Apr 24

History Wednesday: Kingdoms for Fun and Profit

Back when I wrote about the Deseret alphabet I mentioned in passing a place called Molossia. As it turns out, y’all are somewhat interested in the micronation near Carson City, Nevada. I can tell because the link repeatedly turns up in the “clicks” section of my blog dashboard.

Molossia_-_Customs_post

I can see why. It’s a happening place.
Image credit: Kevin Baugh

That said, today’s History Wednesday isn’t about Molossia or micronations. That story has been covered elsewhere. Although inspired by Molossia, today we’ll take a look at the Kingdom of Sedang, one of the more bizarre chapters in the never-boring history of Southeast Asia.

This story has its roots in the mid-1880s when colonialism was all the rage throughout Europe. After a relatively successful war against China, France established control over the majority of Southeast Asia east of present-day Thailand. They called it “French Indochina.”

HOMECOMING

This caused some problems later on, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, shortly after the Sino-French War in 1888 Chulalongkorn the Great, king of the independent Siam, began claiming lands on his border with French Indochina. Unsurprisingly, this prompted the French to take steps to bolster their claims to the areas in question. Enter a certain Marie-Charles David de Mayrena, a rather sketchy character who owned a plantation in the area. Prior to his involvement in French Indochina, Mayrena worked as an arms dealer. He was suspected of embezzlement back in Metropolitan France. He had also been kicked out of the Dutch East Indies, which we know today as Indonesia.

Charles-Marie David de Mayréna1SMALL

In other words, a 19th Century Destro.

Ever the opportunist, Mayrena convinced the Governor-General of French Indochina that he was the perfect guy to negotiate treaties with people in the area who weren’t definitively subjects of the French-controlled Emperor of Annam. Upon arrival he magnanimously negotiated fair treaties to everyone’s benefit.

Heh, no. He totally took advantage of the ambiguous political situation in the immediate area. In June 1888 he was somehow elected by several local tribal leaders as their king. He took the title “Marie the First, King of Sedang.”

800px-Pho_in_Saigon

Because nothing says “Vietnam” more than a guy calling himself “King Marie.”
Image credit: Andrew Dinh

Mayrena rather incongruously declared Roman Catholicism Sedang’s state religion despite the fact most of his subjects in present-day central Vietnam were Muslims. Eventually recognizing his demographic error, Mayrena converted to Islam himself and promptly took advantage of the religion’s liberty regarding plural marriages. He also set about to create a flag, print postage stamps and establish a national award, named after himself of course.

Now Mayrena wasn’t the first random foreign dude to take over a distant land on charm and bullshit alone. He was, however, somewhat more pragmatic than some of the others. Much like the leaders of the short-lived Republic of Texas and the even more short-lived California Republic, Mayrena’s Sedang almost immediately resolved to negotiate a union with a stronger power. However unlike Texas and California, Sedang was, shall we say, less than successful.

He first tried his native France, offering the country to them in exchange for “monopoly rights” over the area. He also told the French government that if they weren’t interested, the Prussians might be. Predictably, Paris – infuriated this guy created a kingdom in “their” territory in the first place – passed on his offer.

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As for Prussia’s Bismarck, he reportedly asked if the day’s Wienerschnitzel was properly tenderized.

Next Mayrena tried the British up in Hong Kong. They were similarly disinterested. Finally Mayrena went to Belgium, where he convinced another shady character named Somsy to provide him with money and arms in exchange for mineral rights. Finally fed up with his shit, the French refused Mayrena’s entry into Vietnam upon his return and seized his arms shipment in Singapore. The erstwhile king spent his last days in exile in present-day Malaysia, where he died in November 1890 under mysterious circumstances.

And so that was the end of Sedang, even though today a Canadian group wants to inexplicably revive it. As for Molossia, there may be a story there if I went to visit. Indeed, it’s on my shortlist after my planned junket to Thermopolis.

Apr 17

History Wednesday: Pranking Made Elementary

Last week’s History Wednesday was a bit on the dark side, so this week I wanted to lighten the mood. What happened in Boston earlier this week only makes the call for a less intense article all the more stronger.

Today History Wednesday travels back to 1917, but not to the bleak, war-torn landscape often associated with that year. Instead this story takes place in the countryside of Great Britain, specifically a town called Cottingley in West Yorkshire. It was here in this unassuming hamlet nearly a century ago that two girls pulled off a hoax that bamboozled an entire nation and made a very famous author look foolish indeed.

And so it was in this pastoral environment of rural north-central England that 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, often found themselves dirty and wet after playing in the stream near their home. They explained to their exasperated mothers that they frequented the area because fairies lived there.

One day, the girls decided to “prove” it. Arthur Wright, Elsie’s father, was an amateur photographer who had set up a darkroom on the property. Consequently Elsie – a gifted artist – was somewhat adept at photography as well. Using illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, the girls made several two-dimensional fairy drawings. Elsie then took a picture of Frances with the figures.

