Category Archives: disease

Heilsarmee Hospitality in Vienna, 1934

From A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 1, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 196-198:

We seemed to have been walking for miles in this dim wilderness. At last, not far, I think, from the Danube Canal, we reached a quarter full of sidings and warehouses, and tramlines running over cobblestones glimmered amid dirty snow, and broken crates were scattered about. Under the lee of a steep ramp, a lighted doorway opened at the foot of a large building whose windows were bright in the murk. The policeman left me and I went in.

A large antechamber was filled with a moving swarm of tramps. Each one had a bundle; their overcoats flapped like those of scarecrows and their rags and sometimes their footgear were held together by rusty safety-pins and string. There were Guy Fawkes beards and wild or wandering eyes under torn hat brims. Many of them seemed to have known each other for years. Social greetings and gossip combined in an affable manner and a vague impulse kept them on the move in a shuffling ebb and flow.

A door opened, and a voice shouted “Hemden!”—“Shirts!”—and everyone stampeded towards the door of the next room, elbowing and barging and peeling off their upper clothes as they went. I did the same. Soon we were all naked to the waist, while a piercing unwashed smell opened above each bare torso like an umbrella. Converging wooden rails herded us in a shuffling, insolvent swarm towards a circular lamp. As each newcomer came level with it, an official took his shirt and his under-linen, and, stretching them across the lamp, which was blindingly bright and a yard in diameter, gazed searchingly. All entrants harbouring vermin were led away to be fumigated, and the rest of us, after giving our names at a desk, proceeded into a vast dormitory with a row of lamps hung high under the lofty ceiling. As I wriggled back into my shirt, the man who had taken my name and details led me to an office, saying that a Landsmann of mine had arrived that evening, called Major Brock. This sounded strange. But when we entered the office, the mystery was solved and the meaning of the word Heilsarmee as well. For on the table lay a braided and shiny-peaked black forage-cap with a maroon strawberry growing from the centre of the crown. The words ‘Salvation Army’ gleamed in gold letters on a maroon band. The other side of the table, drinking cocoa, sat a tired, grey-haired figure in steel-rimmed glasses and a frogged uniform jacket unbuttoned at the neck. He was a friendly-looking man from Chesterfield—one could tell he was from The North—and his brow was furrowed by sober piety and fatigue. Breaking his journey on a European inspection tour of Salvation Army hostels, I think he had just arrived from Italy. He was leaving next day and knew as little about events as I. Too exhausted to do much more than smile in a friendly way, he gave me a mug of cocoa and a slice of bread. When he saw how quickly they went down, a second helping appeared. I told him what I was up to—Constantinople, etc.—and he said I could stay a day or two. Then he laughed and said that I must be daft. I untied Trudi’s eggs and arranged them on his desk in a neat clutch. He said “Thanks, lad,” but looked nonplussed about what to do with them.

I lay on my camp-bed fully dressed. A dream feeling pervaded this interior; and soon the approach of sleep began to confuse the outlines of my fellow-inmates. They flitted about, grouping and re-grouping in conversation, unwinding foot-cloths and picking over tins of fag ends. One old man kept putting his boot to his ear as though he were listening to sea-sounds in a shell and each time his face lit up. The noise of talk, bursting out in squabbles or giggles on a higher note and then subsiding again to a universal collusive whisper, rippled through the place with a curious watery resonance. The groups were reduced in scale by the size and the height of the enormous room. They seemed to cluster and dissolve like Doré figures swarming and dwindling all over the nave of some bare, bright cathedral—a cathedral, moreover, so remote that it might alternatively have been a submarine or the saloon of an airship. No extraneous sound could pierce those high bare walls. To those inside them, everyday life and the dark strife of the city outside seemed equally irrelevant and far away. We were in Limbo.

