Hogging and Sagging

ZhengHe

July 10th 1405 is the supposed date of departure for the first of the “discovery” voyages of Admiral Zheng He.  There is a lot of hyperbole given out about these voyages and many Chinese compare them to the European voyages of discovery.  There is also a lot of boasting about the size of the ships involved.

Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch, scion of a famous Persian lineage which served the Mongol Empire.

The notion that he “discovered” anything is a little silly.  The Arabs had been sailing the seven seas since Sinbad was a boy in the 9th century and by the 15th Century when Zheng He weighed anchor their trade routes were well documented.  All he did was follow the Arabic trade routes to establish the bona fides of the Chinese Court from Africa to the far East.

The other great claim is that he built the largest wooden ships in the world.  It may be true that they were the largest when they were sailing, but it is debatable if they were as big as claimed.  There are limits to the size of vessels imposed by physics.  The largest documented wooden sailing ship, the Wyoming at 137 metres, was a six masted schooner built in 1909 in Maine, USA.  She suffered horribly from hogging and sagging in heavy seas.

Hogging occurs when a ship is on top of a wave supported by the middle section.  A very long ship can bend down at the fore and aft sections, since they are unsupported.  The opposite, sagging, occurs when the fore and aft are supported on two waves, leaving the mid-ship suspended, causing the vessel to sag in the middle.

The cumulative effect of hogging and sagging over time is to twist the planking in the hull, causing leaky seams.  Wyoming needed constant work at the pumps to keep her from flooding.  She eventually sank in heavy seas in 1924.

The Chinese claim Zheng He’s flagships, his nine masted treasure ships, were even longer and much wider than the Wyoming.  They probably employed a very different type of construction, far bulkier and more rigid.  Also the nine masts were likely far shorter than those of an American Schooner.  Chinese Junk Rigs use shorter masts with fully battened sails.  It would be no surprise that a ship the length of Wyoming would need more, shorter masts to drive it.

The fleet of 317 ships carrying 30,000 men was undoubtedly impressive and you get the sense that these voyages were intended to leave the world in awe of the power of the Ming dynasty.  The intention may have been to exert Chinese control over the Indian Ocean trade.

Ultimately it was not the Chinese who subdued the Indian Ocean.  Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal from India in 1499, just scraping in as the 15th Century voyager who had the most significant impact on world history.  He set out with 4 ships, none longer than 30 metres, and 170 men.  Sometimes size is not everything.

Bread Basket

Egypt

Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.

 

Poor Dad

Fava Beans

Fava beans are one of the oldest foods known to man.  In the middle east they are known as foul medames, and they are the basis for a bean soup or stew served from Morocco to Central Asia.  Foul is pronounced, usually, as “fool”.

These days most people reference fava beans to Hannibal the Cannibal of Red Dragon fame.  Hannibal Lecter is the doctor, serial killer and advisor to the FBI in Silence of the Lambs.  He famously told of the census taker who tried to quantify him “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone”.  When the book was made into a film the research demonstrated that the audience did not know what expensive Amarone was, so they changed it to a cheap Chianti.

If you come from Southern Italy or Sicily you might know about the association of fava beans with the Feast of St. Joseph.  Today is American Fathers day, a Hallmark holiday.  The Catholic Fathers day was always St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th.

In Ireland since we had St. Patricks Day on March 17th the feast of St. Joseph was not a thing.  But it was very popular in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Catholic Communities.  One of the symbols of Joseph is the “lucky bean”.  If you bring a dried fava bean to the church on St. Joseph’s Day and have it blessed by the priest it serves as a charm against poverty.  You keep the lucky bean in your wallet or purse and you will never completely run out of money.

The feast is preserved these days in the saying “I haven’t got a bean” meaning that you have no money.

 

 

 

The last king of Rome

800px-Gentile_Bellini_003

When he was 21 years of age the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the unconquerable city:  Constantinople.  He is known as Mehmed the Conqueror for this reason.

What is less known is that he presented his rule as a continuation of the Empire of Rome  instead of a conquest.  He named himself Caesar of Rome – Qayser-i Rûm intending his rule to be a continuation of the Roman Civilization that began some 2,206 years before the capital fell to him in 1453.  His successors did not continue the practice, but we may say that Mehmed was the last Caesar, the last Emperor of Rome.

When a man who besieged and conquered the greatest city on Earth comes to your pesky little fort in Wallachia you pretty much know that there is little to be gained by hiding behind the walls.  This was the astute assessment of Vlad III Dracula known as “The Impaler”.  This is how the Night Attack at Targoviste was born.

