12 November 2018

Samurai in San Francisco, 1860

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 119-121:
The International Hotel stood on the corner of Jackson and Kearney Streets in the center of the city. When the samurai alighted in front of the lobby, their strange appearance attracted crowds of spectators, who must have watched their every move. “One wore a light blue gown and trowsers the colors of the sky at sunset, spangled, starred and barred with gold and crimson,” reported the Daily Evening Bulletin on March 20. Each man displayed on his jacket his family crest in white “circular, oval, or square patches,” which were “of an import quite unknown to us.” And each wore his long and short swords in the polished scabbards at his left hip, “almost horizontally.” One of them “carried a fan [in his right hand], in his left a walking cane… Almost every man wore sandals, generally [made] of grass.”

The Bulletin reported on March 19 that the Japanese “through the interpreters kept up such sort of conversation as they could. Fortunately, [California] Governor [John] Downey happened to be in town, and was early at the door. The Japanese could hardly believe that such a modest, unassuming, quiet little man could be a governor.” “It was necessary for … Brooke to explain repeatedly that this was the real Governor, before they could believe it,” reported the Daily Alta California on the same day. “They surveyed him from head to foot, and looked at the door again and again to see the retinue of attendants whom they thought ought to be following him.”

Katsu Kaishū, for his part, made a grand impression on the San Franciscans, who discerned in him a likeness to the former explorer, Gold Rush millionaire, California senator, Democratic candidate for president of the United States, and one of their greatest heroes. “The Captain of the corvette is a fine looking man, marvelously resembling in stature, form, and features Colonel [John Charles] Fremont, only that his eye is darker, and his mouth less distinctly shows the pluck of its owner,” the Bulletin commented on March 19.

By all accounts, the samurai entourage savored their sojourn of nearly two months in the burgeoning silver metropolis by the bay. Certain scenes come to mind. Katsu Kaishū posing for a tintype portrait at William Shew’s photographic studio on Montgomery Street—the two swords and family crest prominently displayed on his person, the hair tied back, the noble expression complemented by dark, determined eyes. The Japanese touring the waterfront, observing with keen interest a convoy vessel of San Francisco Bay and merchant ships from Panama. Kaishū noting that while the larger merchant ships are commanded by military men, captains of the smaller merchant vessels are civilians. Kaishū and Brooke visiting the “gorgeous redbrick” home of a certain naval officer, “the owner of the largest merchant ship, which he commands.” The samurai entourage visiting the San Francisco Baths on Washington Street, because, as the Daily Alta California reported on March 21, they are “desirous of trying the American style” of bathing. Riding the sand cars on the Market Street Railway, “a sight, which being new to them, they [view] with much interest.” Browsing in Kohler’s spacious piano warerooms and bazaar on Sansome Street, where they observe musical instruments, toys, and opera glasses, and inspecting the sewing machines at the Wheeler and Wilson’s store; Kaishū taking note of the gaslights that illuminated the streets after dark so that one may walk about town without a lantern.

And Kaishū marveled at the industrialization of the town—the clamor of steam-powered windmills from the factories; the mechanical saws; the newspaper printing presses; the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint, comprising a three-story red brick building on Commercial Street; the iron foundries where great hammers and iron plating were manufactured; the gas works on First Street; the “Vulcan works, where,” the Daily Alta reported on March 21, “luckily, castings were being run, and the trip-hammer, planing, and other machines were successfully set in motion.” And if Kaishū was enthralled by modern technology, imagine his astonishment at the sight of a factory worker openly engaged with a prostitute during break time, and his perplexity at being offered “the wife of a Mr. So-and-So for a certain amount per hour.”

Keeping to more practical matters, Kaishū later wrote:
All of this machinery was run on steam power, eliminating the need for manual labor and vastly facilitating [production]. Japan [meanwhile] had shunned foreign commerce. As long as we had the means to produce commodities sufficient for our own domestic consumption, we had no need for [such] machinery, but rather depended on the labor of our highly skilled artisans and craftsmen.
In the spring of 1860, then, as Katsu Kaishū walked the streets of San Francisco, he was poignantly reminded of the urgent need to “conduct international trade,” mechanize Japanese industry, and “change Japan’s antiquated ways.”