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Varied Local Responses to the 1918 Flu

From Clara’s Journal and the Story of Two Pandemics, by Vickie Oddino (Dobson St., 2021), pp. 26-28, 123-125:

Halloween was cancelled in 1918 just as it was canceled in 2020. The celebration of Halloween differed from the Halloween we are familiar with today. “In the early 1900’s, towns began the practice of community Halloween celebrations, parades, and parties.” It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Halloween revelers caused mischief and pulled pranks, and trick-or-treating did not gain popularity until the 1940s and 1950s.

Clara expresses the same frustration and confusion that people, especially 18-year-olds, currently have as announcement follows announcement of cancellations, more often in some states and cities than in others. And in 1918, cancellations and restrictions varied across the country as well.

One example from 1918 comes from Philadelphia and St. Louis, cities that famously handled the outbreak completely differently. Wilmer Krusen, Philadephia’s public health director, assured the city that the flu was isolated to the military and that it would not spread to civilians. Despite reports that contradicted his views of the disease’s spread, Krusen insisted on continuing with plans to host the Liberty Loan parade, which he predicted would raise millions of dollars in war bonds. And indeed, although city officials anticipated 10,000 spectators, the popular parade drew over 200,000.

Three days after the 1918 Philadelphia parade, all the hospitals in Philadelphia were at capacity. And within a week of the parade, 2,600 people had died. In the meantime, St. Louis immediately closed schools and cancelled other public gatherings. As a result, over the course of the pandemic, Philadelphia had more than twice as many deaths per 100,000 people than St. Louis.

According to the South Dakota State Historical Society,

“The Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard) roamed through the streets of Rapid City, fining and arresting people who were not abiding by the cities [sic] newly created “sanitation laws.” City residents were fined or arrested for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks of Rapid City. As the local paper noted, “The Guard will be out in full force today to see there is no breaking of the quarantine regulations.” On October 27, 1918, one Rapid City man was charged with “flagrant violation of the anti-spitting ordinance.” Even a Rapid City police officer was arrested by the Home Guard for violating the anti-spitting ordinance and paid the customary fine of $6.”

In 1919, the University of Minnesota shut its doors, the University of Montana held classes outdoors, the University of North Carolina went under quarantine, and Smith College closed down completely. At Stanford University, everyone, including professors, were required to wear masks of risk being fired.

Some cities, mostly in the West, also required masks in public….

According to the Sacramento Bee,

“In San Francisco, 100 people were arrested in October [1918] – reported in the news as “mask slackers” – and nine of them were sent to jail. In Stockton, California, one policeman apparently found his own father to be a mask slacker, and he arrested him.”

Officials did their best to turn masks into fashion statements. “In October 1918, the Seattle Daily Times carried the headline ‘Influenza Veils Set New Fashion: Seattle Women Wearing Fine Mesh With Chiffon Border to Ward Off Malady.’”

Early in 1919, some people had had enough, so a woman in San Francisco “organized an Anti-Mask League whose purpose was to ‘oppose by lawful means the compulsory wearing of masks.’”

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Retreat from Burma, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 69-70:

The retreat out of Burma into India was a race against time, as it had to be completed before the onset of the monsoon. The troops made it, just. The last stage of the British withdrawal was bogged down by torrential rains, which began in May. Pearl “Prue” Brewis, a British nurse, was on a train that managed to travel 65 miles in six days, since movement could only take place at night. On the sixth day, while the carriage was sitting idly on the tracks, a senior railway official entered and offered a ride up north on his train. It was crowded, but fast. “Standing room only, you know,” Brewis said about the 100-mile ride north. “Actually, we got the last plane to leave Burma because the next day the aerodrome was bombed.”

More than a million Indians lived in Burma prior to the war, but most still considered India their home. When the Japanese launched their invasion, there was a mass exodus of Indians, and soon most major Burmese cities were virtually emptied of them. The senior medical officer, Brigadier Short, described the Indians who arrived at the town of Ledo in easternmost India in the summer of 1942: “Complete exhaustion, physical and mental, with a disease superimposed, is the usual picture… all social sense is lost… they suffer from bad nightmares and their delirium is a babble of rivers and crossings, of mud and corpses… Emaciation and loss of weight are universal.” Slim watched how an Indian woman died from smallpox, leaving behind her small son. He and his staff bribed an Indian family to take the boy with them. “I hope he got through all right and did not give smallpox to his new family,” Slim wrote in his memoirs.

