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.

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”.

Hate and Heat in Hispaniola: Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Slaves’ Revolution

Pirates. Slaves. Sugar plantations. Parrots. Voodoo. The history of Hispaniola – you know, that strangely shaped island in the Greater Antilles – looks like it was patched together from the crazed ramblings of Jack Sparrow and Guybrush Threepwood. And sure, at first glance, it’s a stereotypical Caribbean island, with tropical forests and mountains and colourful cities and a history of violent dictatorship, but if you just scratch beneath the surface there’s a huge amount of history, interconnectivity and culture that the “Banana Republic”descriptions just don’t cover. For a start, the island is split almost down the middle between the French-Creole speaking Haiti and the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, two nations with enough bad blood between them to fill an ocean, but it’s also got brutal presidents, revolutionary heroes, secret mountain cults and the world’s first independent slave republic. Ladies and gentlemen, the history of Hispaniola.

Taino Indians in Hispaniola

The Taino get ther collective freak on.

Hispaniola’s first known inhabitants were the Taíno, a South American Arawak culture who followed Polynesians’ example by sailing around discovering shit until they owned pretty much an entire ocean’s worth of islands. You can get a really good idea of how a culture works from its religion, and if I tell you that the Taíno had two main gods – a goddess of fresh water and fertility and a god of salt water and cassava – you can probably get a good idea of their priorities. (For the record, they also had two smaller spirit-gods for different types of cassava, and Arawak itself is the native word for cassava flour – there’s a definite theme here that I can’t quite place). Like a lot of Aboriginal American cultures they had a matrilineal society, where women owned lands and titles more often than men, and split the island into about 5 different clans, each with a distinctly different culture. When the Europeans came, however – Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his first voyage in 1493 and, because he had a flag, claimed it for Spain – the Taíno quickly died out, – that had no real resistance to Eurasian diseases like plague and smallpox. (If it’s any consolation, we had no resistance to syphillis, but…ugh. Unfortunate implications.) What records we have on them, however, are surprisingly positive – Columbus said that they “have the sweetest voice in the world and are always laughing” – but they are limited, and when Spanish colonisation really began the only Taíno left (about 10% of the original population after smallpox epidemics) were taken as slaves and concubines. The sweet-voiced Taíno only really survive in the name they gave to their island. They called it Ayiti.

The Isle of Tortuga – the real-life base of piracy, just off the coast of Haiti.

Spain, and this is a general theme throughout history, are terrible at empires. They survived mostly by mining silver in Peru – amazingly, that caused huge inflation and a market crash so huge that the Netherlands declared war on them in frustration – and through African slave labour. The slave system in Hispaniola created a natural class system – with Spanish whites at the top, then colony-born whites, then freed slaves and mixed race “mulattoes” with slaves, unsurprisingly, at the bottom. Meanwhile, the awful economic advice crippled the economy of the entire west half of the island and moved most of the Spanish population to the east, essentially giving it what would become Haiti to whoever wanted some more colonial land. In the 1600s, that meant “France and pirates”, and because the French had money and a military and didn’t rely on crime, eventually just “France” – although the fact that a pirate republic existed at all is awesome. By the 1700s, then, Hispaniola was split between the mostly slave French bit and the mostly mulatto Spanish bit. But you know the 1700s. Shit goes down in France in the 1700s. So that’s when things got interesting.

Dangerous times call for dangerous hats.

Through the Enlightenment, slaves rebelled pretty constantly in Haiti in an attempt to make slavery unprofitable and dangerous. Many ran away into the mountain where they became “marrons” – which is where we get the word “marooned” – who started worshipping traditional African spirit gods in the guise of Catholic saints. This secret pagan worship became known as Voduo or Voodoo, and your impression of it is probably wrong – mine was – so just understand that it was important in uniting escaped slaves and Baron Samedi is a hell of a lot better than the Grim Reaper because HE KILLS ZOMBIES AND WEARS A DINNER JACKET. This rebellion was happening all throughout the New World – in Florida, black slaves joined forces with the local Seminole Indians and repelled the Spanish for several decades – but nowhere was anti-slavery feeling stronger than in Haiti. The French Revolution near the end of the century promised to change that – specifically, it promised to free all slaves– but Napoleon quickly reversed that policy and that sort of pissed people off (is the understatement of the century). The mixed race-mulattoes, who had been campaigning for civil rights, and the slaves, who had been rebelling for freedom, quickly rose up against the whites – and then against each other – in a three-way struggle for Haiti. The result was unprecedented, unexpected and completely horrifying to the French. The slaves won – – and formed the first slaves’ republic in history.

