Food Poisoning:  Then and Now  [18th Century CE to the Present]

A recently savored loaf of onion rye bread brought to mind Mary Kilbourne Matossian’s Poisons of the Past:  Molds, Epidemics, and History, which argued that food poisoning, especially from ergot growth on damp rye, influenced mass outbreaks of delusion, violence, and religious mania more than was previously generally thought.

Even the Great Awakening that convulsed Colonial American religious and social practices from the 1730s to the 1750s may well have owed something of its fervor to the effects of the compounds associated with grain molds.

Some American historians tried to dismiss Matossian’s argument out of hand without considering the evidence:  they had roughly the same credibility as those who denied Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings because of their belief that Jefferson was more interested in books and architecture than women, even after DNA analysis made their position untenable.

Certainly humanity has shown itself prone to ingest dangerous substances, willingly or unknowingly, ranging from soma quaffing Indo-Europeans, through Romans who systemically poisoned themselves with lead pipes and tableware, and not stopping with the Celts whom Posidonius describes drinking undiluted the wine Greeks added to their water as a disinfectant.

Ergot produces a wide range of mind altering chemicals, some related to LSD.  Its psychotropic properties were well known to medical and recreational users by at least the 19th century, as chronicles of the 1881 – 1884 Greely expedition to Greenland make clear:  the medical officer whiled away idle snowbound hours with the aid of a carefully husbanded supply of ergot, though its relationship to his probable complicity in acts of cannibalism was never conclusively demonstrated.  The carefully excised lumps of flesh removed beneath neat flaps of the corpses’ skin, however, suggest an uncommon surgical skill.

Some British reviewers attacked Matossian’s book with a peculiar virulence.  One critic savaged her for a supposed lack of notes and bibliographical references, evidently not noticing the 25 pages of citations before the index in addition to the sources cited with each table in the text.  It was not the proudest moment in the history of English scholarship.

The introduction of the potato as a basic starch for the poor in Europe and progressive displacement of rye bread by wheat bread seems to have broken the cycle of periods of mass hysteria and jacqueries following periods of unusually damp weather conducive to ergot growth detailed in Matossian’s book.

But I have little doubt future historians will look at the levels of sugar, salt, and fat in the mass produced and highly processed food of our days, and our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac disease, and wonder at our ability to blithely poison ourselves.


Further reading: 

  • Matossian discusses the effects of eating spoiled food in Poisons of the Past.
  • A brief discussion of ergot with reference to the Greely expedition can be found in Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail.

The Golden Pilgrims Fleeced:  Mansa Musa and the Italian Renaissance 1324 CE – 1325 CE

Like many heirs to great wealth, Mansa Kankan Musa [c. 1280 CE – c. 1337 CE] is more remembered for squandering much of what he inherited than he is for his accomplishments, which included conquests, the founding and endowment of educational institutions, and the construction of religious buildings.

Musa ruled the Mali Empire c. 1312 – c. 1337.  He was the grandnephew of Sundiata Keita, founder of the dynasty. Sundiata and his three sons built up the gold reserves that Musa spent.

The Mali Empire, one in a succession of medieval West African great powers, was remarkably rich at its height.  Principal exports of West Africa at the time included gold, ivory, slaves, and from the 13th century on, kola nuts, which were a stimulant highly prized among abstemious Muslims. Imports included salt, horses, textiles, books, paper, swords, and knives.

Musa was a pious Muslim. He rebuilt and endowed the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, re-staffing it with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians. The madrasah became a center of learning and culture, drawing Muslim scholars from around Africa and the Middle East to Timbuktu.  After a raid on Timbuktu by the Kingdom of Mossi in 1330, Musa ordered the construction of defensive fortifications and sent troops to protect the city.  He was reportedly capable of calling up an army of 100,000, including 10,000 cavalry.

Musa is also credited with revolutionizing the architecture of the Western Sudan by bringing back from his pilgrimage to Mecca the Spanish Muslim scholar and architect As-Sahili, who introduced to Mali brick for the building of mosques and palaces.  As-Sahili also insisted on stricter observances of Islam than were generally practiced before his time in Mali.

But it was Musa’s spending on his spectacular pilgrimage to Mecca [1324 – 1325] that won him notoriety throughout the Mediterranean world.  He set out to make the haj accompanied by a retinue of approximately 60,000 people, including some 12,000 slaves each carrying 4 pounds of gold bars [1.81 kg] and 80 camels which each carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust [23 kg – 136 kg].

Musa paid for the procession’s requirements, including food for all the men and animals.  He gave gold as alms to the poor he met along his route. He was credited with building a mosque every Friday.  Musa made donations to the cities of Cairo and Medina, and he and his retinue overpaid egregiously for souvenirs, especially in the markets of Cairo, where the expedition was skillfully fleeced by market savvy Egyptians.

