A Small Theater Burns

It was on this day, 29 June 1613, in Southwark, across London Bridge from the City of London proper, that the original Globe Theater burned to the ground. The destruction was a financial calamity for The King’s Men, the company which owned the facility, but the greater calamity is that the loss of the theater probably occasioned the loss of a great deal of material by and about William Shakespeare. Henry Wotten, who was there that day, wrote:

The King’s Players had a new play called All Is True forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty. [wadding from a stage-prop cannon landed on the thatched roof and ignited a blaze.] Being first thought but an idle smoke, and all eyes attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

The company lost its wardrobes and costumes and many “diverse papers.” Who knows what treasures were destroyed in that conflagration?

The Globe was rebuilt (with a fire-proof tile roof!) and it did a brisk business for another thirty years or so until it was finally closed for good during the puritanical restrictions of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Eventually the land was sold and new structures built on the site until the exact location of the original Globe was forgotten. In the early 1990s, excavation due to construction allowed the location of the original Globe to be determined.

About that time, Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director, formed an organization to rebuild the Globe on or near its original location. In 1997, a new “Shakespeare’s Globe Theater” opened its doors. The building has been as authentically reconstructed as possible, based upon contemporary descriptions and the sole drawing of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse which survives (hard to imagine that only one drawing survives, but that’s all we have to date) as well as the evidence uncovered during archeological analysis of the site of the original Globe. The structure is genuine half-timber and plaster, and it has the distinction of being the first building to be built with a thatched roof in London since all such rooves were prohibited in the aftermath of the great fire of 1666.

It is worth noting that in Wotten’s account above, he refers to the play underway when the fire began as All Is True, yet most sources today say that the fire started during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The confusion stems from the fact that Shakespeare himself titled the play All Is True. It was the editors of the famous First Folio who entitled it Henry VIII. This was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and was written in collaboration with a lesser playwright, John Fletcher. Shakespeare’s last three plays are now accepted to be collaborations with Fletcher.

In the wake of the loss of the Globe, Shakespeare seems to have retired. Most scholars believe that he sold his share in the King’s Men to retire at last to his beloved Stratford and his wife, Anne Hathaway. He lived less than three years after his return to Stratford and is buried in the 12th century Trinity Church there, in a place of honor at the high altar.

That calamitous fire in 1613 is perhaps as much responsible as any other act or event for our limited information about Shakespeare. But in the past three decades an enormous amount of new documentary information has come to light about the actual person who was William Shakespeare. While we will probably always crave more specific data, it is plain that we have good hope of learning much more as the vast archives of England are explored.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

— Henry V; Prologue


There are far too many volumes about Shakepeare to even begin to attempt a significant listing, but two
works of the past few years are well worth a look for the interested generalist:

Will In The World Stephen Greenblatt; Norton, 2004: ISBN: 0393050572

This is a wonderfully well-written and enjoyably readable and comprehensive life of Shakespeare based upon all the newly available information as well as long-established scholarship. Greenblatt’s book is as entertaining as the best historical fiction while being informative and thought-provoking. I feel this by far bests Rowse’s 1963 biography which has been a “standard” for 40 years. Greenblatt makes the world of late sixteenth century/early seventeenth century England come alive.

Shakespeare Michael Wood; Basic Books, 2003: ISBN: 0465092640

This is a companion volume to Wood’s outstanding PBS series, In Search Of Shakespeare. In this book, Wood not only advances his case from the television series, but he greatly expands his argument in a far more detailed and convincing manner. Wood incorporates the latest information about Shakespeare into his unexpected conclusions, but he never overstates his argument nor does he make his point feel labored or strained. This is a terrifically entertaining and readable tour through some very complex history, and Wood makes sure it is always exciting. The book is very nicely illustrated as well, and I think that is a great plus.

“Some Damned Silly Thing In The Balkans” *

It was on a fine June Sunday – 28 June 1914 – that the world was forever and profoundly changed by the nearly random luck of a tiny group of inept would-be terrorists and assassins in the small town of Sarajevo, in Austrian-controlled Bosnia.

The heir to the throne of the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie were shot at close range by a young Bosnian, Gavorillo Princip. Princip, one of three assassins sent to kill the Archduke and his wife with bombs, was sitting in a cafe and moping over the failure of the plot: not one of the three assassins had been successful in their attempt to deploy their bombs. In two incidents, they succeeded only in wounding some bystanders when they hurled their distinctly inadequate bombs. (Adding insult to injury, Princip’s colleagues could not even commit suicide as they had planned because the “cyanide capsules” they swallowed were simply sugar!)

Astonishingly, after the failed bomb attempts, the Archduke and his wife continued on their motorcade to be received at Town Hall. Franz Ferdinand, unsurprisingly, scolded the mayor of Sarajevo for the reception the town had given him (Bombs! Of all the nerve!) and then decided to motor on to the hospital to visit those wounded in the failed attacks. This is where so much history hinges upon a trivial detail: the driver of the limousine made a wrong turn to the hospital in front of the very cafe where Princip was bemoaning his failure!

Princip, seeing the large car awkwardly trying to maneuver in the narrow old street, jumped up, pulled a pistol from his pocket, and fired twice at extremely close range, mortally wounding Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Princip was prevented from turning his weapon on himself by the intervention of an enraged mob, and he was immediately arrested.

Dragutin Dimitrijevic, chief of Serbian Intelligence, had sponsored the operation, and the Serbian Prime Minister had passively approved it, evidently hoping for Bosnia and Herzogovina to be united with Serbia after a revolt against Austria. It remains an open question as to why the Serbians sent three inept teenagers to do such a job, supplied them with feeble, inadequate bombs, and gave them useless poison pills. It appears as if Dimitrijevic intended to start a war with Austria. Whatever the reasoning behind the plot, war was indeed the result, war on a scale and of a horror unlike any previously known. Austria, after five weeks of dithering, declared war on Serbia, thus Russia declared war on Austria, Germany on Russia, France and England on Germany, The Ottoman Empire on France and England, and so on. The fire consumed the globe for four years, and millions upon millions died in horrible ways as the latest deadly technologies were tried.