On June 17th, 1462 the Wallachian Prince threw the dice in a winner takes all gambit.  He assembled his knights and launched attack after attack on the Turkish encampment in an attempt to assassinate the Sultan of the Turks.  It was a night of confusion and slaughter as the mounted knights made charge after charge into the encampment.

Ultimately the attacks failed because they did not kill Mehmet that night.  Ultimately the attacks succeeded because the Ottoman Army withdrew.  Faced with such passionate and suicidal bravery Mehmed realised that his life was in very real danger.  A number of Pashas; senior officers in Tents very close to the Sultan, had been killed.  So the Turks made for home and steered a course south.

On their retreat they encountered a further demonstration of the resolve of the Romanians.  They passed through the “Forest of Death” where Vlad had impaled 23,844 turks (he recorded the exact number in a letter to Matthias Corvinus).  The Sultan and his troops filed past the corpses of tens of thousands of men, women and children.  It was a clear and unequivocal statement of intent from the Romanians to the Turks.

Mehmed II was a poet who wrote under the pen name Avni and many of his poems are dedicated to his lover, a beautiful foreign boy:

The roses of your cheeks, they made my tongue a nightingale.
The locks on your forehead, they made me desire, lose my mind.

If the fruit of love is for lovers, the worry and grief,
thank God, they have many for us, the fruits of your love.

The breeze is powerless to untangle the ends of your locks.
No, it is not easy to resolve the difficulties at all!

What is the relationship came between us, as the nectar from the lips of the beloved,
this poison of grief is halva for me, but for the rival, the poison of assassins?

How many enlightened men became insane by your love!
How many sensible men have gone mad with desire for you!

To what good is the saying: “Let the arrows of his eyelashes murder you!”?
They are brave inexperienced people who hold such remarks.

O Avni! If one day you were on a pilgrimage to the temple of the Magi*
you would have seen the lights of the wine candles illuminating the company!

 

 

 

Stay the course

Stay the Course

Sun Tzu and Terence McSwiney agree on this point.  It is not the side that can inflict the most, but those who can endure the most who will conquer.  It is a constant source of argument in military theory:  which side suffers most casualties; winners or losers?

In ancient Greece when battles were decided head to head on the field by two infantry armies it was accepted that the winning side often lost the most men.  By the time one side broke the winning side was so exhausted they were in no fit state to give chase.

This dynamic changed dramatically with the introduction of cavalry.  No horse alive will charge a well formed phalanx, but a routed enemy is manna to the cavalryman.  Any enemy who could not retire from the field in good order was sabre fodder.

The dynamic changed again with the introduction of artillery, especially mobile horse artillery, to the battlefield.  A solid infantry square was safe against marauding cavalry, but sitting ducks for artillery.  Dispersing to avoid the cannon fire opens your lines to the cavalry.  The Napoleonic wars were choreographed by the interplay between infantry, cavalry and artillery.

With the development of the rifle musket in the 1850’s the dynamic changed again.  The effective rifle range switched overnight from 3/4 rounds per minute at around 50 yards to 5/6 rounds per minute at 1,000 yards range.  The days of bright coloured lines of infantry standing toe to toe on the open field were over.  The US Civil War demonstrated that in such circumstances a defensive force with prepared earthworks could wreak havoc on forces attacking over open ground.

In WW1 the Western Front signaled the death of the horse on the battlefield.  The swan song of the horse in modern warfare was probably the charge of the Australian Mounted Infantry on Turkish Positions in Palestine.

Then at the end of the First World War the tiny forces of the IRA fought the all conquering British Army and Militarized Police to a standstill in Ireland, by enduring the most.

By the end of the Second World War it appeared that the infantryman with his rifle was almost redundant in a world of fighters, bombers, A-bombs, Aircraft Carriers and attack helicopters.  And then there was Vietnam when the people demonstrated again that it is the side that can endure the most who will conquer.  Despite overwhelming superiority of the USA in kill ratio and military technology they still lost.

Given the lack of appetite of the American people for losses in war raises many questions for the presence of US forces in far off battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or Somalia.  If you are prepared to quit, don’t start.

 

Don’t Quit; by John Greenleaf Whittier
When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
when the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
when the funds are low and the debts are high
and you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
when care is pressing you down a bit,
rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is strange with its twists and turns
as every one of us sometimes learns
and many a failure comes about
when he might have won had he stuck it out;
don’t give up though the pace seems slow —
you may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out —
the silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
and you never can tell just how close you are,
it may be near when it seems so far;
so stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit —
it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit

Black Irish

Black Irish

On June 7th 1832 the Asian Cholera arrived in Quebec.  The devastating disease took the lives of some 6,000 people, which was bad for the French and English Canadians who died.  It was worse for the Irish Canadians who were blamed for the disease.

