Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/56080/domains/varnam.nationalinterest.in/html/wp-content/themes/canvas/functions/admin-hooks.php on line 160
Archive | History: General RSS feed for this section

Marxists, Missionaries and an Anthropologist

Marxist theory pervades all domains: There were some Malayali film critics who saw every movie using the class struggle lens; most of Indian history was written by Marxist historians. It seems American anthropology too is influenced by Marxist theories and when Napoleon A. Chagnon refuted it with empirical evidence, Catholic missionaries joined forces with the Marxists to discredit him.

A repeated theme in his book is the clash between his empirical findings and the ideology of his fellow anthropologists. The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes. His colleagues insisted that the Yanomamö were fighting over material possessions, whereas Dr. Chagnon believed the fights were about something much more basic — access to nubile young women.

In his view, evolution and sociobiology, not Marxist theory, held the best promise of understanding human societies. In this light, he writes, it made perfect sense that the struggle among the Yanomamö, and probably among all human societies at such a stage in their history, was for reproductive advantage.

During his years of working among the Yanomamö, Dr. Chagnon fell into cross purposes with the Salesians, the Catholic missionary group that was the major Western influence in the Yanomamö region. Instead of traveling by canoe and foot to the remote Yanomamö villages, the Salesians preferred to induce the Yanomami to settle near their mission sites, even though it exposed them to Western diseases to which they had little or no immunity, Dr. Chagnon writes. He also objected to the Salesians’ offering the Yanomamö guns, which tribe members used to kill one another as well as for hunting.

The Salesians and Dr. Chagnon’s academic enemies saw the chance to join forces against him when the writer Patrick Tierney published a book, “Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), accusing Dr. Chagnon and the well-known medical geneticist James V. Neel of having deliberately caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968.[An Anthropologist’s War Stories]

Comments { 0 }

How the British invented “Whiteness” and “Blackness”

A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation

A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation

While Charles I was arrested and executed in 1649 CE in England, another revolution was happening in the far away English colony of Barbados. This was the ‘sugar revolution’ and the prosperity it brought would have far reaching consequence for both Britain in the way how different groups of people were viewed.

After the failure of crops like tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger, the colonists were under pressure from their financiers to deliver. That’s when they decided to try sugar, a crop which had arrived on the island three decades earlier. The problem was that sugar farming was labor intensive, much more than tobacco. Also, it required expertise to prepare the right soil, protect the shoots from disease and to decide the right moment for cutting. All this did not deter the colonists; they experimented, eventually got the right recipe and that made them immensely rich

That’s when the demographics of the island started changing and that change had both to do with the new found prosperity as well as the politics back in England. The backdrop of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpostwas happening with English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. Since their fortunes did not look good, the Royalists escaped to the island to evade persecution and to keep their head attached to their body. There were some black slaves, but not quite a lot and so the workforce was predominantly white. But as the ‘white gold’ business boomed, more slaves were required.

From around  6000 slaves in 1643, the number rose to 20,000 by 1655. Also, as the black population was increasing, the white population was decreasing because many of them were leaving the island looking for better opportunities in other countries where the land was cheaper. The black slavery also increased due to economics: an indentured slave cost 10 pounds for about 5 -7 years of work while the blacks cost double the money, but remained as slaves for life. By this time, the slave trading network was well established and it was not expensive to ship them from Africa. In an era, where the goal was to make money by any means possible, slavery did not cause any moral qualms for those who touted their superior religion all the time.

Soon, the number of black slaves outnumbered the the indentured whites and the white settlers started getting paranoid due to the thinning of the Christian people. As the first slave society of the British Americas, they had figure out a way to manage these slaves as well as maintain their superiority. The British had to  invent a political structure on which they would be at the top. One of the first laws they passed was the 1661 Act titled “For the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes.” This law declared blacks to be “heathenish, brutish and dangerous people” and since no law existed to govern slaves, new ones had to be invented for “public safety.”

Public safety of course meant the safety of the white settlers; the laws were written by slaveholders and it was upheld by a country which gained financially from the sugar business. The laws were then enforced by the local militia and soldiers. Similar laws were passed by the French and Spaniards and compared to them, the one created by the British was the most cruel. As time went on, more provisions were added which put restrictions on the movement of slaves and prevented them from learning a  trade like carpentry.

Following a revolt by black slaves and Irish servants, another law was passed in 1688 which required every slave owner to search slave cabins for drums or horns which could be used to assemble people. If a slave had to leave the plantation, he had to get written permission from the owner. An absconding slave, if found, was whipped and four years later, another law was added which prescribed the death penalty.

In the British legal system, slaves were property and could be bought, sold, or leased; they were never considered as people. Compared to that white indentured people served a limited term and their rights were restored after that. The white indentured people were given better food, clothing and legal protection with provision for trial by jury. A white indentured servant who killed a slave was asked to pay a fine just like other whites. Soon white felons, Irish and Scots were all treated as “white” people while the blacks became another group. Blacks who came from different parts of Africa and identified themselves based on their birthplace were all collapsed into one single bucket. Their individual identity was subsumed under a different label and the world became simply black and white. By this separation, the white settlers prevented a collaboration between the black slaves and the indentured servants and thus avoided a joint rebellion, but that in turn changed the way people viewed each other on the island.