To read accounts of and from that summer of 1914 is to have an eerie sense of having heard it all before: the blind optimism for battlefield glory, the patriotic zeal to “teach a lesson” to the other side, and the certainty that the whole thing would be over in short order; all of this seems uncannily like what Americans North and South were saying in the Spring and Summer of 1861, unaware of the horror that the American Civil War would unleash. Somehow, the Europeans of 1914 repeated the scenario as if reading from the same script. How could they have been so foolish? Had they never heard of the American Civil War? Or, as I suspect, did they make the assumption – repeated by generation after generation, all across the globe – that This time it will be different, because we know better!

A profoundly ironic view of things comes from the Archduke’s assassin. As he lay in prison dying of tuberculosis in 1918, Gavorillo Princip is recorded to have said “If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have done it.” Famous last words, eh?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If any question why we died
Tell them, “Because our fathers lied.”

— Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son, referring to World War I

* The title comes from a notable statement made in 1890 by Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”


Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman; Ballentine Books, 1994 ed.: ISBN: 034538623X


Tuchman’s history of the start of World War I was first published in 1962. It was re-issued in 1994 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the start of that War. This book has been called the best history book ever written. Masterfully researched and documented, it is as scholarly as any such work need be, yet it retains a readability — and excitement — that makes it as entertaining as any fictional thriller. Even after the passage of 41 years, this book remains essential reading for those who wish to learn about World War I.

The First World War, John Keegan; Vintage, 2000: ISBN: 0375700455


I am of the opinion that anything by Keegan is worth reading (I’ve not been wrong yet, to my way of thinking.) This is a highly readable and complete account of World War I from start to finish. Perhaps the best one-volume coverage of that war we have.


On the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, there was a remarkable amount of publishing activity. All the following are good, but these are not aimed at the casual reader.

Europe’s Last Summer : Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Fromkin; Knopf, 2004: ISBN: 0375411569

In this minutely researched volume, Fromkin answers his title question. The result is the well-known tragedy of a war that many wanted, but from which none saw the ultimate outcome. I must confess that though this book was well-regarded in the review I read last August, I find it fairly tedious in its presentation. Scholarly, to be sure. But not an entertaining read.

Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, David Stevenson; Basic Books, 2004: ISBN: 0465081843

This one-volume history of World War I is complete and as scholarly as can be, but at times the reading feels a bit too much like slogging along with those foot soldiers of the era, knee-deep in mud and growing ever wearier. Still, it is worth the effort, because Stevenson offers some fresh insights which offer a new perpective on the well-known truisms about World War I.

The First World War, Hew Strachan; Viking Adult, 2004: ISBN: 0670032956

Strachan’s one-volume distillation of his unfinished trilogy on World War I, this effort has many of the same virtues and limitations that I identify in Stevenson’s book: it is not popular history (whatever that might really be) and so it is not light reading. But it is likewise worth the effort.

The First World War: To Arms, Hew Strachan; Oxford University Press, 2003 ed.: ISBN: 0199261911

This is the first volume of a yet-to-be-completed trilogy about World War I. Strachan is a foremost authority on that war, and this book is a definitive account of the build-up to World War I. It is, however, so thorough and so comprehensive that it can be both daunting and — at times — almost tedious.

The U.S. In South Korea

It was on 27 June 1950, a Sunday, that President Truman ordered U.S. Military resources to support South Korea against the invasion from the Soviet-backed North. Ultimately a successful check in the geo-political chess game of the Cold War, it was a costly decision. Tens of thousands of American and other United Nations’ troops lost their lives. As is so typical with such ventures, the commitment was a major one and the U.S. forces’ stay has lasted these 62 years to this day.

South Korea has remained independent from the North during this time, and it has enjoyed a far superior economic and material propserity than the North; while its record on Democracy is far from unblemished, the South Korean people have enjoyed a far greater degree of political freedom and autonomy than the people of the North. The people of North Korea are essentially enslaved and starved in the name of a professed political ideal. The people of South Korea have accepted some abridgement of, and limitations on, their civil rights in order to gain stability and prosperity. While the South Koreans have gained greater freedom in the past twenty years, the North Koreans have lost much of what they had been promised: that nation has starved and been imprisoned, a virtual outcast in the community of nations.

And through all of the changes of the last 62 years, U.S. troops have stood guard in Korea, from the DMZ which divides the Korean Peninsula to the southern port of Pusan, and from Inchon to Taegu. It has been an enormous committment of men, materiƩl, and money for more than two generations, but it has helped to ensure that South Korea has remained independent, and reasonably free.

In the Summer of 1987, I spent several weeks teaching at Youngsan in Seoul. One weekend I travelled to Panmunjom to tour the DMZ. Across from the United Nations Forces post stood the most astonishingly unconvincing “Potemkin Village,” erected by the North Koreans to convince those across the border that North Korea is prosperous and healthy. The structures in the village were nothing more than false fronts, and not very well done at that. Unlike a Hollywood set, there was no “camera angle” to control, so the one-dimensionality of these fake buildings was immediately and painfully evident, as was lack of interiors behind the windows. As I say, unconvincing. It would have been comical if it were not done in such deadly ernest by the North. But there was a really huge North Korean flag flying from a flagstaff that resembled a small-scale Eiffel Tower, which was indeed impressive.

One positive aspect is that the talks held at Panmunjom are even today carried on. Nothing much gets accomplished with these talks, it seems, but talking is a better way to deal with conflict than actual fighting, I think.

The war-rent Korean nation is still technically at war with itself. Sadly, there is no peaceful end yet in sight. And given the latest mad-man who now runs North Korea, things are unlikely to get better while that herditary monarchy masquerading as a “People’s Republic” remains in power.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war. — Winston Churchill


Remember the old fairy tale about the Pied Piper who charmed away all the rats in town? When the faithless burghers refused to pay him what they had promised, he exacted his revenge by leading all the town’s children away as well. The story is wonderfully well told in Robert Browning’s 1842 poem, which ensured its enduring popularity in the culture of the English-speaking world. Browning’s snappy cadence and vivid imagery serves the legend well:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

In an 1816 collection of German legends, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded the tale, though it is not featured in their more famous “Fairy Tales.” Indeed, the brothers Grimm felt that the story merited status as a legend, a story founded in historical fact, rather than as a simple fairy tale fantasy. And the brothers Grimm had good reason for their judgement, for there is a considerable body of historical evidence behind the legend.

