Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rule of Tincture and the Kingdom of Jerusalem

I have not posted in a while, so today we'll talk about something a little different: European heraldry.

The first thing anyone knows about heraldry is probably its first and most fundamental rule -- the "rule of tincture." Tincture is just the proper term for what we would casually call colors, whereas colour properly refers to the darker of the heraldic tinctures: azure, gules, purpure, vert, and sable. Metal refers to the two light tinctures, argent and Or. Furs, such as ermine and vair, are representative of animal furs and could count as either colour or metal depending on how light or dark they are.

azure, gules, purpure, sable, and vert

argent and Or

The rule of tincture states that metal should not be placed on metal, nor colour on colour. Simply put, it is an issue of contrast -- light should not be next to light, and dark should not be next to dark.

This rule is reasonable enough -- it follows natural aesthetic and one can guess quite easily how it came about. Since the design on a coat of arms originally served identification purposes on the battlefield and at the jousting tournament, it is practical that the design should be in high color contrast so that they may be recognized at a distance or in the flurry of movement. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, the British author on heraldry, writes "This is a definite rule which must practically always be rigidly obeyed."

It is not, however, an enforced rule, since there is no over-arching organization governing heraldry, and besides, different countries have different heraldic traditions. Rather, it is an empirical rule of which statistical analyses can be made, although no study can ever be completely definitive because you'd be dealing with using different sources and rolls of arms, incomplete medieval records, and that kind of morass.

Violations do occur, with the colour-on-colour variety occurring more frequently than metal-on-metal. The British Isles follow the rule the best, with the rule being weaker on Continental Europe, and generally speaking, you can count on the rate of violations increasing the farther you get from England. The Albanian coat of arms, for example, sports a sable eagle on a gules field. According to the medieval scholar Michel Pastoureau, who conducted a study of 10,000 arms from 13th-15th century armorials of Western Europe, only the kingdoms of Castille and Grenada reached a violation rate of greater than 2%. In French, such violations are termed armes à enquérir, because the rule of tincture is so well known that any violations are assumed intentional, so one is supposed to inquire how it had come to pass upon seeing it.

The most famous armes à enquérir is of course the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (often wrongly cited as the only violation), which is blazoned argent, a cross potent between four crosslets Or.

Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

These arms were actually the personal arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, a leader of the First Crusade. After the Christian army captured the Holy Land, Godfrey, along with fellow leader Raymond of St. Gilles, Count of Toulouse, were deemed the two most worthy candidates as ruler over the newly established Crusader state. Although both wished to rule over the Holy Land, neither wished to be crowned King in the city where Christ was crowned with thorns. Raymond refused the offer of the crown at first, thus showing his piety, but he probably expected the nobles to elect him to the throne anyway. Godfrey was however the more popular leader, and he did no damage to his pious reputation when he accepted a vaguely defined secular office, infuriating Raymond, who stormed out of the city with his troops. And so it came to pass that the golden cross-on-silver became the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted from its establishment in 1099 until 1291 when the Mamluks captured its last remnants.

One theory of the origins of Godfrey's arms is that he originally carried a plain white papal banner, with the golden cross incorporated later on. In any case, later scholars interpreted the Kingdom of Jerusalem's unique coat of arms of argent and Or as an indication of the special religious significance of the kingdom, much in the same way an argent and Or violation is also present in the coat of arms of the Holy See.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Zepplin over Africa: The strange mission of L.59

In the infant days of aeronautics, the Germans attempted what was perhaps the earliest long-range airlift operation in history, the 1917 mission to send supplies from Europe to German East Africa, a flight of over 3600 miles. Unfortunately, this amazing story remains a forgotten episode of the little-known East Africa theater of the First World War.

Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck leading his colonial troops.

At the start of the Great War, Germany's African empire consisted of Togoland (modern-day Togo), Kamerun (Cameroon), German Southwest Africa (Namibia), and German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). These colonies each possessed only very small military forces of German-led native troops, and with British control of the oceans, it is inevitable that they would be eventually overwhelmed. By 1916, all of the German colonial forces had been defeated—except in East Africa. There, an army of less than 3,000 led by Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck conducted a successful campaign against the British, eventually tying down over 50,000 Allied troops which otherwise might have been sent to the Western Front. Although the British hacked away at East Africa and Lettow-Vorbeck was continuously forced to yield territory, his army fought a successful guerilla war and never lost a single battle. In 1919, his army was allowed a victory march through the Brandenburg Gate with the distinction of being the only undefeated German army of the war, and the only German army to successfully invade British territory (Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia).