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Pictured: Photoshoppe -13.0.

A couple months later the girls repeated the prank, posing Elsie with a “gnome.” Arthur Wright, who was sick and tired of the girls screwing around with his equipment, forbade them access to the camera after that.

That should have been the end of it right there. However, Elsie’s mother, Polly, believed the photographs were the real deal. A couple years after the incident she took them to a local meeting of the Theosophical Society, a group that researched esoterica such as, you know, fairies.

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Kind of like this, but without the LSD.

Needless to say, the photos were a big hit. Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, became their prime apologist. After they were featured at the society’s national conference, they were “authenticated” by a guy who merely said the negatives weren’t tampered with (which was true). But hell, close enough, right?

Well, they were close enough for a certain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an active Spiritualist who learned about the photographs through his editorial contacts. As the more astute among you know, Conan Doyle was a famous Scottish author best known for creating a character named Sherlock Holmes. He totally bought the “fairies are real” line, even after the photographic companies Kodak and Ilford expressed their, um, doubts.

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The mustache, however, is obviously fake.

That’s when things started getting seriously stupid.

In order to corroborate the “evidence,” Conan Doyle sent Gardner to Cottingley to meet the Wright family and get some more fairy photographs. Gardner brought with him two new Kodak cameras and some marked photographic plates. He taught the girls how to use the cameras and then left, charging them with taking the pictures themselves. The girls in turn would only take photographs when no one else was around, as they were the only ones the “fairies” trusted. Sure enough, three new fairy photographs appeared and the plates were dutifully shipped back to Gardner in London.

CottingleyFairies4

“Hey, hey. Let’s tell them we found a way to turn brown sauce into diamonds. They’ll totally go for it!”

So did Gardner or Conan Doyle catch on? Oh, hell no! Upon hearing of the new photographs, Conan Doyle replied:

I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance.

Conan Doyle triumphantly published his findings in December 1920. While some fell for the hoax, many others were quick to call bullshit. In other words, the world wasn’t completely stupid in 1920 after all. As for Elsie and Francis, they finally owned up to the hoax.

In 1983.

Apr 10

History Wednesday: A South American Cautionary Tale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation with a more bizarre history than Paraguay. I could easily write about it for the next month’s worth of History Wednesday installments. That would get tedious though, and we don’t want that.

Some years ago noted satirist P. J. O’Rourke infamously commented Paraguay is “nowhere and famous for nothing.” O’Rourke eventually recanted his remark. Paraguay may be remote, but it’s definitely not boring.

Today’s journey takes us to 1860s. By this point Paraguay had been independent of Spain for a little over 50 years. Those years were dominated by the dictatorships of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia – a guy commonly known by the modest title of El Supremo – and Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was primarily interested in beefing up the country’s military. Both Francia and Lopez pursued extremely isolationist foreign policies, which would prove to be very detrimental in the coming years.

In 1862 Lopez died and power passed to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. Clearly groomed for leadership, without any noteworthy talent or training the younger Lopez became a general when he was 18 and was the country’s vice president by the time he was 30.

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He was also a big Bonaparte fan.

Within a few years of taking power Lopez became embroiled in a dispute with neighboring Brazil over Uruguay. Lopez was an ally of Uruguay’s government at the time, while Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II supported an ongoing revolution there. This came to a head in October 1864, when Brazil invaded Uruguay to support its revolutionary allies.

Two months later, Paraguay retaliated by declaring war on Brazil. A short time later Lopez asked Argentina to allow him to cross their territory to get to Brazil. The Argentinians refused, but Lopez went and did it anyway. Meanwhile, the Brazilians and Uruguayan rebels succeeded in bringing down the pro-Lopez government and set up a Brazilian puppet state there. The result was the Triple Alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. How … original. The alliance vowed to not only defeat Paraguay, but to crush it so it couldn’t cause problems again.

In other words, a country which endured many years of a repressive, isolationist cult of personality and a massive military buildup found itself ruled by the relatively inexperienced son of the previous leader, who then proceeded to go out of his way to pick fights with much larger powers.

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Sound familiar?
Image credit: petersnoopy

At first things went well for the Paraguayans. They started out with the largest military in Latin America at the time. They also caught all three of their enemies by surprise. Lopez invaded the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Argentina’s Corrientes Province. However by summer 1865 the tide began to turn against Lopez after the Brazilians decisively defeated the Paraguayan Navy.

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Seriously. To this day landlocked Paraguay has a navy.

Unfortunately for Paraguay, Lopez didn’t understand the concept of “quit while you’re ahead.” As the war dragged on through the rest of the 1860s, Paraguay’s military might was gradually sapped away by the Triple Alliance’s war of attrition. Both sides employed weapons and tactics similar to those used in the recently-concluded American Civil War, and experienced the same sort of horrific casualties. However unlike the alliance, isolated Paraguay was unable to replenish its resources and munitions.