10 November 2018

Not exactly Emperor vs. Shogun

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 92-94:
The Imperial Loyalists hailed from samurai clans throughout the country. Most prominent among them were Mito in the east, Fukui in the west, and Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Kumamoto in the outlying southwestern regions. Many of them were low-ranking samurai from the bottom rungs of their respective clans—and therein lay their superiority as leaders and as men. Generally, the lower-samurai did not have a voice in the policies of their han. They had to struggle, and often risk their lives, just to be heard. As a result, they were naturally more capable than the spoiled, privileged, and, more often than not, inept sons of the upper-samurai—a fact of which Katsu Kaishū was acutely aware. During times of tranquility and peace, the lower-samurai had been willing to accept their humble positions; but after Perry they demanded attention. Some left their han without permission to band together with Loyalists from feudal domains throughout Japan. In thus abandoning their han they became rōnin. (The term rōnin was used interchangeably with the less derogatory rōshi. The of both terms means “wave”—the gist being “wandering aimlessly.” The nin of rōnin simply means “person,” while the shi of rōshi means “samurai.”)

In former times, rōnin were merely lordless samurai—men of the warrior class who had become separated from feudal lord and clan. But after Perry, the term rōnin took on a much different connotation. Most of the latter-day rōnin were renegade samurai, political outlaws, who had intentionally quit the service of their lord and clan. Far greater in number than their predecessors, these men did not necessarily derive from the samurai caste. Some hailed from peasant households, and some from merchant families. And some samurai who technically became rōnin did not really abandon their daimyo; rather they quit their lord’s service in order to protect him from being associated with their own seditious activities. Imperial Loyalism encompassed a wide sphere extending beyond the anti-Bakufu and anti-foreign parties, and even the samurai class itself. Morals in Japanese society were based, in part, on the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects. The Emperor was sovereign. His ancestors had ruled in ancient times, long before the advent of the shōguns or, for that matter, any of the feudal lords. The people were the Emperor’s subjects—and counted among the Imperial subjects was the shōgun himself, who had merely been commissioned by the Emperor to rule.

The coming revolution, then, would not simply be a struggle between Imperial Loyalists on one side and the Bakufu and its supporters on the other. As already noted, most of the people who supported the Bakufu also revered the Emperor, and among those who swore absolute loyalty to the Emperor were some of the most devout Bakufu supporters. This dichotomy existed among individuals and groups alike.

09 November 2018

Founders of the Nagasaki Naval Academy

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 68-69:
“Defend the country” would soon become a byword among samurai throughout Japan—for it was around this time that Perry arrived. While the Bakufu ranks were filled with men of mediocre ability who had inherited their positions—a fundamental flaw of Tokugawa feudalism which Katsu Kaishū openly resented—such was not the case for the entire Edo elite. And fortunately for Kaishū, and indeed the future of the country, the extraordinary talents of the still relatively obscure scholar of Dutch studies caught the attention of Ōkubo Tadahiro (better known by his later name, Ōkubo Ichiō), one of the most progressive Bakufu officials in those most critical of times.

Ōkubo was born in Bunka 14 (1817), six years before Kaishū. While both men were vassals of the shōgun, their social standings, and the opportunities presented them in early life, were worlds apart. Kaishū came into this world with “no expectations in life”; Ōkubo was the eldest son of an old illustrious samurai family whose service to the House of Tokugawa was older than the Bakufu itself. From childhood he “applied himself diligently to literature and martial arts,” Kaishū later wrote of Ōkubo. At age fourteen he served at Edo Castle as a page to Shōgun Iénari, the same year that he was conferred with the honorary title Shima-no-Kami. A staunch advocate of Open the Country, he was brought into the higher echelons of the Bakufu hierarchy in Ansei 1 (1854), soon after Perry’s second visit. In the Fifth Month of that year Senior Councilor Abé Masahiro appointed him to the post of metsuké in charge of coastal defense. During the final years of Tokugawa rule, Ōkubo would serve in a number of other high posts, including chief of the Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books, Nagasaki magistrate, Kyōto magistrate, ōmetsuké, commissioner of foreign affairs, attendant (and advisor) to Shōgun Iémochi, chief of the Kōbusho military academy, and commissioner of finance.

Ōkubo was a connoisseur of fine tea, tobacco, swords, horses, calligraphy, and Japanese literature. He was a Japanese classicist and poet, whose collection of waka (31-syllable odes) and other writings would be published posthumously by Katsu Kaishū. Ōkubo clashed with the “numerous insignificants [around him],” Kaishū wrote. A physically small man, he possessed some of the most venerated qualities among samurai. Kaishū praised him for his frugality and high moral character, though he was sometimes “too stern for his own good.” When asked in the 1890s to name the most insightful scholar during the final years of the Bakufu, Kaishū designated Ōkubo with that distinction. Even if Ōkubo tended to be “too honest,” he was “sincere and a deep thinker.” That the highborn Ōkubo was quick to acknowledge the extraordinary abilities of the son of Katsu Kokichi is testimony that Kaishū’s evaluation of his patron was as sound as their lifelong friendship, which would prove indispensable in maintaining order in Edo when the Bakufu collapsed thirteen years later.

