Robinson Crusoe Unearthed

The genesis of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe has long been attributed to popular reporting about the five year stranding of Alexander Selkirk on an island in the south Pacific. Now, archaeologists have excavated what is believed to be Selkirk’s desert island campsite. The campsite is on the aptly renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, one of the several Juan Fernandez Islands (another equally aptly named Alexander Selkirk Island) at about 34 degrees south latitude, almost due west of Valparaiso, Chile.

As Science Daily relates, the newly unearthed evidence may provide “an insight into exactly how Selkirk might have lived on the island. Postholes suggest he built two shelters near to a freshwater stream, and had access to a viewpoint over the harbour from where he would be able to watch for approaching ships and ascertain whether they were friend or foe. Accounts written shortly after his rescue describe him shooting goats with a gun rescued from the ship, and eventually learning to outrun them, eating their meat and using their skins as clothing. He also passed time reading the Bible and singing psalms, and seems to have enjoyed a more peaceful and devout existence than at any other time in his life.”

For more information, see the abstract of the original article from Post-Medieval Archaeology.

Published in: on October 30, 2008 at 12:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Changes On the Way

On Tuesday, November 11th, a whole new look is coming to the Haysville Community Library.

No, the new library building isn’t quite ready to open, yet. That particularly important move won’t be happening until the early days of spring. But even before the move, big changes are on the way that will give our community an entirely new way to put the resources of our library to use.

From Thursday November 6th through Monday November 10th the library will be closed, as a completely new and powerful software system is installed.

New library software may sound as though it’s ho-hum insider information that couldn’t possibly be of broader interest. But in this case, the difference for you as citizen, as community member, and as library user will be enormous.

The new Polaris library system now being installed will change the way you interact with the library, and give you a huge new range of capabilities and powers that will make the resources of our community’s library radically more accessible and useful for you and your family.

With a single click on a button on the Haysville Community Library website, you’ll have instant access to the library’s entire catalogue of books, CDs, DVDs – and eventually magazines, art prints and the whole range of materials available for public use. You’ll be able to browse through the library’s collection and view the details of every item, including such things as book covers (where available) and summary reviews. Then you’ll be able to place items on hold from your home computer for later pickup.

You can maintain a complete personal reading list of all the materials you check out from the library, and add your own reviews of books that you have read to the library’s system so that you can share your opinions with friends and other readers. You can look over a listing of all the new books and materials added since your last visit. You can even choose to have all your library notices and announcements – even answers to your reference questions — sent to your email account immediately, eliminating the delay and risk of postal delivery.

And of course, you’ll have access to your own personal library account to keep track of all these activities, and many more.

These are just a few of the many new capabilities you’ll have at your fingertips, coming soon to your community library.

If you’d like to learn more, just drop by the library for more details, or keep an eye on our website and this blog.

Published in: on October 30, 2008 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea

War is Hell.

— William Tecumseh Sherman

My Dear General Sherman: Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that “nothing risked, nothing gained,” I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole – Hood’s army – it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light.

— Abraham Lincoln

The Union men who marched with Sherman to the sea expressed equal fervor when it came to evaluating what they had together accomplished. “The importance of the march through Georgia has never been overestimated,” wrote H. Judson Kilpatrick in 1876. “The very moment Sherman reached the sea, demonstrating the fact that a well-organized army, ably led, could raid the South at pleasure; there was not a man in all the land but knew the war was virtually over, and the rebellion ended.”

— Noah Andre Trudeau

No event in American history has seared the national consciousness more profoundly or for a more prolonged period than the great conflict we know as the American Civil War. Even today, more than a hundred forty years after the guns fell silent, the diminishing echoes resound. And with the single exception of the battle of Gettysburg, perhaps no other incident of the war has been more prominently retained in the collective memory than Sherman’s march to the sea, scorching a swath of Georgia’s earth sixty miles wide and 300 miles deep, from Atlanta to Savannah.

Noah Andre Trudeau’s Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea is an intimately detailed, superbly researched and documented recounting of the day to day events of Sherman’s march. If you read no other book on the subject, read this one.

Told largely in the words of those who were there, perceptively related in the contemporary context, thoroughly researched and extensively illustrated with maps, Trudeau’s book is now the definitive work on Sherman’s march.

Published in: on October 29, 2008 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Who Was the Man in the Iron Mask?