In the manner of Dunkirk, the defeat in Burma was in a way turned into a victory by the British. “The Army in Burma,” the official British history says, “without once losing its cohesion had retreated nearly one thousand miles in some three and a half months—the longest retreat ever carried out by a British Army.” The American assessment of the British record was less kind: “Though there were cases of individual heroism and desperate fights by small isolated forces, the main body of the British made little or no efforts to stand and give battle,” an official US military report on the Burma campaign said. “The piecemeal defense was a piece of stupidity which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties to the troops, the complete destruction of every town and city in Burma, and the loss to both the Chinese and the British of a vast amount of irreplaceable installations and equipment.”

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Evolution of Slavery in Brazil

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 172-173:

In practice, the royal legislation concerning the enslavement of Indians was ignored virtually in its entirety by the Portuguese in Brazil. The hunting of Indian slaves was to continue throughout the colonial period. However, the nature of slave-holding in Brazil underwent a slow but eventually decisive change after about the middle of the sixteenth century. Indians along the coast were becoming scarce: as hostilities between settlers and natives grew fiercer, tribes withdrew into the hinterland; at the same time diseases started to thin their ranks. The available labour force was drastically depleted, intensifying the competition between missionaries and planters for Indian manpower.

An obvious solution lay in the importation of African slaves to work on the Brazilian plantations. The Portuguese had been operating a slave-trade along the African coast for nearly a century, and they were splendid mariners, so there was therefore no impediment to extending the trade to the New World. Even though African slaves were more expensive than Indian, there were two distinct advantages to the owners: the Africans had the same immunities to viral infections as the Europeans, and they were reputed to be better suited to the kind of hard labour required on the plantations. The demand for labour in the burgeoning sugar industry of Brazil was to lead to an enormous expansion of the African slave-trade (and demand would grow a few decades later in the 1580s when planters in the islands and coastal areas of the Spanish Indies began to seek a replacement for vanishing Indian manpower).

How many slaves were imported into Brazil is not reliably known, and what figures there are remain in dispute, but it is clear that the numbers were very high. By the end of the sixteenth century there may well have been between 13,000 and 15,000 black slaves in Brazil, constituting some 70 per cent of the labour force on the plantations. The white population of Brazil in around 1585 has been estimated at 29,000. During the first half of the seventeenth century about 4,000 slaves a year were imported into Brazil; from about 1650 to 1680 this figure rose to about 8,000, after which it began to tail off. In the eighteenth century the volume of imports began to increase once more when the gold-mining industry pushed up overall demand – Bahia alone received some 5,000 to 8,000 slaves a year. In the north-east as a whole slaves made up about half the population – over two-thirds in the sugar-growing areas. So many were imported partly because the mortality rate of the black slave population was so high and because its rate of procreation fell consistently below the level of replacement – an index of the tremendous demoralization and physical strain that afflicted the slaves. Philip Curtin estimates that in the course of the seventeenth century Brazil took a 41.8 per cent share of the total number of slaves transported to America.

The arrival of Africans in such huge numbers was to add a new demographic dimension to the Portuguese colonies in the New World. Since such a great part of the population was non-white, race mixture soon produced, as in the Spanish Indies, very many people of intermediate ethnicity – mulattos or pardos (white-black), mamelucos or caboclos (white-Indian) and cafusos (Indian-black). Brazil would become an extremely colour-conscious society, and racial features were an important element in social ranking and cultural identification. The inescapable reality was that the sugar economy, as created in the middle of the sixteenth century, made slavery a founding fact of Brazilian society.