03 November 2018

The Idea Factory for POW Reeducation

From Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland, by Melissa Amateis Marsh (History Press, 2014), Kindle pp. 41-44:
Located at Fort Kearny, Rhode Island, the Idea Factory consisted of German POWs who were carefully screened for their anti-Nazi tendencies and then selected after they filled out questionnaires. These prisoners were then separated from the rest of their comrades at their camp to await transport to Fort Kearny. Although this selection was not foolproof, the Americans did have an advantage. Hitler’s impending defeat had soured many Germans against Nazism. Others had never been ardent admirers of Nazism. Still, at the time the reeducation program appeared, many of the German POWs had been prisoners for two or three years, offering them ample opportunity to think about Germany’s status in the world. These prisoners were involved in the experimental phase of the reeducation program. Although pro-Nazism was still a problem in the camps, this group was determined to do something about it.

The Special Projects staff then assembled a division of “specially-qualified” German prisoners—writers, professors and linguists who were dedicated anti-Nazis. All were volunteers, all were officers and all renounced their Wehrmacht ranks. Due to this special assignment, these prisoners enjoyed far more freedom at Fort Kearny than they had had at their respective camps. No guards or towers policed their movements, and they even took the ferry to Jamestown in army trucks to pick up their supplies.

However, this rather elite group of individuals was perhaps not the most prudent choice. Although the group was happy to be among other intellectuals, Ron Robin believed the group did not understand the tastes of the average prisoner. According to Robin, this would come to negatively affect the program. The Idea Factory was separated into subdivisions, which included review sections for film and government agency material, translation sections for the school curriculum and a camp newspaper section. This last section monitored around seventy POW camp newspapers as well as produced its own nationwide camp newspaper called Der Ruf (The Call). The goals of the newspaper were to “reflect the experience of being a German PW in America, but also stimulate democratic thinking.” The first issue appeared in the spring of 1945.

When Germany fell and victory was proclaimed in Europe in May 1945, many of the ordinary classes POWs had been taking were eliminated. Instead, the essentials—English, history, geography and others that stressed democracy—were emphasized. Now the men at the Idea Factory in New York concentrated on reviewing and preparing materials for the new reeducation program. They focused on two areas: censorship and translations. Books that were to be considered for class use, libraries and for sale in the POW canteen all had to be read, analyzed and evaluated before they would be declared “suitable” for the POWs.


With so many diversions already in place before the reeducation program went into effect, it remained imperative that the Special War Projects Division find U.S. officers capable of implementing the program. The requirements were stiff. The men were expected to be experts on German and American journalism, film and literature; be fluent in German; and have previous experience in a POW camp and education. These assistant executive officers were trained at conferences in Fort Slocum, New York, in late 1944 and early 1945.

The importance of intelligence officers to the program’s success could not be overstated. Yet more often than not, they met with more opposition from their own officers and American servicemen than from the prisoners themselves. Alfred Thompson suggests that the program did not receive the support and cooperation it should have at the camp level because of the intense secrecy surrounding it. Because it was a top secret program, they could not even tell their fellow officers just what they were doing. “One went so far as to tell his commanding officers that he was under secret orders and could not reveal his mission even to him. Some of the AEO’s had enough brains to recognize the difficulties which would be involved in such complete secrecy and lack of confidence in co-workers, but the majority was not so intelligent.” In fact, Thompson and other officers found themselves ostracized by their own co-workers. “We were called ‘Junior Dick Tracys’ or ‘Super Sleuths’ to the point where it hurt.”

This attitude originated from the very top. The supervising officer of the assistant executive officers, Major Paul A. Neuland, felt that the lack of contact between the officers in the field and the Special Projects Division chain of command was having a detrimental effect on the program itself. Even though he tried to pass along the critical comments of the officers to division headquarters, he succeeded only in alienating himself further from his fellow officers. Neuland was upset by the continual rejection of the officers’ comments “by a man in the New York Office … doesn’t make sense.” But unfortunately, to his fellow Special War Projects Division officers, Neuland’s criticism only pointed to a lack of loyalty.


These intelligence officers’ responsibility carried further than merely implementing the reeducation program. They were also required to keep morale and special service activities “maintained and improved” for the American military personnel at the camps. They were ordered to distribute the War Department pamphlets 19-1 “What about the German Prisoners?” and 19-2 “Facts vs. Fantasy” to help in this endeavor. Yet with the majority of the responsibility of the program falling on their shoulders, it is difficult to understand why the commanders in the Special Projects Division office did not listen more to their thoughts on the matter.

