Category Archives: nationalism

Welsh Differences in 13th Century

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle pp. 26-28:

Geographically, of course, there were similarities between Wales and Scotland that a first-time visitor would have readily appreciated, and this meant that economically, too, they had certain similarities – Wales, like Scotland, was poor in comparison with England. Culturally, however, Wales was very different from both its near neighbours. Perhaps most obviously, the Welsh spoke Welsh, even at the highest social levels. This was a source of pride to the Welsh themselves, but to the French-speaking kings and nobles of England and Scotland it sounded like so much incomprehensible babble.

More perplexing still for English and Scottish onlookers, and far more problematic, were Welsh social attitudes, which stood in sharp opposition to their own. Take, for instance, the rules governing inheritance. In England and Scotland, and indeed almost everywhere else in western Europe, the rule was primogeniture: firstborn sons inherited estates in their entirety. This was hard on any younger brothers or sisters, but had the great advantage of keeping a family’s lands intact from one generation to the next. In Wales, by contrast, the rule was ‘partibility’: every male member of the family – not just sons and brothers, but uncles and nephews too – expected his portion of the spoils, and rules of precedence were only loosely defined. This meant that the death of a Welsh landowner was almost always followed by a violent, sometimes fratricidal struggle, as each male kinsman strove to claim the lion’s share.

The result of this idiosyncratic approach to inheritance was that Welsh politics were wont to be tumultuous. The fact that partibility applied at the highest levels was one of the main reasons why there was no single political authority in Wales as there was in England and Scotland. Welsh poets spoke of their country as if it were neatly divided into three kingdoms, but this was a broad simplification; the reality was a complex patchwork of petty lordships. Occasionally one ruler might, through force of arms, diplomacy or sheer good luck, contrive to establish something greater. But such constructs were always temporary. When a successful Welsh ruler died, his work was swiftly undone by the general carve-up that inevitably followed.

Such cultural and political differences meant that the English found it difficult to do business with the Welsh as they did with the Scots. Inherent instability meant that amicable relations were hard to sustain. The king of England could marry his daughter to the king of Scots, safe in the knowledge that her rights would be guaranteed; but he would not give her away to a Welsh ruler, no matter how great, for who knew how long his greatness might last?

And yet, if the English found the practice of partibility baffling, they were far more troubled when the Welsh showed any signs of abandoning it. From the start of the thirteenth century, up until the time of Edward’s birth, there had been a worrying (from the English point of view) movement in the direction of pan-Welsh political unity. Gwynedd, the most remote and traditional of Wales’s three ancient ‘kingdoms’, had extended its power from the mountains of Snowdonia to cover much of the rest of the country. When, therefore, the architect of this expansion, Llywelyn the Great, had died in 1240, Henry III had been quick to intervene and undo his work. In the years that followed, Gwynedd was torn down to size, and its pretensions to leadership were crushed. Llywelyn’s descendants were forcibly persuaded to follow traditional Welsh practice and share power among themselves. Lesser Welsh rulers who had formerly acknowledged Llywelyn’s mastery were disabused, and obliged to recognise that their proper overlord was, in actual fact, the king of England. Most contentiously, Henry confiscated and kept for himself a large and comparatively prosperous area of north Wales. Known as Perfeddwlad (middle country) to the Welsh, and as the Four Cantrefs to the English, this region between the rivers Dee and Conwy had been contested by both sides for hundreds of years, but Henry was determined that from that point on the English would retain it for good. The Four Cantrefs, he declared, were an inseparable part of the Crown of England, and to give force to this assertion he built two new royal castles there, one at Dyserth, the other at Deganwy. At the same time, lordship in the region was made more exacting. From their base at Chester, royal officials introduced English customs and practices, including more punitive financial demands. By 1254, when the Four Cantrefs (or ‘the king’s new conquest in Wales’, as they were now also being termed) were handed over to Edward as part of his endowment, the castles were complete, and the process of anglicisation well advanced. At the time of Edward’s visit two years later, his officials there were in a supremely confident mood. According to chronicle reports, his chief steward boasted openly before the king and queen that he had the Welsh in the palm of his hand.

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Agadez, Port City on the Sahel

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 92-94:

In the fourteenth century the restless Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta called Agadez “the largest, handsomest, and strongest of all the cities in Negroland.” In Battuta’s day 30,000 people lived there. It flourished as a caravan crossroads, where the Sahara met the Sahel, a band of semiarid land 300 to 600 miles wide that stretches for 2,600 miles along the Sahara’s southern edge and buffers the desert from green Africa. “Sahel” came from an Arabic word for shore or coastline. The sea was the Sahara. When travelers from the north reached the Sahel after crossing the desert, they felt the relief of stepping ashore after a long sea passage. Travelers heading north from the Sahel felt that they were casting off. Agadez, like Timbuktu, was a desert port town.

