Category Archives: scholarship

Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

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Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

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Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 574-94:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain, or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds in the same locations. Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

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Missionaries and the Growth of Area Studies

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4678-4717:

THE MAN WHO came to be called the “viceroy” of South Asian Studies had a high position in government during World War II and used it to promote the academic study of India. Missionary son W. Norman Brown (1892–1975) got to know Kenneth Landon in the Washington headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services. But unlike Landon, who had heavy policy responsibilities, Brown was in the research division, where he headed the South Asian section. In 1943, Brown convened a “private IPR roundtable” at Princeton to talk about India. The main item on the agenda was Brown’s memorandum, “Suggested Program to Promote the Study of India in the United States.” The memorandum called for the creation of institutes, teaching programs, and public lectures designed to advance knowledge of India.

That an officer of the OSS could run a private event under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations highlights the easy back-and-forth between IPR and government officialdom. The roundtable also shows how an OSS officer could promote an academic cause not immediately related to the war effort. The roundtable is revealing, further, for the individuals who participated in it. Brown knew how to light a fire under people located in potentially relevant networks. The recently elected congressman Walter Judd was there. So was the prominent Asian affairs writer T. A. Bisson, who was then serving on the wartime Board of Economic Welfare. Present, too, was Harry B. Price, the lobbyist who had been Executive Director of the “Price Committee”—the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression—and who by 1943 was coordinating the Lend-Lease program for China. Brown made sure that the Rockefeller Foundation sent representatives. The group also included journalist Varian Fry, already a legend in Washington circles because of his death-defying work for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, smuggling more than two thousand anti-Nazi refugees out of Marseille. The presence of Judd, Bisson, and Price, all of whom were former missionaries to China, shows how Brown mobilized the missionary network for his own purposes, and how that network easily bridged different mission fields.

After the war the enterprising Brown established himself as one of the most successful empire builders in an academic generation legendary for its empire building. Whenever there was a committee related to his interests, Brown ended up chairing it. Whenever there was a center or an institute to be established, Brown was invited to serve as its director. Whenever there was an academic position to be filled, Brown’s advice was taken into account. Whenever there were funds to be distributed, Brown was part of the decision process. Whenever there was a major event concerning India, Brown’s views about it were quoted. Focused, efficient, and determined, Brown was the prototype of the academic operator.

Brown’s counterpart in postwar Japanese Studies was another missionary son, Edwin Reischauer. The Chinese Studies equivalent was John K. Fairbank, who was neither a missionary son nor a former missionary but whose formation as a scholar was heavily influenced by the missionary contingent. This chapter is devoted to the careers of these three men and the attendant growth of what came to be called Foreign Area Studies. By 1967, missionary son and Japan scholar John W. Hall was justified in claiming that the success of Area Studies in the previous twenty years had rendered obsolete the old charge that American academia was parochial. The universities of no other nation had achieved as wide a global range as those of the United States. This could happen as rapidly as it did because so many missionary-connected individuals were ready to make it work. In no other institutional setting was missionary cosmopolitanism more visible than in academia, and nowhere was its Asian center of gravity more consequential.

There were few American missionaries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Programs for that part of the world developed without significant missionary background. This was also true for programs focused on Western Europe and its sub-regions. Latin American Studies had no special need for missionary-connected individuals because Latin America was the subject of extensive academic study before the war and its major language—Spanish—was widely spoken in the United States. 3 There were plenty of missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Foreign Service and the OSS did little recruiting there because that region was not a major theater in World War II, and its strategic significance in the Cold War was not recognized until much later.

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Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:

The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.

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