Yet the very nature of those in charge, who were mostly from academia, might offer a clue. As Ron Robin states in The Barbed-Wire College, “They represented an alienated intelligentsia, who never bothered to hide their contempt for the rank and file within the camps.”

30 October 2018

Origins of Japanese POW Reeducation

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1284-1310:
Despite the terrifying power of America’s military campaign in the Pacific, few people in the U.S. government believed that the war against Japan would be over in a matter of months. In fact, Japanese soldiers and civilians had regularly fought to the death or committed suicide rather than surrender to American forces. At Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, for instance, only eight of 2,600 Japanese soldiers had survived the U.S. attack. Then, later, on Saipan in the Mariana Islands, hundreds of Japanese civilians had jumped from cliffs to kill themselves in acts of desperation to avoid capture by American forces. This tragic tactic was also embraced by more than 1,900 kamikaze pilots who sacrificed themselves in suicide attacks against the American fleet off Okinawa in May 1945, seeking to halt the U.S. effort there. Although this strategy ultimately failed, it confirmed the widely-held American belief that Japanese soldiers and civilians would stop at nothing to defend their honor and homeland. More ominously, it also demonstrated how arduous and costly an American invasion of the Japanese home islands was likely to be.

As American military leaders planned the final stages of the war against Japan, a variety of U.S. diplomatic and academic experts analyzed the enemy’s behavior in an attempt to coordinate both the end of the war and the planning of the post-war era. Following the lead of influential thinkers, like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, anthropologists of the period encouraged policy makers to reject commonly held American stereotypes that portrayed the Japanese as mindless drones following their god-emperor, and to instead view them as devoted warriors who were products of their own educational, political, and cultural surroundings. This new interpretation of the Japanese, historian John Dower has written, provided that their national character was not racially fixed or permanent, but was, like the American character, open to change based upon new experiences and educational opportunities.

A long-time disciple of this view, John Emmerson of the U.S. State Department, spent the period from October to December 1944, in the new communist capital of China, Yan’an, in support of the U.S. Army’s Observation Group (or Dixie Mission), which was gathering intelligence and making connections with the revolutionary leaders of China. After meeting the top communists leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and General Chu Teh, Emmerson spent most of his time in the area with Chinese and Japanese communists who were re-educating Japanese POWs. Chief among the Japanese leaders in Yan’an was Nosaka Sanzo, a native of Yamaguchi prefecture, who had been orphaned at 14, before becoming an outspoken critic of the Japanese oligarchy and its apparent disregard for the concerns of the working people. As a young man, Sanzo attended Tokyo’s Keio University and the London School of Economics, and he became a cosmopolitan Marxist theorist, who served as a founding member of both the Japanese Communist Party and the Japanese People’s Emancipation League. The later organization ran a Workers and Peasants School in the caves of Yan’an to transform Japanese POWs into good communists. It was this school—with its enlightened procedures and successful indoctrination—that Emmerson hoped to emulate with Japanese POWs in the United States. Based on his first-hand experience at the school, Emmerson began to devise a plan that called for the American government to select the most compliant of the 5,000 Japanese POWs in the U.S., teach them about western-style democracy, and then persuade them to help shape the “pacification” effort and post-war “political orientation” of a democratic Japan.

29 October 2018

From Penal Division to POW Camp

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 838-865:
At the height of the 1943 Nazi- and anti-Nazi crisis, Camp Huntsville proved to be a particularly important spot within the national POW system. At Huntsville, the general population of Afrika Korps non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and enlisted men were mixed with political prisoners, criminals, and anti-Nazis. Some of these prisoners likely came from the 999th Light Afrika Division, which contained the majority of anti-Nazis captured early in the war. Originally created as a penal brigade in 1942 in France, the unit expanded into a Division and began deployment into North Africa in early 1943. The defeat of German forces in North Africa interrupted the deployment, however, and many of the unit's members quickly surrendered without a fight to the first Americans they encountered. Such actions did not endear them to their fellow POWs who viewed them as deserters and traitors. Despite the obvious divisions between these German prisoners, the POW camps in North Africa did not attempt to organize the prisoners, but rather mixed them all together in large compounds. This led to a number of problems with identification and organization. It also meant that the prisoners from the 999th were scattered throughout the early POW population and camp system.

The enlisted members of the unit were primarily communists, traditional socialists, anti-Nazis, and criminals, while their non-commissioned officers and officers were trusted party men. Just as the non-commissioned officers of the Afrika Korps tended to be the most ardent Nazis, the enlisted men of the 999th tended to be the most radical anti-Nazis. Much of the 999th’s more senior non-commissioned officers and leadership were confirmed Nazis and included Gestapo men, who were put in place to “keep watch” over their radical troops. Thus, the stage was set for violence whenever these two forces found themselves occupying the same camp in significant numbers.

