Monthly Archives: December 2006

European Attitudes toward Barbary Corsairs, 1600s–1700s

The absence of a concerted joint effort by the Christian maritime powers allowed the corsairs of Barbary and Sallee to survive into the nineteenth century. This shameful failure of international cooperation had three main causes. In the first place, the great maritime nations were always suspicious of each other’s intentions and were often reluctant to believe that a proposed attack on the corsairs was not a cover for some other more nefarious activity. Such suspicions were sometimes justified and so ‘an expedition against the Barbary corsairs became the stock diplomatic formula for covering some ulterior and sinister design’, as the historian Sir Julian Corbett put it in his study of England’s early naval adventures in the Mediterranean. It also soon became apparent to the maritime powers that the Barbary regencies could be valuable allies in the numerous European wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as long as peace could be negotiated with them. This made collusion in naval expeditions against Barbary almost impossible, since it became naval policy to exploit friendship with Algiers or the other regencies in order to gain an advantage over whichever of the other European powers was currently the enemy. The last reason for this failure was even more cynical and was noted as early as 1611 by the English consul in Syria. ‘He remarked there were difficulties in the way of uniting sovereigns for the suppression of piracy, for some are not displeased that pirates exist and are glad to see certain markets harassed.’ This observation made at a time when there seemed to be genuine hopes for cooperation became even truer in later years. The maritime powers, especially England and France, realised that if the corsairs could be persuaded by force and diplomacy to leave their shipping alone, these predators would then concentrate their attention on the shipping of weaker nations and so reduce the competition in trade. The French attitude towards Barbary was summed up in a memorandum of 1729. ‘We are certain that it is not in our interest that all the Barbary corsairs be destroyed, since then we would be on a par with all the Italians and the peoples of the North Sea.’ What France wanted was ‘just enough corsairs to eliminate our rivals, but not too many’. Such sentiments were shared by the English, a nation who first condoned the piracy of its own subjects as it helped them force their way into the commerce and carrying trade of the Mediterranean and then exploited the piracy of the corsairs to sustain and increase their dominant position.

This desirable if immoral position was to take a long time to achieve. The Barbary corsairs, especially those of Algiers, were formidable opponents in the 1620s and 1630s whose well-manned ships need feel little fear of the ships in the generally weak Christian navies of the day, since those they could not defeat in battle they could easily evade. ‘It is almost incredible to relate in how short a time those ships out-sailed the whole fleet out of sight,’ wrote the English Admiral Mansell after his failure to capture some corsair ships off Majorca on Christmas Day 1620. Algiers itself was virtually impregnable, a large, well-fortified city on what was normally a lee shore whose harbour was protected by a mole and a boom which could be drawn across if danger threatened. The other corsair cities were more vulnerable, but still offerred a formidable challenge to those who dared to attack them. And so, although many attacks were made on the ships and cities of the corsairs by the English, Dutch, French, Maltese and especially the Spaniards, not much progress was made in the first half of the seventeenth century. The Barbary corsairs, those ‘pirates that have reduced themselves into a Government or State’ as the jurist Charles Molloy neatly put it, remained a very great danger to the ships and coastlines of Christian Europe.

The situation was to change in the years after 1650 which saw a huge increase in the naval strength of England, Holland and, later, France and a growing commitment to the belief that one key function of such navies was to protect the nation’s trade. These years also saw a change in the make-up of the European navies which had previously been dominated by large and very powerful ships. These remained, indeed became even more powerful, but they were now supported by much larger numbers of relatively small, fast vessels of shallow draught that had been originally designed to catch the privateers of the day but were of course also invaluable against the Muslim corsairs.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 72-74

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Reshaping China’s Coal Industry

SURELY NO NATION ON EARTH has as many coal miners or coal mines as China. In 1996, 5 million Chinese mined coal, virtually all of them underground. At the same time in the United States, about 90,000 miners were digging about the same amount of coal. The reason for the disparity, of course, is that Chinese mines rely much more on cheap labor than on costly machines. In addition to its many large mines, China has tens of thousands of tiny mines that each employ just a handful of miners.* The small mines are vastly more deadly than the big mines, which are themselves quite dangerous. In 1991, a particularly bad year, 10,000 Chinese coal miners died in accidents. By comparison, the number of Americans killed in coal mining in 1992, a bad year for the U.S. industry, was fifty-one.

