Archive for the ‘history’ Category

For the past three Wednesday evenings, I’ve attended George Macdonald’s lectures on Haida villages at the Bill Reid Gallery. It was time well-spent, and I only regret that the lectures stopped with three. Nobody is boring when talking about an area of expertise, and Macdonald, Director of the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Haida Monumental Art, was certainly in his element. Just as importantly, he combined knowledge with an informal and lively manner, which made for an absorbing scholarly trio of evenings.

Macdonald divided his subject matter into the southern villages centering on Skidegate, the central villages around Masset, and the northern or Kaigani villages of southern Alaska. Unsurprisingly, the second lecture was the most popular, with many Haida living in Vancouver coming out for it, including artists like Gwaai Edenshaw and Dorothy Grant, but the third was also popular, perhaps because the arbitrary border has resulted in few Canadians knowing much about the Kaigani villages. And the entire series was attended by a core of regulars, including me.

The first surprise in the lecture is how much photographic evidence exists from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because much of this evidence is not available to the general public, many people, I suspect, are like me and believe that it is very limited. However, Macdonald speaks in terms of thousands of photos (and I’m not sure that he didn’t talk of tens of thousands), to say nothing of sketches by anthropologists and navy officers, and works of art like Emily Carr’s. In fact, so much of this evidence exists that pieces can be cross-correlated, and the distinctive style of individual – if often anonymous – artists can be detected. Macdonald showed perhaps a few hundred slides of this evidence, but his lectures were enough to suggest the surprising wealth of material.

Another source of evidence is family tradition. In many Haida villages, memory or written records have preserved the names of many of the houses, as well as some of their history. For instance, at the third lecture, Dorothy Grant told her grandfather’s story of how his village was abandoned for a centralized, missionary-run new village of running water and electricity. During the burning of possessions that the missionaries insisted upon, her grandfather saved only the contents of the bentwood box in his hands.

Nearly four hours of lecture and audience participation is almost impossible to summarize. However, other topics in Macdonald’s lectures included the patterns of resettlement in the south as European diseases forced the survivors to regroup and, in many cases, regroup again; the use of palisades and hilltops during wars between lineages; the names and appearances of some of the great chiefs and carvers of a hundred and forty years ago; the question of whether Albert Edward Edenshaw was trying to bypass matrilineal inheritance by bestowing property on his son, and the characteristic designs of the graves of shamans. In many cases, too, the villages were illustrated by sketch maps or aerial photos.

Equally fascinating were Macdonald’s own stories of his experiences as an archaeologist in the field. They ranged from the careless destruction of one pole that survived into modern times in Prince Rupert, and the danger of bears while exploring villages. Macdonald also revealed in passing some of the professional issues and puzzles in the study of villages.

This was the first lecture series from the Bill Reid Gallery. The gallery is an ideal place for a small crowd, even if the monumental Mythic Messengers and the smell of cedar from Jim Hart’s work on his tribute pole to Bill Reid sometimes became distractions. But, on the whole, if it is an example of what these organizations plan to offer in the future, then future events deserve to be crowded. Like any good lectures, Macdonald’s have pushed back the boundaries of my ignorance a little while tantalizing me to find out more.

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“I have led a good life, careful and artistic,

I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic” 

– Utah Phillips

When I was younger, I worried that I would become more conservative as I got older. However, thanks to the main trauma in my life, that hasn’t happened. Instead, I continue to hold similar views to those I developed in my teens, but in a different way – less singlemindedly, and more skeptically.

I consider my social and political positions open to revision at any given time. However, here’s how my world view looks as I serve my time as a curmudgeon-in-training:

  • Having people in authority over others is the easiest and quickest way to organize society, but generally lapses into an abuse of power. Finding alternative power structures is difficult, but creative – as well as an absolute necessity for personal quality of life and for alleviating long-term social problems. Meanwhile, questioning and minimizing authority is the best way to prevent abuse of power. Sometimes, though, the only short-term relief available is throwing out those in power and replacing them with new ones. Eventually, though, we have to do throw out the new ones, too.
  • What everybody knows or does is always worth questioning. Rather than observing or making an effort to understand the situation around them, most people rely on explanatory principles to make sense of the world. For instance, they say that all men watch sports and all women love to shop without ever examining these assumptions. While you may not get answers by questioning common assumptions, you will always get a better rounded view of the issues by going beyond the explanatory principles.
  • Fashion is a pseudo-culture. A culture is supposed to sustain daily life by giving people a set of values and community. Consumerism promises to deliver these same benefits, but, because it depends upon frequent changes and abrupt reversals of preferences, what it actually creates is a deep sense of insecurity – the exact opposite of culture. Fashion is to culture as junk food is to nourishment.
  • Sloppy thinking is everywhere. One of the most common fallacies is an appeal to authority, although where once we used to consult religion to settle arguments, we now use biology (never mind if we misrepresent or misunderstand the biology, or over-apply it). In North America, the either/or fallacy – the insistence that everything is one thing or another, and never anything in between – is almost as common, leading to over-simplification and distortion of just about every public issue you can name. Often, either/or thinking reduces issues, not to questions of rights or wrong, but a choice of half-truths, neither of which is very satisfactory.
  • To get more of the truth, find the untold stories. Official explanations and histories – including the canons of art — always leave out some events and people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes in unconscious self-justification. What the official versions leave out is sometimes lost, but, despite Orwell’s fears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, some fragments of the unofficial versions survive. These remnants often explain the inexplicable in the official versions, or give new insights entirely. For example, aside from the social changes, one of the most valuable contributions of feminism’s second wave was the rediscovery of previously overlooked writers such as Aphra Behn.
  • As Utah Phillips said, a long memory is the most radical notion in history. Consumerism and the egos of those in power encourage a foreshortened version of the present, in which it is cut off from everything that has gone before. It is true that history never repeats itself, but, as a source of parallels, analogies, and causation, the past is still one of the best ways to understand the present.
  • Most of the time, the average person gets lost in everyday concerns and ignores the larger ones, including those that might give them more control of their lives. For instances, in our culture, it is generally true that you would get more people out to a rally to resist talk of closing the stores on Sunday than to get a large corporation to reduce its pollution. Although exceptions to this trend exist, they are brief and rare.
  • Holding these thoughts is necessary for thinking clearly about society, but can be unhealthy. You need to remember that people can oppose you and still be the kind you would like to meet socially, if you are honest. You also need to avoid excessive cynicism, or, even worse, a negative identity, in which you define yourself solely in terms of your opposition to certain issues and people. Don’t forget, too, that, despite all the difficulties described her, art and clear thinking still manage to emerge. For instance, although marked as just another consumer product, the popular music and the science fiction of the 1960s are still cultural high points. Similarly, the consumer-driven rise of the popular computer led to the existence of the free software community, in which people are trying to think clearly and gain control of their work and lives.

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I’m about halfway through 1421: The Year that China Discovered the World, and finding it heavy going. The problem isn’t the writing so much as the way that author Gavin Menzies develops his argument, piling speculation on speculation, leaping to conclusions and drawing everything into his main theory until alarms sound in my head and I become irritated by the obsessional nature of his ideas.

Menzies starts with the known facts that a massive fleet set off from China in 1421, and that, while it was away, a reaction against exploration and trade occured in China, putting an end to such voyages and suppressing all their discoveries. From there, however, he quickly expands into conjecture, imagining a giant flotilla of ships that, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, divided into three separate fleets.

One of these fleets, he suggests, sailed into Antarctica to take sightings to aid navigation in the southern hemisphere, then returned home via the west side of Australia. Another travelled up South America, crossed the Pacific, returned to travel down the west coast of North and Central America, then explored New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. The third headed north to the Atlantic, circumnavigated Greenland, and returned home around the northern coast of Asia. On the way, these fleets supposedly mapped the coastlines they were passing, and left traces in the form of observation platforms, wrecks, animals, and small colonies.

The only trouble is, absolutely no record of these journeys exist. We know that the fleet sailed, and was charged with exploration, but that is all. At best, Menzies is forced to argue from such second or third hand evidence as European maps that show coastlines before any European had reached them. At worst, he argues from currents and winds that the ships must have taken the courses he suggests. Never mind that some elements, such as the circumnaviations of Greenland and Asia are wildly implausible, or that none of these voyages ever steered towards Europe, which was at least vaguely known to the Chinese of the time.