Toussaint’s best side.

Unfortunately – you shoule be able to see this coming a mile off by now –  the republic of Haiti was kind of doomed from the start. France demanded that the slaves pay reparations for the loss of such an important colony – roughly £8,400,000,000 in today’s terms – and most of Haiti’s wealth had been lost to fleeing ex-slave-owners in the revolution. France, to this day, has refused to repay the charges. Revolutionary heroes like Toussaint L’Ouverture (yes, his name means All-Saints-Day the Overture – he was awesome, look him up) had been executed for treason and the chance of further rebellion was high. After only one year, Haiti abandoned democracy and installed an emperor. The worst would be yet to come.

In the Spanish half of Hispaniola, however, a new kind of revolutionary fervour was taking root. The early 1800s saw most of South America rise up against their Spanish overlords to form free and equal…well, fine, they were republican dictatorships led by colonial whites but they were still a step in the right direction. Spanish Hispaniola rose up and attempted to join the sort-of South American Union but was invaded by – who else- Haiti, and a 20-year occupation of the Dominican Republic began. Campaigners like Juan Duarte eventually secured freedom for the Dominicans, however, and set the stage for the rest of the 19th century. The Dominican Republic could become a trading power by exporting sugar, bananas, coffee – all massively fashionable in the pre-Starbucks USA. Haiti could become an intellectual capital, living evidence against Social Darwinism and racist ideologies. And, for a little while, they were.

The 20th century, however, is not kind to countries. The Dominican Republic declined in stability until a 1930s coup by President Rafael Trujillo, generally accepted as one of the worst dictators in Central America whose lasting legacy is that of the “Parsley Massacres”, a genocidal act in which Haitians in the Dominican Republic were identified – because they couldn’t say the Spanish for “parsley” – and murdered. Haiti, not wishing to be outdone, had successions of presidents who lasted less than a year until “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a dictator who claimed that voduo made him invincible and who – I kid you not -had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten so it began “Our Doc, who lives in the National Palace”  Now, the status quo is turning yet again – as strong links to Spanish speaking South America make the Dominican Republic one of the area’s most powerful economies while earthquakes and disease cripple their French-Creole speaking neighbours. For all the twists and turns in history, Haiti and the Dominicans are left in the same imbalanced situation as they were in some 500 years earlier. History is interconnected, and holistic, and beautiful. But it’s definitely not fair.

Pyongyang vs. Gangnam: Korean History, and How to Live Through It

“History never looks like history when you’re living through it.” – Gerald W. Johnson

It’s a famous quote from a great historian and probably the best response to that modern belief that history, or at least the interesting part of it, is over. It’s difficult to see the things around you as pages on some GCSE textbook, sure, but that doesn’t mean that nothing worth studying is happening right now, and it definitely doesn’t mean that all the ups and downs of the past are becoming irrelevant. In this post, I’m going to try and prove it by jumping into contemporary history, to talk about a place where legacy of the past is still perfectly clear and a place where history is obviously still in the making. It’s extraordinary, it’s interesting and it’s much more relevant than you might give it credit to be: ladies and gents, the history of Korea.

joseon i choose you

Joseon, I choose you!