In his account of his time at Camp Huntsville, former POW Rudolf Thill identifies twelve of the anti-Nazis who arrived with him as part of the first batch of prisoners who had been released from concentration camps to serve in the penal battalions of units like the 999th. These men had a particular problem in that their arms bore the telltale number tattoos of concentration camp prisoners. This made it nearly impossible for them to blend in with the prisoner population, even if they wanted to, which by all appearances they did not. Eventually, following an attack on two prisoners, the twelve anti-Nazis along with Thill, who had taken a job working with the Americans, were transferred to another camp after being segregated from the other prisoners and placed in the stockade for their own protection. More transfers and violence would follow.

In fact, disagreements among the “German” soldiers proved to be the greatest disruptive force at Camp Huntsville. This was, in large part, because the German military was not nearly as homogeneous as it has often been portrayed. In addition to a large number of Austrians pressed into service, it included Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, and any number of Balkan partisans who found themselves serving in the Wehrmacht or in specially organized foreign units. The U.S. generally treated all of these men as “German” on the basis that they were captured in German uniform, at least until later in the war.

Nazi vs. Anti-Nazi POWs in Texas

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 804-837:
Interestingly, in 1943, administrators at Camp Huntsville and the Eighth Service Command seem to have been primarily concerned with ridding the camps of the anti-Nazis who were viewed as a “potential source of disturbance” and “trouble-makers,” rather than the die-hard Nazis. Yet, the problems at Camp Huntsville and other sites ran deeper than a few outspoken anti-Nazis. The reasons for Huntsville’s continued problems dated to its inception. The majority of the men at the camp were from the Afrika Korps captured during operations early in the war. Unlike many of the prisoners captured in Italy and Europe, who would later populate the camp, these men were part of the professional German Army, and included a significant proportion of political Nazis, SS, and Gestapo men. The United States, despite admonishment from the more experienced British, had failed to screen the majority of its POW population. As a result, a minority of anti-Nazis mixed with this much larger general population of prisoners. That minority would come under regular attack throughout the war, but Huntsville was an especially bad place to be an anti-Nazi.

The anti-Nazis did little to help their own cause with the Americans, however. Many were radicals who were aligned with left-wing elements that had been suppressed in Germany in 1919 by returning members of the army after the November 11 Armistice. Others were former political prisoners with communist leanings or avowed members of the communist party. Their radicalism sometimes led to counter-productive behavior, like refusals to salute American officers as part of a general rejection of militarism and not just Nazism. In contrast, Nazis appear to have relished delivering their stiff armed salute to the Americans. Both the refusal to salute and the Nazi salute were essentially political acts, but the Nazi salute, in context, was a proper rendering of military courtesy, whereas the Americans viewed the refusal to salute as subversive and unbecoming of a military member.

Anti-Nazis also considered themselves “free” of past constraints; Freiheit hinter Staacheldraht (freedom behind barbed wire) as they called it. This led to outspoken behavior in which they freely discussed the downfall of the Hitler regime and preached their political beliefs. They also considered the Americans allies and wanted to help them, which they usually did by informing on their fellow prisoners. Consequently, their fellow prisoners, even those who were not ardent Nazis, viewed anti-Nazis as traitors, deserters, and snitches, and they were a constant source of trouble within camps where their numbers offered them a degree of safety.

It should not be surprising, then, that American guards generally viewed the anti-Nazis through a similar lens as the Nazis—many of the anti-Nazis were traitors and snitches to their own side, and generally disruptive in many cases. Anti-Nazis, like defectors, spies, or snitches, were greeted with suspicion and a certain amount of distaste, even when they provided valuable information. However noble their motives, the consequence of their actions meant their captors often treated anti-Nazis with a degree of suspicion.

In any case, camp administrators were more concerned with order and discipline within their camps than with any political argument between Germans, who were, as a group, viewed as the “enemy.” Any anti-Nazi attempting to cozy up to guards, demanding special treatment, or causing trouble, was a problem, no matter the political reasoning behind it. Until the development of the re-education program later in the war, which channeled the activities of the anti-Nazis into a U.S. coordinated program, the activities of most anti-Nazis within their respective camps caused problems and garnered few converts to their cause.