By late spring 1917, the war in Europe was grinding into its fourth year. The Western Front was still locked in bloody stalemate, Russia is trying to recover from the February Revolution, and Lettow-Vorbeck is being pushed into an increasingly smaller Tanzania--his troops are being forced into the bush, their medical supplies were running low, and they were short of every sort of ammunition and equipment. That's when the Imperial German Naval Airship Division examined an interesting proposal to send the much-needed supplies by air. Though the required distance was unprecedented, they believed the mission possible, and the Kaiser gave his personal go-ahead for the project after briefing. The Navy had taken much of the blame for recent entry of America into the war, and felt the airlift, which is of obvious propoganda value, could restore its prestige. Besides, the Colonial Office felt it was an important matter of honor to still be in possession of at least one of its colonies by the conclusion of the war.

Because there were no ready supplies of hydrogen or petrol once the airship reached East Africa, the mission would neccesarily be a one-way trip. Upon arrival, every aspect of the airship would be cannibalized: the leather walkways around the hull would fashioned into boots for the troops, the duralumin girders and fabric outer covering would be used to make tents for the army, the radio equipment, petro tanks and engines would be reassembled into a radio station, and the crew were to join the 300-odd European German officers in the colonial army as infantrymen. Although normally a difficult mission like this would be commanded by somebody more experienced, the Naval Airship Service did not wish to lose one of their few remaining veteran commanders in this risky mission, so the relatively junior officer Kapitanleutnant Ludwig Bockholt was appointed to command.

As for the aircraft itself, the job was given to the next zeppelin laid down at the Friedrichshafen airship factory, designated L.57. To provide additional lift so that it could carry a heavier load, the hull of L.57 was elongated by 30 meters, thus increasing her gas volume from 1.9 to 2.4 million cubic meters, making her the largest airship built up until then. However, during the second trial flight outside Berlin on September 26th, the zeppelin ran afoul of the weather when it attempted to land, and it crashed into the ground and exploded. Though the crew escaped safely, the airship itself was completely destroyed. The Naval Airship Service therefore reassigned the mission to the next airship under construction, L.59, which was prepared the same way as its ill-fated sister. After passing its preliminary testing, L.59 embarked on its unusual mission on November 21, departing from Jamboli in allied Bulgaria, which was the southernmost air base available to the Germans.

Zeppelin L.59
Mission: Supply and reinforcement of German colonial troops in East Africa.
  • Length: 226.50 m (743 ft 0 in)
  • Diameter: 23.90 m (78 ft 0 in)
  • Volume: 68,500 m³ (2,420,000 ft³)
  • Useful lift: 23,500 kg (51,900 lb)
  • Powerplant: 5 × Maybach piston engines, 180 kW (240 hp) each
  • Maximum speed: 103 km/h (64 mph)

Officially, the project was code-named "China-Sache" ("China-thing") and preparations had been kept under tight secrecy, but rumors had been spreading for some while among the British that the Germans were planning to use airships to support Lettow-Vorbeck and induce the native population to rise against the British colonizers. According to Dr. Mike Benninghof, the idea appears to have originated with Zulu preachers from Natal in 1915. Inspired by newspaper accounts and pictures of zeppelin raids on London, the holy men declared airships the symbol of God's displeasure with the British. Mighty fleets of zeppelins were being assembled in Europe, they told their followers, preparing to bring modern weapons and German crack troops to aid the native population in throwing off the oppressive yoke of British rule. The British, for their part, took these rumors very seriously. When in November 1917 they captured SMS Königsberg Captain Max Looff among a group of injured and ill soldiers left behind by Lettow-Vorbeck, the worst rumors were fearfully confirmed. Recovering from his initial surprise at the questions about German zeppelin plans for Africa, Looff informed his gullible interrogators that large squadrons of the latest high-tech airships were coming, each with enough capacity to transport several companies of battle-hardened marines and heavy equipment, all the while (I imagine) trying to put on the straightest face possible.

No airship could transport troops, as anybody who had actually seen a zeppelin could tell the idiots questioning Looff. Das Afrika-Schiff, as L.59 was nicknamed, was three times the length of a Boeing 747, but it could only carry 14 tons of cargo: 11 tons were equipment and ammunition, including 30 new machine-guns, and the rest were medical supplies. In addition, it carried 22 tons of petrol fuel and 9 tons of water ballast. Its crew of 22 lived under spartan accomodations and high-stress work conditions--each of the five propeller engines required a mechanic in attendance, and was shut off in turn for 2 out of every 10 hours for lubrication and maintainence.