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A Year Without Summer, 1816

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 181-182:

Eighteen sixteen was the year without a summer. As Lord Byron put it, the bright sun had vanished and stars wandered “darkling in the eternal space.” The colossal eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia on April 10, 1815—the largest volcanic event in recorded history—had traveled the globe to spew a fine ash over Europe and the Americas. A year later, the earth’s atmosphere was so saturated with sulfur that brilliant sunsets inflamed the English skies, torrential rains washed away European crops, and a persistent gloom hung over North America. At the time, few imagined that a single geologic event in a remote location could affect the entire globe, and yet there was so much evidence of a freak imbalance: stinging frosts carpeted Pennsylvania in the middle of summer, killing the livestock; in Germany, harvests failed, causing a crippling famine; a typhus epidemic swept through the Mediterranean. There were surprising ramifications. Food riots gripped England and Ireland; Luddites torched textile factories with renewed frenzy. In a dark castle in rain-pelted Switzerland, Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein. In northern Europe, J. M. W. Turner was so stunned by the fiery skies that he recorded them in magnificent canvases for years to come. In France, rampant disease prompted a new age of medical discovery. And in the Caribbean, where Bolívar prepared to relaunch his revolution, a perfect calm preceded the hurricane season, which arrived a month sooner than usual, tossing the sea with singular fury.

Eighteen sixteen also became the revolution’s cruelest year. There were wholesale beheadings, hangings, firing squads—all in the name of “pacification.” General Morillo had installed draconian laws to rid Venezuela—Spain’s most defiant colony—of revolutionaries once and for all. The royalists arrested suspects in rural backwaters and relocated them to heavily defended towns, where they could be overseen. Anyone found wandering the countryside was a candidate for the gallows. Morillo’s men burned crops, purged the forests of fruit trees, killed farm animals, impounded horses, and executed any blacksmith capable of forging a lance’s head or any other weapon. Royalist commanders exacted taxes and punitive fines, making themselves rich and powerful in the process. Patriots, on the other hand, were stripped of whatever property they had.

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Japan’s Home Front, 1941

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 253-256:

What kind of nation was Japan in 1941? Who were the 73 million people that would soon find themselves in the most devastating war in their island nation’s long history? Foreign affairs writer Henry C. Wolfe visited Tokyo in the fall of 1941 and was shocked by the gloom and dreariness of life in the once vibrant city of 6.5 million inhabitants. Four years of war and accompanying austerity had turned it into a “capital of shadows” with long lines of customers waiting in front of stores selling low-quality products made from ersatz material. Shoes of real leather could not be found. Clothes were made from a little cotton mixed with bark and wood pulp and ripped easily. Wolfe described what happened when an American diner at a restaurant asked for a second helping of pudding, the only part of his meal that was somewhat palatable. The head waiter replied, “Do you want me to go to jail!”

Wartime regulations had started out in a small way. Local governments had introduced rationing of sugar and matches in 1939, and it had become a national policy in 1940. Since then official controls had exploded, and by the fall of 1941 more than 100,000 goods and services were being regulated. Energy shortages were particularly conspicuous. Many vehicles were converted to run on charcoal, although that fuel was also in short supply. Police were soon forced to stop all public vehicles from running between midnight and 5 am. Adding to the woes, trams and trains were overloaded with people, since cars that had broken down could not be repaired due to a lack of spare parts.

The American trade curbs worsened an already steep decline in the standard of living, but they did not cause it. The tougher conditions faced by the average Japanese were equally due to the priorities of the Japanese rulers, which allocated ever larger resources to military purposes, leaving the civilians to pay. The war in China had taken its toll. In 1931, military expenditures had taken up 31.2 percent of the government budget, but a decade later it had increased to a staggering 75.6 percent. Average wages dropped by more than 20 percent from the mid-1930s until 1941. Meanwhile, there was less and less to be had for the shrinking incomes. The light industrial sector, where consumer products were manufactured, saw its share of overall production drop precipitously over the same period.