Adapting Rations for German POWs

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc., 579-608:
The Geneva Convention placed very strict stipulations on the availability and quality of food served to the prisoners. Specifically, Article 11 directed that the food rations provided to the POWs must be equal to that supplied to American troops. To make certain that such provisions were carried out, inspection teams were assigned to report on the implementation of the Geneva Convention on a regular basis. The quantity of food served at meals never seemed to be in question during the first three years of the war. A POW from Camp Huntsville was quoted as saying, “On the first evening and on the first days, we were hungry, but we were soon provided with sufficient meals. We received good and adequate food. According to our orders to do damage to your enemy wherever you can, we naturally were always asking for everything we could get.”


The acquisition and delivery of food to the camp for prisoners and staff proved to be a considerable task. Many of the goods came into the camp from the train station in Riverside, Texas. Box cars filled with loads of rice, beans, potatoes and various dry goods circulated into the camp and were divided amongst the compounds. Necessary foods, such as cheese, butter, and meat went directly to cold storage units. Other goods were stored in the kitchens, many of which ran 24 hours a day. As Titus Fields later reported, “I have never seen so many potatoes in my life!”

Careful attention was paid to the food preferences of native Germans and efforts were made to appeal to their tastes in order to reduce food waste. A POW Menu and Mess Guide was published in 1944 and catered to German prisoners’ food preferences. The menu provided the POWs with various foods such as frankfurters, salami, bologna, cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and bread. Cabbage was required to be served a minimum of three times per week. Foods that were unpopular, such as American style soups, frozen fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter were removed from the menu completely. The Germans also refused to eat corn, calling it “Swine Food.” Former Huntsville resident Linda Evans recalled meeting two POWs from Camp Huntsville while visiting Germany in the 1970s. One of them, Herr Pfieffer, mentioned to her that his treatment at the camp was “OK,” but some of the food was terrible. On Thanksgiving, the traditional American turkey dinner was served, and the prisoners were told that it was very good. Pfieffer said, in truth, to the Germans it was terrible, and they could not eat it. Any dish containing oysters, celery, green peppers and canned juices were also removed from the menu because the Germans were said to be unfamiliar with these types of foods. To help reduce waste from the breakfast meal, bacon, eggs, ham, potatoes, and sausage were removed from the prisoners’ diet and substituted with fruit, cereal, and bread because the Germans traditionally preferred a lighter breakfast. Beef was also to be served less frequently with a substitution of salt pork in its place. All of these efforts lead to a reduction in waste and aided many German POWs in adapting to their surroundings.

25 October 2018

Operation Yo-Yo, Korea, 1950

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 71-72:
The troopships of X Corps departed Inchon in mid-October and sailed down the coast through the Yellow Sea. The convoy of more than seventy vessels passed Kunsan and Mokpo and rounded the peninsular horn, swerving through a confusion of coastal islands and then turning into the Korea Strait. From the railings, off the port side, the men could see the liberated siege grounds of Pusan, site of so much brutal fighting only a little over a month earlier. Then the transports turned into the stormy Sea of Japan and worked their way up the east coast, past Yeongdeok and Samcheok, past Donghae and Yangyang. Finally they crossed into North Korean waters and steamed for Wonsan, a port city of 75,000 people tucked into a large bay a little more than a hundred miles north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

But as they approached Wonsan, to the men’s consternation, the ships turned around and started sailing back down the coast for Pusan. No one seemed to know why. Had their orders changed? Was the war over? Were they going home? Then the ships turned around once again, resuming their northward crawl—only to be followed by yet another turn. The Marines and soldiers of X Corps, crammed into their vessels, didn’t understand what was happening.

Eventually the word sifted through the ranks: The North Koreans, working with Russian experts, had mined the waters off Wonsan. Having anticipated that the U.N. forces might land here, they had gone out into the harbor in diverse local craft—barges, junks, tugboats, fishing sampans—and sown the waters with explosives, mostly Russian-made. The harbor was infested: Thousands of contact mines and magnetic mines bobbed just beneath the surface.

So American minesweepers, along with teams of Navy frogmen, were brought in to clear the approaches to the harbor. More than two dozen of these peculiar vessels went to work, often with helicopters buzzing overhead to serve as spotters. Minesweepers had elaborate wire structures, extending far out from the bows, that were equipped with various floats, depressors, and cutters strong enough to sever the steel cables that often moored mines to the seabed. The sweepers plied the harbor, clearing one long channel at a time, even as North Korean artillery shelled them from shore.

It was tedious but also perilous work: On October 10, two American minesweepers missed their quarry and were blown apart. Twelve men died in the explosions, and dozens more were wounded. A week later, a South Korean minesweeper was also destroyed. The men found one mine—also Russian-made—that had a particularly diabolical design. A dozen ships could pass over it without incident, but the thirteenth ship would cause it to detonate. “It took a curious sort of mind to come up with a notion like that,” wrote one Marine, wondering if the number thirteen had a “sinister connotation for Russians as it did in the States.”