The reckless distribution of gold by Musa and his retinue devalued the worth of the precious metal in Cairo, Medina, and Mecca for a decade.  It also sparked a general inflation of prices.  Musa borrowed gold in Cairo at high interest rates on his way back from Mecca. Some say he did this to reestablish the worth of gold there; others say he did this because he needed to finance his return to Mali.

Another consequence of Musa’s pilgrimage was the siphoning off of considerable quantities of West African gold to Italy, which did a brisk business with Egypt.  Before Musa’s pilgrimage, both Europe and the Muslim world had been suffering a gold shortage. The profligate spending of the pilgrims from West Africa helped alleviate this situation in Egypt directly.  The Italians received large quantities of this gold in their trade with Egypt.  In Italy this West African gold contributed considerably to the liquidity of Italian finance and to Renaissance patronage of the arts in the 14th century.

Ibn Battuta visited Mali about 20 years after Musa’s pilgrimage:  he described it as a poor country.  The gold reserves built up by Sundiata Keita and his sons did not long survive Mansu Musa’s extravagant haj and the wasteful spending of Musa’s son, who followed him as emperor.

Musa’s brother Souleyman Keita succeeded Musa’s son.  He tried desperately to reestablish the Empire’s finances.  Mali never fully recovered, shorn of territory by rivals in a series of wars that diminished Mali’s territory, power, and imperial pretensions long before the Songhay Empire sacked Mali’s capital.

Further Reading:

  • Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver provides a clear narrative and useful context.
  • Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe covers events and cultures from The Big Bang to 2008 CE in five lively volumes. The tale of Mansa Musa is presented in The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance.  The series represents a too little appreciated accomplishment by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who championed The Cartoon History of the Universe at Doubleday.


Innovation in the Field:  Normandy 1944 CE; Bismarck Sea 1943 CE

The moldboard plow turns the soil over as it cuts a furrow.  This brings nutrients in the soil to the surface, improves drainage, reduces the time and effort needed to prepare a field, and leaves a raised strip of earth on the edge of the furrow.  These ridges of soil can build up considerably on the edge of a field if it is plowed in the same manner for a long time. In the Middle Ages, the advantages provided by the moldboard plow may well explain a good deal of the growth of Northern Europe, with its rich, heavy soils, and its rise over the older centers of development in Mediterranean and West Asian lands.  Other effects of the moldboard plow continued into modern times, delaying and very nearly derailing the progress of the American invasion of Normandy in 1944 CE.

For many hundreds of years Norman farmers in the Cotentin Peninsula had cultivated small hedged fields, known as bocage. Centuries of farming had produced well-defined ridges of soil at the edges of these fields.  These ridges were covered with a dense thicket of nettles and brambles, forming a barrier that averaged roughly 5 meters in height [16 feet].   The hedgerows served as fences marking the borders of the fields and orchards, and effectively prevented livestock from wandering.  They also provided an effective barrier to armored vehicles and good cover for German defensive positions, protecting them against aerial observation.

Standard tanks could not break through the hedgerows.   If the tanks rode over the hedges, they would expose their thinly armored underbellies to German fire while being unable to bring their guns to bear.

On D-Day [6 June 1944], men and equipment were brought  close to the Normandy shore by Higgins boats, which had designs based on those of vessels used to bring equipment and personnel  to swampy oil drilling sites around the Gulf of Mexico.   The National WWII Museum in New Orleans grew out of a memorial to the hard-drinking Irish-American Andrew Higgins, his contributions to the Allied victory, and his enlightened employment policies.

After securing a foothold on the beaches, a process critically aided by snorkeled tanks that could make their way through the surf, Allied troops began to move inland.  The portion of Normandy assigned to the British, near Caen, was mostly broad plains generally suitable for tanks, with a few bocage fields.  The English made slow but steady progress.

The American attack, unprepared for the obstacles the hedgerow countryside presented, stalled in the bocage of the Cotentin.  Though the characteristics of the landscape were not secret, plans to deal with the challenges it presented had not been made.

Sergeant Curtis Culin of the 2nd Armored Division’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron is usually credited with solving the problem, though he said the idea came from a Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts, who asked “Why don’t we get some saw teeth and put them on the front of the tank and cut through these hedges?”

Most laughed at Roberts’ inquiry; Culin made prototypes in Normandy using metal from Czech hedgehogs deployed by Germans on the beaches.  These Czech hedgehogs were basically oversized caltrops designed to hinder tanks and other armored vehicles.

General Omar Bradley was impressed by a demonstration of a modified Sherman tank bursting through a hedgerow. He ordered a major scale up.  Soon thereafter nearly two-thirds of 2nd Armored Division’s tanks and tank destroyers were equipped with the hedge busting devices.  Manufacturing was eventually shifted to the United Kingdom, where the modifications were called prongs.  American forces benefited from the restoration of armored mobility.