Moreover, all this travelling is supposed to have occurred in two or three years. Given that Magellan and Drake’s circumnavigations took about three or four years, it is just barely possible that the Chinese fleets could have managed their own in the time alloted, but, when you consider the difficulty of keeping hundreds of vessels together and the slowness of charting coastlines, the time scale becomes unworkable – even for a straightforward circumnavigation, let alone the endless criss-crossings and detours that Menzies suggests. These are all difficulties that Menzies, for all his repeated claims of unique expertise because of his service in the British navy, utterly fails to take into account.

Yet, despite these difficulties, Menzie plows on. His method is to suggest a movement, then to find evidence that might suggest a Chinese presence in the place he suggests. An old map, a burial marker, an account of a strange wreck – it doesn’t matter. Anything that can be made to support his ideas, sometimes with a little twisting, is pressed into service. Alternative explanations don’t matter, not even the possibility that the signs of Chinese influence might have come at some other time. He never argues from the evidence; rather, he finds the evidence to fit his theory, then shoehorns it into place without any regard for other possibilities.

Very quickly, the tone becomes reminiscent of books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, in which everything everywhere is explained in terms of a single all-embracing, far-fetched theory. Menzies’ theory may be more reasonable than von Däniken’s, but only barely. It still has the same stink of monomania lingering about it – unsurprisingly, since Menzies has apparently spent over fifteen years on it.

Menzies’ theory may have the benefit of introducing North Americans and Europeans to the glories of Chinese culture. One of the few things that he is right about is that, in the fifteenth century, the Chinese were probably the most advanced civilization in the world, and that’s a fact that few people seem to realize today.

Yet I find myself wishing that he would have cast his book in the form of a novel rather than as an apparently serious attempt at speculation. If he had, then he might have performed the same service without leaving the unhealthy air of obsession about his work.

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History isn’t what it used to be. Or, to put it another way, everything you know about the past could be wrong, or at least subject to revision. And the revision isn’t done by loyal bureaucrats of Big Brother, altering official records to make the Party look good. It’s done by working historians trying to accommodate new facts and perspectives.

It’s a reflection, really, of how long history has been an academic discipline. In many cases, you could write an interesting history of histories about how our views of various eras have evolved.

I first became aware that history was not the fixed medium I imagined when I was still a boy, and Louis Riel changed from a despised madman in Canadian history to a Metis nationalist and folk hero. Part of that change was a reflection of the times, but, even if the change may have exaggerated some traits in the short term, in the long term it gave a more complex, more truthful view of Riel and his actions than the textbooks gave, and provided those of mixed First Nations and European ancestory with some long overdue cultural respect.

As I’ve grown older, this change in history has kept happening. The dinosaurs, I learned as a young adult, were not the dim-witted giants that I had loved as a child, even as I fled screaming from their gaudy statues at roadside attractions along the coastal highway in Oregon and California. Instead, they were suddenly animals with complex social lives, some of whom had survived to the present by becoming birds – an idea that, now that I think, may be responsible for my love of parrots.

Similarly, the Egyptians changed from a death-obsessed, hierarchical culture of stifling dullness to people with a fondness for beer who thought a potbelly a sign of success. Queen Hatsheput, instead of being a schemer who murdered her husband the Pharoah to seize power and feuded with her son and sometime co-ruler became a quieter figure who ruled wisely and peacefully handed over power to the next generation as archaeologists realized the original story was a product of Victorian imagination without evidence to support it.

In English history, the same thing happened. William the Conqueror became, not the founder of a great tradition, but an usurper who, culturally and legally, set back English culture five or six centuries. Richard III was not the murderer of his nephews, and George III, while a rather dull man, was industrious and well-loved for much of his reign. The more I read, the more the changes kept on coming.

And just this week, I’ve regaled myself and anyone who listen with snippets from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the America Before Columbus.. Some of what he had mentioned I had heard, but hearing them all at once was overwhelming. I mean, pre-Inkan states? The Amazon rain forest not pristine wilderness but artfully managed orchards? The First Nations arriving, not by a break in the glacier, but by skin boards edged carefully down the coast of British Columbia? The Aztecs nursing schools of philosophy and being less bloody-minded in their public executions than the Europeans of their day? The Five Nations being closer to modern democratic ideals than my European ancestors?

