Germans at the Gates:  European Immigrants in the 5th Century CE  

The current mass migration of political and economic refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Western Europe is proceeding on a scale that commands attention, though in sheer numbers it has yet to rival the population exchanges that accompanied the Second World War’s nominal end in 1945 CE.  That shifting of people to make the distribution of ethnicities fit the newly redrawn borders of Europe saw at least 31 million people displaced, roughly 12 million of whom were German.  Many left lands their ancestors had inhabited for over 800 years.

It was not the first time in recent history that Germans were forced to migrate.  After the failure of the political revolutions of 1848, large numbers of well-educated German refugees fled to the United States, where they introduced, among other things, classical music, the civil service, multitudinous agricultural improvements, and several high quality beers.  Some 30,000 settled near Cincinnati alone, part of the nearly 6 million Germans who emigrated to America between 1820 and 1914.  They were so pervasive in American culture that Louisa May Alcott provided Jo March with an impecunious well-educated German immigrant to marry in Little Women.

The most critical period of German refugee migration, however, reached its peak around the 5th century CE.  A lot of special pleading and highly speculative nonsense has been written about the German components of the migrations to and invasions of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires of this era, but the general outline of what happened is fairly clear.

For hundreds of years, Germanic tribes had been expanding and migrating from the lands neighboring the Baltic to the Black Sea littoral, eventually reaching the western limits of the Eurasian steppes.  Much of this area was defined imprecisely as Scythia. For a great deal of the 300s it was the stomping ground of Iranian and Asiatic horse warriors [the Alans and Huns respectively], historically preceded and followed by numerous nomadic tribes.

In the late 300s the German King Ermanarik watched in dismay as virtually overnight Hunnic warriors pushed back centuries of Germanic settlement eastwards.  This disaster for the Germans gave rise to many legends and several interesting epic poems, a few of which have survived at least in part.

The Huns are an Asiatic people of uncertain ethnicity, though debatable claims of kinship have been made by the Magyars, who moved into current day Hungary in the 9th century. The Huns of the 4th and 5th centuries incorporated troops of many defeated tribes into their army, including large numbers of Germans.

What caused the Huns to move west in the 300s has been debated with more warmth than light, with many arguing in favor of prolonged drought on the steppes, or the pressure from other tribes further east, or a combination of the two. What is a bit clearer is the military advantage that enabled the Huns to push westward successfully. This was based on their cavalry wielding the most advanced personal projectile weapon of its time and place:  the asymmetric composite recurve bow.

The lower half of the Hunnic bow was shorter than the upper half to allow easy drawing and shooting from the saddle.  Sinew and horn laminations increased bow strength in bending and compression.  The recurved shape of the bow increased the energy imparted to the arrow, making it possible for a short cavalry bow to equal the force of a much longer straight bow.

The Germans may have been preeminent in Roman auxiliary cavalry and overland transportation in the northern reaches of the Empire, but they were no match for the Huns when these two peoples first met on the steppes.

This led to several Germanic tribes moving their men, women, and infants into Roman territory to seek Roman protection.  The immigrating Germans continued to provide elite combat units for the Roman army.

The Romans had enough other problems at the time that they let the Germans settle inside the Empire unassimilated, under their own tribal leadership.  Such Germanic enclaves in the Empire were euphemistically designated as foederati [allies].  This was probably considered by Roman leaders to be a temporary arrangement.

The protection to be provided by the Romans for the German settlements proved illusory. The corruption of local Roman officials and occasional slaughter of German hostages outraged the German warriors, who began to attack the Romans.

The Germans achieved a decisive victory at Adrianople in 378, where Gothic soldiers with some help from other steppe forces destroyed two-thirds of a Roman army, killing the Roman Emperor Valens in the process.  After Adrianople it was clear that the wealth of the Western Roman Empire was ripe for picking, though it would take another generation for the immigrant invaders to master the art of besieging cities.

Goths moved westward, sacking Rome in 410, and setting up kingdoms in Italy, France, and Spain. The Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula lasted roughly 300 years, finally falling to Moslem invaders around 720.

The Huns followed their German enemies into the Empire.  The Huns raided deep into France until they were repulsed in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains [also known as the Battle of Châlons] in 451 by a Roman Army fighting in coalition with a Gothic force.  This marked the end of Attila’s attempt to conquer Roman Gaul, and was the last major victory of the Western Roman Empire.  The Roman general responsible for putting together the coalition of Romans and Germans that forced the Huns to retreat across the Rhine, Flavius Aetius, was assassinated by Emperor Valentinian III as a reward for his service.

After Attila’s death, Germanic tribes led a multi-ethnic attack on the Huns in 454, defeating them so decisively at the Battle of Nedao that their remnants retreated to the Crimea and Caucasus, traditional refuges of once great peoples who found themselves in greatly reduced circumstances.

The Germanic Vandals took a migratory course from what is now Southern Poland through France, Spain, and North Africa.  The Vandals’ thorough sack of Rome in 455 made the Visgothic looting of 410 look gentle by comparison, turning their name into a synonym for senseless destruction.

The current welcome being given by the Germans to refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is frequently said to be primarily motivated by a desire to expiate the nation’s lingering guilt over its 20th century past.

In this context, it is useful to remember that the denigration of Germans as ‘Huns’ in British First World War propaganda and Winston Churchill’s speeches is historically inaccurate .  It is one of the ironies of history that this confusion of two very different peoples derives from an exhortation of Kaiser Wilhelm II to German troops fighting in China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion [1900]:

“Mercy will not be shown, prisoners will not be taken. Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinese will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.”

Taking a longer historical perspective might usefully augment appreciation of the motives for Germany’s current generosity towards migrating peoples, raising the level of discussion beyond humanitarian banalities, collective guilt, and graying populations.

Further Reading:

  • Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory is a useful reminder of the ongoing disasters on the European Eastern Front during the Second World War and the years that followed. Ronald Spector’s In the Ruins of Empire tells how European powers used Japanese troops against former colonies striving for independence in Asia after the end of World War II.
  • Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak have brought together many useful articles in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948.
  • For an English language introduction to modern scholarship on the great migrations of the Late Classical world, Peter Heather’s volumes The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians; Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe; and The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders are comprehensive, lucid, and carefully researched.
  • Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen and Max Knight’s The World of the Huns: Studies in their History and Culture provides important insights into the culture and accomplishments of the Huns. E.A. Thompson and Peter Heather’s The Huns presents a narrative history of this people, whose influence on the development of Europe is often underestimated.

Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles Jefferson:  Slavery in 18th and 19th Century Virginia

When writing a brief note on Sally Hemings [c. 1773 CE – 1835 CE] a bit of context might be deemed necessary.  As an American male of European heritage, I do not claim to fully understand the dynamics of the evils of slavery, especially when complicated and intensified by issues of sex and child bearing.  My years living as a racial minority in China’s Sichuan Province in the 1980s do not qualify me to discuss the Black Experience in the United States, however enlightening it may have been to be held to be representative of a people the women of which were often considered bad smelling and promiscuous, though not particularly fertile, and the men of which were usually thought of as physically strong but generally none too bright.

Fortunately since 1998 when the process of modern reevaluation of the relationship of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson began in earnest, there have been many thoughtful analyses of the racial aspects of their connection, as well as a few stalwart dissenters from the historical consensus that written records, DNA analysis, and oral tradition all support the contention that Jefferson fathered six children by his slave, four of whom survived.

There are many issues of interest, including the rationale behind Hemings’ return to Virginia and slavery from Paris, where she could have petitioned for her freedom.  There is an oral tradition that indicates Sally may have been pregnant as she returned from Paris, and was told by Jefferson that he would emancipate their children.  The relationship was, to say the least, complex.

One of the complications sometimes underemphasized is the fact that Sally was evidently the younger half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles, who died in 1782.

John Wayles, Martha Wayles Jefferson ’s father, took Sally Hemings’ mother, a mulatto slave named Betty Hemings, as his concubine after his third wife died.  They had 6 children over the course of 12 years, all born into slavery.  Sally, née Sarah, appears to have been born in July of 1773, two months after the death of her father, 25 years after the birth of her half-sister Martha, and 30 years after the   birth of Jefferson.  Sally’s relationship with Jefferson appears to have begun about 1787, when she at the age of 14 accompanied Jefferson’s youngest legitimate daughter to Paris, where the future President was living as a 44 year-old widower.  Some hold, however, the liaison did not begin until they returned to Monticello in 1789.

There seems to be something a bit strange about having a sexual liaison with your dead wife’s younger half-sister.  Jefferson was never entirely conventional about religion, but in any case relationships between a widower and his dead wife’s sister fell into a gray area in which local custom played nearly as great a role as the Table of Kindred in The Book of Common Prayer and the doctrines of Canon Law regarding prohibition of marriage between individuals related by marriage and blood.  Legal clarity, such as it was, in the English-speaking world was not provided until much later:  the United Kingdom’s Marriage Act 1835 prohibited unions of widowers with their wife’s sisters, but sanctioned such unions as already existed.  The Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act 1907 allowed such relationships, while permitting individual members of the clergy to refuse on grounds of conscience to conduct marriages which would previously have been prohibited.

The practice of taking slaves as concubines in pre-Civil War Virginia, as evidenced by both Jefferson and his father-in-law, deplorable as it was on many grounds, seems almost straightforward by comparison.

The psychology of a man who would maintain a relationship with his dead wife’s  half-sister might in some ways be as disturbing as the psychology of a man who would choose to have such  relationship with a slave he owned, or a woman 30 years his junior.

As interesting, and possibly less pathological, is the psychology of a woman in such a relationship.  It is probably too facile to draw parallels with the putative domestic slavery of most unenfranchised married white women of the day, or to ascribe her accommodation and compromises entirely to internalization of the limits chattel slavery placed upon its victims.  But few circumstances illuminate the weirdness underlying the peculiar institution of slavery more intriguingly than the contrast between the situations of Sally Hemings and her half-sister Martha.


Further Reading: 

  • The comments of John and Abigail Adams about Jefferson, and Hemings, in their correspondence are usually written off as hostile sniping by Jefferson’s partisans, but seldom demonstrated to be factually inaccurate: there are many collections of their letters.
  • Joshua Rothman’s Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787 -1861 starts with a description of the Hemings-Jefferson affair, and proceeds to provide a scholarly, detailed, and perceptive analysis of the relationship of the races in the pre-segregation days of outright slavery.
  • Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello chronicles the family’s history, including the entry of many of the descendants into white society.



Steamboats:  The Race is Not Always to the Swift  [1787 CE – 1812 CE]

As often, the adjectives and adverbs gave the game away.  When I was in grade school Robert Fulton was casually credited with inventing the steamboat in 1807 CE.  As my education proceeded, statements regarding Fulton’s achievements were more and more hedged.  The more reliable secondary sources now carefully attribute the first commercially successful steamboat in North America to Fulton.  This formulation glosses over, among other things, tangled legal and financial details that do not enhance the reputations of Fulton, several of the Founding Fathers, or the young American Republic.

Twenty years before Fulton’s launch, John Fitch had demonstrated a functioning steamboat to observers including delegates from the Constitutional Convention [1787].  Fitch had read of James Watt’s efforts in the United Kingdom and, collaborating with a Philadelphia inventor named Henry Voigt, created a working steam engine to power his boat.

In 1790 Fitch launched the first commercial steamboat service in America, providing transportation between Philadelphia and Trenton.  This boat was faster than the stagecoach, at half the price.  Estimates of the distance traveled by Fitch’s steamboat that summer range from 1,300 to 3,000 miles [2100 to 4800 km].  Fitch claimed the vessel often ran 500 miles [800 km] between maintenance repairs.  His ultimate goal was the Mississippi River trade.  His service between Philadelphia and Trenton, however, was plagued by slow public acceptance and mismanagement by his financial partners.

