peacefully for most of its existence. Under a new and unification-minded set of kings who traced their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (to be fair, all you have to do to claim ancestry from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is 1: Be a King and 2: Say so) they built ridiculous underground rock churches, traded with the emerging powers of the time, even survived another threat to their independence in the 1500s – that is, the Ottoman-shaped exception – by enlisting the help of the Portuguese, who believed themselves to have found the real-life Kingdom of Prester John and were no doubt looking for all the Fountains of Eternal Youth and nubile white maidens that had been added to the legend over time. Even during the peak of colonisation, Ethiopia managed to retain its independence, but this time by being not particularly worth it – all rumours of Prester John dispelled, and without as much manpower and natural resources as, say, the Zimbabwe, but with a more modern army and mountains that could kick the shit out of a European soldier, the cost would have been greater than the prize. But Ethiopia’s years of peace would dry up as Axum’s farms had a millennium earlier. The modern age was blooming, and with it, modern threats. Solomon’s descendants still ruled. And they would go out with a bang.

Holistic History Extra: Lit History

Imagine a library. A library which contains every book written. Well, within reason. Since 1500. While you’re containing your excitement that yes, there are actually libraries like that, imagine the imaginary one has a search function. And we’re not talking searching for books.Searching for individual words. Individual words out of the trillions written across half a millennium. You could do a lot with that. You could trace trends in pop culture. You could chart the formation and destruction of ideas across time. You could search for “poop” and laugh uproariously for the next 500 years. In other words, it could be an extraordinary tool for charting history and culture connecting people across time.

Godammit, Internet, you’ve done it again.

The Google Ngram Viewer (it would be Google, they’ve done this kind of thing before) is a search tool for Google’s enormous imaginary library.  That is to say, it allows you to search through every single word of the 5,200,000 digitised books from throughout the history of Modern English, 1500 to the present. Don’t tell me you’re not at least a little bit interested. Now, as scientific methods go, it’s…about as scientific as a PhD in English Literature. Life isn’t reflected entirely by literature, after all, sometimes, literature tries to be as far from real life as possible. Plus, you kind of have to guess at cause and effect – why one word is popular at one time but dwindles at another is at its core educated guesswork. But it’s another fascinating thing nonetheless, and it’s got the makings of the objectivity and empiricism history is relying on more and more.  So here’s a few searches to get you started.

(Click on the images to enlarge)


war peaceAn easy one to start with, right? “War” starts out low and begins to spike just before 1914 – that’s predictable enough -then drops, but never as low as it had been before the First World Fuckup. Contained there are generations of war poets and, after that, the modernist writers of the Lost Generation. Then it spikes suddenly from about 1937 as Europe prepares for war again and drops more slowly from the Cold War and further into living memory. Peace follows the exact same pattern on a smaller scale. But that makes sense too. When do people think about an end to war the most?


war peaceSame shit, different language, using the Russian words for “War” and “Peace” and, for we uneducated few who can’t speak Russian, the same colours. “Peace” peaks in 1812: the same year Russia emerged victorious against Napoleon. That was a surprising result for everyone because a) Napoleon didn’t lose things and  b) The Russian Empire didn’t win things, and a source of much national pride for a country that not too long ago had been beset by plague, famine and angry Poles and was now set to conquer Europe. Another interesting jump is in the use of “War” from 1941, the year Hitler invaded the USSR. Almost until the war was declared, Stalin was intent on staying neutral, banning all mention of it in the media until it was unavoidable. Those media are responsible for the huge jump in the last part of the graph.


war peace

The changing face of places is also pretty clear to see. And not just because London’s looks eerily like the city’s own skyline. This ngram starts in 1770, and London begins as the unofficial capital of the lit world – and the capital of one of the empires running the real one (the fact that it’s mapping English texts helps, of course). New York’s rise to fame comes roughly during the “Gilded Age” of America’s history, the birth of monopolies and skyscrapers and silly moustachioed capitalists (kidding: they’ve always existed), and London’s decline comes during the decline of its empire before becoming a cultural capital during the “Swinging Sixties”. No-one really notices the large cities, the huge economic powerhouses of Tokyo and Beijing, until they have their booms – the miracle of Post-War Japan and the “Golden Sixties”, the Deng Xiaoping reforms from the 1980s in China. The graph ends before today. Beijing still rends upwards.