The snapping sound you hear is my mind stretching to the breaking point. Yet many, even most of these ideas might very well be true.

Some people, I suppose, might resist such sweeping changes to history, or even deny their possibility. After all, history is not simply the search for objective truth that the best academics see it as. It’s also the source of our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about how we got to the present state of things and how our identities were established. To many people, a challenge to these myths is unsettling, and to be denied even if it means ignoring inconvenient facts.

And I suppose, too, that being well into middle age, I should feel threatened by such changes myself.

Instead, I find myself fascinated. I like to think that I have a scientific mind, because what I’m talking about is how science is supposed to work, with hypotheses formed to fit the evidence, and then thrown out when a better explanation comes along that fits the known facts. But I suppose I could simply be a contrarian, taking an unwholesome delight in seeing what everybody knows over-turned.

Either way, absorbing the changes is simply fun. When I was a boy, I used to worry that I might run out of things to learn in the subjects that interested me, and that I might become stodgy with age. But when I learn that another long-held view of mine is overturned, I know such worries are groundless, and there’s enough to keep me fascinated for several lifetimes.

These discoveries are like a vigorous massage by an expert therapist: mentally, I might groan and ache during the process, but afterwards I’m invigorated and fully of energy. As unsettling as some of the revisions might be, they reaffirm my faith in the complexity of the universe, and my conviction that curiosity has no limits.

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Each month, I write about 22,000 words of articles about free and open source software. It’s an inexhaustible subject, so my problem is usually winnowing possible subjects rather than scrambling to find them. However, every now and then I like to do something offbeat, especially for the IT Manager’s Journal, a sister site of Linux.com where most of my articles appear. A case in point is “Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia and the challenges of large projects.”

I’ve long been fascinated and slightly scornful of the tendency in business books to dramatize corporate life by comparison to great historical figures. For example, in recent decades, editions of The Book of Five Rings have encouraged executives to think of themselves as samurai warriors while Shackleton’s Way has made the Antarctic explorer an example of leadership for the corporate world. Similarly, Laurence Olivier’s son Richard gives seminars in which he suggests that managers emulate Henry V and other figures from Shakespeare. Hearing these comparisons, I’m always struck by the self-aggrandizement in them.

Yet, at the same time, as a confirmed Jungian, I also realize the importance of myths to sustain people. I only wish that office drudges had equal inspiration. But I suppose that European serfdom or slavery in the Roman tin mines doesn’t have the same resonance in most people’s minds. The closest I’ve seen is the Corporate Dominatrix, which, while amusing, isn’t very inspirational — at least, not for me.

Anyway, in the middle of April, I was reading Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March, which is probably the best book on the subject that I have read. I was also – as I usually am in the middle of the month – worrying about meeting my quota of articles. What struck me as the main strength of Zamoyski’s book was his analysis of Napoleon’s mistakes and problems, and, remembering the historical trend in business books, I saw a partial solution to my quota-fretting. One Friday night, after submitting another article, the idea for a business-related article based on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia came to me, and I sat down and began the article.

If there is a muse of online journalism, she was surely with me that night, because my points came ready-formed into my mind, and in a couple of hours, I had almost two thousand words, an unexpected and very welcome gift to an anxious writer.

I always try for a minimal level of professionalism in my articles, but, inevitably, I’m prouder of some than others. This one, as you can probably tell, is one of the ones that I’m especially proud of. It’s not often that I can work my love of history and biography into my daily work, and I like to think I’ve said something useful, too.

As I say at the end of the article, if someone with Napoleon’s leadership qualities can blunder so badly, anyone can. So why not learn from him? And, if people who read the article do screw up, maybe they’ll feel better for thinking themselves in the company of Napoleon.

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On Saturday evening, I went time-travelling. Not through Dungeons and Dragons or the Society for Creative Anachronism, although I’ve done both in my time. Nor did I get a temporal lift, which, despite its name, is not a form of chronic hitchhiking, but a form of cosmetic surgery for those who want to revisit their starry-eyed youth. Instead, this jaunt was up the Fraser River by paddlewheeler to the annual Candlelight Tour of Fort Langley, where historical re-enactors create an illusion of time-travelling to 1858 and the night before the declaration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia through series of vignettes around the fort.