It was not only in Canada that Irish were blamed for the Cholera.  All over the USA Irish Immigrants were held responsible for outbreaks of the disease.  Where Irish communities were absent the White Anglo Protestant ascendancy blamed the blacks.

From the caricatures above you can see that the Irish Immigrant on the right is portrayed with many of the features of the black reconstruction era politicians on the left.  Thick lips, vacant protruding eyes, aggressive postures; stupid, violent people.

The second cholera pandemic, also known as the Asiatic Cholera Pandemic, originated in Asia and spread to Eastern Russia.  From there it was tracked across the European continent.  The British Government quarantined vessels from Russia and Poland in 1831.  The symptoms were reported to the British Government from St Petersburgh, Russia by two English Doctors.

Yet when the disease reached Canada and the USA it was blamed on the minority groups of Irish and Negroes.  This is still happening today.  The English people want to blame the Coronavirus on Asian students.  Irish nationalist idiots attacked a fruit farm for employing Bulgarian strawberry pickers.  Donald Trump wants to blame the Chinese.

Populists harness diseases to push their agendas.  With Cholera this was quite easy.  Poor immigrants tend to live in the cheapest slums in the most unsanitary conditions.  They suffer worst from a water borne disease like Cholera.  It is easy to point the finger at them as a source of the illness.

This racism of 1832 was to have enduring consequences for the Irish.  When the Great Hunger struck in 1845 with the collapse of the Irish Potato Crop one route for the starving people was across the Atlantic to the New World.  But the memories were fresh of the Cholera outbreak and nobody was welcoming starving Irish to the Americas.

No_Irish_Need_Apply

 

Венера-6

Venera6

On May 17th 1969 the Soviet Union dropped the Venera 6 probe into the Venusian atmosphere, one day after deploying the Venera 5 probe.  While the USA were focused on putting men on the moon the CCCP were continuing their series of explorations of Venus.

The Venera program ran from 1961 with the failure of Venera 1 until the successful  Venera 16 stopped sending data in 1984.

The Venera 5 and Venera 6 probes were deemed successful missions.  Each operated for over 50 minutes as they descended by parachute through the atmosphere, sending back data to Russia.

In 1972 the Russians recorded the first successful landing of a craft on another planet with the Venera 8 lander.  Venera 7 had landed successfully but rolled awkwardly and was able to send back only very limited data, so was deemed a failure.

In 1975 the Venera 9 lander returned the first images from another planet.

If Nasa and the Soviet Union had maintained the momentum of the 1960’s and 70’s we would have a colony on Mars today.  Now it seems that Mars may be the story of commercial space exploration.  SpaceX, the Elon Musk led agency is working on the Big Falcon rocket to ship cargo in 2022 with a plan to send men in 2024.

The Russians and Europeans have developed the EXOMARS2020 program combining an ESA Rover and an ROSCOSMOS landing platform.  To this day the Russians are still building the best launch vehicles.  If you want to put a man in space you talk to the Russians.

NASA have a rover mission on the books for 2020.

The Chinese plan a Mars landing in 2020.

The UAE Space Agency also plan a Mars mission in 2021.

It may now be time to start thinking about how the solar system will be carved up.  Will it become a new Antarctica, dedicated to science in favour of national or commercial interests?  Or will the solar system become another “Scramble for Africa” as nations and businesses compete to establish exclusive ownership of areas of planets, asteroids or even areas of space?

 

Emporium

Emporium

For some reason when I hear the word  “Emporium” I always think of a Victorian style sweet shop, with high ceilings packed to the rafters with shelves choc-a-block with jars of the most tempting treats.

An Emporium is more than a shop.  It is a shop with notions.  It is a shop that has ambitions to become a chain, an empire, to gain imperium, a shop fit for an emperor.

The truth is that it has nothing to do with latin terms such as imperator or imperium.  The root of the word emporium lies in Greek, where emporion was the word for a trading post.  Greeks were great traders and most of their colonies began life as simple trading posts.

The oldest city in France, Marseille, began life as an emporion of the Phokaians.  Founded in 600 BC by Greek traders from the Bay of Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir.  Civilized Greeks from Asia minor trading with the hairy barbarians of the wild west.

So now that I know this I guess when I hear about an Emporium in future I will think more along the lines of one of these.

Trading Post

That is just rood.