Like a lot of Asian nations, Korea’s history stretches so far back that its history gets intertwined with its myth. There’s a little archaeological evidence for some of it – Koreans seem to have lived on the peninsula for 10,000 years and went through a stone age, bronze age, iron age process at a similar rate to Japan – but I’m still waiting on evidence that the kingdom was founded by a mystic bear who was turned into a woman by the god of the sky. From there, Korea (well, Joseon at the time, but you know) began splitting up into smaller kingdoms, then larger ones, then smaller ones again – all filled with the kind of imaginative naming that you would expect from history, like the “Three Kingdoms Era” and the “North/South States Era”. Korea was unified for what many must have believed to be the last time in 918AD under the banner of the northern kingdom, Koryo. You will never guess how that translates into English.


What’s the Korean for B.A.M.F.?

Korea did quite well out of trade with China and Japan, those being the two states in the area capable of trading – and ended up sharing aspects of their language and culture with both. The kingdom developed a reputation as a polite and reserved country (polite, reserved kingdom, north-south divide…I’m resisting the urge to compare Korea to England). They also got really good at defending themselves – as a peninsula with mountains to the North and a badass navy – I mean, fire-breathing impenetrable tank boat badass – so managed to remain independent for the best part of 1,000 years. But that could never last, because come the 20th century Korea came into the sights of the world’s newest Asian superpower. If you’ve read this, it might seem rather familiar.

Japan was in its western-style industrial age when it started its diplomacy with Korea, and as such wanted to gain control of Korea in a western sort of way – flood it with treaties, concessions and gunboat diplomacy. Korea, probably being much more used to full-on war, was annexed completely in 1910. The following decades under Japanese rule would bring statism and fascism to Korea, all under the premise of “co-prosperity” rule, and finally dragged it into something that would change the course of its history forever. Specifically, the Second World War. More specifically, the losing side. By 1945, the Axis had unilaterally surrendered. What was left of them was split between the victorious powers – Hungary and Romania were occupied by the USSR, Japan by the US, and Germany split four ways, then unhappily consolidated into two. Korea was left until the last minute and split between the USA and USSR – the USSR, naturally, taking the north nearer to its border and the USA taking the south nearer to occupied Japan. Then, in 1947, two years into occupation, the frosty relationship between the two occupying powers got colder.

capitalist communist

…but which is the Capitalist Dictator (Park Chung-hee) and which is the Communist Dictator (Kim Il-sung)? 

Where Germany was split between East and West, Korea was split between North and South. The South installed Syngman Rhee, a liberal Christian reformer with strong ties to America. The North installed Kim Il-Sung, a communist freedom fighter with a taste for Stalin’s personality cults in Russia. Kim Il-Sung is still technically in charge of North Korea, despite the minor complication of his death in 1994. As “Eternal Leader”, he always will be. The Korean War was an attempt by the North to bring Korea back together again, and quickly became the first true armed conflict of the Cold War as the USA rushed to the South’s aid, but the attempt failed and the two states were left refusing to accept the other as legitimate – they still don’t. Then, in the 1960s, democracy in South Korea fell to the military government of Park Chung-Hee, laissez-faire dictator, and the South became simultaneously more and less like the impoverished North as its freedoms diminished and its economy boomed. In the late 1980s, the South won back its freedom to vote and the North lost out on its USSR funding. Then, in 2006, North Korea gained its first nuclear weapons.

shelling 2010

North Korea attacks a disputed zone as Southerners stand by. In 2010.

Korea might be just as famous at the moment for its most well-known characters – one ridiculous camp man with an internet following and another ridiculous camp man with a country – than its open hostility and instability, but the fact is that Korean history is far from resolved and developing even today. Not only are they a direct continuation of that great historical conflict, the Cold War, that’s happening right now, they’re hugely related to and influenced by their past. They’re still divided between the USA and the USSR’s politics – and the latter doesn’t even exist any more. They’re still named after ancient unified kingdoms – the North even calls itself Joseon. North Korea’s leader is the grandson of the dictatorial Kim Il-Sung. And South Korea’s is the daughter of the dictatorial Park Chung-Hee. Korea’s story, like every country’s, is still immersed hugely in its past and almost certainly has troubles to come. Either the South will suffer under Communism, or the impoverished North under capitalism, or one of the world’s most homogenous cultures will stay split forever.  Gerald W. Johnson lived through two world wars and still couldn’t see the history around him. Aspire to do better.