The decisive factor in the American breakout from the Cotentin, however, was airpower:  on 25 July 1944 approximately 1,500 American bombers dropped nearly 3,000 tons of bombs between Montreuil and Hebecrevon, northwest of Saint-Lô.  Whole sections of the German defense lines disappeared, as well as a few foolhardy American officers who wanted to observe the destruction from a site that was too close to the German positions.

After the American breakout, the British continued their deliberate advance.   The Americans  and Poles raced to trap the German armies in France.  Many of the Germans were eventually surrounded in the Falaise Pocket.  Despite the escape of some Nazi forces, the Allies inflicted huge losses.  Paris was liberated two days after the climax of the Falaise battle.

In the Pacific theater of war, a similarly effective field innovation was important in paving the way to victory.  General George Kenney, educated in part at MIT, modified B-25 medium bombers, adding 10 fifty-caliber machine guns to each to turn them into aerial gunships that could still deliver bombs.  Australian engineers implemented Kenney’s ideas.

The modifications were crucial to the overwhelming American victory in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, which the Japanese needed to cross to reinforce their troops in New Guinea [March 1943].  The B-25s strafed the Japanese ships, killing crew, officers, and infantry passengers, before skip bombing them.

Shortly thereafter, when Kenney was visiting Washington D.C., his request to include the modifications in B-25s sent to him from the factory was met with derision by supply personnel from the Materials Division.  They told Kenney such changes were “impractical” and would “disturb the balance of the airplane and make it almost impossible to fly.”

Kenney had the satisfaction of informing them that B-25s field-modified to such specifications had inflicted much of the damage in the Bismarck Sea.  He also had the pleasure of watching General Hap Arnold order the men out of the room with an angry warning to “quit arguing.”

Further Reading:

  • There are a huge number of books on the Normandy campaign. Too many focus on one nation’s experience and contributions to the campaign.  Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy avoids the common shortcomings of British writing on the Second World War, providing a more than usually balanced narrative with adept choice of anecdotes.  It is far from the worst place to start on this topic.
  • Omar Bradley prepared two autobiographies with substantial assistance: A Soldier’s Story and A General’s Life.  The former is one of the two main sources for the movie Patton; the latter provides more details regarding the American high command during World War II, in part because it was prepared after restrictions about mentioning Ultra decoding had been lifted.
  • Bruce Gamble’s Fortress Rabaul and Target Rabaul provide an overview of the Southwest Pacific theater of World War II with emphasis on the air campaigns.

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.

When All the Options Are Bad:  Finland in World War II   [1939 CE – 1945 CE]

Over the centuries the history of the Finnish people has often been characterized by geographical contraction, political subjugation, and population dispersal.  Originating in Central Russia, they seem to have begun to migrate to what is currently Finland approximately 10,000 years ago.  Swedes started to move there some 800 years ago, and after about 200 years they took over, making Finland part of Sweden.

After a long history of conflict, Russia took Finland away from Sweden in 1809 CE.  Technically living in an autonomous region, the Finns became increasingly restive as Russia attempted to impose stricter rule. They finally declared independence in December of 1917.  A short civil war between Finnish Red and White factions broke out in the spring of 1918.  By May the Whites were victorious, confirming the break with Russia.

In the early 1930s it was clear that Finland would not be able to avoid involvement in the coming hostilities.  It was not necessary to know of the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [August 1939] ceding Finland to Russia to understand that Stalin had designs on Finland.  His apologists claim his November 1939 ultimatum offering Finland territory north of Lake Lagoda in exchange for lands on the Karelian isthmus near Leningrad and a base situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland was reasonable.  Perhaps in comparison with the U.S.S.R.’s annexation of the Baltic States it was.

Finland was caught between two monstrous evils:  Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.  In 1939, Stalin had a clear lead over Hitler when it came to atrocities, including the Gulag, purges during the 1930s of the Communist Party and Red Army, and the man-made famine in the Ukraine, which alone probably resulted in over 7 million deaths [1932 – 1933].  The German accomplishments in crimes against humanity at the time paled by comparison, though they began to catch up quickly after they invaded Poland in September of 1939, even if the Soviet atrocity at Katyn is weighed in the balance.

The Soviets shelled their own village of Mainila in November of 1939, claiming the Finns were responsible.  Using this as a pretext, the U.S.S.R. invaded Finland on November 30th, starting the Winter War [1939 -1940].  They eventually committed about 450,000 troops.  The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union for its transparent aggression.

The Soviet forces outnumbered the Finnish by approximately 3 to 1 in manpower, 30 to 1 in terms of aircraft, and 100 to 1 in terms of tanks.  Observers predicted a very short war.

