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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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