Category Archives: Latin America

Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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FDR and the “Jewish Problem”

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2276-2301:

President Roosevelt was on the same page. He envisioned an ambitious transfer of populations that would solve both the immediate refugee crisis and the East European “Jewish problem” over the long term. “It must be frankly recognized that the larger Eastern European problem is basically a Jewish problem,” he maintained in January 1939.

The organized emigration from Eastern Europe over a period of years of young persons at the age which they enter actively into economic competition, and at which they may be expected to marry, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The resultant decrease in economic pressure; the actual removal over a period years of a very substantial number of persons; the decrease in the birthrate and the natural operation of the death rate among the remaining older portion of the population should reduce the problem to negligible proportions.

Roosevelt appointed the geographer Isaiah Bowman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to lead the search for an appropriate refuge. Bowman had previously served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was head of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. In the years 1938–42, Bowman directed a project at Hopkins to research possibilities for refugee resettlement around the globe. The goal of the project, in Roosevelt’s words, was to locate “uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.”

Bowman and his team surveyed settlement sites on five continents, and his reports circulated widely in government and humanitarian circles. Not coincidentally, however, he did not seriously consider the United States as a potential destination (aside from a cursory examination of Alaska). Bowman firmly believed in eugenics and in natural racial hierarchies. He actually introduced a new Jewish quota at Johns Hopkins in 1942 and also banned African American undergraduates from the university. He was personally convinced that the United States had reached its “absorptive capacity” with respect to Jewish immigrants—even as he lamented declining birthrates among white, middle-class Americans.

At the international level, then, the most critical years of the Jewish refugee crisis before World War II were spent searching the globe for a new refuge, dumping ground, or homeland for European Jews. The Madagascar plan remains the most infamous resettlement scheme, since the Nazis themselves favored it. But the IGCR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees], in cooperation with British, American, and Jewish agencies such as the JDC and the World Jewish Congress, considered a range of territories for potential Jewish resettlement. British Guiana, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Northern Rhodesia, Alaska, and the Philippines were among the most widely discussed possibilities. At huge expense, and in a nakedly colonial tradition, intergovernmental and humanitarian organizations dispatched teams of experts in agricultural science and tropical medicine on fact-finding missions to these far-flung destinations. They wined and dined dictators; surveyed the climate, soil, and “natives” in supposedly “underpopulated” lands; and speculated about whether urban Jews could be transformed into farmers who would “civilize” colonial outposts.

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Filed under Africa, Eastern Europe, economics, Israel, labor, Latin America, migration, nationalism, North America, Philippines, U.S.

Broad Scope of Missionary Work

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 224-61:

Missionaries established schools, colleges, medical schools, and other technical infrastructures that survived into the postcolonial era. Missionaries were especially active in advancing literacy. They translated countless books into indigenous languages, produced dictionaries, and created written versions of languages that had been exclusively oral. Some missionary institutions became vital incubators of anti-imperialist nationalisms, as in the case of the American University in Beirut, founded in 1866, and the alma mater of several generations of Arab nationalist leaders. Christianity itself has assumed shapes in the Global South quite different from the contours designed by European and American evangelists. Religious voices purporting to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples have occasionally claimed that the missionary impact was beneficial for endowing local populations with Christian resources that proved to be invaluable. Feminist scholars have called attention to the ways in which African women were able to use Christianity—for all the patriarchal elements in its scriptures—as a tool for increasing their autonomy, especially in choosing their own spouses.

Scholars continue to inquire just where and how the actions of missionaries affected the subsequent histories of the societies they influenced. That inquiry is an important and contested aspect of today’s discussions of colonialism and the postcolonial order that is largely beyond the scope of Protestants Abroad. But not altogether. As scholars come to recognize the interactive dimensions of the missionary project, we can comprehend that project itself as a genuinely global, dialectical event. Missions were part of the world-historical process by which the world we call modern was created.

This book’s cast of characters was involved with missions in three different capacities. The first of these was service abroad as a missionary. People routinely classified as missionaries included not only evangelists, but teachers, doctors, nurses, YMCA leaders, university professors, and social service workers affiliated in any way with institutions and programs sponsored by missionary societies, churches, and missionary-friendly foundations. All were understood to be part of the greater missionary enterprise, even though some would say, “I wasn’t really a missionary,” by way of explaining they were not directly involved in evangelism. A second order of involvement was to grow up as the child of missionaries, often spending many years in the field. The third capacity was the least direct: to be closely associated with missionaries, typically through missionary support organizations.