They underestimated the Finns and the damage Stalin had inflicted on the Soviet armies.  Adroitly using lines of fortification, trenches, and highly mobile ski troops, the Finns demonstrated that they could inflict enormous casualties on the Soviet invaders.  One preferred way of doing so was skiing through the forest to attack the front and the rear of a Russian column on the road, immobilizing the soldiers in between, and then eliminating the Russian food transports and kitchens.  Exposure and starvation killed the invaders as effectively as bullets.

The Russian dead or missing numbered about 127,000 troops, with casualties exceeding 320,000.  The Finns suffered roughly 70,000 total casualties, with approximately 26,000 dead.

The Soviets paused, reorganized and, using improved tactics, occupied the territory Stalin had demanded and a bit more.  The Finns sued for peace.  A treaty was signed in March of 1940, ceding roughly 11% of Finland, representing about 30% of its economy, to the Soviet Union.  In return for their soldiers’ heroic resistance and Stalin’s disinclination to suffer further losses on this front, the Finns remained independent.

The English and French governments, though grossly ineffective and oblivious to any number of realities on the ground, called off plans to support the Finns and engage the Soviets once they heard of the peace treaty.

The Germans had observed with grim glee the ineptitude of the Red Army and the obtuseness of its command.   The Winter War encouraged the Nazis contemplating their drive to the East.  They attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

Because of its border with the U.S.S.R., Finland could not emulate Sweden’s neutrality.  Alliance with the Nazis was profoundly distasteful and dangerous, but the Russians represented an immediate existential threat.  Fighting between the Finns and Russians restarted June 22nd 1941, the day the Germans began their invasion of the Soviet Union.  The Finns declared war on the U.S.S.R. three days later.  It was the only representative democracy to ally itself with the Axis during World War II.

The Finns called this second stage of their participation in World War II the Continuation War.  They retook the lands they had lost to the Russians in the Winter War, carefully halting operations on the line of the pre-World War II border between the Soviet Union and Finland, or the first defensible position beyond it.  The Germans were furious at Finland’s unwillingness to progress further, especially as the Finns were only 30 km from Leningrad [19 miles].   The Finns also appeared to have the capability to cut the Murmansk railway, by which roughly a quarter of Allied aid was delivered to Russia, but stalled when Germany asked them to do so.  The Finns were playing a long game.

Russia appeared to appreciate this fact.  When it became increasingly clear that Nazi Germany was losing the war, the Russians reconquered the territory Finland had retaken in the Continuation War.  But the Finnish Army stopped this Soviet offensive by July of 1944, possibly with the agreement of the Russian high command.  A ceasefire was announced on September 5th, and an armistice signed on September 19th.

Peace with the U.S.S.R. cost the Finns the territories they had lost in the Winter War, resulting in the flight of about 400,000 refugees from the lands taken over by the Soviets.

Approximately 214,000 German troops remained in northern Finland to protect access to the nickel mines near Petsamo.   Between September 1944 and April of 1945 the Finns expedited German withdrawal from their country.  The Germans adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying much of the northern half of the country.  Roughly up to 1,000 died on the Finnish side.  The Germans suffered losses of a similar magnitude in this Lapland War.

The Finnish experience during World War II was even more peculiar than it appears to be at first glance. Not only was it the only democracy allied with the Axis powers, it also maintained its military independence despite repeated attempts by the German High Command to integrate the Finnish army into the German chain of command.  Finland managed this despite being heavily dependent on Germany for food, fuel, and weapons.

Finland was also unique among European states bordering Russia in 1939 in that it was not occupied by 1945.  Only 3 European countries fighting in World War II did not have their capitals occupied at one time or another:  the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R, and Finland.

Finnish Jews were not systematically persecuted, though 8 Jewish refugees were at one point handed over to the Nazis, an aberration for which a Finnish Prime Minister offered an official apology after the war.  Finnish Jews fought as members of the Finnish Army, which provided them with a field synagogue.

Against the odds, Finland maintained its independence.  Astonishingly, they paid off their renegotiated war reparations.

So what does the Finnish experience in World War II demonstrate?  Possibly that:

  • Neutrality is a luxury dependent on a degree of removal from the problem.
  • Hard fighting within strict limits can be more successful than suicidal idealistic courage.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to forge an alliance with the Devil.
  • Just because you are at war with somebody doesn’t mean you have to stop talking with them.


Further Reading: 

  • Allen Chew’s The White Death and Richard Condon’s The Winter War provide overviews of the Russo-Finnish conflicts in World War II.
  • The magnitude of Stalin’s atrocities still astonishes. Ann Applebaum’s Gulag provides a useful  summary, and her Gulag Voices collects testimony of Gulag prisonersVarlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales give a personal and artistic perspective to complement the essential but prolix Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


  • Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands usefully summarizes the problems and experiences of European states and peoples caught between Stalin and Hitler.