*In 1998, China had about 75,000 mines employing an average of thirteen miners each. These small mines have a death rate seven times higher than the large ones.

… As they are in the United States and other coal-producing nations, the small inefficient mines are shutting down in favor of larger ones. In China, though, the scale of the disruption is mind-boggling: Beijing claims to have closed down 30,000 small mines just since 1998. Although the true number is surely less, there are undeniably painful reforms underway that have already thrown perhaps a million Chinese coal miners out of work.* These sweeping changes reflect the fundamental shift in Beijing’s economic philosophy over the years: In a move more reminiscent of J. P. Morgan than Mao Zedong, the Communist government is now openly urging coal companies to merge into larger and larger enterprises, and to form “cartels” to limit overproduction and improve profitability.

*According to widespread reports, many communities have defied Beijing and quietly reopened their small mines; as a result, several officially “closed” mines have suffered deadly mining accidents in recent years. However, reports that miners are being laid off in huge numbers, including at large state-run mines, are more credible. Between 1992 and 1995, reportedly 883,000 coal miners (more than ten times the total U.S. coal mining workforce) were laid off, and there are plans to lay off nearly 800,000 more.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 207-208, 221-222

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Reshaping the U.S. Coal Industry

THERE MAY BE NO POLLUTANT in all of history that people have worked harder to defeat than sulfur dioxide. In the United States alone the battle against it has absorbed years of effort and billions of dollars. Although it is nowhere near won, it has already utterly transformed the coal industry. It has also created deep political fissures between states and regions, as local fortunes rise and fall and as states struggle to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to fight this invisible foe and to stop 11 killing their downwind neighbors.

Coal provides just over half the electricity for the United States, with huge and politically important regional variations. Many states, especially in the coal-producing regions, get virtually all their electricity from coal; others, especially on the West Coast and in New England, burn next to none. They rely instead on the three power sources that make up almost all the other half of the nation’s electricity—hydroelectric dams, nuclear power, and natural gas—though sometimes they also import coal-fired electricity from other states. However, the number of people a state’s coal plants actually sicken or kill (and the amount of acid rain and lost visibility they cause) depends not just on how much coal they burn bur on the kind of coal they use and how they burn it.

People who run coal-fired power plants can cut their SO2 emissions in two ways: They can scrub, or they can switch…. It’s often cheaper and a lot easier, though, just to switch to a kind of coal containing less sulfur. This option has caused some painful changes to the traditional U.S. coal industry by wrenching much of it away from the high-sulfur coal fields of the East and moving it to the low-sulfur coal fields of the West. Western coal has always been easier to dig because it lies in thick seams near the surface; but it is younger and generally packs less of an energy punch than the older eastern coals. In 1970, before environmental laws made sulfur content so important, only a tiny, share of U.S. coal came from west of the Mississippi. Today, more than half of it does, and the growing western low-sulfur coal fields are continuing to drain business away from the suffering high-sulfur eastern fields. Wyoming, with its vast surface mines, is now the nation’s top coal-producing state. One result of the shift is that the coal industry can no longer view the environmental movement solely as a threat; the western coal fields, at least, owe much of their growth to environmental laws, and could benefit even more from stricter SO2 limits.

The shift to the western United States has transformed this ancient industry in other ways, too. Even though coal fueled the rise of the machine in virtually every sector of the economy, the extraction of coal (as opposed to mine drainage or coal transportation) long depended far more on manual labor than on machines. Today, though, nearly two-thirds of American coal comes from surface mines, where it has been scooped up by some of the world’s most gargantuan machines. This mechanized mass production has helped make the direct cost of coal incredibly cheap by any measure.