For more on Korea’s current affairs, I really recommend this. 

The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 2: Shinobi and Sakoku and Japanese Ambition

A real ninja. Note the lack of teenage, mutant and turtle qualities.

Constant war. Divided families.  Larger armies than had ever been seen before. And that most famous of Chinese imports, the musket. I’m not going to make a huge, arching generalisation here (…even though that’s exactly the sort of thing I do here) but it’s fair to say that brilliant combination can lead a country to turmoil. It near-destroyed the idea of a unified Japan. It near-destroyed the Shogunate, as even the greatest of warlords was suddenly susceptible to assassination or backstabbing.  And it near-destroyed the samurai system, as warlords moved towards the gun-toting mercenary class’ antidote to the honour and brashness of the warrior class – the ninja. If there’s one symbol of the Sengoku era that works better than any other, it’s the ninja – for a start, they never existed at any other point in Japanese history. Their success was based around the pragmatism of the war, and the (temporary) abandonment of all that was noble about feudal Japan – the disguises, poisoning, espionage and often just plain arson would be unthinkable outside of those desperate times. And on the other hand, they also show what was to become the height of Japanese technology for centuries – amazing military philosophy and technology that would make them icons of a strong and innovative Japan in later years. They are also, it must be mentioned, fucking cool – some of the jut su (techniques) wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a James Bond film. But they were not a permanent change, and as the Sengoku Era reeled to a bloody stop under the military genius of Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and the economic genius of the Portuguese firearms trade, the ninjas disappeared just as they had lived – quietly.

European trade had saved Japan from endless civil war – the cheap and high-tech firearms from Portugal and Spain in return for Japanese finery allowed the Shogunate to speed ahead of its protectionist neighbours and reunite Japan.  But the good, peaceful times were not to last. Because with each trade, the Europeans brought more and more of a commodity that the new Shoguns would find more terrifying than any other…Christianity.

Japanese Christians

Excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about our lord Jesus Christ?

It’s often just plain weird where the biggest decisions in history originate from. Arguably the biggest decision in Japanese history was made by a small Basque man in the crypt of a small French church. The man was called Ignatius of Loyola (because you can’t go down in Spanish history without a damned cool sounding name) and he’d just created a society to spread Christianity around the newly-discovered world outside of Europe – the Evangelical-Catholic Jesuits. You’d think Christianity and Japan would never mix what with Japan not being Christian in the modern age and all, but the Jesuits were actually really successful in the East – in under two decades 200,000 new Catholics were counted in the Japanese population. To the Shogun, this was a threat – fearing invasion as much as some mystical figure called the Pope – Japan needed a way to destroy the supposedly corrupting monotheistic influence before the country fell into another hundred years of bloodshed. The solution was pretty much the most drastic foreign policy idea in history. Japan completely closed itself off from the world.

If I only get one message across to you with Holistic History, it’s that the world is built on connections – trade routes and warpaths and migration patterns and the spread of ideas along any and all of the other three. So when a country closes its borders so completely, makes the punishment for attempted emigration death, goes to far as to bore holes every ship in the navy so the boats can’t reach a certain depth of water…that was more than unusual, that was unprecedented. It was also…successful. Sort of. It protected Japanese trade and culture at a time when even China, the freaking workshop of the world and birthplace of most inventions ever, was beginning to be threatened by Western ambition. But it also meant that, wile the world moved on around them, introducing industry, colony, new nations and new philosophies, Japan was completely oblivious.

Then, after around 250 years of self-imposed isolation, entered a final foreigner who would shape Japan forever. He hailed from a country at the other end of the world – the far west, a strange democracy on the other side of the Pacific. The man was called Matt Perry. And no, he wasn’t that one.

Disregard flag accuracy! Acquire Westernisation!