L.59 flew over Turkey without incidence, but ran into an electrical storm over the Mediterranean, causing the lookout to raise the false alarm that the ship was on fire. The zeppelin's hull flashed and glowed blue, but it was only St. Elmo's Fire caused by static charge. During the storm, however, the crew retracted its radio aerial as per standard procedure, and was thus put out of contact for the time being. Back in Berlin, officials working off fragmentary reports believed Lettow-Vorbeck had been overrun and his army had surrendered, and sent out abort orders which were not recieved. While it is true a large portion of Lettow-Vorbeck's army had indeed surrendered, he had not, in fact, been overrun. He had simply ordered the weak and disabled (including the aforementioned Max Looff) to stay behind to surrender while taking with him only the hardened veterans to continue the grueling fight in the bush. Nevertheless, once the airship arrived, establishing radio contact with Lettow-Vorbeck would be difficult and trying to make a successful rendezvous by guesswork when your own side is waging a guerilla war would be highly risky.

The next morning, L.59 crossed the Libyan coast and continued over the desert (For a fanciful depiction of the zeppelin over Africa, you can go see this painting on sale). It was the first time a large airship was employed in the tropics, so the crew encountered several unfamiliar difficulties. During the day, the oxygen in the gas cells were heated by the hot sun, generating extra lift, causing the crew to struggle to keep the airship flying below 2,500 feet. Bockholt knew that if the zeppelin flew any higher, the gas pressure inside the ship would exceed that outside, and valves would automatically open to release hydrogen from the gas cells, and he could not afford to lose any of the precious lifting gas. Hot air thermals rising from the desert caused the airship to rock up and down continuously, so much that even the most seasoned Navy men among the crew would feel airsick. In addition, the crew complained of headaches caused by the blinding sunlight glancing off the desert sand.

During the afternoon, another more serious problem developed: the forward engine malfunctioned beyond repair, and had to be shut down. To compound this problem, the forward engine also provided the power for the radio transmitter, so the mission is now unable to communicate with either Berlin or Lettow-Vorbeck. Limping on only 3 engines (remember at any one time, 1 of the remaining 4 engines is offline for maintainence), the airship passed Egypt on the second night and continued on through the Sudan, navigating with the aid of the Nile. While the mission was approaching Khartoum, the morale of the crew soared, with the end in sight and the chance of success increasing by the hour. Though they had endured two days of little sleep under the scorching sun and subzero night temperatures, the spirits of the 22 crew members were buoyed by the prospect of bringing relief to their beleaguered countrymen and scoring a major propoganda victory for Germany. But it was not to be.

The amazing zeppelin airlift of L 59. Orange indicates Central Power-held territories at the start of the war.

The next day, the airship's radio receiver finally picked up the dim abort message from Berlin. It was a devastating blow to the men who had flown 2,800 miles and came so close to pulling off what was perhaps the most daring airlift operation of all time. Captain Bockholt had no choice to order the ship to turn around and head back to Jamboli. The morale crash showed in the men--several of them developed nervous tension and feverishness. On the way back through the desert, the airship experienced a very close shave at night due to the cooling and contracting of the hydrogen. The ship stalled and nearly crashed, but it was kept in the air only when the ballast and some of the cargo was jettisoned, leaving the crew much shaken by the experience. After another loss of lift crisis over the mountains of Turkey which caused Bockholt to throw more cargo overboard, Das Afrika-Schiff finally arrived safely in Bulgaria.

Since the radio transmitter on board was broken, the zeppelin could not reply to the abort message, and in fact over the past few days the command in Berlin were getting worried about the safety of the mission due to the radio silence. When L.59 returned to Jamboli, on November 25th, the base was taken by surprise and scrambled to receive it. Though they had not successfully delivered the supplies to East Africa, the exhausted captain and crew that climbed out of the craft should have nevertheless been proud of their achievement. They had not slept for 95 hours, covering a total distance of 4,200 miles and thus breaking by a large margin the world record for distance flown.

After the war, a British intelligence officer named Richard Meinertzhagen, who was serving in East Africa at the time, claimed that the airship's turnaround was actually achieved by fake abort messages sent out by the British. However, the German military archives do show that they had in fact sent out an abort message. Whether L.59 picked up the authentic German transmission or the British decoy, it wouldn't have mattered--On the day the airship turned back, Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck and his band of die-hards left German East Africa, waded across the Rovuma River into Portuguese Mozambique and began waging his most successful campaign in the war. On the first day of his invasion, Lettow-Vorbeck looted ammunition and supplies from Portuguese depots amounting to several times the cargo L.59 would have delivered.


Charles Miller, Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa (Macmillan Publishing Co, 1974)

John Toland, The Great Dirigibles (Dover Publications, 1972)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Election of 1836

That there is a picture of your friend and mine, our eighth president, Martin Van Buren. Long before he got his trademark white, wispy mutton chops and sly (or perhaps toothless) smirk, he apparently had much redder mutton chops. Other than that, he's not the most notable of presidents—consigned to the ranks of those remembered chiefly through my personal childhood favorite, Yo, Millard Fillmore!