On New Year’s Day 1869 the alliance captured the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Even that didn’t convince Lopez to throw in the towel, who by then was conducing a guerrilla campaign in the mountains northeast of the city. By this point resources were so scarce among the Paraguayans that the few soldiers remaining were occasionally forced to fight unarmed – in the hopes of picking up a firearm from a fallen comrade – as well eat their horses.

Finally on 1 March 1870 Lopez was killed in battle, effectively ending the Paraguayan War. It’s estimated Paraguay lost anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of its population due to war and disease, including the vast majority of the country’s adult males. To put that in perspective, even the grimmest estimates place Cambodia’s national death toll at “only” around 40 percent during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to the human cost, Paraguay permanently lost a significant amount of its territory. The war also affected the victorious Triple Alliance in unintended ways. Notably, it’s widely believed it helped end slavery in Brazil, as the country was forced to free many to fight.

If Lopez had a redeeming quality, it was his tenacity. Because of this and despite the massive losses inflicted upon Paraguay during his rule, many Paraguayans today consider him a national hero.

Yeah, things have been brutal in the Corazon de America, but they’ve never been boring.

Apr 03

History Wednesday: The Incompetent Traitor

Ah, Norway. Home of cross-country skiing, world-famous fjords, and a black metal scene which makes even the worst excesses of 80s bands such as Van Halen or Mötley Crüe look like Gilligan’s Island. Although technically neutral in World War II, the Norwegian people suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. A primary cause was one of their own.

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This guy.
Image credit: David.wintzer

Vidkun Quisling’s career started out innocuously enough, as a respected Norwegian military officer with extensive diplomatic experience. In the early 1930s he served two stints as Minister of Defense in popularly-elected conservative governments. Clearly he would have been much more successful in life had he just left well enough alone. Nevertheless despite being a truly awful politician, Quisling let his ambition get the best of him. As a result he stumbled and bumbled his way to becoming one the most notorious traitors the world has ever seen.

In the 1930s far-right politics were the rage in many parts of Europe. So in May 1933, Quisling and others founded the Nasjonal Samling, or National Unity Party. Clearly inspired by Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s fascist movements, NS attempted to become Norway’s answer to the Nazis, with Quisling establishing relations with the Nazis and the Italian Fascists. He even gave himself the title of Fører. However unlike Hitler’s well-organized machine of evil, the NS proved to be about as effective as the Keystone Kops.

KeystoneKops

Presumably with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background.

In sharp contrast to Hitler and the Nazis, Quisling and the NS never enjoyed any appreciable popularity among voters. In Norway’s 1933 election, Nasjonal Samling received a mere 2.5 percent of the vote and failed to elect anyone to the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. Rife with factionalization, by 1935 it appeared the party would quietly fade away.

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You know, kind of like pogs.

Despite Quisling’s virtually nonexistent PR skills and his penchant for pompous, stupid gaffes, he somehow managed to keep the NS afloat, albeit just barely. In the run-up to Norway’s 1936 elections, Quisling boastfully predicted his party would win at least 10 seats in the Storting. In reality, NS performed worse in the polls than it did three years earlier. At this point neither the Norwegians nor Quisling’s supposed allies in Italy and Germany took him seriously.

Norway tried to stay neutral when World War II broke out in 1939, but shit got real for them anyway in April 1940, when the British mined the channel separating the North and Baltic Seas, including Norwegian waters, in an effort to close Axis shipping routes. In response, Germany invaded Norway the following day.

Meanwhile Quisling, who nobody listened to, tried to get everyone to listen to him. In his usual hilariously bombastic style, on 8 April Quisling burst into the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s Oslo studio and proclaimed himself head of a new government with his buddies as ministers. If you took over your local Top 40 pop station and issued a fatwa against Justin Bieber, you’d achieve similar results.

But now that I think about it, you might get some traction out of that.

The Nazis, recognizing some sort of friendly Norwegian government would be advantageous, supported this. King Haakon VII, however, flatly refused to recognize Quisling’s Norwegian government, and the actual Norwegian government voted unanimously to support the king. Quisling attempted to have the legitimate government arrested, but officers simply ignored his orders. Realizing Quisling didn’t have the juice to pull off a coup d’etat, the Nazis brushed him aside and occupied Norway their own damn selves.

However, in NS the Nazis still found a group of useful idiots to help them run the country. The Nazi Reichskommissar Josef Terboven gradually assimilated NS members into the occupation government. Finally in February 1942 the Nazis agreed to let Quisling become “minister-president” of Norway, ostensibly making him the country’s leader. In practice, however, Terboven retained effective control over Norway.

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Quisling did get a sweet office out of the deal, though.