Commodore Matthew Perry (sadly without First Mate David Schwimmer or Admiral Matt le Blanc) was sent to explore the unknown island of Japan, and open up its borders to foreign trade. Because of a loose understanding of diplomacy, America’s attempt involved cannons, ironclad warships and state-of-the-art rifles. Japan was still using katana. I guess it goes without saying that the Japanese conceded pretty quickly, so Japan opened up its borders for the first time in centuries. And then the full force of the Victorian Era flowed into Japan. Samurai had their swords confiscated. The Shogun was usurped, the actual Emperor installed. The Meiji Restoration – kind of the industrial revolution at double speed – began a wave of technology that rapidly put Japan on the world stage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the good ideas from the rest of the world that Japan picked up. As time passed, and Japan’s nationalism became ultranationalism, an insatiable desire amongst many Japanese people for the empire they missed a chance to get. Military power grew, but not foreign relations. Technology exploded in its power, but pacifism didn’t. During the 1920s and ’30s, one final European influence arrived in Japan. It was called fascism.

If it's not love

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

In 1937, fueled by a war economy and the pressures of nationalism, the Japanese experienced something that their Yayoi ancestors would have found unthinkable. They invaded China. In fact, they invaded China really successfully; they turned the north into their puppet before going on to take over Korea, Taiwan and a good number of islands in the Pacific. But it was not without cruelty that they did it – their attack of Nanjing in China, for example, has’t gone down in history as a conquest or a heroic victory. It’s commonly just referred to as The Rape. But as more and more nations joined a growing war, Japan lost its bearings. On the 6th August 1945, while the Imperial Government were discussing the terms of their surrender, one of those new nations delivered its ultimatum. It came in the form of two atomic bombs, and the loss of 200,000 civilian lives.

Post-war, Japan was given the choice between democracy and…well, there wasn’t another choice, which is kind of ironic when talking about democracy. Japan, while it kept its ex-fascist emperor, was rapidly reformed into one of the fairest political systems around today, while a succession of reconstructionist presidents created something now called the Japanese Economic Miracle. It was kind of a big deal. After its 2,000 years of existence, Japan had seen Seven Ages – a Prehistoric Backwater, a Chinese Vassal, a Feudal Idyll and then a Feudal Disaster, an Industrial Autocracy and a lasting Democracy. The new calendar is still young. The question now is where it will go next.

The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 1: Feuds, Feudalism and Chinese Submission

Japan seems to be synonymous today with the ultra-high-tech, the futuristic and the progressive. Its 6,000 islands house the largest city in the world, a sprawling metropolis that put even Beijing and Delhi to shame, as well as an electronics industry to rival California’s and the nearly the best life expectancy on the planet. Even their dates look ultramodern – the western world counts from a date some 2012 years ago in a year that technically didn’t exist. In Japan, it’s the year 24, one of the only countries in the world where the majority of the population are older than the calendar. For centuries, it endured a reputation for isolation, for independence and nationalism at the very eastern edge of the world – never invaded, never conquered, never fully understood by outsiders. While that was true for a remarkable 250 years, the result of a foreign policy decision that preserved Japan as a peaceful and medieval country until the 1860s, the other 1500 or so years of recorded history paint a different picture. Japan was never conquered by war, but the infectious cultures of China, South-East Asia, and later Europe would prove to shape everything we think of as Japanese. Japan was never split between smaller nations and eventually united, but it was constantly and bitterly divided – between daimyo and shogun, shogun and emperor, emperor and parliament. It’s been the ancient empire and the feudal backwater. It’s been the symbol of enlightenment philosophy and it’s been the greatest threat to democracy the Eastern Hemisphere’s ever known. And, most important of all, it invented the freaking ninja and the coolest military tactics since some guy crossed the Alps on elephants. And, best of all, Japan screams of holism all the way.


A Yayoi settlement – the early masters of Tower Defense.