The finer things in life were, of course, virtually non-existent. Dance halls had been prohibited, despite their immense popularity, along with most jazz performances. Foreign movies were strictly limited, and Japanese cinemagoers, who were once among the most ardent foreign fans of Hollywood and even copied manners and slang from major American releases, were now limited to grim German propaganda fare with titles such as Victory in the West. The lights were out, also, in a quite literal sense. In Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, the famous glittering neon signs had been turned off to save electricity. Five-star hotels, too, were wrapped in gloom after they were urged to keep lighting at a minimum.

Miyamoto Takenosuke, vice director of Planning Board, argued that “the people should be satisfied with the lowest standard of living.” He went on: “The craving for a life of luxury must be abandoned. At this time, when the nation is risking its fate, there is no individual any more. What remains is the nation and the nation alone. The storm of economic warfare will become more furious. Come rain! Blow wind! We are firmly determined to fight against the storm.” Japan’s largest candy maker Meijing [sic] Confectionary Company chimed in with an ad campaign featuring the slogan “Luxury is the Enemy!” The National Defense Women’s Association also did its part in imposing wartime rigor, posting members on street corners to stop women who were dressed too extravagantly, passing them handbills with stern admonitions about the need for thrift in light of the national emergency.

At the same time, a thriving black market for regulated goods had emerged almost immediately, and a special economic police set up to rein in the activities made more than two million arrests within just 15 months. The vigorous law enforcement did not curb the illegal transactions, but simply encouraged them to be carried out in more ingenious ways. A modern historian gives an example of how it remained possible to trade coal at the black-market price of 1300 yen, well above the official 1000 yen price tag: “To secure the additional 300-yen profit without running afoul of the law, a vendor, for example, might arrange for a customer to ‘accidentally’ drop 3000 yen next to the vendor’s stall. He would then take the money to the nearest official who would instruct the buyer to pay ten percent in thank-you money (300 yen) to the vendor.”

Despite the hardship, the Japanese government pretended it was in a position not only to care for its own population but for the peoples of all Asia.

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Japan’s Industrial Pollution in 1897

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 532-534:

Another internal matter that disturbed the emperor in 1897 and would have future ramifications was the copper poisoning caused by the mines at Ashio. On March 24 a cabinet committee was established to investigate the situation. The extent of the harm to the environment and the suffering of the inhabitants of the region could hardly be exaggerated. Fish had disappeared from the Watarase River and its tributaries. Innumerable dry and wet fields had been ravaged. In recent years there had been frequent flooding, and the damage increased each year. At every session of the Diet, [early environmental activist] Tanaka Shōzō (1841–1913), a member of the House of Representatives, described the terrible damage, appealing for preventive measures and relief. However, neither the government nor the mine owners did anything to help the people of the region, and it was feared they might stage a march on Tōkyō to appeal directly to the government.

Shortly before the investigating committee was established, the minister of agriculture and commerce, Enomoto Takeaki, traveled to Ashio in mufti to observe the effects of mineral poisoning. He was so shocked by what he saw that he resigned his post, taking blame for the disaster. The emperor was much upset when he was informed of conditions in Ashio, and on April 7, at his request, Tokudaiji Sanetsune sent letters to the governors of Gumma, Tochigi, Saitama, and Ibaraki Prefectures asking if they thought that the sudden spate of public criticism was occasioned by the damage caused by the flooding of 1896 or if it went back to 1892 and 1893 when the frightening effects of pollution were first discovered.

At the time some observers blamed the disasters on the indiscriminate felling of trees, resulting in landslides that filled the riverbeds. The rivers, unable to flow freely in their normal courses, had broken through the embankments and spread the poison in their water over the land. The governors were requested to reply without concealing anything and appending relevant documents.