It was on this day, 26 June in the year 1284, according to the oldest extant documentation, that the 130 children of the German town of Hameln (usually rendered “Hamelin,” in English) were led out of town by a mysterious piper dressed in multi-colored motley. The children were recorded as disappearing, never to be seen again. The event left such a searing memory upon the inhabitants of Hameln that from that time forward they dated civic records according to “34 years since our children left,” or “113 years after the children disappeared.” A prominent stained glass window in the town’s primary church was created about the year 1300 to memorialize the tragedy, and many references to the window are documented between 1300 and the mid-1600s when the window was destroyed. Many versions of the story were set down, which, though differing in many specific details, all agree that a gaudily dressed piper led away the children of Hameln.

The earliest extant reference is from The Lueneburg Manuscript which is dated between 1430 and 1450, and this passage is also to be found carved on a beam in Hameln’s famous “Rattenfangerhaus” or “Pied Piper’s House.” The text, in medieval German with a sprinkling of Latin freely mixed in, is:


In the year 1284, on day of John and Paul
was the 26 June
By a piper with all kinds of colors clad
Had been 130 children led (who) within Hameln were born
To Calvary by the hills (were)lost

(Sorry for the clumsy rendering; I aim to follow the word order of the original as much as possible.)

As mentioned above, the strange tale is frequently referenced in a variety of sources from the later middle ages. And as is indicated by the fact that the event figures prominently in the civic records of medieval Hameln, it is clear that some sort of actual event must have taken place. It is noteworthy, however, that the rats do not make a documented appearance into the legend until the early 1500s, more than 250 years after the Piper himself appeared to steal the children.

So, what really happened?

Naturally, after more than 700 years, it is unlikely that we will ever know for certain. The records are too sparse, the sources too varied to give anything resembling a verifiable version of the facts. Yet some rational speculation has been attempted, some more persuasively than others.

One explanation is that the tale reflects a collective memory of the ill-fated Children’s Crusade of 1212, of which it is said thousands of children throughout France and Germany were inspired to hike to the Holy Land with the aim of peacefully converting Islamics to Christianity. Led by a charismatic child-preacher, the crusade ended in disaster when the hapless children were sold into slavery in the East.

This view seems highly unlikely for two reasons. First and foremost, the span between 1212 and 1284 seems an awfully long “delayed reaction.” In the hindsight from 2012, 72 years seems just a small slice of time out of 800 years, but 72 years is a long time in any human era, and in the medieval period represented at least three generations. Secondly, modern scholarship has shown that the “Children’s Crusade” is more misunderstanding and myth than reality. There was series of popular, grass-roots religious movements in the year 1212 throughout Western Europe, and these were especially prevalent among the landless peasantry.

The misunderstanding seems to stem from the terms with which contemporary chroniclers described the participants, the Latin “Pauperuli,” which means the little poor, or “Pueri,” which literally means “Boys.” But, much as we may speak of “Farm Boys,” or “Good Ol’ Boys,” or “Cowboys,” the term “pueri” was commonly applied to young, single men. As Peter Raedts has shown in his landmark paper on the “Children’s Crusade,” (cf: Journal of Medieval History, 3, 1977) it was only after the passage of almost a century that the events of 1212 began to be referred to as a “Children’s Crusade.” So, as I say, this possible explanation seems unconvincing.

More recently, it has been suggested that the Pied Piper was a sort of former-day Horace Greeley, encouraging youngsters to “Go East,” to settle the underpopulated lands to the east of the German heartland. Indeed, in the 13th century, great waves of immigration from central Germany did travel east to found new towns and open new land to agriculture and industry. One study of placenames around Hameln and in various eastern localities finds striking similarities. Such evidence is far from conclusive, but it does correspond with several versions of the tale in which the lost children were led away to settle in the East.

And what about the rats? How did they get mixed into the scene?

This seems to be a result of the fact that rats were a frequent and real problem in medieval Europe. In documented cases in more modern history, population explosions among rats are well known. Under such conditions, rats do indeed become aggressive. (cf: Robert Hendrickson’s More Cunning Than Man: A Social History of Rats and Man, Dorset; 1983) To deal with this scourge, the trade of “Ratcatcher” sprang up. Colorful characters with an incredible array of means for the extermination of rats parade through European history from the 13th century through the 19th. Among the techniques employed by some of these ratting professionals was indeed shrill, high-pitched piping. (This may have had some actual beneficial effect: rats are sensitive to high-pitched noises, including overtones too high for the human ear to register. Rats can be driven off by such uncomfortable sounds. Modern ratcatchers have even created electronic devices based upon just such a principle. Sadly, though, the trick does not work for long; the rats quickly acclimate to the noise and return in force.)

It seems that the tale of a piper in a multi-colored suit sorted well with the images of ratcatchers, and over time, the ratcatcher aspect was simply prepended upon the tale of Hameln’s tragedy. In this way the familiar, every-day image of the ratcatcher was grafted onto the horrific tale of child-stealing, and permitted a salutary moral lesson to be derived from the unpleasant account: when you promise to pay for a valuable service, even if the service seems slight in retrospect, PAY!

(The moral could have been created by a contemporary consultant!)

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

— Oscar Wilde

After A Horror, Help And Healing

On 24 June 1859, Solferino — the bloodiest, most horrific battle that Europe had seen or would see between 1813 and 1914 — was fought. Not even Waterloo compared in terms of the numbers of casulties incurred. Improbably fought in the incredibly beautiful area just south of Italy’s splendid Lake Garda, the Battle of Solferino was the largest gathering of troops upon the European continent since the Napoleonic Battle of Leipzig, at which some 500,000 troops clashed. Waterloo was far smaller: perhaps 170,000 troops fought there. Solferino, at which some 220,000 troops clashed, was the largest, deadliest battlefield conflict Europe would see until 1914 with the battle of the Marne, where some 2.5 million troops would be engaged, and unimaginably, more than 100,000 soldiers died.