Although there were persons of both sexes in all three of these categories, the gender ratio was different in each case. In the field, about two-thirds of missionary personnel were women, either unwed or married to male missionaries. Missions afforded women opportunities to perform social roles often denied to them in the United States. Glass ceilings in the mission field were higher and more subject to exceptions than in most American communities. By the 1950s, nearly half of the missionary physicians in India were female. Women led many colleges in China. These included one of the most famous missionaries of all time, Minnie Vautrin, who turned the campus of Ginling College into a fortress during the Nanking Massacre of 1937 and 1938. She is credited with saving several thousand Chinese women from rape and murder at the hands of marauding Japanese soldiers. Women were sometimes allowed to preach in the mission field, even though Paul the Apostle had told the Christians of Corinth, “Let your women keep silent in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience.” While home on furlough, female preachers were often prohibited from speaking from the pulpits of their own denominations, sometimes even in their home congregations.

Among missionary children, there were of course equal numbers of males and females. In missionary support organizations, women were very prominent. Most denominations had women’s missionary boards that exercised strong influence in church affairs and stood among the largest women’s organizations in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These women’s missionary boards were often active on social issues, urging their denominations to take more vigorous stands, especially against racism. A group of 150 women from the various denominational missionary boards picketed a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1945 to protest its refusal to serve black members of the United Council of Church Women.

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Filed under Africa, China, disease, education, Japan, Korea, language, Latin America, Middle East, nationalism, religion, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S.

Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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Monitor-class Gunboats in WWI

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4586-4635:

In 1913, the Brazilian Navy, eager to dominate the upper reaches of the Amazon, had ordered three curious, old-fashioned gunboats from the Scottish shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness. These vessels, called monitors because of their resemblance to the original ironclad warship (that “cheesebox on a raft,” the USS Monitor of the American Civil War), were little more than floating gun platforms. An unusually shallow draft of about six feet allowed the monitors to work close inshore and navigate rivers impassible to deeper-hulled warships. Their heavy armaments—two 6-inch and two 4.7-inch guns—made them formidable opponents. Indeed, these guns were as large as anything carried aboard German battle cruisers like Königsberg.

The monitors, 256 feet long and 1,256 tons unloaded, sported a single prominent funnel and an 80-foot central mainmast. Projected top speed of a painfully slow twelve knots proved much slower in practice. Each carried a minimal coal supply and so could not manage long voyages, which was just as well: Waves crashed over their narrow freeboard at stem and stern; with a direct wind from either port or starboard they wallowed and threatened to swamp—all obvious liabilities for any oceangoing vessel. But for river wars, they were just the thing.

Brazilian Navy officials eagerly awaited delivery of their new warships. They had already been christened Solomos, Madeira, and Javery and were undergoing acceptance trials when war broke out in August 1914. An ocean voyage being impossible under their own steam, the monitors would soon be towed across the Atlantic to the Amazon by oceangoing tugs. Suddenly, the Admiralty stepped in and confiscated the three ungainly vessels; their use was immediately required for Great Britain’s war against Germany and the Central Powers. The Brazilians’ reaction to this seizure must have been utter dismay: They had spent freely on lavish interior fittings and other cosmetic niceties. Indeed, the Brazilian monitors were perhaps the most luxurious naval vessels anywhere in the world.

When British officials came aboard for an inspection tour, they looked around aghast: Behind the monitors’ steel bulkheads, painted a jaunty Coast Guard white, the interiors resembled a posh gentleman’s club—or a high-class bordello: Captain’s cabin and officers’ quarters, ready room and gun room were done up in glossy oak paneling agleam with brass touches. Persian carpets decorated the decks. Blue linen tablecloths flecked with white embroidered anchors, monogrammed china, and chairs with interchangeable seats (wicker for hot weather, velvet for cold) had been specially made for the officers’ mess. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The British Navy inspectors allowed themselves a moment of envious awe, then took to the interior with crowbars and sledgehammers. The monitors’ gleaming white hulls—calculated to dazzle any Amazonian Indian approaching in a canoe—were immediately covered in wartime gray; any remaining brass fittings ended up a tarry black. All the luxurious accoutrements—carpets, tablecloths, interchangeable chairs—ripped out and discarded, ended up in a heap on the docks. Renamed Humber, Severn, and Mersey, the squat little ships were made ready for war.