You may know that his German pedophilia anecdotally gave rise to the phrase OK, (Get it? Old Kinder hook. Ha ha. Never mind.) or even his role in catalyzing the Albany Regency in New York politics. What's far less known is how he won the presidency in the first place: by defeating a Whig platform in 1836, in one of the strangest campaigns in American history. Well, that and piggybacking on the political career of Andrew Jackson.
The Whigs were founded in 1833, in response to Andrew Jackson taking a rather liberal view of the powers of the executive branch; thus, it should come as no surprise that the upstarts did not find it necessary to actually agree upon a candidate for the executive branch for the general election. Instead, four candidates—Hugh Lawson White, William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Willie Person Mangum— ran under the Whig ticket in various parts of the country.

The southerners got their act together first, putting forth White as a candidate in 1834; he responded to the speculation by saying that he would run, even though he never wanted to be president, really. Anti-Jacksonians in the north, on the other hand, could not stand White as a general candidate, and wanted fellow senator Daniel Webster, with Harrison as his running mate. Soon, the newly minted Whigs up north decided that it was better for a gun-totin' Injun-killin' general to be president than a platinum-tongued orator after all, and Harrison quickly replaced Webster.

As the election neared, it became abundantly clear that the northern and southern factions of the party could not agree on such controversial issues as "states' rights" and "not making complete asses out of themselves in a presidential election", so most slave states had a Whig ticket of White and John Tyler, while most free states, along with the turncoat border states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, ran Harrison and Francis Granger (who preferred killing Masons to Injuns). Daniel Webster's home state of Massachusetts chose to run him instead of Harrison, and South Carolina, for rather mysterious reasons, nominated Mangum, who looks amusingly waifish in the picture below.
Of course, the strategy didn't work, and Van Buren ended up winning fairly comfortably, instead of the regional candidates being able to carve out enough votes to send the whole thing to Congress (although Webster and Mangum both won their one state—perhaps the Whigs would have won if they had tailored a specific candidate to each and every state). In one final twist, Democratic electors from Virginia refused to support Van Buren's running mate, Richard Mentor Johnson (who is said to have killed Tecumseh under Harrison's command), putting him under the 50% threshold needed for a vice presidential candidate to be all well and good. Thus, the vice presidential vote was thrown to the Senate to choose between Johnson and Granger to serve with Van Buren. Clearly lacking a wicked sense of humor, they chose Johnson, who could proudly take up his mantle in the White House as the economy collapsed around him and the new president.
The Whigs were able to get their act together, but never really got far in presidential politics. Their only two election winners both died in office, as did the party soon after Millard Fillmore's presidency. This kind of bitter factionalism led to the even more complete split of the Democratic Party in 1860. The hardy Whigs, however, maintained the pretense of standing for something other than hatred of Jackson, and stuck it out under one roof. Moral of the story: hold a national convention. It helps.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Franco-Russian invasion of India

Did you know that three years after Napoleon's ambitious invasion of Egypt, France and Russia came very close to launching an even more ambitious invasion of British India?

Following the French Revolution, other nations of Europe descended upon France with a series of invasions aimed at stopping the Revolution and restoring the monarchy. But by 1797, France had decisively defeated a coalition of Britain, Austria, Prussia, Spain, and various Italian states, thus not only ensuring the survival of the Revolution domestically, but also making large gains of territory which had eluded the Bourbon kings before it. In 1799, Britain and Austria organized a Second Coalition against France, and for the first time it included the participation of Russia.

Russia's participation didn't last very long. Russo-Austrian relations deteriorated as a result of Austria's decision to evacuate Switzerland, which basically meant ditching the Russians under under General Korsakov there, and as a result they suffered defeat at the Second Battle of Zurich by Marshal André Masséna. As it turned out, Russia's policy of restoring the king of Sardinia and Austria's policy of territorial aggrandizement in Italy weren't quite compatible, and there was an incident where the Austrians apparently insulted the Russian flag at the Italian town of Ancona. It's not a surprise Tsar Paul became very hostile against the Austrians.

Tsar Paul I

The Russians also ran into problems with the British. Their joint expedition in Holland was a failure, and Paul was furious when the British siezed Malta, since he was the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, a.k.a. the Knights of Malta. Finally, the British policy of unrestricted searching of neutral shipping for French contraband proved to be the last straw. Russia allied with fellow Baltic powers Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia in a decidedly anti-British alliance, the League of Armed Neutrality, which was meant to protect their neutral merchant shipping from the aggressive British Navy. By 1801, Russia was in a state of unofficial war with the British, who under the famous Horatio Nelson would in April brilliantly smash up the Danish fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen.