As a result of the reports received from the cabinet committee, on May 27 [“Copper King”] Furukawa Ichibei, the operator of the mines, was issued a set of thirty-seven orders requiring him to provide settling ponds, filter beds, and similar facilities to prevent the mine water from overflowing and to eliminate smoke pollution. He was told that these improvements must be completed within 150 days and that mining operations would be halted until the settling ponds and filter beds were ready. In the event that Furukawa disobeyed these orders, he would be forbidden to engage in further mining.

On November 27 the cabinet, satisfied that the work of the committee investigating the mineral poisoning at Ashio was more or less completed, relieved the committee of its functions, and assigned to the appropriate ministries the supervision of preventive measures and restoration of affected land. Judging from the persistence into the late Meiji era of the issue of copper poisoning, it is obvious that the pollution controls ordered by the government at this time were not strictly enforced. The desire to build a modern, rich country was so strong that the Japanese tended to tolerate environmental pollution, even when it was as extreme as at the Ashio copper mines.

Eleven years earlier, in 1886, Suehiro Tetchō had published Setchūbai (Plum Blossoms in the Snow), a work often praised as the finest of the Meiji-period political novels. It is set in 2040, the 173rd year of the reign of Emperor Meiji, and opens with the sounds of cannons and bugles blowing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the constitution. The accompanying illustrations depict the Tōkyō of the future. It is a city of grim rows of brick buildings from which innumerable tall chimneys emit black smoke. Tetchō wrote enthusiastically, “Telegraph wires spread like spiders’ webs, and trains run to and fro to every point of the compass. The electric lamps are so bright that even at night the streets look no different than in broad daylight.”

A reader today may shudder at the thought of a city so devoid of amenities and so tainted by industrial pollution, but Tetchō undoubtedly believed that his readers would be delighted by a future rich with the progress represented by chimneys belching smoke; he seems to have thought that the more Tōkyō resembled London, the greatest of the Western cities, the happier the Japanese would be. The chamberlain Hinonishi Sukehiro recalled:

Whenever His Majesty made a journey in the Kansai region, a little before the train passed Ōsaka he would say, “We’re getting close to the smoke capital…. Now we’re in the smoke capital.” Whenever we approached Ōsaka, he would look out of the window at the landscape. When he saw a great deal of smoke rising, he would be extremely satisfied.

For Emperor Meiji, no less than for Suehiro Tetchō, the “smoke capital” was a term of praise; but the copper mines at Ashio served as a grim reminder of the cost to the environment and to human lives of such progress.

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Tibetan Wealth in Caterpillar Fungus

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Tibetans also discovered a niche that was almost uniquely their own: collecting medicinal herbs. Herbs were commonly used in both Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and many of the more valuable were found on the Tibetan plateau. Beimu, an alpine lily used to treat coughs, grew at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, and Tibetan nomads were perfectly situated to collect it.

Most lucrative was Cordyceps sinensis, a prized ingredient in traditional medicine, believed to boost immunity, stamina, and lung and kidney function. Tibetans call it yartsa gunbu, meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” or simply bu, “worm,” for short. [In Chinese, it’s 冬虫夏草 dōng chóng xià cao ‘winter worm, summer grass’.] The worm is actually a fungus that feeds on the larvae of caterpillars. In the past, the worm was commonplace enough that Tibetans would feed it to a sluggish horse or yak, but the Chinese developed a hankering for it that sent prices soaring. Chinese coaches with gold-medal ambitions would feed it to athletes; aging businessmen would eat it to enhance their sexual potency. At one point, the best-quality caterpillar fungus was worth nearly the price of gold, as much as $900 an ounce.

Tibetans had a natural monopoly on the caterpillar fungus. Non-Tibetans didn’t have the local knowledge or the lung capacity to compete. The best worm was in Golok, northwest of Ngaba. Nomadic families would bring their children with them, sometimes taking them out of school because their sharp eyesight and short stature allowed them to more easily scan the ground for the worm amid the grasses and weeds. The season ran for approximately forty days of early spring, the time when the melting snow turned the still-brown hills into a spongy carpet. The families would camp out for weeks in the mountains. In a good season, a Tibetan family could make more in this period than a Chinese factory worker could earn in a year.

The Communist Party would later brag about how their policies had boosted the Tibetan economy, but the truth was that nothing contributed as much as the caterpillar fungus, which according to one scholar accounted for as much as 40 percent of Tibetans’ cash earnings. Unlike earnings from mining and forestry, industries that came to be dominated by Chinese companies, this was cash that went directly into the pockets of Tibetans. The nomads acquired the spending power to support the new shops and cafés. The golden worm was part of a cycle of rising prosperity.

Until the 1980s, trade between the Tibetan plateau and southern China had gone only in one direction. Tibetans were eager customers for the newfangled electronics and ready-to-wear clothing stamped out by China’s new factories, but Han Chinese didn’t have much taste for Tibetan products like dairy and lamb. The medicinal herbs gave the itinerant traders something to put in their suitcases when they went on shopping trips to Shenzhen and other southern Chinese cities.

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“Survival of the Fattest” in Rentier States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 188-190:

A governor of one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states is effectively president of his own fiefdom. He has immunity from prosecution and controls the state security budget. The chairman of each of the 774 local governments is answerable to the state governor. To win a presidential primary a candidate needs two-thirds of the states to back him. That backing is in the gift of the governors. The Governors’ Forum is perhaps the most potent gathering in the land. Only about half of Nigeria’s oil revenues are allocated to the federal government. A fifth goes to the local governments. The governors control the quarter of oil revenues that goes to the states.

Oil-producing states receive an additional 13 percent share of Nigeria’s oil income before it is divided between the tiers of government. The state houses of the Niger Delta are powerful pistons of the looting machine. When he agreed to meet me in late 2010, Timipre Sylva had succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa, one of the Delta’s three main states. I had hoped to interview him at Gloryland, the gubernatorial palace set well apart from the shacks that house his constituents. Instead, I was summoned to the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel in Lagos, where Sylva was staying with his entourage during a visit to the commercial capital.

A tall and intelligent man, Sylva was under pressure. Politics in the Niger Delta is unremittingly volatile. Gunmen drift between the militias of MEND, crime gangs, and squads of political thugs that freelance for competing aspirants to power. As Sylva’s rivals sought to force him from office, loyalists were exchanging tit-for-tat attacks with his enemies. Relations with Jonathan, recently elevated to the presidential palace by Yar’Adua’s death, had soured. Little wonder, I suggested, that others coveted his job: his immediate predecessor had found himself president and the one before had siphoned off so much cash that he, like Joshua Dariye and James Ibori, the former governors of Plateau and Delta States, had snapped up enough assets abroad to earn the attention of the British police.

Sylva accepted that there had been widespread corruption among the governors. But he was, he pleaded, just a cog in a patronage system not of his making. “If a chief walks into my office, he expects me to take care of his problems because that is what the military used to do,” Sylva said. “That’s what he’s used to. If I don’t, I’ve got a very big political enemy.”

So you have to “settle” them, I suggested, using the Nigerian term for the dispensing of cash.

“Yes. And you will read that as corruption. But me, I probably will read that as political survival, because I have to survive before I become incorruptible.”

“And you use public funds to do that?” I asked.

“What does he expect me to do? I don’t have that kind of money; the kind of money he’s expecting. Even if I have it privately, I won’t do that with it. And he’s coming to me because I’m governor. If, for example, the big chief comes, and he has to go for a medical check, it shouldn’t be my problem. But it is. If a very big traditional ruler dies somewhere, and they want to do an elaborate burial ceremony, they come to me. I have to do it.”

Me, I probably will read that as political survival. To justify corruption, Sylva reached for the same word—“survival”—that Mahmoud Thiam had chosen when he explained why pariah states are willing to deal with the likes of Sam Pa and the Queensway Group. Said Djinnit, the UN’s man in west Africa, called the competition to control political power in the resource states “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Paul Collier talks about the law of “the survival of the fattest” in rentier states.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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