In keeping with the illusion, we took the paddlewheeler The Native upriver from New Westminster. In the days that we were travelling to, paddlewheelers were the main form of transport through the largely roadless interior. These paddlewheelers were not the grandly appointed queens of the Mississippi, but smaller, shallower-draft vessels built for work, with few cabins and a mixture of passengers and livestock as often as not. Originally built as a yacht and just refurbished, The Native is more luxurious than the boats it is modelled on, with amenities that include a kitchen and washroom and comfortable seating for maybe fifty passengers.

Tens of thousands pass over the Fraser River everyday. Thousands more drive along each bank. However, if they haven’t been on the river, they probably don’t know how much of a working river it is. The Fraser is not one of those picturesque rivers surrounded by cobblestoned walks and dockside patios where you can sit under an umbrella and watch recreational boaters zoom by. Recreational boaters do use the Fraser, but they are outnumbered by the tugs and the barges pulling containers. Many channels and shores are floating banks for the forest companies, and the shore is crammed with heavy industry. The canneries that lined its shores for much of the last century are long gone, but in the rotting pylons and shorings that litter the shore, you could still read their history.

Hearing that history, and watching the industry gradually recede as we passed upriver, I could almost believe that we were moving back through time, safely ensonced in a cabin where we could eat and drink the afternoon away while looking for herons and eagles out the window.

Arriving at Fort Langley, we found the gateway to the dock locked, so the paddlewheeler reversed itself for a hundred yards and tied up at the rowing club dock – a flimsy ramshackled built on two logs that was probably much closer to the spirit of 1858 than our original mooring.

In previous years, the tour started at sunset. The conceit was that visitors could go back in time to watch, but could not interact with the inhabitants of 1858 in any way. Both the dark and the conceit added greatly to the atmosphere, but this year both were gone. Daylight saving time came earlier this year, and, to compensate, the tour was more interactive, with the re-enactors talking to the guests and even dragging them into a barn dance led by a half dozen fiddlers.

Yet even these handicaps could not destroy the gentle fantasy of the evening. Travelling in groups of fifteen with a couple of guides, visitors were met at the entrance to the fort by members of the Royal Engineers, the regiment sent out to construct an infrastructure in the new colony. In 1858, they were the only group capable of keeping order as the Barkerville Gold Rush brought a flood of miners and hangers-on – mostly Americans, who were darkly regarded as the forerunners of an attempt by the United States to take over the territory.

Assured that we were neither unregistered gold miners nor Americans, the Royal Engineers let us in. Inside the fort, we passed from building to building, witnessing such vignettes as a cooper’s apprentice arguing with his mother about travelling to the gold fields, and a blacksmith teaching an apprentice to make nails. We heard a boat-builder who doubled as the fort’s schoolmaster talking about tomorrow’s proclamation of the new colony, and, at The Big House, the Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company – formerly the chief official in the region – announce his resignation and express his appreciation of our work as his underlings. In a warehouse, we heard pre-adolescent girls of the period talking about the men they admired and their prospects for husbands, while nearby in a parlor, whose out-of-tune piano had been carried upriver by canoe, mothers talked about the lack of cultural prospects at the fort. In the center of the fort, newly arrived voyageurs gossiped and grumbled, while, outside the fort, good time girls from San Francisco and a disreputable miner in a slouched hat talked about their plans.

The tour took an hour and a half, but all too soon we were back in the world of flash cameras and cell phones (both had been banned on the tour). We descended the rickety – and railess – gangway to the yacht club dock, and boarded the paddle-wheeler for desert, more wine, and the trip back to New Westminster.

Despite the lights on either side of the river, the return trip was dark. The stark ugliness of the industrial sites was made mysterious, and around us the river swirled like black oil. Inside the main cabin, pop hits of the last forty years were playing, and a few people were dancing.

Most of us were content to watch and talk, but one couple in their sixties danced to almost every tune. They would have been young in the 1960s when the earliest of the tunes first came out, and every now and then you could see from a smile or a dance move how they must have looked forty years ago when they first danced to them. I suppose, in their way, they were time-travelling, too.

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