Meanwhile in 1800, Napoleon, who had returned from Egypt, was making overtures of alliance with Russia. These included, among other things, plans for an expedition against India.

The secret plan, known as the Indian March of Paul, called for one French and one Russian infantry corps, each numbering about 35,000 men, to meet up around Astrakhan on the Volga river delta on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The French were to get there by traveling from Europe down the Danube River, then across the Black Sea and up the Don and down the Volga via Tsaritsyn (later called Stalingrad, now called Volgograd). From Astrakhan, the combined Russo-French forces would sail the Caspian to the Persian port of Astrabad, and they would continue on foot over Afghanistan before finally arriving in India. Meanwhile, a large Cossack contingent would be sent by an overland route through Central Asia, east of the Aral Sea.

French and Russian routes of advance towards "Hindoostan." The background map is taken from the "Map of the World" from The Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, by Abraham Rees (1820)

In total, the French advance from Europe to Astrabad was estimated to take 80 days, and the overland route across Afghanistan to take a further 50. The French expedition was to begin in May 1801, and that January, Paul ordered his 20,000 Cossacks to march in advance via Bukhara and Khiva.

In the end, nothing came of the bizzare venture. In March 1801, Paul was assasinated and the invasion of India abandoned. His Cossacks had barely passed the Aral Sea when they heard the news and were ordered to return home. In the long run, British discovery of the Russian plan may have figured in the British hostility against Russia in the Central Asian cold war known as the Great Game. If there's anything we know about the imperial-era British, its their extreme sensitivity and alarm to anything that may even romotely threaten that precious Jewel in the Crown, "Hindoostan."


Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917 (Oxford University Press, 1967)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Roman city in China?

In Liqian (骊靬), a remote and decrepit little village in China's western Gansu province bordering on the Gobi Desert, one can find such Chinese oddities as green eyes and blond hair. Even more bizzare is the persistent theory that these villagers are Romans—descended from soldiers of Marcus Licinius Crassus' "Lost Legion."

Crassus was one of the richest men in history, owing mostly to his private fire brigade, which would rush to houses on fire, buy them from their owners at a really low price, and then proceed to put out the fires. But although he was the rich boy of the First Triumvirate, he certainly wasn't the most military-savvy. While his fellow triumvirs Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, experienced and professional generals, waged successful campaigns in Gaul and Syria, amateur Crassus was jealous of their glory and foolishly thought he could match them with a campaign of his own. So at age 62 and with no military experience whatsoever, Crassus made the stupidest move in the history of old rich people—personally leading an army to invade Mesopotamia—and getting himself killed in the process.

Crassus: billions of dollars but little common sense.

What Crassus caused was one of the worst disasters to ever befall the Roman Army. At the desert engagement of Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, a small scouting detachment of 10,000 Parthian horsemen completely annihilated Crassus' army of some 35,000 legionnaires and 8,000 supporting cavalry. When the Parthian horsemen closed in on the heavily-armored but slow-moving legionnaires, Crassus ordered his troops to form the testudo to protect them from the arrows of the Parthaian horse archers. He was planning to use the testudo to wait out the barrage until the enemy ran out of arrows, but he hadn't counted on the clever Parthians using camels to act as mobile reload stations for their horse archers, which allowed them to keep up the bombardment for many hours.

After baking in that sardine-can formation for hours under the desert sun, the legionnaires were beginning to collapse due to thirst and heat exhaustion, and it took only a final charge by the Parthian cataphracts to rout the army. Of the over 40,000 Romans who participated in Crassus' campaign, less than 10,000 made it out alive, the rest having been killed or captured. Crassus of course was captured and executed, and it was said the Parthians had molten gold poured down his throat to symbolize his greed for money, though unfortunately nothing was done to symbolize his idiocy.

Roman soldiers in testudo formation.

In 1957, Oxford sinologist Homer H. Dubs in his controversial paper "A Roman City in Ancient China" proposed that some captured Roman soldiers from Carrhae reappeared 18 years later at the Western frontier of Han China. Using circumstantial evidence he claims that these soldiers fought as mercenaries under the Xiongnu leader (a title known as Shanyu), against the Han, were captured in battle, and eventually settled at the Liqian site.