Given the dangers in the harbor, the X Corps landing obviously would have to be delayed until the sweepers had completed their painstaking task. And so the troopships churned back and forth along the coast—changing direction every twelve hours. The Marines dubbed this endless backtracking the “Sail to Nowhere” and “Operation Yo-Yo.” For nearly two weeks, they remained at sea with little to do but watch the dull landforms slide by. As food supplies dwindled, the galleys served mustard sandwiches, glops of fish-head chowder, and other highly dubious fare. Joe Owen, of the Seventh Marine Regiment, called it an “ordeal of misery and sickness, malaise and dreariness. The holds stank of unwashed bodies and sweaty clothes.” As one Marine account put it, “Never did time die a harder death.”

What made their seaborne imprisonment more difficult to take was their discovery, by radio, that Wonsan had already been pacified. Republic of Korea troops, working their way overland from Seoul, had arrived in Wonsan and quelled all enemy resistance there. The First Marine Air Wing had set up shop at a nearby airfield, and planeload after planeload of men and supplies had safely landed. The zone around Wonsan was deemed so peaceful, in fact, that the entertainer Bob Hope had already dropped in to perform one of his USO comedy routines for the aviators—during the show, he boasted of how he and his dancing girls had beaten the famed leathernecks ashore.

21 October 2018

Japanese Hamhung, 1930s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 83-84:
This was the boomtown atmosphere in which Lee Bae-suk had grown up. Throughout the 1930s, Hamhung quickly became, in many respects, a Japanese city—organized, industrialized, modernized, militarized. Korea was living under what came to be called “the black umbrella” of absolute Japanese rule. The occupiers humiliated and exploited Hamhung’s citizens, often brutally, but they also sought to assimilate them—that is, to make them Japanese subjects, slowly eradicating all vestiges of Korean consciousness. As a boy in Hamhung, Lee was taught to bow toward the east, in the direction of the emperor. He prayed to Shinto gods, at Shinto shrines, kneeling in the shadow of red torii gates. At school, he and his classmates were required to recite the Pledge of the Imperial Subjects, promising to “serve the Emperor with united hearts.” Lee, like all citizens, had to forsake his Korean name and adopt a Japanese one. He learned the Japanese language and was forbidden to study Korean in school. The Korean anthem was not to be sung, the Korean flag not to be unfurled, traditional white Korean clothing not to be worn. People were even expected to give up Korean hairstyles, cutting off their braids and topknots.

Everywhere Lee looked, he saw examples of Japanese authority and expertise: Japanese teachers, Japanese civil servants, Japanese soldiers and tax collectors and cops. The mayor was Japanese. So was the provincial governor. Even the city itself was given a Japanese name: Hamhung became Kanko. The Japanese Kempeitai, which many Koreans came to call the “thought police,” tightened its hold on the city, stamping out dissent or expressions of Korean identity. The police organized the citizens into neighborhood associations, each one composed of ten families. These cells, designed to enforce compliance of Japanese laws, had a chilling effect on community relations, effectively turning Korean against Korean, requiring neighbors to spy on one another.

During the late 1930s, the industrial complex of greater Hamhung became an arsenal and a forge for Japan’s deepening war against China. Enormous quantities of explosives were manufactured there. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, operations at Hamhung expanded exponentially. Among other secret projects, Japanese physicists made early attempts to build an atomic weapon. Using uranium reportedly mined from the mountains around the Chosin Reservoir, they constructed a crude cyclotron, produced heavy water, and even began to develop a primitive atomic device.

Modernizing Hamhung, 1920s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 82-83:
When Japan took formal possession of Korea, in 1910, Hamhung was a medieval city steeped in just these sorts of myths and folk traditions. But in the mid-1920s, as the Japanese tightened their grip on the country, modernity began to arrive. A team of Japanese engineers struck upon an ambitious idea: They would build roads into the mountains northwest of Hamhung and harness the might of the Changjin River—Chosin in Japanese—an important tributary that flowed north toward the Yalu. In the highlands, some seventy road miles from Hamhung, the engineers would construct a large dam that would flood the valley floor. The Changjin waters would rise, swallowing the wrinkled country, and the resulting reservoir, with all its scallops and appendages, would extend southward for more than forty miles. It would be a deep lake splayed out in the mountains, practically on the rooftop of Korea.