During his three years in “power” Quisling took part in the usual fascist idiom, such as banning Jews from the country and attempting to establish his own cult of personality, going so far as to declare himself a descendant of Odin. He attempted repeatedly to become truly independent from Germany, meeting with Hitler on several occasions for that very reason. As usual, he was ignored. His incompetence as a national leader was further exposed when Norwegian resistance operatives smuggled intelligence on the German V-2 missile from Berlin to Oslo … on Quisling’s own airplane. The intelligence eventually made its way to London.

Deeply despised by his own people, Quisling’s regime, such as it was, came to an end in May 1945. Norwegians responded with unbridled jubilation. King Haakon VII and the legitimate government under Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold – who spent the war in exile in London – were restored to power. Quisling was arrested, tried for treason and executed in October 1945. Even before the end of the war “quisling” had become a synonym for “traitor” in several languages. The military officer who just wanted to run the country instead became quite possibly the most hated Scandinavian of the 20th Century.

Today Quisling’s only appreciable support comes from elements of the Norwegian black metal scene. Yeah, he should have left well enough alone.

Mar 27

History Wednesday: How to Drive the Family Business Into the Ground

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve noticed that most old-timey nation-states in Europe and elsewhere were ruled by dynastic kingdoms, with a son (or sometimes daughter) succeeding the parent. As History Wednesday has pointed out before, successions such as these can lead to giving absolute power to complete incompetents. Today we travel to the 14th Century to examine another one of these yutzes.

The Plantagenet Dynasty came to power in England in 1154. Except during a period in the 1210s when King John had his ass handed to him by both the French and his own nobility, resulting in the Magna Carta, the Plantagenets provided decent leadership in England for the next 150 years or so. In 1272 the English crown passed to Edward I, an imposing figure and a very capable military leader.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Who could have been England’s starting center had James Naismith lived a few centuries earlier.
Image credit: Steve Lipofsky, Basketballphoto.com

Edward was all about conquest. After a series of successful campaigns, by 1285 he had effectively assimilated Wales into his domain. During the latter years of his reign, Edward often faced off against the Scots and their fabled military leader Mel Gibson William Wallace. Although Wallace and his cohorts proved to be excellent fighters, Edward had the last laugh by defeating Wallace at Falkirk and executing him a few years later.

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“Mad Max? Never heard of him.”

Edward died in 1307 and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. Unlike his all-business father, Edward II was all about the lifestyle and bling, caring little for annoyances such as, you know, government. More importantly, he “had so little confidence in himself that he was always in the hands of some favorite who possessed a stronger will than his own.”

While Edward II was heir apparent he became close to a knight from present-day southwestern France named Piers Gaveston. Real, REAL close according to some contemporary chroniclers, if you know what I mean. Edward went out of his way to please him, regardless of how ridiculous or extravagant the request. Gaveston proved to be such a nuisance that shortly before Edward I died he was sent into exile. However, once Edward II became king he immediately recalled Gaveston, made him Earl of Cornwall and arranged a sweet marriage package deal for him.

Edward_II_&_Gaveston_by_Marcus_Stone

And there was much rejoicing.

Unfortunately for Gaveston, none of this sat well with the rest of the English nobility. His earldom was especially resented as it was traditionally reserved for members of the immediate royal family. In addition, Gaveston continued to be an arrogant pain in the ass around just about everyone except Edward. Political maneuvering forced Edward to exile Gaveston in 1308 and again in 1311. Shortly after he returned from his third exile, nobles took matters into their own hands and flat out killed him.

Meanwhile the Scots, who were clearly on the ropes when Edward II became king in 1307, slowly but surely began to bounce back. By 1314, the Scots under their king Robert the Bruce had erased almost all of Edward I’s territorial gains against them. Eager to keep a strategic castle under English control, in June 1314 Edward II slapped together a poorly-trained army and marched north. The resulting Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most epic ass-kickings of the Middle Ages, guaranteeing an independent Scotland for the next 400 years.

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“Haggis and single malts for all!”

Surrounded by suspicious nobility and with his father’s Scottish ambitions in total ruins, Edward II was not in the best of positions to say the least. Even so, towards the end of his reign he took on another favorite who irritated the hell out of everyone, a guy named Hugh Despenser. Depesnser became royal chamberlain in 1318 and with his father (also named Hugh Despenser) proceeded to wreak havoc on the country for the next eight years. While Gaveston was little more than an arrogant ass, the Despensers were straight up tyrants. They engaged in land seizures, torture, corruption and even high seas piracy. As for the king, he simply let them do what they pleased.

Finally even Edward’s wife was done with this crap. In September 1326 Queen Isabella joined forces with the noble Roger Mortimer, raised an army in France and proceeded to invade England. Edward, who by this time had alienated just about everyone in the country, was unable to recruit an army in response. By January 1327 Mortimer and Isabella had de facto control of England. Edward was forced to abdicate and the Despensers were executed. Hugh Despenser the Younger’s demise was particularly gruesome, making a standard draw and quartering look like a deep tissue massage.