In order to understand why the Han Chinese were in Central Asia in the first place, a little backstory is needed. Ever since the Warring States Period, China proper suffered periodic attacks from nomadic neighbors to the north known as the Xiongnu (匈奴). Traditionally, Western historians have identified the Xiongnu with the Huns that later invaded Europe, though the theory that the Huns were descendants of the Xiongnu is still controversial. The Xiongnu cannot be classified under any single ethnic brand, since they were likely a conglomeration of several ethnic groups, and the common language of the Xiongnu is yet to be verified. In any case, since the start of the Han Dynasty the imperial policy towards the Xiongnu had been appeasment in the form of marriage alliances. But starting in 133 BC, the stronger Han dynasty began a series of aggressive military confrontations that expelled the Xiongnu from much of northern China and gained them territories in the west. These territories were administered as the Protectorate of the Western Regions (roughly today's Xinjiang province).

Map showing the migration of the Yuezhi, who would later establish the Kushan Empire, but also gives us a good idea of the neighboring peoples, incuding the Xiongnu, Wusun, and Sogdians, in relation to each other.

By 56 BC, the Xiongnu confederation was split in civil war between Huhanye, leader of the Eastern Xiongnu, who decided to submit to tributary status to the Han, and his brother Zhizhi, leader of the Western Xiongnu. While the Eastern Xiongnu lived happily and contentedly under the tutelage of the wise and mighty Chinese, Zhizhi was stirring up ruckus out west in Central Asia, alternately allying and betraying local kingdoms such as the Wu-sun and Sogdiana. In 36 BC there arrived on the scene a junior Chinese army officer Chen Tang and his superior, Gan Yanshou, the new Protector-General of the Western Regions.

Now, Chen was bright and capable young fellow but wasn't exactly very scrupulous. He was alarmed at Zhizhi's rash of empire-building activity and thought (rightly so) that his Chinese troops, when augmented with some native auxilliaries, could defeat the Xiongnu warlord before it was too late. His superior Gan agreed, but pointed out that they needed approval of the imperial court before making any military action. Chen knew that asking the Emperor for such an expedition would bring about many bureaucratic delays, so seizing an opportunity when Gan fell ill, he forged an imperial edict authorizing the expedition. When Gan recovered and discovered the act insubordination, he was of course appalled, but he was faced with a fait accompli since such a forgery was a capital offense. With no choice but to go on with the plan, Gan set off with Chen and some 40,000 men and marched west against Zhizhi, while simultaneously sending east a document indicting themselves of the forgery.

The Roman and Han empires, circa AD 1.

The following clash was known as the Battle of Zhizhi, and occurred outside a fortified town Zhizhi had built on the Talas River, the site of modern-day Taraz, Kazakhstan. Zhizhi was defeated and his severed head was sent to the Emperor, while Chen and Gan got out of trouble. Homer Dubs claims that in this engagement there were 145 Roman mercenaries fighting for the Xiongnu side. His evidence are as follows:

  • Pliny's account of the Battle of Carrhae states that prisoners were sent by the Parthians to guard their eastern frontier province of Margiana, which is located in Central Asia. Some of them must have made it from Margiana to Zhizhi's base.
  • The Chinese account of the battle includes a description of "over a hundred" footsoldiers in "fish-scale formation." This is something unique in Chinese sources. Dubs speculates that it refers to the Roman testudo formation, which to a Chinese viewer would indeed resemble fish-scales.
  • Zhizhi's town was defended by a "double-wooden palisade," which is something typical of Roman fortifications.
  • Soon after the battle, there was a town founded in Gansu called "Lijien," which was the Chinese name for Alexandria and the Roman Empire as a whole. Dubs says this was founded by the Roman mercenaries, who were taken prisoner by the Chinese after the battle.

There are some problems with Dub's analysis. First, 骊靬 (pinyin: Liqian) is the name of the town, and (pinyin: Lijian) is the Chinese term for Rome that he's referring to, two completely different names. Then we consider the "evidence" of the palisade and the "fish-scale formation," which could not decisively indicate the troops were Roman. Many militaries of that time large shields for their soldiers, and the idea of interlocking them must not have been unique to the Roman testudo. Regarding Pliny's statement, he only said that the prisoners were moved to Margiana, and did not mention that the Romans were employed as border guards at all. It is very likely that whatever arms and armor the Romans possessed, they surrendered to the Parthians at Carrhae. And in a final attempt to prove the case, a DNA test was conducted of the Liqian villagers, but the results do not confirm this hypothesis.

So what's the final verdict? I say the idea is an interesting one, but not very likely. Nevertheless, the story of Roman soldiers in China might be beneficial, after all, regardless of its historical truth. In the impoverished town of Liqian, villagers are excited by their legendary fame which even inspired a small tourism industry. I hear that nowadays in Liqian, one can find a "Imperial City Entertainment Street" and even a Caesar karaoke bar.