By the time Barth got there [1850], the population had shrunk to about 7,000, but Agadez still fascinated him. The new sultan, who was about to be officially installed, received him hospitably. They conversed in Hausa, which Barth had learned during the traverse of Aïr. The sultan had never heard of the English nation, but was pleased to learn how the famous “English” gunpowder had gotten its name. That evening, he sent Barth a dish called finkaso, a thick pancake made of wheat flour, covered with butter. After the deprivations of Aïr, it tasted like “the greatest luxury in the world.” Thanks to the sultan, who sent Barth two meals every day, the explorer ate very well during his three-week stay—lamb, dates, melons, cucumbers, grains. The sultan sidestepped Barth’s invitation to sign a commercial treaty with Britain, but did write letters of passage for him to the governors of Kano and Katsina, “in rather incorrect Arabic,” sniffed the German pedant.

Barth saw slave caravans, and a salt caravan headed east to Bilma that was said to have 10,000 camels. The men of Agadez carried bows and arrows instead of spears, and rode horses instead of camels—signs of the Sahel. The busy market offered further signs: meat, millet, wheat, dates, wine, melons, and other vegetables. Women sold beads, necklaces, and finely-worked leather boxes for tobacco and perfume. Like most port towns, Agadez had a mongrel population that reflected all the peoples who passed through it, beginning with the Berber tribes that had founded it. There were Tuaregs, Hausas, Fulanis, Tebus, Kanuris, and Arabs. And also, Barth was puzzled to find, Songhais, a black ethnic group based 600 harsh miles to the west. All this diversity made Agadez a polyglot town where interpreters did good business.

But Agadez also had its own unique language, Emgedesi, spoken nowhere else in the region. To a linguist such as Barth, this was a mystery to pursue. He detected the influences of Hausa, Tamasheq, and Songhai in Emgedesi, but remained puzzled about the dialect’s origins and exclusivity to Agadez. Then came the clue that connected the dots: several Tuaregs who had been to Timbuktu told him that Emgedesi was also spoken there, 800 miles west. Barth was surprised, then thrilled as he realized the implications.

Songhai had been the most extensive empire in Central Africa’s history, greater than Mali or Ghana. It had covered portions of present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, and Niger. Songhai had conquered Timbuktu, another Sahelian port city of Tuaregs and Arabs. The language of the conquerors mixed with Timbuktu’s other tongues, creating a distinctive language unique to the town.

Then early in the sixteenth century, Askia, Songhai’s king, decided to extend his realm to the east, into central Sudan and Hausaland, and to curb the pesky Tuaregs to the north. He conquered Agadez in 1515 and left an occupying force there before proceeding on a haj through Egypt to Mecca, scattering legendary amounts of gold in his wake.

By the end of the sixteenth century the empire of Songhai had disintegrated. But in Agadez the descendants of the occupying army had melded with the local population. So had their language, and the resulting hybrid dialect evolved along similar linguistic lines as the hybrid language of Timbuktu, like related bird species on separate islands. This link, wrote Barth, “throws a new light over the history and ethnography of this part of the world,” and is “of the highest importance for the whole ethnography of North Africa.” It also gave him his first whiff of the fabled city of Timbuktu, a place he never expected to see.

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African Warlord vs. Arab Slavers, 1871

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3170:

Mirambo was a handsome, powerful man who spoke in a quiet voice and was known for his generosity. He greeted visitors with a firm handshake and looked them directly in the eyes, inspiring confidence and a feeling of camaraderie. As a boy Mirambo had worked as a porter in the Arab caravans, and had adopted their manner of dress. The turban, cloth coat, and slippers he wore in his home gave him a cosmopolitan air.

The scimitar snug in the scabbard dangling from Mirambo’s waist was also Arab and hinted at the more ruthless side of the charismatic young leader’s personality. His date of birth was hard to pinpoint, but he was born the son of the Unyayembe region’s mightiest king, sometime in the days shortly after the Arabs opened the first Bagamoyo-to-Ujiji slave route in 1825. The Arabs had slowly stripped power from his father, stealing his lands and cutting him off from the ivory trade that ensured his wealth and kingdom. When his father passed on and Mirambo assumed the throne, the Arabs refused to recognize him as the premier African ruler of the region. Instead, they backed a puppet of their choosing named Mkasiwa.

To make matters worse, Mkasiwa was so emboldened by the recognition that he considered Mirambo to be a far-flung vassal. This made Mirambo furious. He didn’t immediately wage war on the Arabs, but expanded his kingdom among his own people, capturing village after village. He was a military genius and warred incessantly, excelling at the predawn surprise attack on an opponent’s weakest flank. His army of teenaged conscripts—married and older men were considered less aggressive and so were discouraged from fighting—would open fire with their single-shot muskets, then switch to spears as they overran villages in relentless waves. Once a village was conquered Mirambo celebrated the victory by looting the huts and splitting the booty with his army. The goats, chickens, women, and cloth were a reward for a job well done, and a fine enticement to wage war the next time Mirambo was in a warlike mood.