I guess the best place to start is in the 300AD, with a migration, because…well, everything about Holistic History seems to start with a migration, be it the Celts, the Polynesians or, as in this case, the awesomely named Yayoi. The Yayoi were a collection of tribes from Eastern China who, thanks to China’s so-ahead-of-its-time-it’s-just-not-fair credentials (they were a Roman Empire style superpower by then) brought with them bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. Now, I’m not going to grossly generalise here, but if I had to name four things that turned a prehistoric tribal society into a classical civilisation, it would be bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. That and military might, at least, and – what do you know – the first tribe to master that became Japan’s first imperial warlords, the Yamato. The Yamato, in an ironic twist for the founders of a nation that would go on to be so vastly different from them, loved the Chinese, and in a series of incidents somewhere in-between diplomacy and spying managed to steal Chinese technology, systems of government and law in one fell swoop. They even converted to Buddhism and started paying tribute to the Chinese – although one of the largest and richest armies in the world may have had something to do with the latter. In short, Japan had gone in only 300 years from a collection of stone-age tribes to a fully-fledged and powerful empire. Ironically, that empire would go on outlast its Chinese counterpart – a Yamato emperor still rules today.

This explosion of imported culture national unity brought Japan a Golden Age. Military leaders called Shogun became heroes, conquering the islands and mountains that divide Japan. Art and culture was developed, and the idea of being Japanese grew ever stronger. Europe’s dark ages never affected Japan (or, indeed, anywhere outside Europe), and it created a vastly different – and if anything more successful – society. Which makes it even stranger that it developed in such a similar way.

Onna Bugeisha

Onna Bugeisha, who apparently co-existed with photographs. But we’ll get to why later.

By the 1100s Japan was no longer a centralised, peaceful empire. It was something else entirely, something oddly European despite a complete lack of contact between the two cultures: Japan was feudal. It wasn’t exactly the same as their occidental counterparts – instead of the organised Christianity and god-given rights, Japanese feudalism was based on a secular philosophy called Confucianism which, amongst other things, installed a system of government that was somewhere in-between the Chain of Command and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the Emperor was at the top, then his advisors, but then farmers because food was the most important resource, then craftsmen because they did honest work. At the bottom of the chain were the merchants, who were not deserving because they only moved and sold other people’s wares to make money. The urge to make a joke about merchant bankers in our time is almost killing me, but there’s history to do. Anyway, the system created a whole new class-system in Japan, and no-one would change Japanese history more than the newly-created warrior class – the Samurai. The Samurai were the semi-nobility of Japan, about 10% of the population, and guided more than anyone by Confucian philosophy, following Bushido – the Way of the Warrior. This combined art and killing, justifying the warfare with haiku poetry and calligraphy, the examples of honour and wisdom. They even allowed women, in a lot of cultures at the time the “weaker sex” to join their ranks – troupes of female samurai caught the attention of foreigners as a terrifying prospect. And samurai were the brute force behind the introduction of the longest lasting era in Japanese history – the Bakufu, or feudal dictatorship.

mongols japan

Good at horses, bad at boats. The Mongols should really consider getting a Targaryen girl.

As the emperor relied more and more on the feudal lords for power under the new system, those lords became more and more influential. The top post was that prestigious military job – the Shogun, supreme commander of the kill-you-then-write-you-a-poem samurai. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when you have so much power over the military in a feudal system, you get so much more power in the government. The Emperor was reduced to a kind of figurehead status – the real rulers of Japan became the Shogun and his advisors, the Bakufu. With their strong military focus, the Bakufu saw off Chinese aggression, Korean attempts at invasion, even the onslaught of the Mongols with the help of a typhoon that was promptly subbed the “Divine Wind”. But the system was unstable to its very core. The lords fought constantly to try and install their own family members to the Bakufu, even Shogunate, and the constant conflict combined with a series of earthquakes and even an ice age (There was a mini ice age in the 1400s. Seriously.) plunged Japan into a Civil war that would last almost two centuries. It would isolate Japan from the world once again as it engulfed the country in bloodshed, but from it would emerge its most famous exports – ninjas, poetry, and the government that would truly define what it was to be Japanese.

In the midst of the war, the best was yet to come.