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Gibson Wallace got off easy.

Sadly, the truly badass story (pun intended) of Edward’s execution via hot poker up his rectum is likely apocryphal. Even so, he disappears from history after 1327. Mortimer and Isabella ran the country for the next three years until they were removed from power by a young Edward III, who proved to be a far more competent ruler. Contrary to what’s implied in Braveheart, Edward III is not Mel Gibson’s William Wallace’s son.

Mar 20

History Wednesday: Changing the Alphabet

I’m generally against capital punishment except in cases of dumbasses willfully using “alot” as a word. That said, I fully recognize English spelling rules do no one any favors. For example, the words “sail” and “sale” are pronounced exactly the same but have entirely different meanings. So are “scent,” “sent” and “cent.” And don’t even get me started on that “i before e” crap.

Over time many have noted the problem lies in the fact that we use an alphabet which essentially hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. The English of Chaucer’s time only bears a passing resemblance to the English of today. So why are we still using the same damn letters? My guess is a combination of force of habit and general laziness.

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The Georgian alphabet never caught on here, not even in Atlanta.
Image credit: GeorgianJorjadze

Today History Wednesday focuses less on a leader’s personal shortcomings and more on ideas which just never took off. Despite a shaky start, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints succeeded in attracting many converts, building many temples and strongly influencing the histories of several areas in the Western United States, particularly Utah. However, not all of their grand plans came to fruition. Take their original 1849 proposal for a “State of Deseret” as an example:

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It’s said during quiet nights on the Metro, you can still hear Congress laughing.
Image source: Mangoman88

Still, you have to hand it to the early Mormons. They were bound and determined to do things differently than their 19th Century contemporaries. Different religious texts, different marriage rules, different ecclesiastical organizations …

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… Eh, same facial hair.

Yup, ending up in Utah after being unceremoniously thrown out of every place else they’d been, the Saints wanted to do everything their way. They even created a new alphabet to communicate amongst themselves. Attempts to change the alphabet were nothing new, not even in the 19th Century. No less than Benjamin Franklin himself made such a proposal in the 1760s. However unlike Franklin, who apparently lost interest in his proposal soon after he made it, the Mormon Church made a serious effort to implement their alphabet for daily use. Thus, the Deseret alphabet was formulated.

LDS Church President Brigham Young, noting many of the same problems with English spelling rules that Franklin observed decades earlier, formed a committee at the recently-established University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) and charged them with creating a more phonetically friendly alphabet. In January 1854, the university announced it had succeeded.

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“Qapla’!”

Having between 38 and 40 letters in its various incarnations each corresponding to a different English phoneme, the Deseret alphabet was touted by Young as a solution to those silly spelling rules and that “the years that are now required to learn to read and spell can be devoted to other studies.” Young didn’t elaborate on what those other studies should be, but I’m willing to bet they didn’t involve 8 Ball.

Being a religion, the LDS Church set out to publish its scriptures in the alphabet, including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. For a time the Deseret News published a section in the alphabet as well. A couple of textbooks were thrown in for good measure. There’s even an extant headstone and coin utilizing the alphabet.

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“And you should see how it looks on gold plates, man!”

Unlike fry sauce and Jell-O molds, the Deseret alphabet never caught on in despite Young’s enthusiasm. Public indifference and the prohibitive costs of transcription and printing combined to doom the alphabet. After Young died in 1877, the project was quietly abandoned.

Still, the Deseret alphabet isn’t quite dead. It’s been part of the Unicode standard since 2001. It’s also the official alphabet of the Republic of Molossia.

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Such as it is.
Image credit: Kevin Baugh

Mar 13

History Wednesday: Time to Ring the Bells

As we learned a few weeks ago, immediately after founding a major empire it’s generally not a good idea to kill the heir apparent, because his younger brother is likely to be a total dumbass. You’d think after a few centuries people would figure this out. You’d be incorrect.

So today History Wednesday visits the happiest place on earth, 16th Century Russia. In 1533 a three-year-old became Grand Prince of Moscow as Ivan IV. As Ivan approached adulthood he had himself crowned with a new title: Tsar of all the Russias. Eventually he became known as Ivan the Terrible.

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Pictured: Autocrat of all the Metalheads.

Over the next 27 years Ivan’s rule produced mixed results. He added some mad acreage to the Russian Empire, conquering Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, the latter providing him and his successors a convenient place to exile undesirables. However, prolonged war, oppressive domestic policy, periodic famine and proto-Yakov Smirnoff jokes dogged the tsar throughout his reign.

Yakof

“In Rurik Muscovy, Cossack horse rides you!”
Image credit: Buchoamerica/en.wikipedia

In spite of it all, Russia transformed itself from a minor feudal state to an emerging regional power in eastern Europe. Still, whoever succeeded Ivan the Terrible faced many daunting military and political realities.