After the booty was split, Mirambo would round up the residents of the village and behead the village chief with his scimitar. Then he would anoint a favored and loyal warrior as the replacement. If, over the course of time, the new man failed to follow Mirambo’s directives to the letter, or attempted to rebel and form his own kingdom, a lesson was quickly taught. Mirambo would travel to the village and gather the citizens together. Then the warrior would be forced to kneel, and the scimitar would flash again. A new puppet would be installed, one who was more clear that Mirambo would tolerate no usurpation of his power. With this combination of battle, booty, and beheading, Mirambo rebuilt his father’s kingdom. The growth of his power slowly squeezed the lands surrounding Tabora, until the only corridor the Arabs controlled was the trade route between Tabora and Ujiji.

By the summer of 1871, just as Stanley arrived in Tabora, Mirambo’s strength was greater than ever—and still ascendant. Tabora was in a state of wartime preparedness as tension between Mirambo and the Arabs ratcheted upward. Both parties knew full well that the last African chieftain who’d confronted the Arabs, a man named Mnywa Sere, had been beheaded six years earlier. And with a lifetime of inequity to avenge, it made no difference to Mirambo that he was outnumbered three to one. The time had come to wage war. Mirambo began by harboring runaway slaves. It was a passive move, a taunt that got the attention of the Arabs. The second act of war, however, attacked the Arabs where it hurt them most: trade. Mirambo blocked the route from Tabora to Ujiji. Caravans trying to run the blockade would be plundered and murdered. Immediately, the Arabs called a council of war and made plans to attack. Fifteen days, they predicted, was all the time they would need to crush the infidel.

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Bush’s & Putin’s Response to the Coup

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle p. 146:

By Tuesday morning, August 20, George Bush, who initially had stopped short of condemning the coup committee—on Scowcroft’s advice he had called their action extra-constitutional rather than illegitimate so as not to burn their bridges with the coup leaders—had got a better idea of what was happening. He managed to get through to Yeltsin. “Boris, my friend,” cried the U.S. president. Yeltsin was overwhelmed. “I am extremely glad to hear from you!” he shouted in response. “We expect an attack, but your call will help us.” “We’re praying for you,” said Bush.

From a balcony at the Russian White House, protected by lead shields held by Korzhakov and another bodyguard, Yeltsin read out a second statement. In it he called on soldiers and police to disobey the orders of Yazov and Pugo but not to seek confrontation.

In St. Petersburg Mayor Sobchak confronted troop commanders and persuaded them not to enter the city. At his side opposing the putsch was his special assistant, KGB officer Vladimir Putin. “Sobchak and I practically moved into the city council,” Putin recounted years later. “We drove to the Kirov Factory and to other plants to speak to the workers. But we were nervous. We even passed out pistols, though I left my service revolver in the safe. People everywhere supported us.”

Putin was concerned that his behavior as a KGB officer could be considered a crime of office if the plotters won. He expressed this fear to his boss, and Sobchak called Kryuchkov on his behalf. Astonishingly the mayor was able to get the chief organizer of the putsch on the phone to discuss such a matter of minor consequence given the scale of events—that Putin was resigning from the KGB forthwith.

Kryuchkov by now seemed to realize his mistake in not securing the arrest of Yeltsin. Public opposition was consolidating around the Russian president. The emergency committee was falling apart. Pavlov and Bessmertnykh had disappeared. Yanayev was drinking himself into a stupor. The defenders of the White House now included many high-profile personalities, including Politburo veteran Alexander Yakovlev, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner. Shevardnadze was also there, asking aloud if Gorbachev himself was implicated in the coup.

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Arresting Gorbachev, August 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 140-141:

Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs had been ordered from a factory in Pskov, and Lefortovo prison made ready for an influx of detainees.

The coup got under way the next day, Sunday, August 18, with the house arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev. A military plane provided by Yazov landed at the Belbek military base near Foros at 5 p.m. after a two-hour flight from Moscow. On board were Baklanov, Shenin, Boldin, and another enthusiastic putschist, General Valentin Varennikov. The four men represented the pillars of the Soviet establishment. Baklanov, with broad earnest face and furrowed brow, was head of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex. Shenin, prematurely bald with large domed forehead, was the Politburo member responsible for party organization. Boldin, besides being Gorbachev’s chief of staff, was a senior member of the Central Committee. Varennikov, in large rimless glasses with a thin moustache and lank hair combed over in Hitler style, was commander of Soviet land forces.