Now dubbed the “Inshore Flotilla and Squadron,” they engaged in early action along the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915 and played an appreciable part in the “Race to the Sea” campaign of the first weeks of the war: As trenches were dug in a frantic burst all the way across Flanders to the English Channel, the monitors lying just offshore supported the action on land with their big guns. Coming under fire from German field artillery, they sustained damage and casualties, but played their role well. Churchill credited them with preventing the fall of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne and saving what was left of the Belgian Army….

Flotilla officers, an odd mix of merchant marine and naval reservists, suited their curious ships. Most, getting on in years, had already pursued a variety of nonmilitary careers—including the stage and the teaching of German to high school students —before being recalled to service in August. Captain E. J. A. Fullerton, first of Mersey, then Severn, the flotilla’s commander, had been a gym instructor at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and had served aboard King Edward VII’s yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert, in the last days of the Belle Epoque. When promoted to captain in January 1915, he provided a pint of beer to every sailor in the flotilla for a toast to his health.

Following action in Belgian waters, the Admiralty ordered the monitors to the Dardanelles to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. There, along with several of the most obsolete vessels in the British Navy, they were to help force the straits—the goal of the campaign being the capture of Constantinople from the Turks by naval action alone. Made as seaworthy as possible, with topmast stowed and hatches battened, the monitors wallowed down the European coasts and through the Straits of Gibraltar in heavy seas, towed by their tugs at the punishingly slow speed of six knots. They arrived at Malta in March, next stop Turkey. All officers and men of the Inshore Flotilla and Squadron had been sent ahead as passengers aboard the HMS Trent.

But by this time, the Turks under the famous Mustapha Kemal—later Ataturk—with German help had sunk three British battleships off the Dardanelles and disabled three more. British Admiral John de Robeck, in charge of naval operations, abruptly called off his battered fleet, in favor of an amphibious invasion force. Now, suddenly, the monitors had become redundant. They languished in the fortified harbor at Valetta for weeks—until Admiral King-Hall, from his watch on the far-off Rufiji Station, got wind of their presence in the Mediterranean. These clumsy, powerfully armed, shallow-draft vessels might have been made expressly for his ongoing battle against Königsberg.

After some wrangling with the Admiralty, King-Hall secured the use of Mersey and Severn and their officers and crews, though not Humber. The pair of monitors, again fixed to their oceangoing tugs via steel cables, began another long journey—this time 5,000 miles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and to the clotted, crocodile-infested channels of the Rufiji Delta.

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British Surrender to Spain, Pensacola, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 5195-5220:

Finally on May 10, 1781, exactly forty-eight hours after the original surrender, Don Bernardo de Gálvez and General John Campbell met to negotiate the official capitulation of Pensacola. Flags flew on both sides and drummers added an air of ceremony to the proceedings, but for the British Empire there was little dignity to be found. From that day the rebellion that began in a tiny corner of New England had proven much more costly than ever anticipated and in a matter of weeks the Bourbon flag of Spain flew proudly over Florida once again.

THE CAPTURE OF PENSACOLA AND SUBSEQUENTLY ALL OF WEST Florida brought to a close one of the most controversial and misunderstood conflicts within the larger revolutionary era. Don Bernardo de Gálvez has been long admired by social organizations that commemorate the American rebellion; the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution have granted official status to Hispanic descendants of those who battled along the Gulf Coast. But from the historical vantage point there has been a struggle to place Spain’s role in the greater conflict and measure accurately how important it was. Some historians claim that Gálvez’s invasion of West Florida was entirely separate from the larger American rebellion, going so far as to call it the “Anglo-Spanish War.” Still others believe it was so vital that they refer to it as “George Washington’s Second Front.” As is typically the case in history, the truth is somewhere in-between, but important parallels can be readily drawn that warrant further investigation.