Ivan had two major problems with providing an heir to the throne. The first was of his eight kids, only two survived childhood. The other was his unpredictable temper, resulting in the accidental death of his chosen heir Ivan Ivanovich in 1581. By 1583 his only surviving children were an infant named Dmitry and Ivan Ivanovich’s younger brother Feodor. The Russian Orthodox Church did not recognize Ivan’s marriage to Dmitry’s mother, officially rendering the boy illegitimate and ineligible for succession. Ivan had no choice but to name Feodor as his heir apparent.

Feodor_I_of_Russia_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_20880

I think you see where this is going.

This may have been all fine and good, but Feodor was in poor health, possibly mentally disabled and completely uninterested in politics, exactly what Russia didn’t need in a ruler. Recognizing this, Ivan appointed a group of advisers led by Feodor’s brother-in-law, a boyar named Boris Godunov, to assist Feodor once he became tsar.

Sure enough, after Ivan’s death in 1584, as tsar Feodor proved to be about as qualified as drunk, one-armed neurosurgeon. Instead of addressing the increasingly unstable situation in Russia and abroad, Feodor busied himself doing such things as visiting various churches in his realm to ring the bells. Meanwhile, Russia was fighting tooth and nail with several of its neighbors, notably the Poles and the Swedes.

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Those aren’t IKEA representatives, y’all.

So while the extremely religious Feodor spent his days ringing bells and praying, the task of actual governing fell to Godunov, who unsurprisingly took full advantage of the situation.

In 1591 Feodor’s ten-year-old half-brother Dmitry died under questionable circumstances, possibly on Godunov’s orders. Meanwhile in one of the great dick moves of the early modern period, Godunov issued the decree which effectively solidified Russia’s brutal policy of serfdom for the next 250 years.

With Dmitry gone and Feodor unable to produce an heir to the throne, the 700-year-old Rurik Dynasty came to an end upon Feodor’s death in 1598. This allowed Godunov, who by that time had already run the country for around 15 years anyway, to take the throne for his own damn self. Although Godunov managed to keep a lid on simmering tensions until he died in 1605, a quick succession of weak tsars who followed him – including some random dude who actually managed to rule the country for nearly a year posing as the dead Dmitry – threw the country into a state of chaos known as the Time of Troubles. The situation would not stabilize until 1613, when the Romanov Dynasty under Michael I came to power. Thanks to the Romanovs, Russia would never have a problem with its leadership ever again.

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“EVER!”
Image credit: Kremlin.ru

Mar 06

History Wednesday: The Central American Footy Fracas

If you live in the United States, you know football is a big, big deal to a lot of people. For some it’s a matter of civic pride. For others, a favorite player. Or perhaps just because it’s a tradition. However no matter how partial fans may be towards their teams, you’ll never see an NFL game devolve into a regional shooting war. American football fans are more civilized than that.

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Although I sometimes wonder about Steelers fans.
Image credit: Steelcityhobbies

The rest of the world is another matter. Their football rivalries – what we silly Americans know as “soccer” – are on another level entirely. If you don’t believe me, wear an Argentine kit in a rough São Paulo neighborhood. If you’re actually foolhardy enough to do this, have your next of kin let me know how it turned out.

With that in mind, today History Wednesday travels back to July 1969. During that month the moon landing was staged at a location near Worland, Wyoming. Also, El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief war against each other, ostensibly over a soccer match. One of these ridiculous statements is actually true.

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And that’s the last time I listen to Alex Jones.

In 1969 neither Honduras nor El Salvador were particularly pleasant places to live for the average person. Both countries were run by right-wing military governments. El Salvador was horribly overcrowded, prompting many to emigrate to neighboring Honduras. However, much of Honduras was owned by a relatively small number of landowners and corporations, notably the United Fruit Company. The Honduran leader, Gen. Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, was both very cozy with United Fruit and decidedly anti-Salvadorian. Together they did their best to push the Salvadorian refugees out of Honduras.

None of this was new. These issues had plagued both countries for most of the 20th Century. Needless to say they weren’t on the best of terms to begin with. In many ways corporate interests supplying America with sweet, sweet tropical fruit were making a bad situation worse.

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Hence the term “banana republic.” Remember that next time you wear those capris.
Image credit: Ed Yourdon

And so with this backdrop Honduras and El Salvador met in the best-of-three semifinal round of the tournament to represent CONCACAF in the 1970 World Cup. The home team won the first two matches in Tegucigalpa and San Salvador respectively. Both games were followed by significant fan-on-fan violence which only served to bring the two nations closer to war. On 26 June 1969, the rubber match was played on neutral turf in Mexico City. El Salvador won in extra time and moved on to the final, which it would later win.

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Haiti clobbered the United States in the other semifinal. Seriously.

