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.

Mariscal_Lopez

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.

kimjongun

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.

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.

William_wallace

“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.

Robertthebruce

“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.

622px-BNMsFr2643FroissartFol97vExecHughDespenser

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.

Georgian_Alphabet_Letters

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 …

403px-Lorenzosnow

… 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.

400px-Brigham_Young_by_Charles_William_Carter

“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.

Deseret_second_book

“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.

Molossia_-_Customs_post

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.

417px-Vladimir_Putin_12015

“EVER!”
Image credit: Kremlin.ru

Feb 13

History Wednesday: The Sad, Pathetic Tale of Qin Er Shi

As a native Idahoan, I take exception to the implication that the only culture around here is in the yogurt section at Albertson’s. In recognition of that, on Wednesdays Superfluous Bloviations takes a look at people in history way dumber than you.

Today’s journey takes us to ancient China, which made the Great Leap Forward look like Burning Man. Qin Shi Huang, the legendary First Emperor, is not only a truly badass figure in Chinese history, but in ancient history in general. Not only did he unify the country for the first time, he also built the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army and a still-unexcavated tomb which if ever opened will probably make Tutankhamun’s burial site look a like a rundown swap meet. Sure, he was unspeakably cruel and killed hundreds of thousands of his own people in the process, but Qin Shi Huang was a guy who knew how to get shit done. By 211 BCE he was the unquestioned master of a unified Chinese state of 20 million people.

Qinshihuang

He also invented cross-country skiing.

When he wasn’t busy beating the ever-loving crap out of ungrateful nobility, Qin Shi Huang obsessively pursued the secret of eternal life. As a result he avoided things associated with death, such as writing a will. On a trip to the eastern reaches of his empire in search of the magic elixir of life Qin Shi Huang suddenly died, reputedly due to ingesting mercury pills intended to make him immortal (go figure). Chancellor Li Si, chief eunuch Zhao Gao and the emperor’s younger son, Huhai, carted the decaying and possibly bio-hazardous corpse home to Xianyang while pretending Qin Shi Huang was still alive. Along the way they concocted a plan to take over the empire.

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Like this, but for two months and involving carts of rotting fish to mask the smell.

Back in Xianyang Fusu, the emperor’s oldest son, was the acknowledged heir apparent. However, the trio would most likely lose their influence, if not more, under his leadership. Their brilliant caper? They forged a letter purportedly from the deceased Qin Shi Huang declaring Huhai heir to the throne and ordering Fusu and and his favorite general to commit suicide. Fusu saw right through this lame plot and had the conspirators killed.

Ha, ha. No. The plan totally worked and Fusu obligingly offed himself. With Fusu out of the way Li and Zhao were able to put the ridiculously pliant Huhai on the throne. What followed were probably the most slapdick three years in the entire five-millennia history of China. Huhai ruled under the name Qin Er Shi, or “Second Emperor,” but it should have been something more like “Fredo of Qin” as the inept new emperor immediately proceeded to drive the family business into the ground.

How much of a screw-up was Qin Er Shi? Well, over 20 centuries later his name is still referenced in a Cantonese expression for an incompetent, spoiled child raised by wealthy parents. Ouch.

qinershi

Trust me, you DON’T want this tattoo.

Zhao Gao convinced Qin Er Shi, who was barely out of his teens, that as the “Son of Heaven” he must never speak or show his face in public, which in turn helped to give the eunuch exclusive access to the emperor. Zhao’s influence over the emperor was so strong that Qin Er Shi was effectively a figurehead. In other words, a man with no balls had the emperor by the balls.

Meanwhile through Zhao Gao, Qin Er Shi proceeded to levy trumped up bullshit charges on various out of favor nobles and high-ranking military officials and then put them to death, pretty much for the sheer hell of it. This included three of the emperor’s surviving brothers, who committed suicide rather than face the indignity of certain execution.

Needless to say, with a useful idiot at the helm of a shadowy, brutal regime which only recently subjugated its neighbors, before long the Qin state was engulfed in numerous rebellions. Qin Er Shi, having the leadership skills of a squashed slug, chose to avoid the matter as much as possible. Messengers who brought bad news were immediately put to death. My research suggests 3rd Century BCE messengers were not in favor of being hacked to pieces, so they quickly learned to provide the emperor with good news regardless of whether it was true or not. This gave Qin Er Shi an extremely false sense of security.

custer

Although in his defense, it’s happened to others.

In 208 BCE, Li Si went to the emperor to ask that funds being used to build a palace be diverted to the military since they were fighting, um, you know, wars and stuff. Perhaps realizing a bit too late that installing a homicidal castrato as the power behind the throne wasn’t a terribly smart idea, Li was rewarded with a rather gruesome execution, ironically via a technique he himself pioneered.

Despite this, Qin Er Shi still had an enormous army left over from the First Emperor’s days of glorious conquest. At first it was able to keep the rebels at bay. Finally in 207 BCE, in a stunning victory at Julu in present-day Hebei Province, an army from the rebel state of Chu no larger than 60,000 defeated a Qin army of 200,000. The Qin general, who still had substantial reserves, fell back and requested supplies and reinforcements from the emperor. Zhao Gao then proceeded to tell Qin Er Shi the general, having the temerity to lose a battle, was obviously disloyal. The emperor denied the general’s request. Soon after, the remaining 200,000 Qin troops were surrounded by rebel forces and forced to surrender. The rebels then proceeded to bury all of them alive lest they become a pain in the ass later.

Realizing his father’s once-massive military had been killed dead and that Zhao Gao had been feeding him a load of crap since day one, Qin Er Shi tried to eliminate the conniving eunuch. But true to form Qin Er Shi managed to screw this up too. Instead of being brought to ancient Chinese justice, Zhao and his minions actually forced the emperor to commit suicide.

Soon after Qin Er Shi’s demise, Fusu’s son Ziying seized the throne and finally managed to liquidate the dickish Zhao Gao. But it was too little, too late. The Qin Dynasty, the first unified Chinese state in history, fell after only 15 years of existence. It was succeeded by the much more intelligent Han Dynasty after four more years of civil war.