war peaceThis one…this one is just uncanny. “Capitalism”, “Communism”  and “Fascism”‘s use  in Literature more than slightly resembles how influential they were in real life, minus capitalism’s unusually shaky start – look how Communism starts shaky and gets stronger, almost overtakes Capitalism in the 1950s and then dwindles back to a sharp decline in the 1990s during the fall of the USSR. Fascism pops up out of the blue in the late ’20s and has its peak in 1943, then it’s unpopular until it’s revived as a left-wing insult in the 1960s. However, Capitalism peaks in the 1930s, the recovery period of the Great Depression. Maybe Capitalism is more often used as a curse than a compliment, and invoked more by critics than believers. By the 1980s, at least, it has its day. Does this sound familiar yet?

You’ve probably got some ideas of your own, if not I’ve bored you half to death with enough. It’s rare that you get a chance to measure ideas so empirically – and the Ngram’s not perfect, but it’s clearly hit the mark more than once. It doesn’t have to be about history, and some of the linguistics angles are the most interesting (see the vicious battle between “thee” and “you” in the 1600s, although you can probably guess who won) And, whatever you do, post any ideas you have and discoveries you make in the comments. The imaginary library is only going to get larger. Why not make yourself part of it?

Metal, Monopoly and Mugabe: Zimbabwe and Its Legacies

The simple way to think about sub-Saharan Africa is as an unhappy result of European colonisation and nothing more. Most of the borders you can see today were drawn along the borders of old dominions, for a start. Most countries still use a European “business language” and a fair few still use their old colonial names. The African Commonwealth even have their own version of Eurovision, and if that’s not a grisly reminder of a Europe-dominated past I don’t know what is. But history, like nature, romance or War and Peace, resists any attempts to make it simple. History works on a sort of reverse Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer isn’t just incomplete, but incorrect, obtuse and even harmful. Much like being hit over the head with War and Peace. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the things that break the stereotypes – those places and events that prove that an area’s history is more than the two-dimensional cut-out that non-holistic thinking makes it into. And that’s why today, we’re going to talk about some zimbabwes.

A zimbabwe, for those of you who are shaking your fists at the screen and saying that I can’t use proper nouns, is a specific type of stone fort found in southern Africa. But I admit, you got me, because I’m going actually to talk about the country they give their name to, and the centuries of history behind it. But ironically, our story – like so many of the best stories – begins in Nigeria.


Light Green here represents the Bantu cultural group. They’re putting the Celts a little bit to shame.

Nigeria is a pretty relevant place in the world today, with its 174 million people and all, but in 400 BC they were the freaking place to be – well, along with that other tourist hotspot, Niger – because they had that luxury resource everyone was talking about…well, talking about or getting killed by. Nigeria had iron, and like the Etruscans, Celts, ancient Indians with whom they shared the discovery they used that technology to spread across huge areas very, very quickly. The Bantu culture, originally from the area around Niger and Nigeria, spread and diversified across hundreds of thousands of miles, conquering the stone tool-wielding natives of the southern jungles and savannahs and slowly assimilating them into the 250-odd Bantu ethnicities there are today. When they came to the Highveld of Zimbabwe (Highlands, but think less Scotland and more The Last King of Scotland), they were able to dominate it for over a millennium.

It’s difficult to know much about the early Bantu in Zimbabwe – being a culture that, for all its early technological advancements, had no written language to brag about them in – but contact with Arab traders on the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes gives an impression of a pretty cohesive kingdom there in the 9th century. Zimbabwe is rich in gold and diamonds, something that would propel them to great heights pretty quickly with the northern kings and sultans who deemed their palaces insufficiently blinged out. Thus, the Zimbabweans got rich trading with…well, whoever had the ships to take their goods: first the Arabs and then the Portuguese, who enthusiastically claimed in that oh-so-European way that they had “discovered” the settlements.  But what the Portuguese found might have looked rather familiar. Because the first Bantu’s descendants still had one technological advancement up their sleeves, and it was a surprising one. They had invented, independently of Europe and probably of the Middle East, the castle. To be precise, they had invented the zimbabwe.


The entrance as it stands today. You can see the Dan Snow documentary coming a mile off.

