Category Archives: education

Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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Wordcatcher Tales from Kyoto

Last month I visited the Kyoto Railway Museum, full of many things that made me nostalgic for my many youthful train trips (and several more recent ones) in Japan. I also discovered two Japanese language usages new to me.

マメ知識 mame-chishiki ‘bean-knowledge’ – The very kid-friendly museum contained many small placards in front of larger exhibits with tasty tidbits of information labelled ‘bean (of) knowledge’. Almost all the kanji had furigana to show how they are pronounced, so that kids who had not yet mastered all their elementary or middle school kanji (as I haven’t) could still read them. ‘Bean’ mame (written 豆 in kanji, マメ in katakana) also means ‘small’ in compounds like 豆本 mamehon ‘miniature book’, 豆鉄砲 mameteppou ‘pea shooter’, or even 豆台風 mametaifuu ‘baby typhoon’. The mamechishiki in the photo below tells how the Kamome (Seagull) limited express from Hakata (Fukuoka) would change directions by veering off the main track at Umekoji Station (where the museum is now located) to go north to the top of a delta-shaped track, then back down the far side of the triangle into Kyoto Station so that the locomotive would be facing Hakata for the return trip.

Bean of knowledge

A bean of knowledge about the Kamome limited express train

上り下り nobori-kudari ‘ascending-descending’ in early Meiji – The railway museum also displayed blackboard tables (in kanji) of fares and departure times from the early Meiji era (from the 1880s), when the train system was just beginning, and the national capital was moving from Kyoto to Tokyo. Nowadays, all trains moving toward Tokyo are ‘ascending’ (上り nobori) while those moving away from Tokyo are ‘descending’ (下り kudari). Before the Meiji era, travelers and goods ‘ascended’ to Kyoto and ‘descended’ to Edo. But the timetable below from Kyoto Station shows different usage, perhaps reflecting the route of the earliest heavy freight traffic in the Kansai area, which ran by rail from Osaka to Otsu on Lake Biwa, then by boat north across the lake to Nagahama, then by rail to Tsuruga on the Japan Sea coast. Trains departing south from Kyoto are listed as ascending, and those to the north of Kyoto are listed as descending, perhaps because people and goods bound for Tokyo would first aim to reach a port on the Tokaido side of Honshu.

Meiji-era train

Meiji-era train timetable for Kyoto Station

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Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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What the War on Mexico Taught Grant

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 49-51:

THE MEXICAN WAR did more than just educate Grant in strategy and tactics, it also tutored him in the manifold ways wars are shot through with political calculations. “The Mexican war was a political war,” he would observe, “and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it.” Monterrey’s fall made Zachary Taylor the darling of the Whig press. When this was followed by Whig victories in the November elections, giving the opposition party control of both houses of Congress, President Polk grew leery of Taylor as a Whig rival for president. In a Machiavellian maneuver, he decided to divest Taylor of most of his troops and replace him with Winfield Scott, a Whig lacking Taylor’s brand of popular charisma.

In high-handed fashion, Polk dispatched Scott to Texas without notifying Taylor of what was afoot. When Scott arrived in Point Isabel after Christmas, he informed Taylor by letter that he had taken over the Army of Invasion and was radically revamping the war strategy. …

Grant was with Taylor when he received the shocking news of his demotion and never forgot his hero’s befuddled reaction. … This early experience made Grant tend to view war as a hard-luck saga of talented, professional soldiers betrayed by political opportunists plotting back in Washington.

Between the founding era of the Republic and the Civil War, no figure embodied the American military more splendidly than Winfield Scott, who was promoted to brevet major general by the War of 1812. Straddling two eras, he would serve under presidents as far apart as James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Mocked as “Old Fuss and Feathers” behind his back, he had never seen a parade ground he didn’t long to tread or a uniform he didn’t wish to wear. With his enormous height, wavy hair, and ample flesh, he loved to flash medals, flaunt plumed hats, and preen before mirrors, a vanity that made him susceptible to flattery. Grant noted how Scott sent word ahead to commanders of the precise hour he planned to arrive. “This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguilletes, sabre and spurs.” Such vainglory was so alien to Grant that it is sometimes hard to say whether he modeled himself after Zachary Taylor or in opposition to Winfield Scott.

For all that, Grant credited Scott with a brilliantly resourceful mind and strategic daring. To travel from Veracruz to the capital, an army of twelve thousand would quit a secure supply base, traverse 250 miles of mountainous terrain, then face a much larger and well-fortified enemy in a populous capital. To do this, Scott assembled a first-rate team of bright junior officers, including Pierre G. T. Beauregard and George B. McClellan and a rising star on the engineering staff, Robert E. Lee. Throw in a host of other officers who later reappeared in the Civil War—Joseph Johnston, John Pemberton, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Hooker, George Thomas, Braxton Bragg, and George Gordon Meade—and the Mexican War seemed a dress rehearsal for the later conflict. With a retentive memory for faces and events, Grant accumulated a detailed inventory of knowledge about these varied men that he drew on later.

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Yapese “See something, say something”

Public service announcements in TheBus in Honolulu typically include two Micronesian languages, Chuukese and Marshallese, in addition to several Asian languages, but I recently saw one that included Yapese, another language in Micronesia that is not closely related to any other Micronesian language, and is in many ways unique among Austronesian languages.

The Yapese text is written in a very barebones orthography, making even fewer distinctions than the Bible orthography. It makes me think someone who speaks but doesn’t write Yapese dictated it to someone who transcribed it without knowing much Yapese phonology or grammar (or even the Bible orthography), since they don’t write any glottal stops or glottalized consonants (usually marked by an apostrophe), only write 5 vowels, and misanalyze some small grammatical particles. The original spelling is in quotes.

I’ve respelled each line in something close to the new orthography, but without the controversial q for glottal stops, and also added a line with rough glosses for each word. The naag that I’ve glossed ‘TR’ makes transitive verbs out of other words, including words borrowed long ago from Japanese, like dengwa ‘telephone’ and unteng ‘drive’, as well as those borrowed more recently from English. The ea glossed ‘ART’ occurs before specific nouns that are neither indefinite (marked with ba) nor definite (marked with fa). It’s interesting that they felt it necessary to define English bus driver in a paraphrase that relies on an older Japanese loan.

“Mu ayweg nem. Mu rin.”
Mu ayweeg neem. Mu riin’.
You help you. You do [it].
= Be aware. Take action.

“Mu eg nag e nen nag be guy ni ra bucheg banen”
Mu eeg naag ea n’ean ni ga bea guy ni raa bucheeg ba n’ean
You report TR ART thing that you are seeing that will do-bad a thing
= Report anything you see that will cause harm.

“Mu dengwa nag e 911 fa mog ko bas driver”
Mu dengwa naag ea 911 faa moeg ko bas driver
You telephone TR ART 911 or you.say (it) to bus driver
= Call 911 or tell the bus driver

“(un ni be unteng nag e bas)”
(an ni bea unteng naag ea bas)
(person that is driving TR ART bus)
= (the person who is driving the bus)

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Examination Hell in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1635-1655:

When I was a student at Calcutta Boys’ School, our academic year was marked by three term exams. The tests would be in at least a dozen subjects. Preparations would take over a month of mugging up. During exam time, a hush settled over Calcutta’s families, as mothers fretted, cajoled and provided warm glasses of milk, while the little one prepared for his term exams. The SATs were a breeze compared to my Calcutta first-grade final exams. No test I would take in the US – not even the field exams in graduate school – ever required the amount of mindless memorisation, or produced as much competitiveness and anxiety, as those grade-school exams.

After each term exam we would be ranked among our peers. The status of the kid who topped the rankings, the ‘First Boy’, can be compared only to that of an American high-school quarterback. He was typically bespectacled, oily haired and a bit of a bore, but students revered him, teachers granted him the equivalent of diplomatic immunity, and other kids’ mothers wanted to copy notes from his ma. Perhaps I have neglected to mention that each day, mothers lined up along the schoolyards during lunchtime with hot fish curry and rice tiffins to spoon-feed their progeny. Since my mother worked as a scientist for much of my childhood, my tiffins were cold butter sandwiches carried from home, and I was spared this maternal attention.

All those years of spoon-feeding and exams led up to the standardised tests in tenth, and then twelfth grade. Six hundred thousand tenth graders took the state’s final exam in 2009. The boy who ranked first was featured on the front page of the newspaper, just under the article on the national parliamentary elections. On the inside pages each year are stories of kids hanging themselves because of a poor exam result. The preferred mode of suicide for spurned lovers is drinking acid. The preferred mode for exam victims is hanging.

The target of every Bengali family is to produce a doctor or an engineer. Both fields have rigorous entrance exams at the end of twelfth grade, known in Bengal as the joint entrance exam. By the time you reach twelfth grade, exams have provided the entire drama of your existence. These results are the measure of your self-worth. Each year, with each new report of suicide, there is talk of easing the stress, perhaps doing away with some tests altogether. Nothing much changes except that more shortcuts appear – more reference books, more coaching centres, more compilations of old exam papers – and more people pass.

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Tyranny of Transliteration

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1580-1590:

Bengali last names when transliterated into English often have multiple spellings. For instance, my name, Choudhury, can be Chaudhuri, Chowdhury, Chaudhry, and so on. These variations are used by aunts and cousins in my own family. Other Bengali last names even have varying pronunciations. As with Bob and Robert, so too everyone recognises that Banerjee and Bandopadhyay are the same name. Everyone, except the University of Calcutta. Each name has a prescribed university version. If your birth certificate says Choudhury when the university accepts only Chaudhuri, there will be forms you will have to fill out and get attested, clerks you will have to flatter and treat to tea while you wait to be renamed. Like Yahweh, Ellis Island and the slave masters from Roots, not only will the university play name-giver – on your certificate you will become Chaudhuri, of that there is no doubt – but whether they will recognise your life prior to your conversion is a matter left up to the fates themselves.

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