Holistic History Extra: The Speech From Another Reality

There’s one type of history I usually wouldn’t touch with a Renaissance Venetian barge pole on this blog, and that’s alternate history. While it’s interesting to try and work your way through a “What If”, you need to understand what you’re talking about in minute detail to get anywhere. History, unfortunately, isn’t really about minute detail. But occasionally, just occasionally, you can get a glimpse of how things might have happened: from an idea, from an ambition, from a plan. Or, in the case of what I’m going to show you today, a contingency plan.

William Safire was a speechwriter and presidential aide for Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. He was one of the people who publicised the legendary Kitchen Debate, a bizarre event where Nixon and Khrushchev started a heated argument about their countries’ achievements in the plastic kitchen of an American “model home”. But in 1969 he had a different task, because somewhere high above his head were three men in a little metal box, about to make a small step for a man and – to paraphrase – a fucking huge one for mankind. But the White House was worried. The footage was to go live on television to 500 million people: what would happen if they failed? The first people to land on a surface other than Earth would go down through human history. But if they missed their rendezvous they could be stuck there forever, perfectly preserved in the lack of atmosphere, a grim reminder of the dark side of the Space Race. So Safire wrote a speech. A speech that was to turn this alternate turn of events into an act of national, maybe even global, heroism. Thankfully, it was a speech that was never used. But it remains hauntingly beautiful, the last transmission Armstrong and Aldrin would ever have heard in a terrible alternate reality where a momentous achievement was marred with tragedy. Here, in full, is that speech:


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.


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.

The White Man’s Burden: The Sad Story of the Scramble for Africa

So it turns out it’s pretty difficult to write about Africa. That’s not because of a lack of subjects to write about, obviously: 130,000 years of human settlement (three times as long humans have lived as Europe, ten times as long as in the Americas – crazy, right?) tend to throw up a few interesting stories. The capital city of an empire that spanned of three continents.  The most extraordinary and far-flung colony of the aboriginal Australian navigators. The king who started a religious movement by accident and the richest man who ever lived. Africa is a really difficult place to write about mostly because its lasting legacy – what it is known for now and what people think about it now – is almost entirely the result of a span of about thirty years in the 19th century with a situation called the Scramble for Africa. In brief, it was a rush of sudden colonialism that put almost the entire continent under European rule and it’s the pivotal moment you need to understand to understand Africa today. It was when the stereotypes about the continent were made, and also when some of them started to come true. It was when the shape of almost every country was determined, along with many of the economic and societal problems Africa is infamous for today. African history isn’t just the story of colonialism – calling it that is like calling British history the story of Tony Blair – but it was an event that affected every single acre of the continent, and for that reason you have to understand it before I feel I can move on to better, more positive views of African history.

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Africa in 1805. A century later, it would be almost entirely under European control.

The weird thing about Africa – sub-Saharan Africa, at least, because the North has seen more masters than a marathon of Doctor Who – is that it remained untouched by European influence until very late in the colonialism game. While Spain powered through Central America like a knife through resilient and angry Mesoamerican butter, while the Netherlands traded their way to the East Indies and invaded what they couldn’t outsell, even while the British attempted to turn Australia into HM’s biggest prison camp, Africa remained the “Dark Continent” – inaccessible, unknown and mysteriously wealthy. What contact the Europeans had with Sub-Saharan Africa was limited to buying, selling, and occasionally making ports on uninhabited islands to make their journeys around the Cape of Good Hope easier. The only real attempt to create a western colony on African soil was a half-arsed attempt by America to create a country for their few freed slaves in 1847, a sort of back-to-Africa initiative supported by the likes of Lincoln and Monroe because it meant freedom for slaves without them dirtying up their fine white country (This is, unfortunately, a genuine belief expressed by Lincoln, although I’m making assumptions about his motivations. For the record, Liberia still exists). Africa was just too difficult to conquer – unlike easier targets like the Americas, it was densely populated, used to vicious warfare, full of debilitating diseases like malaria that could stop adventurers in their tracks and…well, really not worth it in terms of natural resources. In short, Africa was a little too like Europe at the time to colonise. But then, in around 1880, the status quo suddenly changed. And the Scramble for Africa began.

The Berlin Conference – you can count the number of African delegates on no hands.

The Industrial Age provided a motive and a means for European colonisation of Africa. To be fair, Europe didn’t really need a means – they’d already got used to their “white man’s burden”, the desire to educate and convert the “uncivilised masses” of the world which conveniently manifested itself as invading the third world and taking its stuff. But the growth of industries that needed iron, cotton and rubber encouraged many countries to go out and seize those resources to secure trade, and you can probably guess where in the world those were most prevalent. The brand new means of colonising Africa? That lay with scientific advances like a vaccine for malaria, the invention of a mode of transport that could pass quickly across Africa – the steamship – and the grisly invention of the Maxim Gun, the first machine gun and one that tipped the balance of power firmly in the hands of…well, whoever was behind it. Almost overnight, colonies sprung up and wars were fought and one with Africa (famously, the British Empire fought a war with Zanzibar that lasted 38 minutes). A conference called in Berlin (called the Berlin Conference…damn, this bit of history has dull names) essentially declared the whole continent fair game, and by 1914 all but two countries in Africa were actually independent. Of those two, one was Liberia – essentially an American colony, if you remember – and the other was Ethiopia – which would later be invaded and almost conquered by Italy in 1936. When I say that colonialism affected every country in Africa, I really meant it.

A diamond mine in South Africa – when the black miners weren’t working they were locked up “to stop them stealing gems”.

As it turned out, African colonialism was not the shining pinnacle of “white-man-civilising-the-natives” it was made out to be. It was horrific, deadly and corrupt. In Southern Africa – the British bit – men like Cecil Rhodes carved out empires from blood and diamonds, enforcing de facto slave labour (miners were locked up when not working “to stop them sneaking the company’s gems out) and monopolising the precious metal and ore trade. In Namibia – the German bit – the very first extermination camp was built to surreptitiously dispose of Namibian ethnic groups (35 years before the Holocaust, and largely forgotten in its wake) And in the Congo – the Belgian bit, a huge chuck of Africa that had been cleverly turned into a corporate-run “Free Trade Zone” in which King Leopold of Belgium was the only shareholder – conditions were debatably worse: an importer famously realised that while the Congo was exporting rubber, coal, iron, gold, everything Africa was famous for, it was only importing guns and ammunition. A thorough investigation into the conditions revealed that the residents were being extorted into working for the King, and the death toll of this system – thought to be around 10,000,000 in only 23 years – is now enough to class it as an act of genocide. The bloody system had crippled Africa’s economy and dragged it kicking and screaming into the western world, and when decolonisation came – in the 1940s and 50s, imperialism thoroughly discredited by the imperialistic ambitions of Germany, Italy and Japan and nationalism made heroic by figures like Mohandas Ghandi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the British Raj, Herbert Macaulay in Nigeria and Soekarno in Indonesia – it left Africa depleted, with poor infrastructure and reliance of trade with its former imperial partners – a new kind of colonial rule.

Herbert Macauley, Nigerian nationalist, democrat, journalist, engineer, musician, moustache visionary.

Africa suffered under colonialism for a good part of its history, and that’s something that we have to remember when we look at the continent today. If you see a country deep in civil war, remember that the boundaries between countries were essentially made up by European officials during decolonisation in the 20th century. If you see a country destroying its rainforests to fuel its failing economy, remember the roots of that failing economy in European exploitation. If you see a seemingly backwards country filled with intolerance and zealous religion, remember whose actions caused that intolerance and instilled that religion. I wish I could now say that understanding this is the first step towards solving Africa’s problems, but it’s not. History doesn’t give us all the answers, because a) the future can’t be studied like the past can and b) Africa’s never going to be pre-colonial again.  The only thing we can viably do is learn, understand and support as an entire continent strives to find a safe place in the modern world. And that’s probably for the best.


Istanbul (not Constantinople): The Rise and Fall of Europe’s First Metropolis

west anatolia

In West Anatolia, born and raised, in an empire was where it spent most of its days.

Ask someone today about the best city in the world, and you’ll get a real mixed bag of responses. “Tokyo – it’s so massive” “Paris – it’s so romantic” “New York – it’s so famous” “The City of London – it’s so poorly defined, autonomous and confusing”. But ask anyone from between the years of 330AD and 1600AD – that’s 1300 years, for God’s sake – and I promise you you’d only get one answer: “Constantinople” Well, OK, more like one answer with a thousand different names: “Constantinopolis” “Byzantion” “Qostantiniyye” “Istanbul” and that’s just the people who actually lived there. My point is that there’s never been a place that’s been as important to world history for as long as that metropolis on the Bosphorous, never been a city that’s seen quite as much variety, influence, prestige and…well, life. It was the last bastion of the Roman Empire; it was the last house of the last Caliph. It was the centre of a xenophobic and violent Empire, it was the centre of culture and trade and tolerance for the best part of two millennia. It spans two continents and 6,500 square miles. This is the story of Istanbul.

I know I always seem to start these by saying that “there have been people in [place] longer than there’s been [thing] in [place where thing has been for a long time]”, but there’s no better way of describing Istanbul’s early history than saying that there have been people in Istanbul longer than there has been a freaking RIVER in Istanbul. Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Istanbul survived it all by using the tried-and-tested technique of “If we don’t do anything notable, maybe nobody will notice us”.  It was as good a mantra as any, but not nearly interesting enough for the first group of invaders to roll in, the Ancient Greeks. Their mantra was more “Live fast, die young, invent western civilisation, but go down in history as gay philosophers” and they brought with them their shiny new invention: The City.


Constantine – not so Great that he could pick up a whole castle, but pretty Great nonetheless.

The Greeks weren’t really a civilisation as much as an alliance – a collection of independent city states who only pretended to be one country to scare off the Persians – and that seemed to suit Byzantion (the first incarnation of Istanbul) quite well. It could be the wild northern colony to the sunshine-and-democracy southern Greeks, famed for its rapey kings and impressive citadel. It allied with the southerners when it needed to, became independent when it needed to, and slowly became an important city. But even then, no-one would have guessed how great it would eventually become to its next invaders. The Romans were so powerful by the time they got to Greece that Byzantion’s response to a Roman request for subjugation was along the lines of “Yeah, go on then, it’s not like we wanted a thriving metropolis anyway”. The next 400 years saw the Roman Empire rise and fall around them – something about a system where poison is easily accessible and marriage councillors are not made imperial politics chaotic and ever-changing – as its central position in the empire made it a trading hub for the whole Mediterranean. It was then, in 330AD, that it was thrust into the centre of Roman politics. It was then that a Roman Emperor finally calmed the chaos that had filled his nation and, in a rush of reforms that did everything from punish traitors to change the Empire’s official religion to Christianity, he had decided to make Byzantion his capital. The Emperor’s name was Constantine the Great. He was the man who put the Constantine into Constantinople.

Roman luck seemed to get worse after Constantine but the newly-Christened Constantinople’s didn’t. A schism with the Pope left Christianity in turmoil but created a new form of the religion with its base in Constantinople – the Orthodoxy.  The fall of the Western Roman Empire allowed “Barbarians” to take control of everything from Britain to Lombardy, but the Empire’s survival in the East (which was now being called Byzantium, much to the annoyance of the people who lived there – as you might expect, the people who lived there just called it the Roman Empire) left Constantinople with a flood of refugees, salvaged texts, military equipment. The Eastern Roman Empire was powerful, huge and…I can tell already that you’re bracing yourself for a fall. I know this bit, you’re thinking, the Roman Empire falls and the Dark Ages engulfs Europe. So tough luck. No dark ages in Greece, no Saxons and Vikings (OK, some vikings, but not the normal sort), no poverty and illiteracy in Constantine’s neighborhood. No, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453.

silk road

This Silk Road, of course, only sold *some* drugs.

While you’re pondering the weird fact that Henry VIII almost coincided with the Ancient Romans, I should probably explain that the ERE wasn’t exactly Ancient roman by that point. They spoke Medieval Greek, they were completely and devoutly Christian and they had past 500 years getting progressively smaller and more backward. Less togas, more goats. Less Caesar, more salad. By 1453, in fact, the Roman Empire was nothing more than Constantinople itself, having been eaten away by some Muslims, originally from Turkmenistan, who were calling themselves the Turkmen or Turks. The city took a long, long time to fall – it had become pretty much the centre of all European trade, not to mention the most prestigious stop on the Silk Road, a transcontinental trade route that did more for European wealth than Adam Smith, Christopher Columbus and the EU put together. But when it did, it went straight from one empire to another – straight into the hands of the Ottoman Turks who would go on to conquer the entire Middle East and give their rulers over the ridiculous nicknames like “Suleiman the Magnificent” “Mehmed the Affable” and, my personal favourite, “Abdulmecid the Advocate of Reorganization”. The city began to be known by its Turkish name, Qostantinyye, but in true local style everyone referred to it by another name. This time, it became Istanbul.

west anatolia

The city today. Ish. Everything’s relative on Holistic History.

Istanbul grew massively under the Ottomans because…well, everywhere did, because the world was inventing medicines and better ways to produce food and tactics to avoid going to war every five minutes because your brother wants the a go on the throne. But with that Istanbul began to fall behind – the Ottoman empire’s weird system of government (probably worth a Holistic History entry in itself) didn’t value the future, the progress that cities like London and Brussels and New York saw in the Industrial Revolution. The Ottoman Empire’s decision to side with the Axis Powers in World War One (“Allies…Axis…no, Allies definitely sounds more evil, right Sultan?”) was the last straw for the Empire and left the city in the unstable hands of republican Turkey. Turkey quickly brushed itself off, became a minor 20th century power and even made friends with some of the countries that they used to own, but the glory days of Istanbul were long gone. It was no longer the international city and, to quote the Jimmy Kennedy/They Might Be Giants song that the title was taken from, it became “nobody’s business but the Turks”.