All the wealth they got back from ports in what would later become the ironically un-wealthy Mozambique had to go somewhere. The zimbabwes that still dot the Highveld show just what that wealth could do. Curved fortresses that housed every major family for a whole region, often built just from fuck-off huge chunks of limestone without mortar. The largest, the Great Zimbabwe, whose keep alone would have housed 300 local leaders and their families in a sort of “Well, your mansion is nice so I’m going to build mine literally on top of it” sort of fashion, is surrounded by farmland that fed a desmene around 30,000 people strong. The people of the area – now named the Shona, although that name started out as derogatory (they’d get along with the Iroqouis) – abandoned it in time, spreading north to better farmland safe from the desertifying effect of climate change and better, safer trade. But it’s a testament to that interim between Iron Age invaders and modernity like those castles found in Europe. It’s still standing.

I’ve talked before about what happened in Africa in the late 1800s, and that’s how long the Shona survived in their latest and greatest independent country, Matapa. From there, they started a slow decline– they didn’t take up guns or develop their own invader-bashing technology. Some southern tribes did, and that’s probably why you’ve heard of the Zulu. From there, the decline got a little faster. They also didn’t count on the invaders bringing machine guns, gold and frankly ridiculous shipments of tea, and so it was that the area that is now Zimbabwe became one of the southernmost points of the British “stripe” across Africa. This, unfortunately, is where the tragedy begins. Britain weren’t terrible colonial masters. While they lacked the tolerance and spending on education that the French Empire had (although that tolerance was frequently lost with horrible consequences – see Haiti) they ruled with at least some consent from local rulers and under the unwritten “British constitution”. In Zimbabwe, this was not the case. Because Zimbabwe wasn’t run as a colony. It was run as a company.


You even put a pickaxe on South Rhodesia’s emblem. You subtle British bastards.

There have been few privately run countries in history. The British East India Company had one in India, the Dutch equivalent in Indonesia, and Leopold II of Belgium used one to justify owning the Congo personally as a dictator – the Congon Free State conveniently had only one shareholder. Newly renamed Southern Rhodesia was, de facto, run by the British South Africa Company under the leadership of a man called Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes and Rhodesia. Before you say anything, not a coincidence. The BSAC was a mining company, and the wealth that had once built Great Zimbabwe now built Rhodesia, finding diamonds, gold, silver – all with cheap Boer (Dutch-come-White-African) and black labour, whom they kept “honest” by imprisoning them literally within the mines themselves. For the record, while the BSAC doesn’t exist any more, it basically merged into the Rhodes’ De Beers mining cartel – you know, the one which currently make up 50% of the world’s diamond market. Zimbabwe’s history, in the process, was often forgotten or even actively suppressed – the colonial government went as far as to claim that Great Zimbabwe was the work of early white Christians, the acolytes of the mythical “Prester John”, because what Bantu could build something like that? So British farmers settled, using what was essentially perfect farmland for their European crops, and British politics emerged. Not even a struggle for independence could rid them of that, and Rhodesia emerged as an independent white-minority-led nation in 1965. It was a democracy in the loosest sense, and was widely denounced as a “racist state” along with its southern neighbour South Africa. When a black man won the 1980 elections, it was denounced as a Shona takeover. Unlike its equivalent in South Africa, this time it sort of was. Rhodesia had just elected Robert Mugabe.


This protest is happening in Britain. It sure as hell isn’t going to happen in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s sort-of-socialist, sort-of-fascist government changed a lot of things in Zimbabwe. They justified it as returning the country to what it used to be – so it was renamed Zimbabwe, given a flag that incorporated treasure found in its largest fortress, and declared 16 Bantu languages to be the official languages of state. It also took over the land of white farmers by force. It also started a massacre of Mugabe’s political opponents called the Gukurahundi. It translates from Shona as “the rain that blows away the chaff”. In Zimbabwe today, the moral questions aren’t easy. Whether the country had the right to take away the land that had been taken from it before with force is debatable. Whether Mugabe is a better leader than men like Ian Smith and Cecil Rhodes were before him is debatable. Whether the government is really motivated by revanchism is debatable. But Zimbabwe remains a country ingrained in and affected by its powerful, vibrant and interesting history, in its mines and forts and trading posts. But by doing that it’s also defining itself by its colonial history, and maybe in doing so creating a situation if not worse then just as bad. A saying about Mugabe from a the white Rhodesian government days sums up Zimbabwe’s trouble best. “The problem is…he thinks too much like us”.