H. H. Dubs, A Roman City in Ancient China, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press, Oct. 1957)

Richard Spencer, "Roman descendants found in China?", The UK Telegraph, Feb 2, 2007

Gruber, "The Origins of Roman Li-Chien"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Darién Scheme

The recent post which name-checked the Darién Gap reminded me of a key moment in British history that stands all but forgotten today—namely, the Darién scheme. This was Scotland’s one and only attempt to get a slice of the exploration pie (later on, many British explorers of Africa like Mungo Park and David Livingstone were of Scottish origin), but it ended up much as one would expect Highlanders going to sea would. Except much more ruinous.

Without going into the intricate theological and political tensions in the latter part of the 17th century: many Scots held loyalty to the deposed, and Scottish, James II. Since James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the two kingdoms, still distinct at this point, had been led by one monarch (or Lord Protector, at times). While the Scottish Parliament and people continued to insist their kingdom’s independence, in reality, this was quite strained. Thanks to its lucrative overseas expeditions and good position, England was quickly rising to prominence and economic boom. Scotland, on the other hand, still consisted primarily of subsistence farmers and the like, not able to produce much or compete in the European economy.

So they decided to do something about it. In 1694, the Bank of England was established; the next year, a Bank of Scotland was created alongside it, with much the same goals but significantly less money. Around the same time, the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was founded by William Paterson. Paterson, a Scot, had come up with the idea for the Bank of England, and was now eager to make Scotland economically prosperous by getting a piece of the overseas trade pie. The Company of Scotland was granted a trade monopoly in Asia, Africa, and America—the first two, permanently. Paterson had hoped on some support from the English, but they got indignant at their northern neighbors’ attempt to enter the trade world, and refused to provide funds. Furthermore, the English went beyond that, going to foreign bankers and threatening an effective embargo if they helped the Scots.

The Isthmus of Panama, then also known as the Isthmus of Darién.

Paterson now needed a different source of money for his sally into Darién. None of the hardships had deterred him, because he believed so strongly in the isthmus’s ability to do Scotland good. So he went to the Scottish public. They were all too willing to help, fueled by a desire to see their nation succeed and stick it to the English. Soon, a good £400,000 had been raised. For comparison’s sake, the Bank of Scotland had only a quarter of that when it begun, and that total was nearly half of all the money circulating in Scotland.

In July 1698, five ships set sail. Only Paterson and the commander of the expedition even knew the final destination; the other 1,200 settlers were informed while on board. The trip was supposed to last six months, but somehow they had only brought food for six. Much of the rest of the room was filled with goods intended to be traded with the local tribes. Seventy people died on the voyage alone, and when Darién was finally reached in October, it wasn’t quite the ideal place as had been expected. Instead, it was pretty much a worthless piece of land, full of mosquitoes that began to kill twelve settlers a day. To make matters worse, the Spanish once more staked their claim to the region, and got belligerent. The Native Americans were friendly and helped out the pitiful settlers, but had no use for the goods that were brought for trading, and these remained unsold. In July 1699, the survivors returned, beaten and discouraged.

Caledonia Bay

If only the rest of the nation could have been so. In November of that year, another six ships set out; a third fleet, soon after the second. Although this third fleet was better prepared, it was nonetheless unable to overcome the Spanish and the hostile land. In April 1700, this last fleet prepared to go home. Four ships set out, but two were sunk and the other two were seized in foreign ports.

All in all, over 2,000 Scots died, and the profitless scheme left the country in financial ruin. The Bank of Scotland couldn’t survive, and went bankrupt in 1704. King William, monarch over both England and Scotland, was annoyed. Scots blamed England for the obviously doomed failure, as they had withheld financial support. England now saw their northern neighbor as an economic rival to be destroyed, even though the Darién scheme had already destroyed the economy already. There seemed to be but one option left: the death of an independent Scotland. England offered about £400,000 in a union agreement, and the Scots were left with little choice. In 1707, the United Kingdom was established, with Scotland in a very much weakened position to England. Later Scottish attempts to restore the Stuart line to the throne were unsuccessful—the second Jacobite rebellion (“the Forty-Five”) ended with the disastrous Battle of Culloden, in which Highlanders fighting for their honor were massacred by English with guns.

So if you’re a fan of the United Kingdom, you may want to turn towards Panama in thanks the next time you sing God Save the Queen.

Much of this was adapted from Arthur Hermans excellent book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cape to Cairo

The above cartoon, which was drawn by Edward Linley Sambourne and appeared in Punch magazine in December 1892, is a familiar illustration used as a representation of European colonialism in Africa. The cartoon itself is a visual pun: it depicts British diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes in a pose reminiscent of the Colossus of Rhodes of the ancient world, stringing a telegraph line from Cape Town to Cairo.