A book more likely for the few and not necessarily for the many, Hugh Ross Williamson’s Who Was the Man in the Iron Mask? And Other Historical Mysteries is a 2002 Penguin republication of the 1974 Historical Enigmas, itself based upon the 1950s vintage titles Historical Whodunits and Enigmas of History, and ultimately derived from a series of British radio broadcasts. Despite the French implications of the present title, the book focuses almost exclusively upon a number of incidents in English history between 1066 and 1821.

Neither of these comments is intended to disparage the work, which is of considerable interest to those who enjoy revisiting historical events and reevaluating evidence and interpretation anew. The results are, as expected, uneven – occasionally convincing, often provocative, frequently unorthodox, sometimes utterly incredible, but rarely if ever boring. The book certainly demands that the reader begin with a considerable interest in and be reasonably conversant with English history, but many of the events and situations discussed will be familiar to those who are only vaguely aware of the fine-grained details.

Was Richard III really responsible for the murder of the princes in the tower – or was the true villain Henry Tudor? (Williamson admits here, as in essentially every case, that the truth is beyond proving – but I concur with his judgment that the latter is more likely the guilty party, despite the majority verdict). Was Henry VIII the father of Elizabeth I – or not? Was the execrable James I poisoned, and if so by whom? Was the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament a massive Catholic conspiracy, or a government-induced incident to justify widespread repression? Was the Man in the Iron Mask Louis XIV’s father? Who murdered the eventual Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley’s wife?

If these are questions that arouse your interest, you may find the book as entertaining as I did. Be patient, however, with the Forward and Chapter I, History and the Writer. They are, in essence, an extended diatribe on the evils of academic historians and the flaws of the historical method. I found them overwrought.

Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

In the end notes to the paperback edition of Arthur Herman’s To Rule the Waves (a section which the publisher HarperCollins entitles “PS”) the author describes his “mission” in writing this impressive work as “to give an account of the Royal Navy that went outside the usual bounds of military history or even British history, and presented the Royal Navy as part of world history. I not only wanted the men and the ships and the battles all to be there, but also the navy’s unique role in creating the physical connections and boundaries of our world.” This is a task which he accomplished admirably, creating a book which explains with insight and perspicacity “How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.”

In truth, the best summary of what the book actually achieves is encapsulated in the first three paragraphs of Herman’s introduction, in which he sketches his broad intentions:

“The job of the historian is not just to recount or explain the past but to show how things have come to be what they are.

“This book will show how a single institution, the British navy, built the modern global system, which is our system, for better or worse. It did this first by challenging and toppling the global system forged by Spain and Portugal in the age of Columbus. Then it reshaped the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to fit the needs and desires of the British Empire. Those needs – access to markets, freedom of trade across international boundaries, an orderly state system that prefers peace to war, speedy communication and travel across open seas and skies – remain the principal features of globalization today.

“Of course, a complicated historical development on this scale demands far more players and factors than just the British navy. But take it out of the picture, and the history of globalization becomes murkier, more haphazard, less inevitable and certain. Without it, a British Empire would have been unthinkable, and without a British Empire and its successor, the Commonwealth, half the world’s independent nations would not exist today. Other nations might have built a modern unified world, but they probably would not have done it as quickly, efficiently, elegantly – or as humanely. In fact, not since the Roman legions has an ostensibly military force had so decisive an impact on the history or its own nation and the world.”

In many respects, then, Herman’s book is an extended demonstration in detail (as he explicitly avers) of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History. In this enterprise he succeeds and, as suggested in our earlier excerpts, transcends the bounds of the ordinary military or naval history.

For anyone interested in the origins and evolution of our contemporary world, I strongly recommend this interesting and in many ways extraordinary book.

[See selected excerpts here and here.]

Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Coupon Exchange Update


Today’s Sunday Wichita Eagle offers an article on the front page, right hand side, above the fold, which reports that, in these times of varied and shifting economic challenges, Shoppers Return to Clipping Coupons. Eagle writers Christina M. Woods and Beccy Tanner aver that “coupon use is growing after 15 years of decline” (according to the Coupon Council of the Promotion Marketing Association) and that “89 percent of the US population uses coupons.”

The article includes a number of helpful hints on maximizing the value of coupons, to which we add one addition: as we discussed in June, the Haysville Community Library maintains a Coupon Exchange. If you’re among the 89 percent of the population that uses coupons from time to time, just ask at the front desk how you might put the exchange to use. As we wrote in that earlier article, you can “bring coupons you clip but can’t use to the library, and exchange them for coupons you need, want and will use. The more Haysville citizens that participate, the better the prospect of each one finding something he or she might use – and the more money each of us can save in challenging times.

