Saturday, July 12, 2014

Empires of the Sea

I just finished listening to Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley (author of City of Fortune) today. It is supposedly about the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, but these events actually make up about half the book. The larger narrative focus is on the Ottoman and Christian efforts to dominate the Mediterranean Sea throughout the 16th century.

Though many are familiar with corsairs such as Barbarossa, they were part of a larger Ottoman strategy for control of the Mediterranean. They terrified Christian civilians and took thousands of them into slavery from France, Italy and Spain. Combined with Ottoman naval dominance, the Turks ruled the eastern Mediterranean.

The Christians were not as fortunate. They were often too divided to engage in any concentrated action against the Ottomans, for even if an alliance was formed, it would soon fall apart because of bickering and differing objectives. The Knights of saint John were the closest Christian counterparts to the corsairs, and they continued to be a thorn in the Sultan's side even after they were ejected from Rhodes.

The corsair raids and Ottoman naval victories caused Christian morale to crater, which is why the victories of Malta and Lepanto were so important. They both showed that the Ottomans could be defeated. The Ottoman defeat at Malta was important for another reason as well. It permanently divided the Mediterranean into Muslim and Christian zones (though this was not apparent at the time). The Ottomans would hold sway in the east, while Spain held the West.

Lepanto, much like the Battle of Tours, was once held as a turning point in saving Europe from the Islamic onslaught. That this interpretation has fallen out of fashion in recent decades should not diminish the importance of Lepanto. Not only did it prove to the Ottomans and Christians alike that Christian navies could meet Ottoman fleets on equal terms, the battle destroyed the Ottoman fleet. While they did rebuild the very next year, the experience seems to have stolen the wind from theirs sails. Henceforth, Ottoman competition with the Hapsburgs would be primarily through attacks on Hungary and Vienna.

A good book overall, but I found that it did not discuss the ramifications of each battle in the long term, preferring to stick to the years after the battles, sketching out the lives of the participants and leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. On the other hand, I did enjoy the background leading up to the two battles, which did much to explain why they were fought where they were and how they were.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

American Uprising

I just finished listening to American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen, which traced the largest slave revolt in North American history, from the society in which it sprang, to the revolt and its suppression, to the end of slavery in the 1860s.

The first part of the book covered Louisiana plantation society before and after the Louisiana Purchase. I had not previously thought of the impact that the purchase had on the residents of Louisiana, and the book it was very interesting to learn the ways in which their society differed from that of the United States. Naturally, this led to tensions between the governor (William Claiborne) and the aristocratic planter class.

The second part of the book focused on the rebellion itself and its failure. While three ringleaders managed to kill two plantation owners, raze several plantations, acquire militia uniforms, and field an army of about 1000, they were ultimately defeated by planter militia, with help from the US Army. The retribution, as expected, was savage. The leaders had their heads stuck on pikes and 18 were sentenced to death. Several trials were held, but the verdict was preordained. These trials were, in my opinion, to allow the slaveholders to give their actions a veneer of legality, and therefore separate them from the summary executions that the slaves performed.

By far the most interesting part, in my opinion, was the explanation of the events surrounding the revolt. For example, at the time the revolt erupted in January 1811, the US Army was engaged in a highly illegal campaign to seize Florida from the Spanish, hence the lack of troops in Louisiana when the revolt broke out. The acquisition of Florida is usually ignored in US history books, so it is good to see the treatment here. In addition, the author points out how Claiborne, despite doing very little to help quash the uprising, used the event to show the planters the benefits of accepting American power. Henceforth, Louisiana would embrace US authority as a means to deter slave revolts. This is why they joined the Confederacy in 1860; with the US no longer seeming to guarantee their right to own slaves, the planters of Louisiana joined a government that would.

Finally, the true strength of this book is to put the revolt into the context of mid-nineteenth century American expansionism. In less than half a century, the US bought Louisiana, stole Florida from Spain, wrenched more than half of Mexico away, and acquired Oregon and Washington. These territories were acquired using methods that the US had practiced in the aftermath of the uprising of 1811: application of force, extension of the legal system, and coopting local elites. As a result, the US looks less like a nation that happened to be at the right place at the right time than a nation that was ruthlessly expansionist. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

New Word for the Day: Hatevasion

I think I have discovered the only case in world history where the perceived humiliation of one world leader by another led to the mobilizing of an entire country and the deaths of tens of thousands. Toyotomi Hideyoshi's second invasion  of Korea was ostensibly to complete the goals he had failed to complete with the invasion of 1592 (integration into the Chinese world order, trade privileges, etc.) but according to accounts of the time, when the Ming sent a peace delegation and Konishi Yukinaga tried to hide the true terms from him, Hideyoshi flew into a rage. He expected to be made ruler on par with the Ming emperor (despite his lack of battlefield success), and felt the Koreans and Chinese were snubbing and mocking him. He was so angry, in fact, that he ordered a second invasion of Korea far more brutal than the first. The Japanese entertained no thoughts of making this a part of their empire anymore, but pillaged, razed, and murdered their way through the Korean countryside. Luckily for Korea, Hideyoshi was succeeded by the less vain Tokugawa Ieysu, who did not invade neighboring countries purely out of spite.