Fitch’s boat was propelled by sets of oars rather than a paddlewheel.  This may have been in part a response to Ben Franklin’s very public dismissal of paddlewheels for boats.  Franklin favored using a stream of water to power the movement of boats, similar in concept to the design of modern jet skis.

Fitch had asked George Washington for support when they met in November of 1785.  Washington had already been approached by James Rumsey, who was also developing a steamboat.  Rumsey had not worked out a reliable method of propulsion, but had designed a water tube boiler that held the potential for significantly improving engine efficiency.  Washington had endorsed Rumsey’s efforts.

Fitch asked Washington for a letter of introduction to the Virginia Assembly.  Washington refused without giving any reason.  James Madison enabled Fitch to approach the Assembly, which offered encouragement but no funding.  Governor Patrick Henry suggested a subscription scheme.

Ben Franklin offered Fitch some moral encouragement, which turned to insult when Franklin’s response to Fitch’s further explanations was to proffer five or six dollars rummaged from a desk drawer.  Fitch, who must have struggled to maintain his composure, declined and left.

Thomas Jefferson, head of the nation’s first patent board, granted Fitch a patent on his steamboat design in 1791. Jefferson also granted patents dated the same day for steam engines to three other men, including James Rumsey.   Jefferson’s handling of the patent applications ultimately proved disastrous to both Fitch and Rumsey.  Because Fitch did not receive an exclusive patent, several of his key investors withdrew, leaving his commercial enterprise financially unviable.

Fitch, also holding a patent from France, lined up an investor and made plans to develop steamboats there.  France had been the site of experiments on the Saône with a paddle steamboat powered by a Newcomen engine as early as 1783.  Traveling in 1793, Fitch arrived just as the Reign of Terror was beginning.  After fleeing France and failing to find support in London, Fitch returned to the United States   in 1794.

Following a few more fruitless attempts to find funding for his steamboat projects, Fitch moved to lands in Kentucky he had acquired in the early 1780s.  They were occupied by squatters.  Fitch was tied up in legal disputes regarding land titles until his death in 1798.

He left a model engine to his daughter.  Staff from the Smithsonian Museum examined it in the 1950s and declared it to be a practical prototype of a land engine for a vehicle to operate on tracks, in other words, a steam locomotive.

Fulton, who used an imported English engine on his steamboat 17 years after Fitch launched his service in Philadelphia with an American-made engine, could not get a patent for steamboats.  With the aid of political efforts on his behalf by the well-connected Robert Livingston, however, Fulton did receive a 20 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on the Hudson from the State of New York.

Fulton, along with Livingston, organized ventures in which Nicholas Roosevelt, the great-grand-uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.  Roosevelt first made the journey on a flatboat with his pregnant wife.

After returning north, he retraced his route, piloting the first steamboat on the Mississippi [1811 – 1812].  Traveling with his again pregnant wife Lydia and their toddler, they were en route when the New Madrid earthquake struck, creating a temporary waterfall on the Mississippi and locally reversing the river’s flow.  Despite this and other adventures, The Roosevelt’s completed their trip downstream to New Orleans.  Then, more importantly, they steamed upstream against the current to Natchez, opening the Mississippi to two-way traffic, and providing a model for the transportation needed to unite and develop the center of the United States.

Further Reading:

  • Andrea Sutcliffe describes the development of steamboats in America with balanced insights regarding the technology, personalities, social context, legal proceedings, and commercial considerations involved in Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Great Invention.
  • The Autobiography of John Fitch, based on his journals and memoirs, is fascinating reading.
  • Mary Dohan’s Roosevelt’s Steamboat describes Nicholas Roosevelt’s travels 1811 – 1812.
  • Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is the product of deep love for and intimate knowledge of the river and steamboats. In many ways, it is his most genial and enjoyable book.