The popular Cape-to-Cairo concept Rhodes promoted envisioned a "red line" of British territories stretching north-south from Egypt to South Africa, but there was just one thing that stood in the way of realizing this goal: German East Africa, which is now Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

So how did Rhodes build his telegraph line? Well, I stumbled upon a New York Times article dated June 23, 1918, which revealed that Rhodes had negotiated directly with Kaiser Wilhelm II to obtain permission for his telegraph to pass through German East Africa. Apparently, Rhodes met with the Kaiser in Potsdam in 1899 and struck a bargain which allowed Germany a free hand in its interests in Mesopotamia in exchange for concessions for the Cape to Cairo line. The article claims that this meeting was a factor in Germany's decision to stay aloof of the Anti-British sentiment during the Second Boer War. (Read the full article here.)

The upshot of it all is that by 1899, Cecil Rhodes was not even a statesman any more. He had been the Prime Minister of Cape Colony in the 1890s but he resigned in the aftermath of the 1895 Jameson Raid fiasco. So how could a mere civilian have the nerve to negotiate with a foreign sovereign over matters of imperial import?

In any case, we know the Cape to Cairo dream never materialized. The concept lives on, however, in the Cape-Cairo Railroad and the Cairo-Cape Town Highway, both of which have uncompleted sections and "missing links" not unlike the Darién Gap of the Pan-American Highway.

The connected string of British possessions from Cape to Cairo finally came about in 1919, 17 years after Rhodes' death, when the UK was granted the Tanganyika portion of German East Africa by the Treaty of Versailles (Ruanda-Urundi went to Belgium).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tsar Tank

It's big. It's armored. It's got cannons and machine guns. And it's . . . a motorized tricycle. Oh, call it the Tsar Tank.

Conventional history tells us the British invented tanks in WWI. They came up with the brilliant idea of putting metal armor on armed, all-terrain vehicles that could climb obstacles, cross trenches, and ultimately, break the stalemate on the Western Front. Other countries saw the potential of tanks and caught on, thus making the British tanks not only the first manifestation of the concept, but also the progenitor of all future tanks to come. Right?

Wrong. The clumsy, rhomboid tanks of the Mark series that lumbered across the fields of the Somme in June 1916 were anything but the history-making ace-in-the-hole. Their cross-country capabilities were overestimated, mechanical failures all too common, and their size made them vulnerable to light artillery, not to mention the Marks looked nothing like any of the successful tanks that came after. The true ancestor of all tanks is in fact the French Renault FT-17, which can easily be called the first modern tank. Its revolutionary design is immediately recognizable as the classic tank layout today: A fully rotating gun turret on top, tracks on bottom, engine in the back, and crew in the front. The only important thing the British Marks added to tank design was caterpillar tracks. And they weren't even unique in being the first to come up with the idea of an all-purpose armored vehicle.

Meet the Tsar Tank, which must be the most bizarre armored vehicle anyone has ever dreamed of. Also known as the Lebedenko Tank after its designer Nicholas Lebedenko, the Tsar tank represented Imperial Russia’s attempt to develop a fighting vehicle which combined mobility, protection, and firepower for the attacking side.

Lebedenko, who was an employed engineer designing artillery pieces for the Russian War Department at the time, came up with the idea in 1914. You could see the influence of Lebedenko’s job on his design: the Tsar Tank resembled a very large artillery carriage. Weighing some 60 tons, the tank featured a pair of 9-meter high front wheels and a T-shaped body which tapered down to a smaller double wheel in the rear, and could hold a crew of 10 men.

Each big wheel was driven by a 240-horsepower Maybach engine, which was estimated to allow the Tsar Tank to reach a top speed of 17 kilometers per hour. The armaments were to be placed on a centrally-located top turret, a smaller belly turret, as well as on the flanks of the body. Because of its extreme size, the Tsar Tank was planned to be transported to the front lines in pieces, then re-assembled when ready for action.

A small working model of the machine was made and demonstrated to Nicholas II, who was impressed by its performance when it was able to cross some small obstacles. He then approved of the project and personally sponsored it, thus giving the Tsar Tank its nickname.

The prototype was completed in July 1915, and the first tests took place in August before a military panel. The vehicle successfully crossed some solid ground, ran over a tree, but then suddenly stopped when its rear wheels got stuck in a ditch while it was in a soft patch of ground. The failure of the tank to free its rear wheels showed that the engines were not powerful enough. A follow-up plan to develop more powerful engines never materialized because the Russian army decided to discontinue the project. The tank, which had already consumed some quarter million rubles, was too expensive, claimed the army, and its huge spoked wheels were probably too vulnerable to artillery damage.

So what became of the Tsar Tank? It sat for years in that ditch, forgotten in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, before it was finally scrapped in 1923. Imagine how different the world of armored warfare would have been, had the Tsar Tank worked!