Politics, The Force of Arms, And Genteel Language

It was on this day, 28 October, in 1066 – nine and a half centuries ago – that Duke William of Normandy, known as “William the Bastard” due to his illegitimate birth, but later styled William The Conqueror, (Guillaume Le Conquerant) received the submission of the Saxons of Kent and their recognition of him as King of England.

William had landed on the English coast exactly one month before. The Norman forces met in battle with the Saxon troops of English king Harold II on 14 October 1066 at Hastings. There, after a long and pitched battle, King Harold was killed by an arrow through his eye, according to legend, and the Norman army proved victorious. Duke William moved quickly to consolidate his victory and to secure the acceptance of his rule among the vanquished Saxons of England’s rich and fertile south. Though the Norman invasion force was comparatively small, they quickly pacified southern England and William marched to London where he would be crowned William I, starting a period of Norman/French rule over England that forever changed England and her peoples.

Perhaps the greatest impact of this invasion and its aftermath is to be found in our modern English language. In 1066, England spoke Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic dialect very unlike what we speak today. William and his Normans spoke Norman French, and French remained the language of the Royal Court for more than two centuries. In the ensuing 950 years, the two more-or-less merged into what we speak today.

Because of the fact that the nobility spoke French and the peasantry spoke Anglo-Saxon, there is still a sense of refinement and niceness attached to the Frenchified way of saying things. This is perhaps most notable at our mealtimes; one does not eat “cow,” (Anglo-Saxon) rather “beef” (French.) And so it is with many meats: pig/pork, calf/veal, buck/venison, and sheep/mutton. For some reason, the pattern is not followed with birds, and it is not followed in vegetables and grains, most likely due to the fact that the meals of the nobility were preponderantly meat, those of the peasants coarse meal and legumes.

In other areas of our tongue this pattern of nicer French-derived words versus meaner Anglo-Saxon words still applies. For example, “Royal” is far more frequently used than “Kingly” (and “Regal”, derived directly from Latin is fancier still.) A mansion is finer than a house, a cottage nicer than a hut. Chivalry is more polished than mere Knighthood, garmentry more stylish than mere clothing. Larceny has a cleaner ring to it than theft, while courage seems elevated above mere hardihood. To deceive is done with greater refinement than to lie, just as to cry out is more genteel than to yell out. And such a list could run to many thousands of examples. Indeed, language is what people of attainment employ whereas a tongue is what the every-day folk speak.

Of course it is true that the Norman Conquest left us many other legacies in Government, Law, and Culture. But the linguistic heritage we received from this invasion touches us all, even today, hundreds of times each day.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

— Rudyard Kipling

Technological Progress and Romantic Legend

It was on this day, October 24, 1861, that the Western Union Telegraph Company successfully completed the first transcontinental telegraph link between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This vital communication link was completed in a remarkably short time; only a little more than a year before had Congress offered an annual subsidy of $40,000.00 to any company that could complete the project of linking the Eastern telegraph network, which extended as far west as Saint Joseph, Missouri, and the Western telegraph network, which extended as far East as Virginia City, Nevada.

The completion of the link between East and West was crucial in helping to ensure that California and the West remained in the Union. Prior to the connection of the two telegraph networks, the fastest that information could move across the continent was the speed of a fast rider on a fresh horse, about ten miles an hour. At a stroke, information could travel that great distance in minutes. It took more than a week for the text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address to reach California. It took less than fifteen minutes for the text of his Gettysburg address to be transmitted over the telegraph to San Francisco.

The telegraph link also spelled the end for the legendary Pony Express. The short-lived Pony Express began operation April 3, 1860 about the time that Congress was debating a telegraph subsidy, and ceased operation abruptly upon completion of the telegraph link. In the scant 18 months of its existence, the Pony express embedded itself in the mythology of the Old West with lore and color that the telegraph could never hope to match. Such is progress.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull.

— Charles F. Kettering

The World Turned Upside Down

It so often happens along the inexorable March Of History that great changes and meaningful events are the result of violence – usually massed violence in the forms of wars and battles, occasionally individual violence as murder and assassination – but sometimes potent change comes about in more appealing and productive ways. Many notable historical occurrences that have an impact upon the United States of America took place on 19 October, some violent, some not so much so.

* * *

In 1864, on 19 October, Union General Philip Sheridan rallied his panicked forces to turn the tide of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ending once and for all the Confederate threat to invade the Union. The victory was decisive, but desperately costly. It did not end the conflict – that was still more than six months away – but from that point forward, the outcome of the war was inevitable: the Union would triumph. An important result of this victory, too, was that it served as a major boost for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for a second term as President.

* * *

And it was on this day in 1781 that British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his force of nearly 9,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. Though the war did not officially end for two years, this surrender marked the effective end of British efforts to retain the Colonies by force. American independence was secured and the new nation could concentrate on rebuilding.

General Cornwallis had initially insisted on surrendering to the French, but General Rochambeau insisted that he was only there to assist Washington, and refused to accept Cornwallis’ proposal.

Washington’s forces at Yorktown included some 5,000 French Army regulars, and Yorktown’s seaward approaches were guarded by French Admiral De Grasse’s heavily armed fleet. Washington told the French General Rochambeau: “This could not have been achieved without your participation. The United States are for ever in your debt.”

* * *

Yet small and peaceful events can have an immense impact upon history as well, so it is apt that I observe that it was on this day, 19 October 1469, that a small and secret wedding took place that produced an impact that resonates even today. It is a story that seems more likely to have been written as a fairy tale than a chronicle of history: a beautiful teenaged princess rejected eligible suitor after eligible suitor, finding no man quite to her liking, until, at long last she stealthily eloped to secretly marry the carefully disguised teenager whom she first intended to marry, he himself a handsome prince; the marriage united their two kingdoms and the royal lovebirds and their two kingdoms prospered and they all lived happily ever after.

Well, the reality is rather more complex and nuanced than that quick spin, yet the basics are found in the historical record. Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were indeed secretly married on this day in 1469. The secrecy was needed because the political implications of the two largest and most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula being conjoined in matrimony was immense. For a generation or more prior to this marriage, the whole of Iberia had been rent by war and rebellion and a succession of indifferent or incompetent monarchs among various kingdoms and principalities had resulted in civil unrest and economic decline across the region. A marriage between Castile and Aragon threatened to fundamentally shift the power in Iberia, and so it did. From this small and secret wedding ultimately arose the greatest global superpower history had seen to that time, and Spain dominated European power politics for more than a century.

Though Spain was not a single nation during their lives, under the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, Emperor Charles V, a unified Spanish nation was realized, and Spain’s conquest and plundering of the New World permitted unimagined wealth to flood into the formerly cash-poor lands of Iberia. As heir to the Habsburg domains as well, Emperor Charles V ruled over what was then the most extensive empire in history, stretching across half the globe.

And, of course, as ever schoolchild knows, this empire was the result of Queen Isabella’s investment in a modest adventure proposed by an Italian navigator. In 1492, Queen Isabella sponsored the voyage of Christopher Columbus to develop a western passage to Asia. The fact that Columbus never came close to reaching his intended destination notwithstanding, his arrival in the Caribbean indeed changed everything that followed. The indigenous inhabitants of the New World were extirpated or marginalized, and over the next four centuries Europe rushed in, reshaping the global economy, and permanently altering the course of history. This change most certainly was not accomplished without violence and bloodshed, but the spark that touched off the conflagration of change was indeed just a simple, secret, and very private wedding in the unprepossessing city of Valladolid, in a modest realm of the Iberian Peninsula.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

— Michael Crighton

A Coup In Ethiopia


My portrait drawing of Haile Selassie. 1981.

It was on this day forty-two years ago that Haile Selassie, The Lion Of Judah and Emperor of Ethiopia was deposed in a coup by the Derg. Haile Selassie had been Emperor of Ethiopia for nearly 44 years, but, having served as regent from 1916, his rule of Ethiopia lasted a span of almost 58 years.

The Emperor remains a towering figure in African history, and he featured prominently in the history of the 20th Century. His famous plea for international justice before the League of Nations in the wake of Italy’s invasion and bombing of Ethiopia stands as a seminal moment in modern international law.

Though Haile Selassie was considered an enlightened leader, taking Ethiopia into the 20th Century and investing in his country’s infrastructure and educational institutions, some of his reforms failed. An attempt at taxing the hereditary nobility in the 1960s led to revolts and disruptions which ultimately slowed economic development to a halt. The Derg, a junta of military officers who proclaimed adherence to Communism (more for the chance to get support from the USSR, it seems, than for ideological reasons) deposed the Emperor on 12 September 1974.

Halie Selassie was placed under “house arrest” and remained a prisoner until his death the following Summer. Though the official explanation was that the 83 year old Emperor had died of old age, suspicion remains that he was killed for the convenience of the Derg.

In addition to being a foremost figure in the long and ancient history of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie remains revered by Rastafarians. Before he took the throne, Haile Selassie was titled Ras Tafari, roughly “Duke Respected.” (The regnal name “Haile Selassie” means “Power of the Trinity.”) Though he never assented to being worshipped as a living divinity – he was after all the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – he did make one visit to Jamaica in the 1960s.

I am no great fan of monarchs, though I find enlightened, modern ones acceptable. But I have always had an especial fondness for Haile Selassie. In my early youth, along with my brother Rob, I encountered Haile Selassie on two occasions, one quite memorable and personal, so I offer this brief posting in his memory.

“Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.”
—Address to the League of Nations, 1936.


The Lion Of Judah.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true…

― Thomas Paine

Our National Park Service Turns 100

Today our National Park Service turns 100 years old. Of course, we have had parks that were preserved long before 1916. For example, on 30 June 1864, that President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation which set aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for recreation and preservation, a step which ultimately led to the creation of the United States’ National Park system. This designation was made as a grant to the state of California upon the conditions

“that the premises shall he held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time.”

Yosemite was thus initially a state park and not really a national park. It became a National Park in 1906 after John Muir persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt work to designate it so in order to better protect and preserve the unique natural treasure. Even though the first true National Park in the world to be created was Yellowstone in 1872, the precedent was established with Yosemite. It is telling that the emblem of the National Park Service features a giant redwood, which indicates the significance of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove in the Park Service’s heritage.

From this important starting point, the idea of setting aside public lands for recreation and preservation began to grow. Yellowstone, as I mentioned, was founded eight years after the Yosemite Grant. Surprisingly quickly, other nations followed the example of The United States: Australia created the National Park (now Royal National Park) south of Sydney in 1879 and Canada created Rocky Mountain National Park (now Banff National Park) in 1887. By the early 20th century national parks had been created in several European countries and in their colonial possessions as well.

Abraham Lincoln left many invaluable legacies to posterity which overshadow this contribution. Yet this too is a bequest of inestimable worth. In the midst of a great civil war, the Great Emancipator nevertheless found the time to think about the future of his war-torn nation, and to plan to make it a better future in every way. By granting Federal lands for preservation and recreation, an entirely new thing in the world was created, and we all still benefit. Remarkable man, Lincoln.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The power of imagination makes us infinite.

— John Muir

Of Elvis Sightings And Empty Tombs

Because 16 August was the 39th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, “The King,” yesterday I shared my posting from earlier about the occasion. In that essay, I note that the many Elvis sightings in the decades after his death represented an old tale: a famous person dies and is said to actually have faked his or her own death, to be seen sporadically thereafter. I also noted that one of the more famous cases of this claim involves Czar Alexander I of Russia who died in 1825 after reigning for 24 eventful years which included the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars and the diplomatic machinations of the Congress of Vienna. The rumor of Alexander faking his death started circulating almost immediately upon his death in 1825. It was fairly widely believed in the mid-19th century that he was the old starets (ста́рец or staretz; plural: staret[sz]y; it means, simply “old man,” (stare– being the Slavic stem for “old.”) Feodor Kuzmich.

Alexander was born December 12/23 1777, grandson of Catherine The Great. (The first date is the Julian form that Russia used until 1923, out of sync with the physical year by 11 days in that era; the second is our present Gregorian system.) Alexander died after a bout with fever on 19 November/1 December 1825. He was just shy of 48 years old and he had been in previously robust health.

Part of the reason his death was almost immediately “doubtful” is that he and Czarina Elizabeth were far, far from the Court at Saint Petersburg or even the hurley-burley of Moscow. Elizabeth’s poor health had motivated the Imperial couple to remove to the muddy village of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov in September of that year. Taganrog was no place for an Emperor, and had few decent facilities, and no really qualified medical appurtenances. The Czar’s autopsy was carried out thoroughly, according to the report signed by nine doctors, who were mostly hastily drawn from the area’s military outposts, but from the document one cannot tell what he could have died from; all the organs were “perfect,” there was nothing unusual on the brain. His body was embalmed and placed in a coffin of cedar-wood lined with a thick lead interior. The coffin was sealed and the body was eventually sent back to Saint Petersburg for the formal funeral. The coffin reached Saint Petersburg after a long and arduous journey on 28 February 1826, and the funeral was held in mid-March. The former Czarina died the following June.

Because of the long delay in the body reaching the Capital, the tradition of permitting the masses to view the corpse lying in State was omitted. This of course only helped fuel rumors that the Czar’s body was not within the coffin. Almost immediately stories began to circulate that he had secretly travelled to the Holy Land on an English vessel, or that he had emigrated to America, or was kidnapped by Cossacks near Taganrog; the only common agreement was that the Czar’s coffin contained the body of a soldier who resembled the Czar. After a decade or so these rumors faded away.

Then there appeared in 1835 in the village of Krasnoufimsk in Perm a starets with an unusually imposing bearing named Feodor Kuzmich. He had no papers and claimed to have no recollection of his origins. Kuzmich was given 20 lashes and transported to Siberia. There he developed a reputation for holiness and profound scriptural knowledge. Staretsy were common enough among the peasantry of Old Russia, but learned men were seldom among them. As he attracted a local following, his reputation grew and local notables began to consult with Kuzmich, who also appeared to have a vast and detailed knowledge of politics, history, and civil administration. Soon he began receiving vistors from the far points of the Empire. Most were convinced that the old man was a former high government official who had turned incognito.

Eventually the heir apparent, Nicholas, and Grand Duke Alexis visited Kuzmich. At Alexis’ visit a soldier cried out, “It is our Czar Alexander!” The starets replied “I am only a vagabond; be quiet or you will go to prison.” Kuzmich continued to claim to know nothing of his background right up to his death in January 1864. Asked upon his deathbed to reveal his true identity, Kuzmich said, “God will know his own.” He was buried at the Monestary of Saint Alexis in Tomsk under an epitaph reading: “Here rests the body of the great starets Feodor Kuzmich, Blessed By God.” That last bit, “Blessed By God” was the epithet given to Alexander I after he defeated Napoleon. The future Nicholas II made a veneratory visit to the grave in 1891. Czar Alexander III had a portrait of the old man in his study. A portrait of Alexander I was found in the starets’ home. In 1891 several graphologists examined and compared sampled of Kuzmich’s handwriting and that of the late Czar. All were agreed that the samples were “consistent.”

In 1925, the Soviet government decided to remove the remains of the Imperial family from public access to discourage veneration of or homage to the Czars. When the Communist agents disinterred the Romanovs from their tombs, one tomb was empty: Alexander’s. It seems that the report from the early Soviet era cannot be decisively confirmed, but the surviving Romanov’s of that day claimed to be unsurprised, believing that Alexander’s body lay in Tomsk.

There are some rather plausible reasons to give careful attention to the Alexander I/ Kuzmich mystery. Firstly, Alexander I was recorded as often declaring his desire to step down from his throne to a pleasant and peaceful retirement, even declaring that age fifty would be the ideal time. Too, the descriptions of Alexander I’s final illness are as confusing as they are contradictory: he slept fitfully/he slept soundly; he had a high fever/he was cold and clammy; he had no appetite/he ate improvidently; the autopsy revealed syphilitic lesions on the brain/the brain was perfect; the corps’ right leg showed the scarring of an earlier wound while Alexander I’s injury had definitely been his left leg, and so on. Several of the nine signatories of the official autopsy report later disavowed having signed it. Nicholas I, who succeeded Alexander I, burned his brother’s last years’ papers. And then there is that empty coffin in Saint Petersburg.