The actions of Don Gálvez along the Gulf Coast were not the sum total of Spain’s contribution to the rebel war effort, but merely an active part of it. Spain lent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to the would-be American nation, and like France that generosity was largely fueled by a desire for revenge from the Seven Years’ War a generation earlier. But regardless of the motivations behind the governor of Louisiana’s actions, the results are undeniable. The entrance of both France and Spain into the war drastically changed the way that administrators in London viewed the conflict; rather than it being a separatist rebellion it became a global struggle for imperial supremacy. By the end of the conflict King George’s focus was directed so much toward his old European enemies that the ongoing struggle in the colonies was considered by many to be less important and by some as a distracting afterthought. Following the surrender of Pensacola, Don Gálvez also maintained that the greater American struggle must continue, and he offered one hundred thousand pesos to his French allies so that they could head up to Virginia and aid in the siege at Yorktown.

The ultimate reconquest of West Florida would not be complete for the Spanish until the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, but Gálvez’s victory made immediate waves. Charles III made the young commander “Count of Gálvez” and subsequently promoted him to governor of Louisiana and the freshly acquired West Florida. It was a time of great glory for Spain, but ultimately it was only a spark in the darkness for a dying empire. For the people on the ground in Pensacola, however, the defeat was devastating. As part of the agreement, soldiers taken prisoner were not to be held in the legendarily cruel dungeons of Mexico or Central America but paroled back to British control.

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Spain and Russia as Frontier Empires

From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 418-486:

Spain and Russia were medieval Europe’s marcher kingdoms. Spain held the North African Moors at bay in the west, while in the east Russia battled the Mongols and their successors, the Muslim Tatars. Both Spain and Russia, as a result of the demands of centuries of military effort, remained more autocratic, more religious and more deeply feudal than their less-threatened continental neighbours. But both Madrid and Muscovy were richly rewarded for their struggles against the infidel in the form of vast unexplored lands full of worldly riches. Divine providence gave Spain the New World – or so Spain’s Most Catholic monarchs believed. Likewise Russia’s most Orthodox Tsars were convinced that their divine reward was Siberia, whose boundless natural resources funded the emergence of Muscovy as a European power, and forms the foundation of Russia’s oil wealth today.

The grand princes of Muscovy had had dreams of empire since 1472, when Ivan III married Zoë Paleologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XII. Zoë brought not only her double-headed eagle coat of arms to Muscovy but also the idea that Moscow could be the successor to her fallen Byzantine homeland – a third Rome. Russia’s expansion to the west was blocked by the powerful kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Baltic trading cities of the Hanseatic League. But to the east the power of the Mongol-Tatars was weakening.

It was Zoë’s grandson Ivan the Terrible who decisively turned the balance of power on Christendom’s eastern flank when he took the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1553. Ivan crowned himself caesar – in Russian, tsar – in recognition of his conquest. In 1556 he pushed his armies south along the Volga and annihilated the southern Tatars in their stronghold at Astrakhan. At a stroke Ivan had made the Volga, the great southern artery of European Russia, into a Muscovite river, opening trade to the Caspian and beyond to Persia.

The capture of Kazan had also given Muscovy easy access to the Kama River, the Urals and the riches of Siberia itself. At the same time Europeans in search of furs and a north-east passage to China began arriving at the Arctic village of Kholmogory – later known as Arkhangelsk – at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River. The first was Richard Chancellor, head of the English Muscovy Company, London’s first chartered company of merchant adventurers, who visited in 1553.

Meanwhile Spain’s conquests in distant America were transforming the economy of Europe with a huge influx of gold. Northern Europe was also undergoing a boom in trade and manufacture centered on wool-cloth. With this new prosperity came a burgeoning demand for luxury goods from the East, particularly for the sixteenth century’s two greatest luxuries – spices and furs. Portuguese and English seafarers were driven to prodigies of navigation and discovery by the search for high-value spices – particularly peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice – to flavour the foods of the wealthy. In the same way Russian adventurers drove ever deeper into Siberia in search of the fox, sable and marten with which the rising merchant classes of Europe trimmed their clothes.