The same day El Salvador eliminated Honduras from World Cup contention, citing Tegucigalpa’s treatment of Salvadoran refugees it severed diplomatic relations with its neighbor.

Taking his nation’s win over its hated rival a bit too far, on 14 July 1969 Salvadorian President Gen. Fidel Sanchez Hernandez decided bitches needed to go down. Despite being hilariously ramshackle, comprised mainly of World War II-era Corsairs, P-51 Mustangs and passenger aircraft hastily converted into bombers, that afternoon the Salvadoran Air Force caught the Hondurans by surprise, bombing the Tegucigalpa airport. However El Salvador failed to neutralize the similarly equipped but much larger Honduran Air Force, so Honduras responded by bombing several targets in El Salvador, including the San Salvador airport.

Salvadorian ground troops fared much better. Within hours they captured several western Honduran towns, including the departmental capital of Nueva Ocotepeque. Salvadorian newspapers soon boasted they were within striking distance of Tegucigalpa itself.

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And they looked damn smooth doing it.

Fearing an invasion of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran government petitioned the Organization of American States to intervene in the matter. With both running low on ammunition, the two sides quickly agreed to a cease-fire, but Salvadorian troops remained in Honduras until early August.

The war’s outcome was inconclusive at best. While El Salvador was the clear winner on the ground, Honduras won the air battle. However, the fallout of the war contributed to continued political instability in Honduras and a brutal civil war which engulfed El Salvador in the 1980s. The border dispute inflamed by the war wasn’t entirely settled until 1992. Today both countries have normalized relations with each other and are relatively stable, although Honduras was the victim of a military coup d’etat as recently as 2009.

Remember this next time your team loses an overtime heartbreaker. It could be worse, a lot worse.

Feb 27

History Wednesday: When Divine Right Goes Wrong

This week History Wednesday takes a slightly a different tack. Unlike Qin Er Shi and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, today’s subject wasn’t a victim of his own greed or stupidity. Through no fault of his own, the problem with Charles II of Spain was that he shouldn’t have been on the world stage to begin with.

In the 17th Century the Hapsburg family ruled large portions of Continental Europe. Like other royal families, they were fond of marrying and having kids with each other to “preserve royal blood” or some shit like that. Now, according to my limited understanding of genetics this isn’t a good idea, as inbreeding is likely to cause, shall we say, problems down the road.

Unfortunately for the Hapsburgs, they didn’t have such sage advice at their disposal. Accordingly over time their dynasty gradually became less like the royal Übermenschen they wanted to be and more like the family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And so in 1661 Spain Charles, the Hapsburg’s analogue to Leatherface, was born.

Charles’ genotype was a mess even by royal standards of the day. His father, Philip IV, was married to his niece, which meant Charles’ mother was also his cousin. One relative was both his aunt and grandmother. Another was both his grandmother and great-grandmother. All eight of Charles’ great-grandparents were descendants of the same couple: Philip I of Castile and the aptly-named Joanna the Mad.

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Who was pretty hot. But still, Joanna the Mad ….

By the time Charles was born the Spanish Hapsburgs had an astonishing record of 16 GENERATIONS of inbreeding and a higher stillbirth rate than the peasants they ruled over. When it came to bad genes Charles hit a Yahtzee.

Just looking at the poor guy’s portraits indicates something was seriously wrong with him. From birth Charles was profoundly physically and mentally disabled, unable to chew his own food, unable to walk until age 8, and barely able to speak due to an enlarged tongue. It just got worse from there. By the time he was 35 he was effectively incapacitated.

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Even the artists didn’t give a shit at that point.

Charles became King of Spain basically by surviving infancy. He ascended to the throne in 1665 at the age of three. His mother/cousin, the only slightly more competent Mariana of Austria, served as his regent and de facto ruler for most of his reign. Almost immediately the brinkmanship and jockeying for position to succeed Charles began in every other royal house in Europe as he was not expected to live very long. Nevertheless Charles managed to live into his late 30s, to the surprise of pretty much everyone. Meanwhile Spain’s economy and standing on the world stage, which weren’t all that hot to begin with during Philip’s reign, steadily eroded.

Intensely religious and convinced his disabilities were caused by sorcery, the very few times he acted independently of his handlers usually dealt with issues regarding the church. Charles presided over some of the worst of the Spanish Inquisition, including the 1680 auto da fe during which 21 supposed heretics were burned at the stake.

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Which, in fact, everyone expected.

After Charles’ first wife (and fellow Hapsburg, natch) Marie Louise of Orleans died depressed and childless in 1689, Charles married yet another Hapsburg, Maria Anna of Neuburg, because hey, why not? Perhaps realizing the utter futility of this whole “produce an heir” business, Maria spent most of her time promoting a relative in Austria as Charles’ successor and grabbing whatever wealth she could from the practically bankrupt Spanish monarchy.