It would, however, have taken a fairly large number of conspirators in Taganrog to pull the charade; that no one involved ever talked of any such deception is also a pretty telling point, for great secrets rarely stay secret.

For a full account of Alexander’s life, read Henri Troyat’s Alexander Of Russia: Napoleon’s Conqueror, trans. Joan Pinkham; Dutton, 1982: ISBN: 0525241442.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.

— Oscar Wilde

The Johnstown Flood

As many places in Texas are coping with the inundating effects of recent heavy rains, it seems timely to remember that it was on this day, 1 June 1889, that the nation learned that one of the greatest disasters in the history of the United States had occurred the previous afternoon, the infamous “Johnstown Flood.” More than 2,000 people and 99 entire families were killed, some 1,600 homes and businesses were wiped out, and more than $20,000,000.00 in damage was inflicted. An immense wall of water tore through Johnstown, Pennsylvania in less than ten minutes, nearly erasing the town from the face of the earth. Notably, in the aftermath of the disaster, Clara Barton and the nascent American Red Cross responded to coordinate the relief efforts, the first such task undertaken by that organization.

The flood was, in reality, a man-made catastrophe. Several days of heavy rains had caused all the streams and rivers in the region to rise to alarming levels, but the enormous flood was the result of the failure of an earthen dam on Lake Conemaugh, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. The dam had originally been built in the 1830s as a reservoir for a canal system; the state later sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the canals became obsolete. The lake was in turn purchased by a private hunting and fishing club whose membership included a constellation of fabulously wealthy Pittsburgh steel barons: Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and Schwab. The club made extensive modifications to the dam, including lowering it to accommodate a roadway across it. These modifications are thought to have weakened the dam’s structural integrity.

In the late evening of 30 May 1889, the dam caretaker noticed major leaks in several locations on the dam. He and several laborers worked throughout the night and the next morning to try to effect emergency repairs and reinforcement on the dam. Because high water blocked roads and had downed telegraph lines, warning could not be sent to the people in Johnstown for several hours. When riders did reach Johnstown, most residents simply reacted as they usually did for flood warnings: they took refuge in the upper floors of their homes to ride out the high water. But the flood that came was no simple rising of the water level: a massive wall of water blasted through the town, carrying away whole houses and knocking down brick buildings. The wreckage was strewn for miles in the wake of the flood. Contemporary photographs show that broad swath of the town was essentially scoured clean by the force of the rushing waters, and much more of the town’s construction had suffered collapse or irreparable damage.

The resulting relief efforts saw donations pour in from around the globe. Money was received from as far away as Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The Red Cross had taken on a new role in responding to domestic disaster, and set a precedent that remains to this day. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which owned the dam, never took responsibility for the disaster – though it was its duty to have maintained the structure – and no one ever brought a successful suit against the wealthy club. However, primarily because of the attention and outrage which was focussed upon the legal procedings, many states began adopting a British legal precedent which conferred liability on those who modified natural features, even if no negligence was proven.

The wealthy Steel Barons of Pittsburgh whose club owned the dam were by no means completely heartless, though their club never owned up to any liability in failing to maintain the dam. In the 19th century, liability was less broadly interpreted than it is today, and flooding was typically ascribed to the category of “an Act of God,” which precluded human liability. Though by today’s standards the club would probably have been deemed liable, it was not surprising that it was held harmless in the 1880s.

Carnegie, Frick, Mellon and others donated tens of thousands of dollars to the relief efforts. The steel barons contributed personally even if their club did not. This also was a more common pattern for 19th century disasters. Mellon, additionally set up an interest free building fund for residents, and Carnegie later built and endowed a library for the town.

All in all, perhaps they could have done more, but they definitely did not simply ignore their responsibilities all together. And, as I noted, liabilty law evolved as a direct result of this diaster.

Johnstown rebuilt, and exists to this day. And it still falls victim to periodic flooding. For a highly readable and complete account of the tragedy, take a look at historian David McCullough’s account in his 1967 work, The Johnstown Flood, (Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 06712071480)

Jamie Rawson Flower Mound, Texas

Let your advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.

— Winston Churchill