The Battle of Solferino was a major part of the Risorgimento, the resurgance of Italy as a nation. Italy had been fragmented into numerous contending states since the Fall of Rome; by the mid 19th Century, there was widespread sentiment that Italy, too, along with other major European powers, should be a unified nation. However, major European powers had divided and conflicting interests in Italian unification. Austria-Hungary under the young Emperor Franz-Josef, had laid claim to Lombardo-Venetia (the provinces of Venice and Lombardy) and had no interest in reuniting these provinces with the proposed Italian State.

Conversely, the King of Sardinia – a small Island whose royal house became claimants to the throne of Italy – with the support of France in the person of Louis Napoleon, by this time known as Napoleon III, had determined the thwart any Austrian attempts to prevent Italian reunification. France wanted to humble Austria, and to gain influence with a newly unified Italy.

Solferino is not so much remembered today. Yet it is certainly notable in the fact that it is the last battle in human history at which the Kings of the combatant states led the battle: young Franz Josef of Austria determined to lead his troops, and so did Vittorio Emmanuale II of sardenia in conjunction with Napoleon III of France. The Battle of Solferino is, therefore, sometimes known as “The Battle of the Three Kings.”

In a world where battlefield deaths have been reckoned in the tens of thousands, Solferino’s toll of some 6,000 dead seems slight. The battle had a more grisly toll of perhaps 35,000 wounded or missing, but it is the aftermath of the battle which truly merits its mention.

One aspect of the fierce battle is that an observer from the United States Army, cavalryman Philip Kearny, later a famous Union General during the Civil War, took active part. Indeed, Kearny, who fought as an observer with the French General Staff, was described as “charging with the reins in his teeth and a sword in each hand,” (impossible, actually, as Kearny had lost an arm in the Mexican-American War in 1846) as he faced-down the Austrian forces. Kearny fought with such distinction that Napoleon III awarded him the Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest award – making Kearny the first American to receive the honor. (Kearny Street in San Francisco, however, is named for his uncle, General Stephen Kearny.)

The practical aftermath of solferino was that France gave up on intervening in Italian affairs, concludng a separate peace with Austria in which Austria ceded Lomabardy to “Italy” but retained control of Venetia, the mainland region around Venice. Another result was a deep-seated Italian mistrust of French political promises. The longest-reaching effect, perhaps, was the impact of the battle upon one observer, Henri Dunant, Swiss businessman.

Dunant was, apparently, only by chance near Solferino that fateful day, but he felt compelled to act. He immediately began to round up resources to care for the wounded and dying. Dunant possesed a persuasive manner and was able to impress local people – depsite their partisan status – to help the wounded. And so they did. Bit by bit, in the days following the battle, Dunant saw the relief of the grotesque sufferings of the wounded. In the wake of an overwhelmingly positive reponse to the good deeds Dunant coordinated at Solfrino, much of Europe cried for more of Dunant’s sort of work. Accordingly, Dunant decided to found an International society to provide aid and relief to the suffering in battle. His ideas formed the basis for the International Red Cross.

Dunant invested his time and fortune into the creation of the Red Cross, but he was marginalized in the effort in part because he was deemed too idealistic. As things developed, Dunant languished even as his ideas took root and flourished. It was not until much later, in 1901, that Dunant was truly and properly recognized for his achievements; he was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize:

“There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken.”

Of additional note for this battle must be this: this was the first large-scale armed conflict where the newly issued “Minie Balls” had an impact. The “Minie Ball” was not a musket “ball” at all: it was an immense innovation above its predecessors: a lead projectile that could hit its target! It was a recognizably modern bullet!!!

The Minie Ball dominated conflicts during the American Civil War, and excavations of Civil War battlefields yield hundreds of pounds of these projectiles every year. What made the Minie bullet so effective was that it was designed to easily “take” the rifling of a musket barrel which improved accuracy at least three-fold. Smooth-bore muskets indeed used spherical balls which traveled through the air rather like a pitcher’s knuckleball; after about 100 yards, hitting one’s target was pure chance. The Minie design allowed the bullet to develop spin as it traveled down the barrel of the musket. This tripled the projectile’s range and greatly improved its accuracy with inescapably devastating effect upon troops facing a volley of musket fire.

One reason for the horrific casualties at Solferino, and the even greater and more hideous casualty figures from Civil War battles is this vast improvement in firearm technology. Unfortunately, at Solferino, and throughout the American Civil War, generals and strategic planners who had grown up with smooth-bore muskets, and who had studied almost three hundred years of standard firearm practice never really digested the impact of this new technology. Even at the end of the Civil War, troops were sent to charge directly into massed musket fire with predictable, deadly results.

Unaccountably, as late as 1917, European generals were still applying Napoleonic tactical convention to the battlefield, while rates, range, and accuracy of firepower had increased vastly from the day of the Minie ball. Battlefield casualties in World War One were staggering as a result. At least there was a well-organized Red Cross to aid the wounded. One result of Solferino made a lasting and positive difference.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Are we doomed to it, Lord,
chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork,
helpless to halt its swing?

— Walter Miller, “A Canticle For Leibowitz”

A Terrifying Slave Raid

On Tuesday I wrote of Juneteeth, the remembrance and celebration of the coming of freedom to Texas slaves. Today I look into slavery in another era, and in a completely different setting.

A small village on a rather barren stretch of coast was suddenly descended upon by a slaving party who captured as many able-bodied inhabitants as they could, killed those who were of no use to them, and burned the such modest shelters as the villagers had. The captives were shackled and bound together, marched into the slavers’ ship, crammed into the foul and nearly suffocating hold of the ship to be carried across the sea to a new and unfamiliar world and sold in the slave markets of that world so unlike the world in which they had been raised; not a one of those enslaved would ever see their homeland again. It is notable that, perhaps contrary to expectations, in this case the slavers hailed from Africa while the enslaved villagers were Europeans.