  1. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart
Comments { 4 }

Missionaries, Businessmen and the Annexation of Hawaii

Ship's landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

Ship’s landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

In the 19th century, the private sector consisting of missionaries and businessmen helped project American power to rest of the world. This pattern, where the NGOs intervened in the affairs of a nation, proved to be quite detrimental to the existence of Hawaii. Their culture was transformed, their economy was tied to United States and due to both, in a century their freedom was lost.

In her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,Andrea Stuart writes about the motivation for Puritans and non-Puritans to migrate to North America from Europe in the 17th century. While the Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution, for others the Bible served as the recruiter for colonization. Anglican priests like Robert Gray, John Donne and Puritan teachers like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton seeded the dream of building a City on the Hill as well as spreading the word. Captain John Smith,  an adventurer, planter and the hero of the Pocahontas story wrote at that time about the need to “seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity”. But this urgency to take Christianity to the savages, which was used by the Spanish conquistadors just a century earlier, was just a smokescreen for advancing their business ventures.

In Hawaii, the same pattern followed two centuries later when Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists arrived by the boatloads to convert the heathens as well as to counter the Roman Catholics who had already set up shop there. These missionaries established good relations with King Kamehameha and opened up the islands to the Americans. Soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane.

As American capital and Christianity started flowing to the islands, the Government started taking notice. During that time, the Democrats were interested in expanding to the South, where slavery existed, while the Whigs were interested in expansion to the West. Secretary of State, William Webster, was interested in developing a special relation with the King because Hawaii would serve as a gateway to the riches of Japan and China. He was also interested in limiting the influence of France and Britain, who were interested in the islands. In 1851, the King and Webster agreed that if Hawaii was threatened by European powers, the King would transfer his power to the United States Government.

William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln, and an expansionist wanted a reciprocal treaty to be passed which would give special preference to Hawaiian goods. With this treaty, Hawaiian fruits and sugar would not be subject to American tariffs and in return Hawaii would be open for American manufactured goods. But then the Southern sugar producers did not want to compete with Hawaii and the treaty was defeated in the Senate. During the time of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, the treaty was passed. American money flowed into Hawaii resulting in a surge of sugar and pineapple farming. The Americans got Pearl Harbor which they developed as a naval base and coaling station.

 A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.

A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.(via Wikipedia)

Queen Lili’uokalani’ meanwhile was worried about the influence of American economics and politics on Hawaiian independence. As she started putting some limitations,  the US Department of State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John Stevens plotted a coup to overthrow the Queen. Following a coup, John Stevens recognized the new administration led by Sanford Dole and asked requested President Benjamin Harrison to annex the islands to the nation. But Harrison had only a month left as President and the Senate did not act. The next President, Grover Cleveland (the only President to have served  non consecutive terms), was not interested in expansion due to the cost and also because he believed that it would betray the ideals of the American revolution.

But that did not mean that Hawaii got its independence back. Hawaii  remained as a territory for almost six decades before they were given a choice to either join the Union or remain as a territory without an option for independence. Finally, a saga which started in the 18th century came to an end in 1959, when it became a state.


  1. America & World/Revolution, Lecture 21 by Professor Michael Parrish at University of California, San Diego
Comments { 0 }

Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.

In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.

The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.

As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.

After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.

The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.

Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.

One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.

In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”

The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.

Comments { 0 }

Napoleon, New Orleans and British in India

Colonial empires in 1800 (via Wikipedia)

Colonial empires in 1800 (via Wikipedia)

By the 1800s, the British had occupied Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and Northern Circars with the noble goal of personal enrichment. Large parts of the country still lay outside British control with the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Tipu Sultan. There was a nominal Mughal emperor who ruled over a vastly shrunk empire. Once forces under Arthur Wellesley, the man who would defeat Napoleon years later, eliminated Tipu Sultan in 1799, it opened up the path for British supremacy in India. While all of these was happening in India, another geopolitical game was being played in the Western hemisphere involving a Spanish playboy, a French emperor, an enlightened American President who kept slaves and actual slaves who defeated two empires. A fortuitous turn of events changed the history of United States and the colonial European powers shifted their gaze to the East.

Political Map of India 1805 (via Wikipedia)

Political Map of India 1805 (via Wikipedia)

When Napoleon evaluated the French position towards the end of the 18th century, it looked terrible. The Egyptian invasion had failed, so had the creation of the Mediterranean empire. The French position in India did not look promising and they had already lost the vast territories of Canada to the British. But much more important was the development in their colony Saint-Domingue — the richest colony in the Western hemisphere — where the slaves had revolted. The Austrians and the Russians formed an alliance to stop France and war was happening in Switzerland and Germany. From these data points he decided what had to be done: France needs to reclaim Saint-Domingue as well as create an empire in United States.

In 1800, Spain controlled a vast amount of territory which included large parts of what is now United States (Florida, Louisiana), Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and the entire Western and North parts of South America. In spite of this, Spain was seen as a weak empire due to misrule by Charles IV, who did not want to govern and was happy to delegate the responsibility to someone else. That someone was Manuel de Godoy who became the Prime Minister mostly because he was the Queen’s lover and thus was able to quickly become powerful and influence the King.

Map of the course, watershed, and major tributaries of the Mississippi River (via Wikipedia)

Map of the course, watershed, and major tributaries of the Mississippi River (via Wikipedia)

Among all the possessions of Spain, the port of New Orleans, was of special interest to Napoleon. During that period, when the United States did not have highways or railroads to transport goods across the nation, but they had rivers. American agricultural goods like wheat, corn and cattle were transported down Ohio river and the Mississippi to the port of New Orleans. At the port, the goods were moved to bigger ships and taken to the East Coast as well as to other countries across the Atlantic. Even though the port was under Spanish control, they had a relatively peaceful policy towards American shipping. No tariff duties had to be paid to Spain before the goods were moved to larger ships. Napoleon knew that if he controlled New Orleans with his new army, he could choke United States and control its fate.

To realize his vision, Napoleon came up with a three point plan.

  1. Make peace with Austria and Britain. He had problems with Britain during the Egyptian invasion and if he made peace with them, his fleet could cross the Atlantic without collateral damage.
  2. Create secret deal with Spain
  3. Assemble a large expeditionary force with hundreds of ships for the conquest of Saint-Domingue and holding on to New Orleans.

Everything went as planned. He made peace with Austria and Britain. Godoy wanted some property in Tuscany and in return he was willing to give Louisiana to the French. The Third Treaty of San Ildefonso was made in secret exactly as Napoleon wanted. The large force was assembled and Napoleon was ready to execute his vision. The United States under Thomas Jefferson was shocked as the country did not have an army to fight Bonaparte. Even though New Orleans was under the control of Spain, Jefferson was sure that he would not have the same business relation with a French controlled New Orleans.

Two events saved United States. First Thomas Jefferson threatened France that if such an event happened, they would join forces with Britain. This was a particularly bold statement because Britain and United States were fighting a war just more than a decade back. Maybe , he was borrowing the enemy of my enemy concept from Chanakya. Then Jefferson had no other choice; he had an army of 1500 men, an unreliable militia, and a navy which was no match against the French. For the security of the nation, he had to align himself with a bigger power.

Toussaint L'Ouverture (1802) (via Wikipedia)

Toussaint L’Ouverture (1802) (via Wikipedia)

Second and probably what sealed the fate of the French invasion were guns, germs, steel and something Jared Diamond would not have written about: slaves. When a 10,000 strong French army, under the leadership of Napoleon’s brother-in-law arrived at Saint-Domingue, the slaves gave them a good fight. Napoleon wanted to establish slavery in the colonies and for the slaves, it was a battle for their future. L’Ouverture, the slave leader, was captured through trickery and sent to France where he died in prison. But soon yellow fever stuck and the French army never recovered from it. Those who survived the machetes fell to the germs. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, too died from the disease.

This was unexpected and Napoleon fell into despair. He had to make a critical decision. Should he proceed to the American mainland or does he withdraw back to Europe? Some of his advisors suggested that he go forward with his plans, but he decided to go back to Europe and continue his wars against the British there. If the United States aligned with the British, that would be a formidable power and in case there was such a battle, he could lose his Caribbean possessions.

What was surprising was another decision he made: he decided to sell Louisiana to the United States at a cheap price of 3 cents per acre. He could have returned it back to Spain, but instead he decided to sell it to the country he was coming to build his empire. There were few reasons for this strange decision. First, the secret deal he made with Spain got bogged down over details. Second, Godoy fell out of favor with the Emperor and compared to this fool, Napoleon found the Americans more palatable because New Orleans would make America more powerful and a powerful America would keep the British busy to his favor. Third, he needed money for his wars in Europe.

This turned out to be a blessing for the Americans. This video shows the population growth of United States through that period; with New Orleans secure, the country started moving from the Atlantic border to the West and the future of North America changed.

A decade earlier the British had made a bid to conquer Saint-Domingue, but they were defeated by the slaves and yellow fever. Then they tried to conquer Buenos Aires and that costly expedition failed as well. The retreat of the French, the stability of United States and Wellesley’s growing Indian empire made the British pay more attention to the East and shift the base of their operations. They would still fight the Americans in the War of 1812, but their shift to India paid rich dividends for them. Following the defeat of the Marathas, they had much of India under their control.


  1. Lecture titled “The Lucky Americans” by Prof. Philip D. Zelikow at the University of Virginia
  2. Lectures by Prof. Michael Parrish at UC San Diego on America and the World
  3. Keay, John. India: A History. Grove Press, 2001.
  4. Sivers, Peter von, Charles A. Desnoyers, and George B. Stow. Patterns of World History: Since 1750. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.
Comments { 1 }