True-Cross-and-Templars

Jerusalem marches behind the true cross: Kingdom of Heaven directed by Ridley Scott

For Good Friday here is the oldest known Christian poem written in English.  The “rood” is the name given to the Cross of Christ, the holy relic found by Empress Helena, Mother of Constantine the Great.  This was in 328 AD a mere 295 years after the events central to the Christian faith.  Helena found 3 crosses, that of Jesus and the two thieves.  It was “revealed” to her by divine inspiration which was the true cross.

In 614 AD the Sassanid Persian Emperor Khosrau II sacked Jerusalem and brought the relic back to his capital as part of the spoils of war.  The Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated Khosrau in 628 AD and brought the reliquary back to Constantinople.  There is much debate about what was in the reliquary when it returned to Christian lands.  By the time it was returned to Jerusalem two years later the rood had returned to its rightful place.

The “True Cross” was lost again during the crusades, taken by the Victorious Saladin at the battle of Hattin and brought to Damascus.  It was never seen again.  Or was it?

From “The Dream of the Rood
Anglo-Saxon, 8th century, trans. Richard Hammer (1970)

The Rood speaks:

“It was long past – I still remember it –
that I was cut down at the copse’s end,
moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
told me to hold aloft their criminals,
made me a spectacle. Men carried me
upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
a host of enemies there fastened me.

“And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
upon me. I durst not against God’s word
bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
the surface of the earth. Although I might
have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.

“Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
bold in the sight of many watching men,
when He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.

“A rood I was raised up; and I held high
the noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
the scars can still be clearly seen on me,

the open wounds of malice. Yet might I
not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
which poured out from his side, after He had
sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
black in the darkness. All creation wept,
bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross….

“Now you may understand, dear warrior,
that I have suffered deeds of wicked men
and grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
that far and wide on earth men honor me,
and all this great and glorious creation,
and to this beacon offers prayers. On me
the Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
and I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruelest of tortures,
most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.”

Clash of cultures.

 

Kerak

Kerak castle in modern Jordan

It was on this day April 5th in 1081 that Alexios I Komnenos was crowned Byzantine Emperor.  He inherited an empire on the brink of collapse.  In the Balkans the Normans were carving out yet another kingdom in the Mediterranean to add to Sicily and Southern Italy.  In the East the Seljuk Turks occupied Anatolia and were moving into the ancient coastal Greek cities.  Other Turkic tribes such as the Danishmends were moving in behind the Seljuks.

With tax revenues severely curtailed and unable to recruit new legions Alexios made an appeal to the West.  He sent a message to the Pope in Rome, asking for some western soldiers to help him defend the Byzantine Empire from the Turks.

What happened in response was the Crusades.  A river of knights and peasants flowed out of the West, through the Byzantine Empire and into the Holy Land.  In the process they established a culture of intolerance and hatred that persists between fundamentalist Christians and Muslims today.

Byzantine politics was characterised by negotiation, diplomacy, political maneuvering, treaties, alliances, compromises and constantly shifting positions.  Your blood enemy today could be your ally tommorrow.  You never completely burned your bridges if you could help it.  It might be better to accept the presence of the Seljuks nearby if it kept the Caliphate far away.

The Franks had no understanding of the delicate interplay of Eastern Roman politics.  They were shoot first and ask questions later types of knights.  In fact most of the Frankish knights who arrived with the crusades were younger sons.  The eldest son, the one trained in administration, remained at home to inherit.  The younger sons, trained in war to serve their brothers, found new opportunity opening up in the East.  A landless adventurer could hope to carve himself out an estate in the lands of Outremer.

Franks could not distinguish between many of the Eastern sects.  They slaughtered Armenian Christians beliving them Muslims.  They hated Jews even more than the Arabs.  They didn’t even like the Byzantines very much, their Orthodox Christian allies, the people who invited them to the East.

The Western knights had a Manichaean view of religion.  If you are one of us you are good and on the side of God.  If you are against us you are evil.  Facing them were Muslims who saw the world in exactly the same way, only Allah is good and the Christians were evil.  The crusades brought these polar opposites together and established norms that persist to this day.

The First Crusade established the Crusader Kingdoms in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine/Israel.  It gave Alexios back control of Anatolia, but gave him a new headache in the form of Norman and Frankish adventurers.  The Western knights had no interest in returning lands to the Byzantine Empire.  They wanted to keep what they conquered.

The Crusader Kingdoms barely lasted 300 years on the mainland.  In the process they did provide a buffer between the Arabs and Byzantium.  Constantinople limped on until 1453 when it fell to another Turkish Tribe, the Ottomans.