It was on 20 June in 1631 that the small town of Baltimore, County Cork, Ireland, was set upon by Algerian corsairs who killed two of the town’s residents and carried off between 100 and 200 of its inhabitants into slavery in the Ottoman Empire. The raiding force was not particularly large at perhaps 200 pirates. But the town was not fortified, and the Muhammudan raiders landed at 2:00 in the morning when all the townsfolk were asleep. The raid has ever after been known as “The Sack Of Baltimore,” and that is also the title of a 19th Century poem by Thomas Davis which commemorates the event.

The Sack of Baltimore was not by any means a unique occurrence, and as far as such raids go, it was rather minor. But Davis’ poem has ensured that the event be remembered. Though the piece was much admired when it was published in the early 19th Century, its style is unpopular today. It nevertheless served to preserve the memory of the devastating raid.

In the wake of the raid, most of the inhabitants of Baltimore moved further inland to Skibbereen. Baltimore faded into obscurity until the late 19th Century. And the fate of the hundred or so men, women, and children who were enslaved remains unknown to this day.

Such raids were the commonplace risks of living on Europe’s coasts between 1500 and 1850. Pirates operating under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire preyed freely upon the coasts of Western Europe and the Mediterranean and Black seas, and even raided as far north as Iceland, where a 1627 raid depopulated whole regions of the island. Sources vary as to the number of captives taken from Iceland in the raid. The Icelandic Tourist Board states that 237 people were captured, other sources claim as many as 1,200. A like number of people were killed by the raiders as well. In any case, it was a huge loss for the island and its people.

Especially in the early 17th century, Corsair raids were frequent along the Cornish coast, Southern England, Wales, Ireland, as well as in the South of France, Spain, southern Italy, Sicily, and other Mediterranean islands. The naval commander of Plymouth complained to the Privy Council that there were not enough ships in the waters around England to defend against the raiders, for the pirates wisely avoided large and well-defended locations.

It has been estimated that between 1500 and 1850, as many as 2 million European Christians were forced into slavery in the Islamic world. Though there were no European slave raids against Ottoman territories, during this same period, Christian Europeans themselves were considerable slavers as well, carrying between 5 and 10 million Africans into slavery in the New World. (It was always easy to justify the enslavement of those who were “others.” The Islamics could in good conscience enslave Christians – Muhamut forbade Islamics to enslave fellow Mohammedans – and Christians could enslave pagan Africans and use the Bible to justify their actions.)

By the middle of the 19th Century, Western naval and military progress had advanced to a state which completely dominated the forces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and at length, the threat of North African pirates raiding European countries finally ceased. Europe gradually got out of the slave trade so that by 1850 no European nation was directly engaged in that activity. Popular sentiment during the emerging Industrial Revolution no longer tolerated slavery. England, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States all outlawed the overseas slave trade before 1850. Spain held out until 1880.

The last Western nation to abolish slavery and the trade was Brazil in 1888. In Africa the trade flourished well into the 20th Century. In the 1930s the writer/adventurer Richard Halliburton bought two slaves in Timbuktu at a large and flourishing marketplace. According to the National Geographic Magazine in its August 2002 issue, slavery is still practiced throughout much of Africa and the Middle East.

The Ottoman Empire never abolished slavery, though under Kemal Ataturk Turkey forbade it in the 1920s. Saudi Arabia has still never formally abolished slavery, a situation that still obtains in many Middle Eastern countries. Though mostly unproven, there are rumors and tales of tourists and students in Africa and the Middle East being taken into slavery to this very day. And in the myriad conflicts and civil upheavals that have been plaguing African nations recently, thousands of hapless unfortunates have been enslaved as well.

I must ask: What Century is this?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong
impulse to see it tried upon him personally.

— Abraham Lincoln

There are many hundreds of books which examine the history of slavery and its impact. Having studied the subject extensively in school, I can offer a useful bibliography from my own reading, though some of the books are rather old and may be hard to find. More recently I took up the subject of Christian slaves in the Islamic world.

I frequently describe a book as “readable.” To me this is an essential quality for any work, and I consider not faint praise but high praise for a work of history; far too many history works are dry as two-day-old toast and just as stale.


The sack of Baltimore:

The Stolen Village: Baltimore And The Barbary Pirates, Des Ekin; The O’Brien Press, Ltd., 2008: ISBN: 9781847171047

Irish journalist Des Ekin was intrigued by the many references to the sack of Baltimore when he was researching an earlier book, and his interest was piqued. He discovered that while there was a rich variety of documentation ralated to the raid, there was not a single, book-length treatment. Because none of the enslaved villagers were ever redeemed, and because of a lack of records from Algiers of that era, Ekin decided to write about the fate of the slaves after the raid by inference, drawing from documented accounts of people who were similarly enslaved but who were later redeemed. This highly readable account is a valuable contribution to an aspect of history that is all too often overlooked.

Islam’s Christian Slaves:

Slavery In The Arab World, Murray Gordon; New Amsterdam, 1989: ISBN: 1561310239

In This well written book, Gordon covers almost a millennium of Arab slavery. Gordon goes into extensive detail about the racial and sexist aspects of Arab slavery – he observes that, as in the West, slavery gave rise to endemic racism among the enslavers, and he notes the importance of supplying concubines for the Harem trade. He also points out that the Arab slave trade reached its peak in the 19th Century as Europe was moving away from it, and he gives due consideration to the abolition movement among 19th Century Islamic clerics in Africa.

Race And Slavery In The Middle East, Bernard Lewis; Oxford University Press, 1990: ISBN: 0195053265

Princeton History Professor Lewis is widely known as a foremost Western scholar of Islamic history and culture. His writing is often tedious and repetitive, and he seems to rove over centuries with no apparent pattern. He reads more as an apologist for Islam than as an independent historian. In chapter 11, on Abolition, he quotes extensively from sources that insist that Islamic slavery is a good thing for the slaves and the slaveholders. I read Lewis because one must, but I am no fan.

Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery In the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500 – 1800, Robert C. Davis; Palgrave MacMillan, 2003: ISBN: 0333719662

Professor Davis’ book is a wealth of well-researched data. He includes a comprehensive table of the major Islamic slave raids upon Europe between 1509 and 1815 as well as extremely extensive endnotes. The book is also very readable.

White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves, Giles Milton; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004: ISBN: 0374289352

Using his research based upon the diaries and memoirs of Thomas Pellow, an 18th Century Cornishman who was enslaved in North Africa for more than 20 years, Giles Milton tells a tale of both horror and courage. Milton’s book is perhaps a bit too uncritical in its reliance upon Pellow’s memoirs, for they were written as a commercial endeavor, and were undoubtedly sensationalized to help assure good sales. Nevertheless, a readable and informative book.

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, Richard Zacks; Hyperion, 2005: ISBN: 1401300030

Zacks tells the story of the capture of the United States Navy’s Philadelphia in Tripoli and the subsequent enslavement of its crew and officers. The ensuing diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and an Islamic state could have come from today’s headlines. In the first chapter of the book, Zacks recounts the raids of Islamic slavers on Europes Mediterranean coasts, and he later describes the lot of the American sailors who were enslaved in Tripoli. This is an excellent account of a little known episode in American history.

Slavery In The New World:

Slavery,(3rd Ed.) Stanley Elkins; University of Chicago Press, 1976: ISBN 0226204774

First published in 1959, Elkins’ book is a foundation of the modern historical understanding of the subject of slavery in the New World. Elkins, who today at 87 is Emeritus Professor at Smith College, conducted extensive research in North and South America, mining an immense wealth of data from legal archives of laws and cases, which he used to compare the relative status and the condition of slaves in the United States and slaves in Latin America. Elkins’ conclusion – that slavery was less oppressive in Latin America due to far greater extension of legal rights and protections to slaves than in the U.S. – spurred a huge outpouring of critical debate. Today, Elkin’s conclusion has been disproven by subsequent researchers. Nevertheless, his work still contains essential and valuable data on the subject of New World slavery, and it remains a standard reference.

The Problem Of Slavery In Western Culture, David Brion Davis, Cornell University Press, 1966; LoC 66-14348

Yale Emeritus Professor David Brion Davis, now 85, explores the roots of slavery in the New World by delving back as far as the ancient Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East. Davis notes that in no ancient culture was the line between master and slave so utterly and inflexibly drawn as in the New World, a fact which he attributes to the racist character of New World slavery. In the second half of the book, Davis specifically addresses and refutes Elkins’ conclusion, and he marshals a great deal of evidence in support of his argument. Davis’ work remains highly readable and even compelling, and never bogs down in the supporting data. Davis received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in History for this volume. Still a must.

The World The Slaveholders Made, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1969: LoC: 69-15474

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1974: ISBN: 0394716523

From Rebellion To Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in The Making of The New World, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1979: ISBN: 0394744853

Genovese is absolutely essential reading for the study of slavery in North America. Genovese’s style is readily readable and compelling, even as he assembles mountains of factual data. His books are never dull and dry, and they are liberally supplied with extensive quotations from source documentation which both enlighten and entertain. Professor Genovese had Marxist political affiliation in his earlier days, and The World The Slaveholders Made is clearly influenced by this connection: Genovese regards the Antebellum South as a society of Lords and Manors and oppressed workers (both slave and free.) Genovese observes that the slaves used their religious practices as a form of resistance to their masters, interpreting this as a conscious tool in class struggle, which seems a rather unusual take for a Marxian. His later works move away somewhat from a distinctly Marxian view, and Roll, Jordan, Roll” is rightly considered a classic in the field. (Genovese, now more than 80 years old, has become distinctly conservative in his latter years.)

Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, Carl N. Degler; Macmillan, 1971: LoC: 73-130946

Degler, now emeritus professor at Stanfurd University in his 91st year, won the Pulitzer Prize, among other honors, for this landmark study of race in North and South America. Degler explicitly rejected Elkins’ conclusion, and showed that slavery in Latin America in general and Brazil in particular was much harsher on the slaves that slavery in the U.S. Degler documents mortality rates in general, particularly noting a much higher suicide rate for Brazilian slaves, and the inability of Brazil’s slave population to be self-sustaining until after the end of slavery in 1888. He also notes that, contrastingly, in the United States the slave population increased steadily throughout the first half of the 19th Century, despite the ban on importation of new slaves. Degler writes in a very readable style, and his mastery of the facts never devolves into a dull litany of data.

Degler’s conclusion that discrimination and the social debilities of blacks in the modern New World cultures is derived from the former status as slaves seems uncontroversial. His interpretation that New World slavery arose from racism has engendered intense debate and controversy.

Abolition and its aftermath:

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild; Mariner Books, 1999: ISBN: 0618001905

Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild; Houghton Mifflin, 2005: ISBN: 0618104690

Both of these books are well worth reading.

A professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Hochschild has nevertheless built an impressive reputation as a historian, though perhaps “popular historian” should be used (historians can be a snarkey bunch, and there always seems to be a certain disdain for those who write things that many people actually want to read!) King Leopold’s Ghost addresses the grotesque exploitation of the Belgian Congo as the personal estate of King Leopold of the Belgians (17 December 1865 to 17 December 1909.) The book tells the story with a narrative style that is as exciting as any fictional adventure, and the real characters are vividly brought to life. As one reads this book, one is simultaneously fascinated and appalled. It is an essential reading to learn more about slavery after the official Western abolition of all slavery.

In Bury The Chains, Hochschild recounts the struggle of the British anti-slavery movement. He notes that this cause was the first modern popular cause, employing mass media – newspapers and broadsheet posters – and organizing economic action against slavery in the form of sugar boycotts. He says, “It was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for years, over someone else’s rights.” This book too has its villains such as Banastre Tarleton, (the evil English dragoon colonel featured in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot; he was pro-slavery in Parliament) and its heros such as John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace.