“Even if you don’t personally ever use coupons, consider bringing the ones you happen across in the Sunday paper or in the magazines you read down to the library, and donating them to the exchange. You’ll be helping your fellow citizens and improving your community in one more small but important way.

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 7:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Preview: To Rule the Waves, Part 2

(A continuation of the preceding excerpt from Arthur Herman’s To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World)

“Instead of a charismatic ruler and his centralized bureaucracy, Britain could offer the world the idea of limited government, with a strong parliamentary sanction and a deep suspicion of authoritarian leadership except in times of crisis. This was a direct legacy of the British navy, since the island kingdom’s reliance on maritime strength had made building large standing armies seem unnecessary, even dangerous, rather than a natural part of governance.

“Instead of dividing society into those who serve the state — soldiers, courtiers, and bureaucrats — and those who obey it, Britain had made the defining social element the ownership of property. These included mobile and dynamic forms of property associated with commerce and trade, as well as static forms of land ownership. In fact, the more mobile the form of property, the more dynamic and flexible the social structure becomes. This was a point Adam Smith had made in his Wealth of Nations, the bible of the new British world order. But at its foundation was the Royal Navy’s historical role as the defender of the most valuable and mobile part of the nation’s wealth, its overseas trade.

“Indeed, trade and commerce had increasingly become Britain’s principle relationship with its neighbors and outside world. That, too, could be articulated as a principle for a new global order. Underlying the British championship of Free Trade, of course, was the fact that Britain was bound to be the major beneficiary of any expansion of free markets, since it was the world’s leading trading nation. Castlereagh also refused to budge on so-called maritime rights to stop other people’s trade in case of war.

“But free trade also reflected a belief that relations with other sovereign states can be based on cooperation for reciprocal benefit , rather than aggression, plunder, and conquest. trade could be something more than just war by other means, as it had been for centuries. Britain’s sea power, which had been built around that older harsher principle, could now be used to promote that cooperation for the benefit of all. Again, this is not where England had started. But beginning at the Congress of Vienna, it was where it wanted to lead the world in the future.

“Many even at the time were skeptical; others found Castlereagh’saltruistic vision laughable. Napoleon, in exile at St. Helena, scoffed: ‘The peace he has made is the sort of peace he would have made if he had been beaten. What great advantage, what just compensations, has he acquired for his country?’ The truth was that Britain had all the advantages it needed or could handle. Having nothing more to win and much to lose, Britain could afford to shed its old pugnacious aggressiveness. It could settle into a conservative, detached position, with a vested interest in world peace, trade and prosperity. ‘She was strong enough to discourage aggression in others,’ as Sir Harold Nicholson once put it, ‘and vulnerable enough not to practice aggression herself.’

“At any rate, Castlereagh was determined to stump the critics and take the first positive steps toward this new moral world order. He would begin where the British navy could have the most direct impact, with the very business in which the modern Royal Navy had its ancestral roots: the slave trade.”

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 4:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Preview: To Rule the Waves

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we’ll be reviewing several of Arthur Herman’s excellent historical works — none more ambitious than his four-year old voyage To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. The subtitle encapsulates Herman’s vital objective, which he accomplishes with panache: to transcend the bounds of the ordinary military or naval history and instead to examine, critically and in detail, the British Navy as an integral part of world history during the latter half of the millennium just past.

The excerpt which follows may not do full justice to the engrossing tale which Herman relates. But what it does epitomize is the breadth of Herman’s vision when focusing upon a particular crucial moment in time — crucial both in terms of world history, and also in terms of documenting his thesis — the Congress of Vienna, which made the peace in the aftermath of the great conflict which followed the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon:

“Political scientists like to present Metternich as the great architect of European order after 1815. In fact, Metternich’s system for a ‘Europe restored’ and a Holy Alliance to hold it together lasted barely thirty years. Castlereagh’s version prevented a general war in Europe for a century and has served as the basis of international politics ever since.