Fur, in a cold and poorly heated world, was not only a symbol of wealth but also a bringer of comfort and, in the case of Russia, literally a lifesaver. Fine furs were staggeringly valuable. In 1623 one Siberian official reported the theft of ‘two black fox pelts, one worth 30 rubles the other 80’. The thief could have bought himself fifty Siberian acres, a cabin, five good horses, ten cows and twenty sheep on the proceeds, and still have had some of his ill-gotten money left over. No wonder painters of the new bourgeoisie, from Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands to Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome, painted their subjects’ sable collars in such loving detail. They were often worth more than the artist could hope to make in years.

Siberian fur transformed Muscovy from a minor principality on the fringes of Europe into a great power. In 1595 Tsar Boris Godunov had so much of it that he sent Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II fur in lieu of military assistance against the Turks. Boris’s tribute was a dazzling show of Russia’s new wealth. The 337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins Boris sent took up twenty rooms of Prague Castle. At the beginning of the seventeenth century ‘soft gold’ accounted for up to a third of Muscovy’s revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable.

Like the Spanish captains of the New World or the seafarers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the conquistadors of Siberia were essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown. The Stroganovs, a trading dynasty from the Hanseatic city-state of Novgorod, which had been incorporated into Muscovy in 1478, financed the first fur-trapping expeditions into the uplands of the Urals and pioneered the use of licensed privateers. In April 1558 Ivan the Terrible gave Anikei Stroganov rights over five million acres of Urals forest, effectively making him viceroy of the unexplored territory responsible for its development and security. Beyond the Urals, however, lay the Tatar khanate of Sibir, an obstacle both to obtaining furs and to the expansion of the Tsar’s dominion.

In 1577 the Stroganovs recruited a young buccaneer named Yermak Timofeyevich. Yermak was a scion of a family of notorious river pirates who had plied the middle Volga but had found themselves out of business with the fall of Kazan and the establishment of Muscovite control over the great river. With his band of professional – and temporarily jobless – marauders Yermak headed eastwards, pushed deep into Tatar territory and in 1580 took Sibir. To placate the Tsar for taking such a step without royal permission, Yermak sent a vast haul of 2,500 sables to Moscow. Ivan was suitably impressed. In return for his gift, he made Yermak Muscovy’s viceroy in Siberia – just as Yermak’s former employer Stroganov had become lord of the Urals. Yermak also received a handsome suit of armour from the Tsar, which was to prove his undoing five years later as he attempted to swim away from a Tatar ambush but was drowned by his heavy breastplate.

Yermak was a Cossack, one of a growing community of men who had fled serfdom in Poland, Livonia and Muscovy and sought freedom in the no-man’s-land of the mid-Volga and the south-east steppes of European Russia. Cossacks were a social caste, not a racial or national group. Their freedom was a precarious one because of the regular Tatar slaving expeditions which filled the markets of Constantinople with hundreds of thousands of new Slavic captives every year. Moscow itself had been raided and burned by Khan Devlet Giray of Crimea as recently as 1571, and the Crimean Khanate would not be finally subdued until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1783. Ivan the Terrible, borrowing the Stroganovs’ methods, was the first tsar to harness these outlaws to the service of the state. In the absence of any natural boundaries to his fledging empire, Ivan offered the Cossacks freedom from serfdom and a licence to exploit native peoples in exchange for their service as guardians of Russia’s eastern and southern borderlands.

The Tsar organized the Cossacks into ‘hosts’, a military and administrative term for a tribe of armed colonists who could be instantly turned into a military force. The names of the successive hosts is a chronicle of Russia’s growing empire – Don, Kuban, Terek, Asktakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Turkestan, Transbaikal, Amur, Ussuri. The Cossack sotni, or hundreds, elected leaders known as atamany, and when the host was not in state service it was free to explore – and maraud – on its own account.

These Cossacks were tough men. ‘I believe such men for hard living are not under the Sunne, for no cold will hurt them,’ wrote Richard Chancellor of the men he saw on the northern Dvina in 1553. ‘Yea and though they lye in the field two monthes at such times as it shal freeze more than a yard thicke the common soldier hath neither tent nor anything else over his head.’ Of the three drivers of Russia’s eastward expansion – the quest for security against the Tatars, a consciousness of its imperial destiny as the inheritor of Byzantium and the adventurous avarice of Cossacks – it was the last which was by far the most potent.

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