The mechanization of mining has also devastated the work force. Because only the largest mines can afford to mechanize, the smaller mines that characterized the soft-coal industry for so much of the twentieth century have finally been driven out. More than three-quarters of the coal mines operating in the United States in 1976 have closed, and the current work force of 72,000 coal miners is less than a third of what it was a quarter century ago. The once mighty UMW now represents a mere 20,000 miners, who produce less than a fifth of American coal.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 177-180

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Legacies of a Passing Age: Offprints and Philately

Caleb Crain, who blogs at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, remembers the role offprints used to play in scholarly publishing–and stamp collecting.

Offprints are unbound printed pages of an article, which a scholarly journal provides to the article’s author so that he may share them with colleagues. The protocol is — or rather, was — that when a researcher wanted to read an article that happened to appear in a journal he didn’t subscribe to, he would send a postcard to the author, care of his institutional address, asking for an offprint. And the author, as a matter of scholarly courtesy, would mail it to him free. My father is a scientist, and when I was little and collected stamps, most of them came from the postcards sent to him and the other scientists at his institution, requesting offprints. In those days, the 1970s and 1980s, the requests by and large came from developing countries, where the research institutions had less money for their libraries. The postcards came from all over the world, in other words, from countries I’d never heard of and imagined I would never see, and it gave me a thrill to see them, emblems of the glamour and global reach of the life of the mind.

He’s also offering to send you an offprint if you send him a postcard.

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Darfur Conflict Spreads into Central Africa

Lydia Polgreen of the NYT reports on the southward spread of yet another conflict not worth stopping, although France has intervened at the request of the current government of the CAR.

KALANDAO, Central African Republic — The Central African Republic — so important as a potential bulwark against the chaos and misery of its neighbors in Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan — is being dragged into the dangerous and ever-expanding conflict that has begun to engulf Central Africa.

So porous are its borders and ungoverned are parts of its territory that foreign rebels are using the Central African Republic as a staging ground to mount attacks over the border, spreading what the United Nations has already called the world’s “gravest humanitarian crisis.”

The situation is so bad in some places that 50,000 residents have fled the Central African Republic to find refuge in Chad, of all places, while starvation threatens hundreds of thousands who remain.

“This is the soft belly of Africa,” said Jerome Chevallier, a World Bank official who is trying to help stabilize the Central African Republic. “It has little protection from whatever might strike it.”

There’s much more on Darfur and the fighting in Chad at Passion of the Present.

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Head Heeb on the Somalian Regional Proxy War

The ever-vigilant Head Heeb has been closely following the growing likelihood of a regional proxy war in Somalia. Here is are the final paragraphs of his latest post.

Ethiopia and its local allies will push south from Puntland at the same time as they try to break the encirclement of Baidoa. This may, in turn, spiral into a proxy war; the same UN report that estimated the Ethiopian troop presence at 6000 to 8000 noted ominously that up to 2000 Eritrean soldiers may be in the country fighting on the Islamist side. In addition to Ethiopia’s jitters over the possibility that an Islamist state in Somalia might support domestic insurgencies, its fears of a second front against its long-time regional enemy now seem to be materializing.

And as if this isn’t enough, the possibility of Somalia being torn apart in a regional proxy war has a truly ironic postscript. A report on the fighting in the Independent notes sardonically that “the Palestinians are next in line to take over as head of the Arab League – raising the bizarre prospect of the Somali peace talks (if they are ever restarted) moving from Khartoum to Gaza.” Bizarre this may be, but not necessarily inappropriate. Given the number of contending factions in Somalia, the diversity of their interests, the unlikelihood that they can be persuaded to compromise and the number of foreign countries that want a hand in the outcome, Gaza might be the perfect place for them to negotiate.

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Haruki the Hybrid

Emily Parker in today’s Wall Street Journal profiles the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Here’s a snippet that detours from the primary focus on how Murakami deals with Japan’s dark past.

Even as he chooses to spend much of his time in Honolulu, Mr. Murakami appears to reveal the punctilious ways of his homeland. (He reminded me to take off my shoes before entering his home, an airy Hawaiian residence that offers a breath of quiet and anonymity for the celebrity writer. Then he promptly sat down at a light wood table–in formal repose–and looked at me expectantly, waiting for the interview to begin.) And as if to confirm this impression, the Kyoto-born Mr. Murakami says that, in some ways, he is 100% Japanese. “The difference,” he says, “is that I’m kind of individualist.”

In truth, he is a cultural hybrid. He has spent time living in the U.S., and in our conversation he jumps back and forth between English and Japanese. His own books are dotted with Western cultural references, and he has translated several American classics into his native language, such as the work of J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He claims to be somewhat of a black sheep in his home country, in part due to his distaste for drinking parties or social conversation. How about Karaoke? “I hate it,” he says in Japanese. “If I enter a store and there is a Karaoke machine there, I leave immediately.”

I wonder if the author knows that removing shoes at the door is a custom that is nearly universal in Hawai‘i.

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Anthracite Elites vs. Bituminous Boondocks

THE 1902 STRIKE [in the anthracite fields of northern Pennsylvania] served to emphasize how the nation had divided into clean anthracite cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and dirty bituminous ones, like Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Birmingham.* In New York City, as the strike-induced shortage caused anthracite prices to rise, more and more coal users turned to bituminous, violating city laws and alarming city residents. Some plants allegedly switched to bituminous after dark when the smoke would attract less attention. In June of that year, the New York Times carried the distressing headline “Smoke Pall Hangs Over the Metropolis,” something that was true every day in the soft-coal cities. A letter to the editor, bemoaning the growing illegal use of bituminous during the strike, asked, “Are we to have fastened on us the frightful infliction which curses Pittsburg and Chicago?” Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate whose bituminous-burning mills in Pittsburgh added greatly to that city’s “frightful infliction,” chose to live in New York City, and warned: “If New York allows bituminous coal to get a foothold, the city will lose one of her most important claims to pre-eminence among the world’s great cities, her pure atmosphere.”

Pure atmospheres were something most bituminous cities had not seen, and would not see, for a very long time. Most of the bituminous cities saw their coal smoke as the inevitable byproduct of industry, and saw industry as the source not merely of their material wealth but of modern civilization itself. And yet, this belief was not unshakeable. By the late nineteenth century, it was starting to clash with other firmly held attitudes that linked civilized life to cleanliness, beauty, health, and ultimately morality. In short, coal smoke was coming into conflict with an emerging environmental philosophy.

*In fact, nearly every city west of the Appalachians depended heavily on bituminous except the emerging cities in Texas and California, where oil and natural gas were locally available. The reason was the cost of transportation; bituminous was mined in some twenty states by 1900, anthracite only in eastern Pennsylvania. In St. Louis, for example, anthracite could cost four times more than soft coal from the mines of Illinois.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 148-149

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Wood-burning Trains: "A Storm of Fiery Snow"

Anthracite country is often called the cradle of American railroading, and with good reason. Apart from a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the anthracite mine operators were the first Americans to use rails, and they greatly advanced the science of building railways. White and Hazard built a nine-mile rail line from their Summit mine down to the Lehigh [River] in 1827. Gravity carried the coal cars and a carload of mules (who refused to walk down once they had experienced rail travel), down to the Lehigh, and then the mules pulled the cars back up.

Rails spread quickly throughout the anthracite region, and the rest of the East, and eventually locomotives followed. Schuylkill county had more track than any other small area in the country. Companies building railroads alongside the canals drained away canal business and bought up much of the region’s coal property. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful companies, dominated the area, but there would be five railways so intermingled with th anthracite trade that coal and railroading were often considered a single industry.

Surprisingly, these trains didn’t run on coal. For the first few decades, American trains burned wood, even those that existed for the purpose of hauling coal. Anthracite did not burn well in locomotive fireboxes as they were then designed, and the bituminous fields were not yet widely exploited outside of Pittsburgh. Wood was bulky and burned fast, though, so the trains had to stop often to refuel. All along the tracks, people made money cutting wood to sell to the railroads—just one more way that trains would help turn the United States from a forested nation into an agricultural and industrial one.

The era of wood-burning trains is one that train buffs look back on with particular nostalgia. With clean-burning wood, locomotives could be much flashier: They were painted bright red and fitted with polished brass ornamentation. Engineers were flashier, too, often wearing ornate suits and vests with shiny buttons. When the switch to bituminous coal occurred later in the century, the inevitable accumulation of soot and grime meant that engines had to be painted plain black, and engineers switched to overalls. Some say that when the engineer’s uniform was toned down, his status as a workman fell, too.

One problem with the shiny, wood-burning engines proved hard to ignore: They spewed out a continuous shower of sparks and cinders wherever they went, “a storm of fiery snow,” as Charles Dickens called it when he visited the United States. It was a beautiful display at night, but it had a predictable downside. Wood-burning trains commonly set nearby fields and forests ablaze; some said the trains burned more wood outside the firebox than inside.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 121-123

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German Pogroms Before the Black Death, 1348-49

In German-speaking Europe, reaction to the Chillon transcripts [of “confessions” extracted by torture as the plague began to work its way north from the Mediterranean]—and other incriminating docurnents—was swift and furious. “Within the revolution of one year, that is from All Saints Day [November 1] 1348 until Michaelmas [September 29] 1349, all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt and killed,” wrote Heinrich Truchess, Canon of Constance.

In November, barely a month after Balavigny, Belieta, her son Aquetus, and Agimetus were executed, the first pogroms broke out in Germany. The towns of Solden, Zofingen, and Stuttgart killed their Jews in November; and Reutlingen, Haigerloch, and Lindau killed theirs in December. As January 1349 dawned cold and bright along the Rhine, it was Speyer’s turn. The Jews who did not immolate themselves in their homes were hunted down in the winter streets and bludgeoned to death with pikes, axes, and scythes. This happened so frequently, unburied corpses became a public health problem. “The people of Speyer …,” wrote a chronicler, “fearing the air would be infected by the bodies in the streets … shut them into empty wine casks and launched them into the Rhine.” Farther down river in Basel, the city council made a halfhearted attempt to protect the local Jewish community, but when a mob protested the exile of several anti-Semitic nobles, the council lost its nerve. Basel spent the Christmas season of 1348 constructing a wooden death house on an island in the Rhine. On January 9, 1349, the local Jewish community was herded inside. Everyone was there, except the children who had accepted baptism and those in hiding. After the last victim had been shoved into the building and the door bolted, it was set afire. As flames leaped into the cobalt blue sky, the screams and prayers of the dying drifted across the river and into the gray streets of Basel.

In February, when the pogroms reached Strassburg, a bitter winter wind was blowing off the Rhine. The mayor, a tough patrician named Peter Swaber, was a man of conscience and resolve. If the Jews are poisoning wells, he told an angry crowd, bring me proof. The city council supported the mayor, and officials in Cologne sent a letter of encouragement, but in the end, all Swaber had to offer the people of Strassburg was the opportunity to act righteously, while his opponents could promise relief from Jewish debt and access to Jewish property. On February 9, a government more in tune with the popular will unseated Swaber and his supporters. Five days later, on February 14, under a dull winter sun, the Jews of Strassburg were “stripped almost naked by the crowd” as they were marched “to their own cemetery into a house prepared for burning.” At the cemetery gates, “the youth and beauty of several females excited some commiseration; and they were snatched from death against their will.” But the young and beautiful and the converts were the only Jews to see the sun set in Strassburg that Valentine’s Day. Marchers who tried to escape were chased down in the streets and murdered. By one estimate, half of Strassburg’s Jewish population—900 out of 1,884—were exterminated at the cemetery….

According to Canon Truchess, “once started, the burning of the Jews went on increasingly…. They were burnt on 21 January [1349] in Messkirch and Waldkirch … and on 30 January in Ulm, on 11 February in Uberlingen … in the town of Baden on 18 March, and on 30 May, in Radolfzell. In Mainz and Cologne, they were burnt on 23 August …

“And, thus, within one year,” wrote the Canon, “as I have said, all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt. And in Austria they await the same fate for they are accursed of God …. I could believe that the end of the Hebrews had come if the time prophesied by Elias and Enoch were now complete, but since it is not complete, it is necessary that some be reserved.”

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 255-257

Despite all these “preventive measures” in the German lands, the plague rolled on in anyway, hard on the heels of the mass executions.

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