“It rested on a basic fact: it was Britain’s navy that had beaten Napoleon and made Britain the most powerful nation on the planet — and a basic principle. It was a principle Castlereagh had absorbed from his dead friend William Pitt, who first enunciated it in a memorandum drawn up back in 1805, when the prime minister first began to consider the face of the future once Napoleon was finally gone, as Pitt knew he one day would be. It was ‘security, not revenge.’ Europe’s war had been with Napoleon, not France. What Europe needed now was peace, based on a new stable international order that would ‘bring the world back to peaceful habits.’ A restored France, not a defeated or humiliated one, should be as much a part of that order as Austria, Prussia, Russia or Britain.

“France would have to return to her pre-revolution borders, and to rule by the Bourbons. But Napoleon would be allowed to return to exile — this time exile at a safe distance on St. Helena in the South Atlantic, with a pair of Royal Navy brigs to keep permanent watch over him — and France would pay no indemnities nor give up any territory as punishment for disrupting the life of Europe for a quarter-century. Castlereagh even insisted on giving back all the colonies the British navy had taken from France (the one exception being Mauritius, to keep watch over the western approaches to the Indian Ocean). All this was part of achieving a lasting peace in Europe, which also meant peace and security for Britain.

“Castlereagh’s second goal was to use the Congress of Vienna to create a true and permanent balance of power within Europe itself. ‘The establishment of a just equilibrium in Europe (is) the first object of my attention,’ he explained. No single power should ever again be allowed to enjoy unchallenged sway over the Continent. The rise of Russia to the east and any future French ambitions in the west was to be counterbalance by strong, independent ‘Great Powers’ in the center, which in 1815 meant Austria and Prussia. Later, it would be adapted to include Germany and Italy. Meantime, Britain’s own security would be safeguarded by a neutral Holland (and after 1830, a neutral Belgium), which no aggressor could ever again use for staging an invasion across the Channel.

“As for Britain, the greatest Great Power of all, she was to remain fundamentally outside Europe. ‘The power of Great Britain to do good,’ Castlereagh wrote in 1813, ‘depends not merely on her resources but her impartiality, and the reconciling character of her influence.’ For Castlereagh believed Britain did have the power to do good. Under the circumstances, Britain could decide to use its unprecedented supremacy to aggrandize its power and dictate terms to its neighbors. Or, alternatively, Britain could use it to umpire the balance of power of Europe and maintain the general peace, while protecting the worldwide bonds of trade and commerce, on which the prosperity of Europe now depended — not to mention Britain itself.

“Just as Britain had fought the last twenty years to defend what it saw as a fundamental moral order, so Castlereagh and his successor, George Canning, wanted to make sure that the future world order embraced the same moral principles. Without perhaps knowing it, they were about to make Britain’s seaborne empire unlike any empire that preceded it . . . ”

(continued in following post)

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 3:20 am  Leave a Comment  

North Korea Update

Since we’d broached the subject of North Korea’s Stalinist regime this past week in an excerpt from Christopher Hitchen’s Why Orwell Matters, you may find yesterday’s Slate, which included a brief update from Anne Applebaum on the state of affairs vis-a-vis that repugnant dictatorship, of interest.

Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Why Orwell Matters

“His importance to the century just past, and therefore his status as a figure in history as well as in literature, derives from the extraordinary salience of the subjects he ‘took on’, and stayed with, and never abandoned. As a consequence, we commonly use the term ‘Orwellian’ in one of two ways. To describe a state of affairs as ‘Orwellian’ is to imply crushing tyranny and fear and conformism. To describe a piece of writing as ‘Orwellian’ is to recognize that human resistance to these terrors is unquenchable. Not bad for one short lifetime.”

— Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters

This candid and incisive little book subscribes neither to the myth of Saint George, nor to the totalitarian left image of Orwell as nefarious villain.

Consistently refuting alternate attempts by both the political right and the political left to expropriate or disparage Orwell; exposing the intellectual dishonesty of critics from every facet of the political spectrum who quote selectively, ignore context, attribute fictional character’s comments to their author without embarrassment, even invent opinions wholecloth or elide phrases to turn a sentence into one of directly opposite meaning to that intended; honestly acknowledging and evaluating Orwell’s flaws and weaknesses, Hitchen’s Why Orwell Matters cogently makes the case for Orwell as the twentieth century’s most insightful political commentator, a writer of conscience and ethical consistency deserving to be read today.

A consistent voice opposing imperialism and totalitarianism in all their varied forms, Orwell spoke relentlessly for freedom and humanity in an era in which mass enslavement and dehumanization seemed to many, perhaps even most, to be the inevitable future of humankind. We owe him much.