The delegation was driven by KGB officers in two Zil limousines to the state dacha with marble walls and orange-tiled roof, where the Gorbachevs were spending the last day of their two-week summer vacation. They were joined inside the compound gate by another plotter, General Yury Plekhanov, the stolid unsmiling head of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, who represented a fifth pillar of Soviet power, the security organs. Plekhanov deployed new guards around the perimeter of the dacha, ordered the head of Gorbachev’s security to return to Moscow and put men with automatic weapons outside the garage so none of Gorbachev’s party could get to the cars or use the radio telephones in the automobiles.

The president was in his second-floor office dressed in shorts and a pullover, reading the text of the speech he would give to launch the new Union in Moscow in two days’ time. In it he had written a warning: “If we turn back now, our children will never forgive us such ignorance and irresponsibility.”

In a guesthouse on the dacha compound, Colonel Vladimir Kirillov, one of the two plainclothes officers in charge of the nuclear suitcase, was watching television when the screen went blank. An emergency light on the chemodanchik started blinking. This was it—a nuclear alert! He picked up his radio telephone with a direct link to government communications. He was told there had been an accident and not to worry. At 4:32 p.m. he lost contact with his controller in Moscow, KGB general Viktor Boldyrev. General Varennikov appeared at the door. “How are your communications?” he asked. “There aren’t any,” replied the colonel. “That’s how it should be,” said Varennikov. He assured him that contacts would be restored within twenty-four hours.

At 4:50 p.m. the head of Gorbachev’s bodyguard interrupted the president to say that a group of people had arrived to speak with him. Gorbachev was not expecting anyone. Somewhat alarmed, he picked up a receiver to call Kryuchkov in Moscow. The line was dead. All four telephones on his desk and the internal phone were no longer working. In an outer office Anatoly Chernyaev suddenly realized that his government line, satellite link, and internal telephone were all down.

He guessed immediately what was up.

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Yeltsin’s Foreign vs. Domestic Popularity

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 106-108:

Fearful of the gathering momentum towards the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev organized a referendum throughout the USSR to restore popular support for stability and a new union treaty. It asked for a yes or no to the question “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” (emphasis in the original). The referendum was held on March 16. Six of the fifteen Soviet republics had become so independent-minded they boycotted the poll, but in the remaining nine, 76 percent of voters responded yes. Gorbachev took this majority as a mandate to negotiate a new union treaty that would give republics a measure of sovereignty but preserve the Union of which he was president.

Yeltsin cleverly turned the plebiscite to his advantage. On the referendum paper distributed in Russia he added an extra question: Do you support the idea of a directly elected president for Russia? The voters gave their approval. The Russian congress agreed to hold the first free presidential election in Russia, on June 12, 1991.

Though his popularity swelled at home, Yeltsin found to his dismay that his high profile in Moscow did not impress world leaders. Dignitaries who arrived in Russia on fact-finding missions came with perceptions of an unstable and vodka-loving bully. On the other hand, they liked Gorbachev personally and felt protective towards him. When Yeltsin asked U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to call on him during such a visit to the Soviet president in mid-March, Baker saw it as an effort to “drive Gorbachev up the wall.” The American declined after consulting Gorbachev, who “naturally went through the roof” and raved about how unstable Yeltsin was and how he would use populist rhetoric to become a dictator. Gorbachev displayed similar childishness, forbidding his associates to attend a dinner Baker hosted at the embassy in protest at the presence of some of Yeltsin’s team.

The effete British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd took a dislike to the ponderous, blunt-talking nonconformist when they met in Moscow. He suggested to Ambassador Braithwaite as they left the meeting that the Russian was a dangerous man barely under control. Still, Braithwaite concluded that Yeltsin’s analysis was correct and that Gorbachev was by now “living almost entirely in cloud-cuckoo land.” Richard Nixon, visiting Moscow as an unofficial envoy of the White House, cursed the media for giving him the impression of Yeltsin as an “incompetent, disloyal boob.” Yeltsin might not have the “grace and ivory-tower polish of Gorbachev,” he reported to Bush on his return to the United States, “but he inspires the people nevertheless.”

Yeltsin went to France, where he believed he would at least be respected by the democratic parliamentarians of Europe. He got an unpleasant surprise. Le Monde lectured him that in Europe “only one Russian is recognized—Gorbachev.” He was greeted with an “icy shower” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where Jean-Pierre Cot, chairman of the group of socialists, reproached him publicly as a demagogue and an irresponsible politician for opposing Gorbachev, “with whom we feel more assured.” These remarks caused outrage among ordinary Russians—even Pravda called them an insult—and only served to increase Yeltsin’s popularity.

The Russian populist returned home chastened by the “terrible blow” of Western reaction. But there was a surprise in store for him. Gorbachev invited him to a meeting of the heads of all the Soviet Union’s republics at a dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, and what the Soviet leader had to say to him there, Yeltsin found, “exceeded all my expectations.”

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Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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