As the last surviving Spanish Hapsburg, Charles died what was probably among the most merciful deaths in history in 1700. According to the coroner’s report his body, “contained not a single drop of blood, his heart looked like the size of a grain of pepper, his lungs were corroded, his intestines were putrid and gangrenous, he had a single testicle which was as black as carbon and his head was full of water.”

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Still possible to accomplish, but not recommended.
Image credit: Trekphiler

Charles’ lasting contribution to world history is perhaps the war ignited by the subsequent free-for-all contest for his throne after his death, which eventually involved pretty much the entire Western world.

Feb 20

History Wednesday: Bokassa’s Royal Mess

Today’s journey takes us to the 1970s. It was a magical time of polyester, cocaine, four-on-the-floor beats and, um, Ted Nugent. Like many eras, its downfall was marked by a riot in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

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Not pictured: taste and decorum.
Image credit: Daniel Hartwig

But powder blue leisure suits weren’t the decade’s only atrocity. Located in (oddly enough) central Africa, the Central African Republic became independent from France in 1960. Since then its history has been pretty much FUBAR, even by African standards. On New Year’s Eve 1965, a military coup d’etat led by Col. Jean-Bedel Bokassa overthrew the original government. Bokassa then proceeded to go through the normal post-coup routines: suspend the constitution, dissolve the legislature, promise elections at some undetermined point in the future, enact a “Mitch Miller only” policy on government radio, blah, blah, blah. He also criminalized unemployment for people between 18 and 55 and banned tom-tom playing except on nights and weekends, apparently because excessive percussion creates unrest.

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Miller’s alleged involvement remains controversial.

But Bokassa was just getting warmed up. In March 1972 he declared himself president for life. By 1975 former colonial power France had become Bokassa’s main supporter, a foreign policy decision they would come to bitterly regret. French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing infamously referred to Bokassa as a “friend and family member.” During this period Bokassa was also openly chummy with hall of fame nutty dictator Muammar Gaddafi, even going so far as to rename himself “Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa” and convert to Islam to impress his Libyan buddy. Bokassa’s Islamic conversion lasted only a couple months though, as he converted back to Catholicism when it became apparent Gaddafi wasn’t going to help bankroll his country and – more importantly – his bling.

Of course, this was all par for the course in 1970s Africa. Bokassa needed a new angle. So in December 1976 he took his despotism to the next level. Apparently dissatisfied with a candy-ass title like “president for life,” Bokassa declared the CAR a monarchy with himself as emperor. Inspired by Napoleon, in December 1977 Bokassa had himself crowned sovereign of the renamed Central African Empire in a garish ceremony which cost the country more than its entire annual budget, with much of the tab picked up by Bokassa’s BFFs in Paris. Leaders from all over the globe were invited to the coronation. A grand total of zero attended.

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Not pictured: taste and decorum.

Now considered utterly batshit insane by pretty much the rest of the world, perhaps even more so than the fabulously daffy dictator Idi Amin in nearby Uganda, Emperor Bokassa became steadily more unpredictable. Rumors of cannibalism were rampant. Bokassa had long been suspected to personally participate in the beatings and torture of political prisoners and others, but his alleged personal participation in fatally beating elementary school students protesting against paying for government school uniforms (conveniently manufactured by a company owned by one of his wives) was the final straw. In September 1979 French special forces invaded the country’s main airport in the capital city of Bangui and quickly overthrew the erstwhile emperor while he was visiting Gaddafi in Libya. Central Africans celebrated with a good, old-fashioned statue toppling.

That’s right, things got so bad that the FRENCH took it upon themselves to get rid of the guy.

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But in fairness the French can be pretty badass when it suits them.

Several years later, because he had served in the French Army for over 20 years prior to joining the CAR Army, Bokassa was granted asylum and allowed to settle in the Paris suburbs, much to the embarrassment of the French government. Bokassa’s close relationship with Giscard d’Estaing became a campaign issue during the 1981 French presidential election, contributing to Giscard d’Estaing’s loss to Francois Mitterrand.

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“If Mobutu calls, I’m DEFINITELY not here.”

Bokassa returned to the CAR in 1986 and was immediately arrested. Found guilty of most of the charges against him, he was sentenced to death. However, several commutations allowed him to be released after only five years in prison. While he lost his power, his crazy never went away. Towards the end of his life Bokassa claimed to have secret meetings with Pope John Paul II and declared himself the 13th Apostle.

So what does the Central African Republic think of Bokassa now? While many remember him as a crazed dictator, incredibly in December 2010 CAR President Francois Bozize rehabilitated the former emperor, posthumously overturning all of his convictions. Calling Bokassa “a son of the nation recognized by all as a great builder,” Bozize then presented Bokassa’s widow Catherine with a medal. Indeed, given that the CAR has been in almost constant turmoil since Bokassa was deposed, perhaps some really do remember the “good old days” of the empire.