[See selected excerpts here and here.]

Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Preview Two: Why Orwell Matters

Classic Christopher Hitchens, trenchant, perceptive, with a cutting edge:

“In the closing months of the twentieth century, I contrived to get a visa for North Korea. Often referred to as ‘the world’s last Stalinist state’, it might as easily be described as the world’s prototype Stalinist state. Founded under the protection of Stalin and Mao, and made even more hermetic and insular by the fact of a partitioned peninsula that so to speak ‘locked it in’, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea still boasted the following features at the end of the year 2000. On every public building, a huge picture of ‘The Great Leader’ Kim Il Sung, the dead man who still holds the office of President in what one might therefore term a necrocracy or mausolocracy. (All other senior posts are occupied by his son, ‘The Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il — ‘Big Brother’ was a perversion of family values as well.) Children marched to school in formation, singing songs in praise of aforesaid Leader. Photographs of the Leader displayed by order in every home. A lapel-button, with the features of the Leader, compulsory wear for all citizens. Loudspeakers and radios blasting continuous propaganda for the Leader and the Party. A society endlessly mobilized for war, its propaganda both hysterical and — in reference to foreigners and foreign powers — intensely chauvanistic and xenophobic. Complete prohibition of any news from outside or contact with other countries. Absolute insistence, in all books and all publications, on a unanimous view of a grim past, a struggling present, and a radiant future. Repeated bulletins of absolutely false news of successful missile tests and magnificent production targets. A pervasive atmosphere of scarcity and hunger, alleviated only by the most abysmal and limited food. Grandiose and oppressive architecture. A continuous stress on mass sports and mass exercise. Apparently total repression of all matters connected to the libido. Newspapers with no news, shops with no goods, an airport with almost no planes. A vast nexus of tunnels underneath the capital city, connecting different Party and police and military bunkers.

“There was, of course, only one word for it, and it was employed by all journalists, all diplomats and all overseas visitors. It’s the only time in my writing life when I have become tired of the term ‘Orwellian’. . . .What was entirely unmistakable was the atmosphere of a society where individual life is absolutely pointless, and where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden. The resulting dankness and dinginess and misery would have been almost indescribable without reference to a certain short novel that had been bashed out on an old typewriter, against the clock, by a dying English radical half a century before.”

Published in: on October 11, 2008 at 3:57 am  Leave a Comment  

A Preview: Why Orwell Matters

Among the most entertaining and perceptive of contemporary writers, occasionally exasperating, frequently illuminating, nearly always provocative, Christopher Hitchens wrote an excellent 200 page essay half a dozen years ago entitled Why Orwell Matters. Among its pages you will find this brief excerpt, derived from a review Orwell penned in June 1938, appraising Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia:

“To get the full sense of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR, it is worth trying to translate the most sensational Russian event of the past two years, the Trotskyite trials, into English terms. Make the necessary adjustments, let Left be Right and Right be Left, and you get something like this:

Mr. Winston Churchill, now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish Communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organization which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole of the Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare — sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing stables. Eighty percent of the Beefeaters at the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Comintern. A high official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled postal orders to the tune of §5,000,000*, and also to having committed lese majeste by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield, after a 7-hour interrogation by Mr. Norman Birkett, confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. Casual half-inch paras in every issue of the newspapers announce that fifty more Churchillite sheep-stealers have been shot in Westmoreland or that the proprietress of a village shop in the Cotswalds has been transported to Australia for sucking the bullseyes and putting them back in the bottle. And meanwhile the Churchillites (or Churchillite-Harmsworthites as they are called after Lord Rothermere’s execution) never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism and that Chamberlain and the rest of his gang are no more than a set of Bolsheviks in disguise.

“Anyone who has followed the Russian trials knows that this is scarcely a parody . . . From our point of view the whole thing is not merely incredible as a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame-up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact — sinister enough in its own way — is that Communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism.

“Meanwhile the truth about Stalin’s regime, if we could only get hold of it, is of the first importance. Is it Socialism or is it a particularly vicious form of state-capitalism?”

* During my stay in Berlin I’ve been doing updates on an old iMac with a German keyboard — more about this on the BellerophonChimera blog if I can find the time. But what I couldn’t readily find was the way to reproduce the British Pound symbol — hence the §.

Published in: on October 10, 2008 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment