Not a Dumb American: South Africa Edition

Here it is halfway through the year (well more than half but not that much more), and I have read three of my planned four histories of African nations for 2017. YAY ME. Because I happened to see it at my library, and because it was blurbed by Desmond Tutu, I picked up a copy of Leonard Thompson and Lynn Berat’s A History of South Africa.

History of South Africa

One thing that struck me about South African history is the role that economics plays in how colonialism ends up working. In the early-to-mid 1800s, England had a presence in South Africa, right? And they came into conflict with the descendants of the Dutch settlers (the Afrikaners) because they wanted to impose a system of government that gave equal rights to black and white citizens. However, while the British found it all well and good to give nominal rights to black folks at a time and in a place where their economic interests were not engaged–

Actually, before I finish that clause, a sidebar: One of the huge reasons that England was able to pride itself on its relatively humane treatment of its colonies in this era (early to mid-1800s) is that it had massive massive economic control. By the middle of the Victorian era, Britain controlled close to a majority of world trade in manufactured goods. They were in a unique economic situation that enabled them to be a little less horrible to small, economically unimportant outposts like South Africa. End sidebar.

–they massively changed their tune once it became clear that South Africa had valuable mineral resources. The Afrikaners (descendants of the Dutch colonizers) were prone to kidnapping African children as “apprentices” (but actually slaves) to work on their farm land — among other things — so it would seem as though the British government, taking over after the Boer War, would be a step up.

it is almost as if imperialism is inherently corrupting and there’s no good way to do it idk

Because the British still didn’t want to be bothered governing a colony, they largely let the Afrikaners continue to run things. Mining companies cut wages, tightened pass laws to keep black laborers from traveling freely within the country, and brought in scabs from China any time the labor force balked at the treatment they were receiving and tried to strike.

I also learned a brand new thing about the way apartheid government functioned, which I not only didn’t know before but had not even the faintest inkling had ever existed. Apparently, the apartheid government in South Africa created these places called “Homelands,” which were small rural territories to which black South Africans were given citizenship to prevent them from living in urban areas. And the government was like “See? We have granted independence to our black citizens, just like all the Europeans wanted us to!”

The actual effect of these Homelands was not to provide any measure of self-determination to the indigenous populations but the exact opposite. Unless white-run businesses wanted the cheap labor, black South Africans were not permitted to live in “white” areas and would be resettled (forcibly, if necessary) into one of the designated Homelands. This also (surprise!) had the effect of curtailing the amount of land that black folks could occupy or own. The various Homelands were separated from each other by swathes of white-controlled territory, and “citizens” couldn’t leave their designated Homelands without specific permission, which of course made it very hard for black South Africans to put together an organized resistance.

They did, though. In spite of government brutality and limited resources and the reluctance of Thatcher-led Britain and Reagan-led America to impose sanctions on the apartheid government, the country’s majority of black people continued to resist, first by the nonviolent means advocated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, then with something closer to guerrilla warfare.

One of my big takeaways was that the country was deeply lucky to have Nelson Mandela (yes yes I know this is the HOTTEST OF TAKES), who fought tirelessly for freedom under apartheid and then worked like hell to make peace a possibility in a deeply, deeply divided country. The tricky bit is that his popularity gave extraordinary power to his party, the ANC, which remains overwhelmingly dominant in South African politics. If you are a student of history you will note that dominance by a single party is not a recipe for longterm national stability. WHICH IS WHY GERRYMANDERING IS A FUCKING AWFUL IDEA, AMERICA.

Narrator: She was not calm.

This has been yr humble narrator learning more things about African countries, one by one. Some day soon I’ll know everything about everything, so stand by for that plausible, non-distant day. If you want to check out the main page for this reading project, it’s here. If you want to suggest a country for me to learn about next, hit me up in the comments!

Not a Dumb American: Angola Edition

Note: I received a copy of Njinga of Angola from the publisher for review consideration. This has not affected the contents of my post.

My brilliant friend Alice told me that this book existed (thanks, Alice!), and I hied me off to the publisher at once to ask for a review copy. I love African history and I love BALLER QUEENS, so you can see that this was a match made in heaven. Njinga was a seventeenth-century queen in what is now northwestern Angola. At a time when European rule was sweeping across Africa, Njinga successfully ruled the kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo at a time when Portuguese rule was the norm; her political savvy and military success forced the European colonizers to treat with her even as they ran roughshod over numerous other sovereign nations in Africa. Njinga was also a slave trafficker (slave export was one way that she preserved her economic power) and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Njinga of Angola

Njinga of Angola is the first ever (I know!) English-language biography of this queen. Linda Heywood has done a tremendous amount of archival research to track down Njinga’s story. The sister of Ngola a Hari, a king who was very medium at getting what he wanted from the Portuguese, Njinga did not begin her political career until she was thirty-five years old. She was deputized by her brother (who had previously killed her infant son and sterilized her and her sisters to prevent them from becoming a threat to his rule) to negotiate with the Portuguese on his behalf.

but for real, Njinga was on a legit diplomatic mission to the Portuguese

After this mission, she gained sufficient popularity and power to feel comfortable murdering her jerk brother and taking over his throne. Then she married the Imbangala gentleman who had custody of her brother’s little son. At the wedding, she killed the kid and threw him in the river.

This story brings up (for me) one of the problems with Njinga’s story: Like a lot of African history, we’re depending heavily on European records to know what’s going on. Later on in life, Njinga was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with major European religious and political figures in an effort to achieve her diplomatic goals. But even then, historians have very little access to her innermost thoughts, depending instead on the image of herself she was presenting to powerful Europeans as a powerful African. So we are able to know about her only what European writers saw, or what she chose to present to European priests, kings, and governors. Anything they didn’t see, we can’t know. It makes for a slightly bloodless story, as the reader is necessarily at one or two removes from Njinga’s true motives and feelings.

With that being said, though, Heywood makes it clear how savvy Njinga became to what the Europeans expected and wanted from her, and what she could expect and request from them. Recognizing that the Europeans were using the pretext of moral virtue to steal land, and aware that her own military successes gave her a degree of bargaining power, she used the idea of cannibal savages as a tool to defend her own moral virtue and claim to the land: Whereas these groups of Africans are bad and wicked, with barbaric customs and irredeemable morals, my group of Africans is righteous and Christian.

The most tragic thing in this book (to me, a sisters-having person) is that Njinga’s two sisters were taken captive by the Portuguese, and they were spies for her. I was very struck by how brave they were and what impressive assets to Njinga as a ruler — one sister spied for her for years until she was caught and executed. The other converted (allegedly) to Christianity under Portuguese rule, and her (apparent) piety was a crucial bargaining chip when Njinga was requesting protection as a fellow Christian. Negotiations over the second sister’s release went on for years, and by the time the women were reunited, the sister — now called by her Christian name of Barbara, formerly known as Kambu — had been a prisoner of the Portuguese for over a decade.

Njinga threw herself on the ground in front of Barbara, rubbing herself in the soil as was customary when a person received a favor or when dependents paid homage to masters or superiors. Given permission to approach Barbara, Njinga kissed her sister’s hand and knelt once more, letting her face drop to the ground once again. After this ceremonial greeting, the two sisters embraced and for a long time held on to each other tenderly, not speaking a word, but kissing each other repeatedly.

Next I would like to read an article / series of articles / whole damn book about contesting memories of Njinga. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Contemporary Portuguese accounts often lean heavily on Njinga’s conversion to Christianity and how sincere it may have been, or on the notion that she was a cannibal savage who sacrificed humans in barbarian rituals (this carrying of course a very, very different moral valence than the actions of Portuguese slave traders in the same historical period). In post-independence Angola, Njinga has been revered as a symbol of resistance to colonizing powers.

Njinga of Angola is a tremendous feat of research and storytelling, a vital piece of the massively complex story of African resistance and diplomacy in the face of European colonialism. Much recommended.

Not a Dumb American: Equatorial Guinea

Let me tell you some of the problems I have encountered in my Africa reading project. Number one is that not a huge amount of books have been published in English about many African countries, particularly smaller ones, particularly non-Anglophone smaller ones. Number two is that my library oftentimes has older African history books but does not have newer African history books, which I assume can be attributed to a shift in purchasing priorities. So the book I read for Equatorial Guinea (a teensy wee Hispanophone country) was Ibrahim Sundiata’s 1990 monograph Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability.

Guess what happened in Equatorial Guinea in 1996. They found oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Turns out having huge oil reserves can drastically change the course of a nation’s history.

Let me back up and tell you some of the stuff I learned from the actual book, however. Equatorial Guinea is a teeny wee country on Africa’s west coast and one of three African countries with “Guinea” in the name. (The other two are Guinea-Bissau and just plain old regular Guinea.) There’s a mainland bit of the country, which is called Rio Muni, and then there’s an island bit up by Cameroon called Bioko, and another island bit down below Sao Tome and Principe that’s called Annobon. It’s confusing. Here’s a picture.

If you are wondering why the country is so weirdly laid out, I can report that it’s basically down to the Spanish being rather disorganized colonizers and the Portuguese knowing what they were about. Sao Tome and Principe were uninhabited at the point of Portuguese colonization and had a lot of cultivable land, whereas Bioko was fiercely defended by its inhabitants, the Bubi, and neither it nor the other Equatorian islands had much available land for large-scale farming. Annobon and Corisco (Corisco is the yellow dot just slightly southwest of Rio Muni) were usefulish as entrepots, but not so longterm useful that Portugal wasn’t willing to sell them to Spain in 1777. Spain kind of didn’t realize this before buying them.

real footage of Spain after making this purchase

I was going to say “Get your act together, Spain!” But then I was like, wait, do I want the colonizing powers to get their act together? And then I was like, wait, but is it better if the colonizing powers don’t have their act together, or does that just fuck up the ultimate outcomes for the colonized countries? And then I remembered that it doesn’t matter because colonized nations are nearly always fucked. And also I can’t do a very good comparison yet because I don’t know anything about outcomes in Sao Tome and Principe.1

For a large chunk of the twentieth century, the Equatorial Guinean chief export was cacao, which was farmed on a small scale by the indigenous Bubi people, and on a large scale by a huge range of immigrants and migrant workers from nearby African countries (because there weren’t enough local workers to do it on a large scale). Cacao plantations had really horrible working conditions, and various other countries kept annoying Spain deeply by summoning their migrant workers back home or by investigating labor conditions and penalizing anyone who acquired migrant workers illegally; and then Spain would be on the hook for compensation payments.

In 1968, the country became independent, probably because Spain couldn’t be bothered providing financially for the country they’d spent the last two hundred years not being bothered about governing, and a guy called Macias Nguema came to power. He centralized power in his own office, outlawed competing political parties, and decreed himself President for Life.


The great majority of educated Equatoguineans fled the country, with some estimates suggesting that the population declined by more than half during Nguema’s presidency/dictatorship. He targeted people who wore glasses and the minority Bubi population (remember them from a paragraph ago? They refused to work for shitty cacao plantations and did their own damn farming instead?), as he perceived those groups as being too intellectual. Also (I did not learn this from the book, I learned it from further online researches) he apparently committed mass murder in a football stadium while blasting a jaunty song I used to like but now find extremely creepy. It was his favorite song, but that doesn’t really explain much.

I am really sorry that these posts aren’t cheerier. Just, it turns out that when colonizing powers draw arbitrary national lines and skimp on education budgets for many decades, things become quite difficult for the resulting country. Also, it is difficult to shake off dictators once you have them, particularly if the dictators in question murder and exile the entire educated class of the country.


Anyway. Eventually there was a coup, and if you have been following along at home, you probably know it was even odds that the result of the coup against the dictator would just be a brand new dictator. The former dictator’s nephew, Teodoro Obiang, now the longest-running ruler in all of Africa. When Sundiata was writing his book, it seemed like Obiang would be less awful, and I guess once he dies and things change, we will have a better picture of how much and if he is indeed less awful. But corruption is still hella rampant, with the bulk of the country’s oil money going into Obiang’s pockets rather than improvements to the country, and dissent is really not tolerated at all.

Oh, I forgot to say also that when Macias (football stadium guy) was sentenced to execution, the cult of personality around him and the belief in his magic was so strong that no Equatoguineans would carry out the execution. Obiang’s Moroccan guard had to do it.

There you go. Now you know more about Equatorial Guinea than you knew before. It is all pretty sad but better to have more information than less information, right?

Next up: Old-time Zimbabwe! (By which I mean I am reading another oldish book, because even though it’s old it’s still supposed to be quite authoritative.) If you want to follow my progress on this mighty African reading project, here’s the main page. I am determined to read four histories of African countries this year, and hopefully five.

  1. I know that things went horribly awry in Angola and Mozambique, which are the other two Portuguese colonies I can think of right now, but my vague recollection is that those were Cold War proxy conflicts and not bumpy road to independence situations.

Not a Dumb American: Ethiopia Edition

My Africa reading project is so fun and great that it’s confusing to me it took me three-quarters of the year to reconvene it in 2016. There is nothing not good about it, except I guess the shortage of histories of African countries written by African authors in English and available at my library. But guess what, y’all. That is exactly what I got for Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be more pumped about it. Bahru Zewde’s A History of Ethiopia, 1855-1974 gloriously fulfills all my conditions. It is also real short, which meant that I read each section with extra-heightened attention to detail cause it is hard to remember a ton of dude’s names when you know they’re only going to be around for like three more pages.

Anyway. The funnest and greatest thing about my Africa reading project is the moment when new facts learned in my African history books connect up to existing knowledge that I already have. For example, this: In the mid-1800s, Egypt began encroaching upon Ethiopian land,1 and Ethiopia appealed to the nations of Europe like “You’re Christian, we’re Christian, let’s be Christian together and not let the Muslims take over our Christian land.” This didn’t work because, spoilers for all of human history, everyone actually cared way more about money than they cared about religion.

I know. Stunning news.

(Egypt had the Suez Canal.)

BUT. Here’s the part where it joins up to my knowledge of history: Then there came the Mahdist Uprising, which was this whole sort of charismatic revivalist Muslim situation wherein the Sudanese rebelled against their Egyptian rulers. You know the one. Where General Gordon was the general and he called for help and no help came? And he was brutally slaughtered by the Mahdists along with all the other people besieged with him at Khartoum?

So anyway, at this point the British really needed Ethiopian support, because Ethiopia borders Sudan, and they came hat in hand to the emperor, Yohannes IV, and made a treaty with him that Ethiopia abided by and Britain did not. Hashtag colonialism.


Another place where the book nearly, but not quite, joined up with my knowledge of history was in its dealing with Eritrea. Bahru Zewde seems quite down on Eritrean independence (unless I misunderstood? also possible?), and I don’t know if that’s because Eritrean independence was a bad idea, or because at the time this book was written, Eritrea was not yet independent, and we tend to think that the existing boundaries of a country are the Correct ones. Which I am realizing right now is kind of weird. Like, we don’t want a country to split in half, but if a country has split in half in the past, we’re all like, Yeah! Eritrean independence!

I do recall, however, a protest that occurred when I was a teenager where a bunch of Eritreans wanted the US to help stop the Ethiopians from doing a thing they were currently doing that the Eritreans wished them to desist from. I had a classmate whose parents were Eritrean (that is how I came to hear of this protest), and my classmate was nice so I have always assumed that Eritrea had the right idea.

By the way, the above two paragraphs are exactly why I convened this Africa reading project. A brief googling is able to tell me that this must have been during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, but what about all the wars where I did not have classmates whose parents were from those countries? I DO NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT THOSE ONES TO GOOGLE THEM.

Somewhat to my surprise, Bahru Zewde was quite down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

Interlude: Haile Selassie is so famous that I am confident all of you have heard of him. Even if you are currently saying to yourself, “no, I definitely have not heard of him,” you are actually mistaken. You have heard of him and you just don’t know it yet. See, because before Haile Selassie took on the emperorship and the name Haile Selassie, his name was Tafari Makonnen and his title was Ras, so hence, Ras Tafari. Which is where the name Rastafarian comes from because Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie. So there you go. You have heard of him.

Anyway, Bahru Zewde is down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and this was of interest to me because I had the distinct impression that we as a global community were quite up on Haile Selassie. But apparently (says Bahru Zewde) this was kind of Haile Selassie’s thing: He went traveling all over the world being stupendously popular with heads of state, and what happened was that he FELL FOR HIS OWN HYPE (never a good idea, ahem Joss Whedon ahem ahem) and didn’t really attend to the the fact that he wasn’t going to live forever. And that is how come (says Bahru Zewde) you ended up with power very consolidated and all the circumstances in alignment to produce the 1974 revolution.

I know. You are turning the metaphorical page breathlessly right now. What about the 1974 revolution, you are saying anxiously?

Well, the bad news is that this book ends in 1974. I learned a lot about old-time Ethiopia, but for modern Ethiopia — which it sounds like has crammed a lot of history into the last forty years — I will have to read a second Ethiopia book.

Onward! I have now done six African countries, and you may follow my progress (cause I know you are like totally enthralled with my ongoing geographical education) at the main page for my Africa reading project. Next up is Equatorial Guinea — confusingly, one of three African nations with “Guinea” in the name, but we will sort it out together, friends. Also my Equatorial Guinea book isn’t going to be so much about Equatorial Guinea but rather about the peoples and histories of the area of Africa that now includes what we call Equatorial Guinea. So. Promises to be not confusing at all.

  1. Truth: It’s sort of relaxing to read about countries I am in no way descended from doing shitty imperialist things.

Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.


David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.

Lessons learned from Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets

Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets is a hugely enjoyable read, particularly if you are (as I am) already roughly conversant with the early kings and queens of England. Since I have a vague outline in my head of the course of early British history, this book might as well have been Gossip about the Plantagenets. My main takeaways were on a theme, that theme being People from History Who Were Way Worse Than You Thought.

First up: Thomas Becket. I know you learned in school that Thomas Becket was a martyr to his faith, and “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” etc. That is true as far as it goes, but what I learned last year in rough outline and then again from The Plantagenets in some detail is that the principle in question was neither especially religious nor especially defensible on moral grounds. Henry II wanted to change a policy whereby rapists and murderers who were also members of the clergy faced trial by the church rather than the state. Becket refused to entertain this idea, and he kept right on doing church trials where the clergy people got off with light penalties or none at all. Henry II did not care for this, and neither do we modern folks.

Down with theocracy!

Also, Becket sounds very annoying. Every time he got mad at Henry and his political allies, he would order them to be excommunicated, and he did this so often that the Pope had to say, “No, don’t worry about it, y’all are still in the Church.” I’m not saying Becket deserved to die, but at a certain point it’s like, bro,  you know what century you live in. You can’t print up business cards that say Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and Full-Time King Disobeyer and remain sanguine about your life expectancy.

NEXT AND BEST: King John. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, But Jenny, I already know that King John was garbage. If he hadn’t been so garbage, we wouldn’t have the Magna Carta. Dude, I know. I also thought I knew what a garbage king he was. But I did not appreciate the full extent of his awfulness. I sort of thought it had been exaggerated by history. I was super wrong.

I made this gif! Yay me!
Accurate historical representation.

For one thing, he levied so many taxes on his subjects that there was a coin shortage. Just think about that for a moment. He had so many coins living in his royal coffers that there weren’t enough coins for other English people to use for purchasing goods and services. This was not ultimately beneficial to the Plantagenet leadership, as his son Henry III basically spent it all on making fancy churches fancier, leaving the kingdom in enormous debt to Italian bankers.

This one time, he imprisoned the other potential heir to the throne of England, his teenage nephew Arthur (fine), and he kept the kid in fairly dire conditions (not fine). Once when he got drunk, he ordered one of his vassals to go to Arthur’s cell and blind and castrate him, which luckily the guy chickened out of doing. But later that year, Arthur disappeared from his prison and was never seen again. It is believed that John got drunk, killed Arthur, and threw his body in the river. It is sort of hard to believe that he would do such an insane and unbeneficial thing, but on the other hand, he was all the time doing insane things that didn’t make any sense.

Maybe take a break from killing people for a little while, John old pal.

Case in point: One year, John decided that one of his barons, William de Briouze, who had been a strong ally to him all along, was probably actually plotting to destroy him. (This was not the case.) He started demanding that de Briouze pay huge sums of money to the Crown and send hostages to John’s court to ensure his good behavior. When de Briouze did not immediately comply, John sent mercenary armies to capture his castles, and then billed de Briouze for the cost of the mercenary soldiers. Like, he wanted de Briouze to pay wages to the guys who had just stolen his property.

After some ultimately unsuccessful fleeing by de Briouze and his family to Ireland, John captured his wife and son and imprisoned them in very yucky conditions in one of his castles, where they died within the year. One report says that they died of starvation, and that deBriouze’s son’s body had tooth marks on it because his mother went insane from hunger and tried to eat him.

Whether or not that particular gruesome story is true, we can all certainly agree that John I is sure to be known as John the Worst. And too bad, I think! John is an excellent king name, and thanks to rotten John Lackland (that’s a mean nickname people gave him when he was young, though not the meanest nickname he ever received; see tags), we’ll never have another King John of England.

This post could be twelve paragraphs longer, but I’ll let you digest all of this, and we’ll see about coming back to the Plantagenets in a later post. Maybe in that post I will make the disclaimer that Dan Jones has not got nearly enough footnotes and sometimes he says things as if they are fact when actually they are under some dispute by historians; but that his writing is extremely engaging and I am learning many excellent stories about the early kings of England.

Not a dumb American: American edition

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Rebecca’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

My American history memory is in a parlous state, mostly because I have never been terribly interested in it. But I am VERY VERY interested in colonial powers and the ways they do colonialism, so I was eager to pick up Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published by my much-beloved Beacon Press. It isn’t a history of the indigenous peoples of the US, but rather a history of the US happening to indigenous peoples.

I had to read this book one chapter per day, because otherwise I got too sad about it. Because basically here is the history of the US happening to indigenous people:

Stage 1: Various colonizing groups got to America and made treaties with the Indian nations they encountered. The colonizers despised the Indians and cheated them blind, but they acknowledged that the Indian groups were sovereign nations who got to America ahead of them.

(There were some massacres during this stage. Sometimes Indians massacred colonists, and sometimes colonists massacred Indians. Bad times all around.)

Stage 2: The USA got founded, and it made some treaties with Indian groups about where the United States ended and the Indian lands began. When American settlers settled on Indian land, and the Indians said, “Hey!”, the US government would most of the time just be like:

Because they would claim that the settlers were acting without the permission of the US government. But if the Indians attacked the settlers, the government would be like “Nooooo! The savages are attacking Americans!” and they would send out the army to burn down the Indian villages and redraw the treaty lines (often by getting some random Indian to sign the treaty and then be like “Okay! Now it counts for all people in your tribe!” even though the person who signed wasn’t actually authorized to speak for that tribe). And so on ad infinitum.

(There were massacres at this stage also. You should just always assume there are massacres going on. Also, the Trail of Tears.)

As I was reading about Stage 2, I was thinking, Oh yeah, this is what the Wilders were doing probably. This was the Laura Ingalls Wilders, settling on Indian land that actually really belonged to the Indians by treaty. Boy, the Ingalls family was not on the right side of history.

But man, if I thought Stage 2 was miserably depressing, I was not emotionally prepared for Stage 3. (Like, I knew it was coming, but I just really didn’t want it to.)

Stage 3: The US government got tired of paying lip service to the idea that they were ever going to honor their treaties with the Indians, I guess because redrawing the treaties all the time was creating too much paperwork for them or something. They announced that Indians weren’t sovereign nations after all, nor did Indian tribes have any legal significance as a unit. All Indians from now on would be considered as individuals (not members of a tribe) and would be wards of the state.

Yes it is. The Ingalls family was around during this bit, as well. They bridged the gap between Stage 2 and Stage 3. I’m not harping on it to make you feel guilty about liking those books; it’s just what I kept thinking about as I was reading. I got too depressed in this stage to take in some of the information coming my way. I was just thinking, Ugh, ugh, ugh, please stop it, America, you are the worst.

Stage 4: Hooray! A beacon of light at last! Y’all, I got so used to the story being about America using superior weapons and weapons to kill Indians and steal their land that I forgot anything else was ever going to happen. Stage 4 is the civil rights stage! Although Indian activist groups campaigned for a lot of things they didn’t end up getting, there were some things they did end up getting, including the occasional admission by the US government that they had been treating the Indians badly all these years.

If you are currently thinking, Jenny’s a colonialist asshole for being excited about the US government doing the absolute bare minimum of what it damn well should have been doing all along, I can’t argue with you. But y’all, Stages 2 and 3 were really rough. Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the massacre at Wounded Knee (often considered the end of Indian resistance in the United States), and really, any time you’ve got pictures of mass graves containing children, you’ll take no massacres + small shitty government concessions as a major win.

Overall: I didn’t learn a ton of information that I didn’t already know, at least in hazy outline. Dunbar-Ortiz is talking about patterns, not specifics, for much of this book, and we already know the general outlines of how European-American colonizers wiped out as many Indian tribes as they could over the course of a few centuries. However, I think it’s really important and valuable tTo see it laid out all in one place, as an integral part of the development of the country. I wrote down a ton of books from the bibliography, and I’m hoping to read more indigenous histories of America in the future.

Important takeaway: We gotta get Andrew Jackson of the $20 bill. I have been saying this for ages, but now I think so even more. It is insane and insulting that we have him on there. Let’s replace his face on the twenty with somebody whose policies didn’t kill quite so many people. I vote for Harriet Tubman. Nobody can argue with Harriet Tubman; partly because she is an awesome heroine from history, and partly because she is way tougher than you and would definitely win in a fight.

Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:


Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)

Not a dumb American: Afghanistan edition

Before I went to England to study abroad, in the interests of not being a dumb American, I memorized all the kings and queens of England in chronological order from William the Conqueror to now. As it turns out I should not have worried about this, because my flatmates were uninterested in history and world events and moreover did not know off the top of their heads what year the Magna Carta was signed (I do! 1215! And I have seen it live, in Salisbury!) So my power of reciting all the kings and queens of England in chronological order from William the Conqueror became basically something I did when I was drunk and trying to prove to my flatmates that I was not that drunk.

(NB: Do not use this test as a substitute for a breathalyzer. It is meaningless. One time in England — oh dear I am confessing to youthful follies, bear with me — I inattentively drank an entire bottle of white wine over a very short period of time on a completely empty stomach, and my then-boyfriend had to carry me from the kitchen to my bedroom because I kept getting too tired to walk and lying down sleepily on the floor in the hallway. But even in that state, I could still list all the kings and queens of England in order from William the Conqueror.)

The wish not to be a dumb American has not changed, which is why any book that gets described as an accessible history of any country ever goes directly onto my TBR list. And that goes double when the author is from that country — a rarer occurrence than you might think. Hence, I am currently reading Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules, about the history of modern Afghanistan, and I wanted to take some time to tell you some things I have learned.

Most important thing first: At the court of Ranjit Singh (nineteenth-century emperor of the Punjab), every day of the week had its own color. When it was yellow day, everything was decorated in yellow and everyone at court wore yellow.

East and West: There’s more that unites us than divides us.

Okay, that is not really about Afghanistan. It’s just something I learned from this book. I shall move now to an interesting Afghan ruler named Abdu’Rahman and nicknamed “the Iron Amir” because he was so scary. Following a messy conflict with the previous ruler, Sher Ali, Britain made a treaty with Abdu’Rahman that promised Afghan autonomy on the condition that they would not let Russia into Afghanistan or treat with any countries apart from Britain.

This was a very good deal for Britain because they did not actually want to govern Afghanistan (no good resources to exploit there). They just wanted Afghanistan not to cost them any money, cause them any problems, or allow Russia access to British-run India. (Pakistan didn’t exist yet, so Afghanistan bordered India and the Arabian Sea and would have been of enormous strategic value to the Russians.) Their treaty with Abdu’Rahman promised them all of this, with the added bonus that they would not feel they were under any obligation to help him administer his country. They were bound by treaty not to.

Abdu’Rahman went the British one better, cutting Afghanistan off as completely as he could from the rest of the world. No railroads were permitted to be built within the country’s borders; very few visitors gained leave to come into Afghanistan; and incoming imports and information were closely scrutinized by the government. Abdu’Rahman fought forty tribal wars during his reign, and won all of them. To prevent his defeating enemies from consolidating power and trying it on again, he redrew provincial boundaries to cut across tribal lines and relocated enormous groups of people to different sections of the country. So if a Ghilzai tribe was causing him trouble, he would uproot all of them and dump them in the Uzbek region, where they wouldn’t know any of their neighbors or even speak the same language.

Incidentally, his scary-motherfucker credentials were established well before all of this military victory. When he was a teenager, he wanted to find out if a gun worked, so he shot a servant and laughed when the servant died. What a psychopath. Not surprising he ruled with an iron fist.

Guess what happened in Afghanistan after he died. You guess. I’ll wait.

waiting waiting

Ha, ha, I tricked you. You thought I was going to say there was a succession battle, or that everything fell apart because Abdu’Rahman hadn’t trained his son to be an effective (that is what usually happens). Surprise! It was neither of those things! His son Habibullah could be rather lazy and capricious, but the governing structure was so sound that it didn’t matter that much what the king did. Things were pretty peaceful under Habibullah. People who had fled Afghanistan because Abdu’Rahman was too scary of a motherfucker came back to live there again. Habibullah installed telegraph lines and wired his palace for electricity. Some people bought cars. And Afghanistan lived happily ever after.

Or, well, probably not happily ever after. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book.