A Smashing Defeat

Today is another significant date in history, which is not surprising, really. Until modern times, many really big events – great gatherings and assemblies and battles – had to wait until the weather made it possible to travel and move masses of people and supplies. Winter was too cold, Spring too wet, so Summer is when a lot of stuff used to happen. Thus June is rather heavily loaded with memorable dates.

It was on this date in 1815 that Napoleon met his Waterloo at the hands of the forces allied against him under Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. The battle of Waterloo was one of those linchpins of history, marking the end of Napoleon’s quest for a European Empire, and a return to the older world order of hereditary monarchs and privileged nobility (for a while, at least.)

In the late 1950s, a young history doctoral candidate at Harvard, wrote his thesis on the aftermath of Napoleon’s nearly 20 years of military adventuring in Europe. Focussing on the Congress of Vienna, at which virtually every change that Napoleon had made was undone, he titled his massive study of the importance of diplomacy A World Restored. This student saw that for all of Napoleon’s magnificent battlefield accomplishments, it was the diplomats who shaped the next century of European history. He later was able to apply his notions of diplomacy in a meaningful way, as Secretary of State: Henry Kissinger.

In American History, the aftermath of Waterloo is notable in that Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana Territory to the fledgling United States was permitted to stand, even as virtually every other Napoleonic transaction was undone after Waterloo. This meant that The United States of America was the only nation to materially gain from the two decades of warfare that Napoleon waged. No small accomplishment for a nation that never involved itself in the fray! The results of famous victories may be erased almost immediately. Diplomacy can gain more than mighty armies!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The next greatest misfortune to losing a battle
is to gain such a victory as this.

— Wellington, on Waterloo

A Triumphant Defeat

It was on 17 June 1775 that the two-month old American Revolution first proved that it could more than match the might of the British Empire. It would be more than a year before independence was declared, but the hot war was in full play when British and American forces met on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. For the Americans, there would be no turning back.

We have come to know the battle as “Bunker Hill,” that small rise being the more well-known landmark, but the fortified American position was atop the somewhat lower, nearby Breed’s Hill. The relatively small American force was well entrenched atop the hill, having spent the night of June 16/17 building barricades and digging in, but the British figured it would be a simple matter to dislodge them. The British had a more than five-to-one superiority over the Americans, and conventional military wisdom of that era held that a three-to-one superiority would be sufficient to take a fortified position. British pride, and their underestimation of the rebel troops, would not permit them to simply lay siege to the Colonials and starve them out. In hindsight, that might have been the more intelligent course of action.

The British – 5,000 Regular Army troops led by unusually skilled and experienced generals – were sure that they could handily defeat a “ragtag mob of Colonials.” They had not expected the American troops to be so disciplined, and they were not prepared for the excellent marksmanship. When the first British assault was launched at the American position, American General William Preston is famously said to have ordered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” As the redcoats came closer and closer, they grew more and more confident that the rebels had lost their nerve. Finally, at nearly point-blank range, the Americans opened with a fusillade of musket fire that shattered the British line, forcing them to withdraw, leaving more than 110 soldiers dead. The Americans hardly lost a man in that first engagement.

The British mounted a second assault which was also repulsed, but by the time the third British assault was underway, the Americans were running low on powder and bullets. At last the British overwhelmed the American position in a vicious hand-to-hand fight, and the Yankees retreated from the battlefield, ceding the all-important high-ground to the redcoats. The Battle of Bunker Hill was thus a significant defeat for the American war effort. Yet it remains a much-celebrated battle to this day. By any standards the British won: they had gained a clear tactical victory, driving the rebels from the field; they had gained a crucial strategic advantage as well, being left in control of heights overlooking Boston from which they could control access to the city. But the British victory was certainly a Pyrrhic victory – a victory that costs more than it is worth – for they had lost over 1,100 men compared to the Americans’ loss of fewer than 400. This “victory” was among the deadliest, costliest battles the British fought in the entire Revolutionary War. “Another victory such as this and we are ruined.” But it was the Americans who actually gained the most from this battle, for they had shown themselves, and the British, and, indeed, the whole of the watching world, that American troops could take on the mighty British Army and give better than they got. They could fight the war, and they could win it.

It is odd to note that during the protracted and fierce struggle of the American Revolution, the Americans won very few major victories. There were Washington’s successes at Trenton and Princeton in 1776, the all-important victory at Saratoga in 1777, Cowpens in 1781, and, of course the final triumph over Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. But on the whole, the forces of the United States tended to come off the losers in pitched battles. Yet they won the war, a fact for which I am deeply grateful.

The British had to gain a smashing victory if they were to emerge from the conflict as the winners, but the Americans merely had to keep from being utterly defeated. Washington was brilliantly successful in recognizing and taking advantage of this fact. So long as the Continental Army was in the field, Britain could not win. By the time Cornwallis capitulated at Yorktown, the British government had grown weary of a long, enormously expensive war of attrition, and so initiated negotiations. Thus a new nation was fully born, and it started not with a rousing victory, but an inspiring defeat.

In the 19th century, Bostonians raised a monument to the battle, a squat, rough-hewn stone obelisk that dominates the Charlestown skyline even today. A few years ago, a new highway bridge into the heart of Old Boston was opened. It is the latest word in modern design: a stunning cable-stay bridge of remarkable grace and lightness. In June of 2005 I had the opportunity to drive over it as I headed into Logan Airport at 5:30 in the morning. The dawn was already well underway, and the sunlight on that bridge made for a striking scene. And then I noticed something that I had not observed when I had crossed it late at night a few days earlier: the two towers of the bridge are capped with concrete obelisks which echo the lines of the Bunker Hill Monument. The old blends with the very newest, and a long-ago triumphant loss is still remembered and honored, just as it should be.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I always say that, next to a battle lost,
the greatest misery is a battle gained.

— Wellington, “Recollections”

Rare Political Courage

It was on this day, 16 June 1858, that Illinois Senatorial Candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his greatest speeches – indeed, one of the landmark speeches in American history. Known as the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln’s address to some 1,000 Republican delegates in Springfield, Illinois included the Biblical reference: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It aroused the most ardent Republicans at the convention with the extreme position that Lincoln adopted, expressed in such phrases as: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” After this speech was published, Abraham Lincoln rocketed to the forefront of national public awareness, and he became a lightning rod for criticism for almost every quarter.

As history soon unfolded, Lincoln’s speech was nearly prophetic. The issue of slavery, which would admit no political compromise, in the end was decided by fire and sword in one of the most devastating and deadly wars of the 19th Century. The fame Lincoln had earned as a Senatorial candidate for a distant “Western” state ultimately secured for him the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential nomination. In a deeply divisive election, he became the 16th President of The United States of America, one who is continually ranked among the three greatest men to have ever served in that capacity.

It is worth noting, though, that Lincoln’s speech of 154 years ago, however much public attention it gained him, failed to win him a Senate seat. Lincoln lost to his famous opponent, Stephen Douglas. The voters of Illinois were not yet ready, in 1858, to send such a radical thinker to represent them in Washington. Two years later, the mood had shifted greatly. They say a week is a year in politics, so two years must be as centuries. By 1865, Lincoln’s “divided house” had nearly fallen in two, yet somehow survived. But slavery – that soul-searing, paramount issue – could not endure.

It is also worth noting that some key Illinois Republicans had advised Lincoln against making that speech. They were correct, politically: taking so firm a position cost him the Senate seat. But making that speech gained Lincoln the presidency, and it ultimately gained for America a new birth of freedom. The work is not even now complete, but Lincoln’s courage in saying what he had to say, rather than what was politically prudent to say, made a difference, and changed history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I will prepare and someday my chance will come. — Abraham Lincoln

Further Reading:

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561

This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983

White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826

Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.

Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663

Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)

The Boar War?

It was on 15 June 1859 that Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a male pig belonging Charles Griffin on San Juan Island, and started a chain of events that nearly ignited a third war between the United States of America and Great Britain. The locals around San Juan Island, located in the waterway between what is now Washington State and British Columbia, know the event as “The Pig War.” Though it started off as a rather touchy and fraught situation, cool heads prevailed and war was avoided through diplomacy and negotiation.

Both the United States and Great Britains claimed sovereignty over San Juan Island in the wake of the 1846 Anglo-American treaty which settled most of the questions about the Oregon Territory (which included Oregon, Washington, and part of Idaho.) The Hudson’s Bay Company started to move in settlers in the early 1850’s. Considering the island to belong to the U.S., American pioneers began staking claims on the island about the same time. Tensions grew.

Charles Griffin, originally from Yorkshire, England, claimed land for sheep pasturage; Lyman Cutlar, who hailed from Kentucky, planted a potato patch there. When Griffith’s boar uprooted Cutlar’s potatoes, Cutlar killed the hapless swine with a single shot. But the incident caused festering resentments to flare into open dispute. Griffin called upon Hudson’s Bay Company officials to arrest Cutlar. The British officials did confront Cutlar, however they decided that to effect an arrest would be too provocative and left empty handed.

The matter might have ended in a stalemate then and there but for the fact that American General William Harney, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of Oregon, shortly thereafter paid a courtesy call upon the British Territorial Governor and noted an American flag flying over San Juan Island. Upon investigating, he learned of the American settlers there, and of their grievances against the British. Griffin’s pig was prominently discussed. It is likely that most military men would have deferred the matter as an issue for courts of law, but Harney had an almost irrational hatred of the British. And he clearly enjoyed the prospect of a fight or even a war. The British Governor, it should be noted, was also pleased with the prospect of finally settling the matter of the disputed territory, even by force of arms.

Harney ordered Captain George Pickett — who would later have his name irrevocably linked with Lee’s disastrous charge on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg — to take a detachment of 66 troops from Fort Bellingham up to San Juan Island. Upon landing, Pickett issued a proclamation that the island was U.S. territory, which distressed the British residents, understandably. The British responded by sending a 21-gun warship to train its cannon on Pickett’s small encampment. By the end of August, there were nearly 500 U.S. troops on San Juan Island, and there were almost 2,000 British troops in a small flotilla of warships surrounding the Island. The Americans were outmanned and outgunned, but the British could not readily obtain more troops, while the Americans could draw several thousand from California if needed. Thus the situation remained a stalemate.

After several months of this tense and uncomfortable state of affairs, aging General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812 and of the Mexican War, was sent to negotiate a resolution to the matter. Scott eventually agreed to a joint military occupation of the island with roughly 100 U.S. and 100 British troops remaining on the island. This was how things stayed for the next dozen years or so until at last, in 1872, Kaiser Wilhelm arbitrated the dispute, deciding in favor of the United States. The British quietly withdrew from San Juan Island, thus ending “The Pig War.”

It is nearly amazing, considering the men, the firepower, and the tensions at the start of the affair, that hot war never broke out. Negotiations were allowed to succeed, in part because the senior military men then involved – Scott for the United States and Admiral Baynes for Great Britain – both knew the horrors of battle first-hand, and were unwilling to enter into war lightly. And, unlike the fiery Pickett or the hostile Harney, General Winfield Scott did not feel willingness to negotiate to be a sign of weakness.

Today the United States National Park Service maintains the sites of the British and American camps on the island. The American camp was constructed and fortified by Liuetentant Henry Martyn Robert, later famous as the author of Robert’s Rules of Order. The rangers tell visitors of the amiable joint occupation years, when both British and American troops would jointly celebrate the holidays of their respective nations. And indeed, the rangers note, during that period, the greatest threat to peace and stability was whiskey! To this day the rangers hoist a period Stars and Stripes over the American Camp, and, unusually, these U.S. Government employees also hoist the flag of a foreign power every day when they raise the “Union Jack” over the British Camp.

So cooler heads prevailed, war with Great Britain was averted, Germany’s Kaiser — jealous of Great Britain’s Empire — gave The United States what it wanted after all, and no one died. (Except the pig.)

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

There was never a good war, or a bad peace. — Franklin

Further Reading:

Smithsonian Magazine, June 2005: “The Boar War” by Deborah Franklin.

The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Michael Vouri; Griffin Bay, 1999: ISBN: 0963456253