This scheme alone was considered a nearly impossible feat, but then the engineers envisioned something bolder: They would effectively reverse the course of the river by building a network of pipes near where it entered the lake on its south end. The pipes would snake along, often underground, carrying cold lake water from the mountains to the coast. Thus, a river that had once flowed north would flow south, through man-made conduits. Working with gravity, these tubes of racing water would feed into a series of hydroelectric plants down on the plain that would supply Hamhung and its neighboring port city of Hungnam with enough power to transform the area into a military-industrial center, perhaps the largest in Korea. Some said it was quixotic.

Some said the engineers were tempting fate, manipulating sacrosanct forces of nature. But the immense project worked as planned. The Chosin Reservoir was completed in 1929, the year Lee was born, and, with dizzying speed, Hamhung-Hungnam underwent a metamorphosis, much of it under the direction of the Noguchi Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate founded by a chemical engineering mogul named Jun Noguchi, who was said to be the “entrepreneurial king of the peninsula.” A nitrogen fertilizer plant, the largest in the Far East, was quickly constructed, and the area became one of the world’s largest producers of ammonium sulfate. Then came oil refineries, chemical concerns, textile mills, metal foundries, munitions works. They produced dynamite and mercury oxide powder and high-octane aviation fuel. It was a grinding, stinking, spewing complex of industries designed to fuel Japan’s expansionist aims across Asia.

Thousands of peasants, many of them displaced by the new lake, moved down from the mountains to work in the factories. Schools sprang up, a train station, a city hall, suburbs, all of it stitched together with streetcars and underground sewer systems and electricity and telegraph wire. It was a modern marvel of civil planning and central design—at least that was how the authorities portrayed the region’s transformation. Through Japanese ingenuity and Korean sweat, men had built a lake that built a city.

14 October 2018

Hatfield vs. McCoy Firepower, 1888

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 209-210:
The two sides fired on each other for, by one estimate, more than two hours.... After the initial strikes, the outnumbered Hatfields took the worst of it. Already missing fingers, Mitchell was shot in the side. Indian was drilled in the thigh. A man named Lee White was hit three times.

Just who had the better arms in the battle is a matter of dispute as each side subsequently tried to downplay their weaponry. “The Hatfields fought with the best rifles that money could procure, heavy caliber Colts and Winchester rifles,” wrote journalist Charles Mutzenberg. “The Kentuckians were armed less perfectly, about half of them using rifles and shotguns of the old pattern.” According to him, only Bad Frank [McCoy] and two others had repeating rifles, which accounted for the Kentuckians’ “heavy losses in horses and wounded men.”

Cap’s son Coleman disagreed, saying: “Anse, Cap, and a few other of the Hatfields were armed with .45 caliber one-shot cartridge Spencer rifles. The remainder of the Hatfield side had only cap-lock squirrel rifles and such other muzzle-loading weapons as had been handed down from the Civil War.” He claimed that the McCoys used Winchester repeating rifles bought from the riverboats that plied the Levisa Fork to Pikeville.

In either case, the relative lack of sophisticated weaponry was indicative of just how slow “progress” was in coming to the region, despite its increased economic well-being. It was certainly a factor in the number of casualties suffered in the feud. Had they had better and more accurate guns, more people would have died.

Firearms had evolved rapidly since the war. The original Winchester—the Model 1866 lever-action repeating rifle (like others, named for its introductory year), which fired multiple shots without requiring reloading—had changed gunfighting forever. The highly portable 1873 carbine with its short, twenty-inch barrel was so widely disseminated (to the tune of 720,000) that it has been called the gun that won the West. Colt adapted its Peacemaker revolver to fire the same ammunition, allowing those armed with both to carry only one type of cartridge. And everyone from buffalo hunters, Texas Rangers, and Canadian Mounted Police to Geronimo carried the ’76 Winchester, which celebrated America’s centennial with more potent firepower.

30 September 2018

Making Appalachian Applejack

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 64-66:
The still sat on a flat bald stretching about fifty feet across the side of the mountain. Devil Anse used a sixty-gallon boiler that he had bought from the owner of a steamer on the Big Sandy. The deal had taken place at dusk one evening near Louisa, Kentucky. They rolled the heavy boiler onto a flatboat, covered it with a tarp, and disguised it with barrels. Then Devil Anse and three men—possibly his sons, and possibly Big Jim, Randall’s son, who worked for Devil Anse making moonshine (though it is hard to know for sure since the business was clandestine)—had poled it up the river. Finally, it, like everything else, had been lugged the mile up the creek to the bald on a corn sled—a wooden crate on runners for hauling corn out of sloped, rocky fields. They cut a door in the bottom of the boiler and placed it on a big square slab of sandstone that was balanced with rocks underneath its corners.

Devil Anse and his sons built a dry stone wall around the still with a roof of split boards over it. They left a hole in the wall to allow them to reach in and build a fire beneath the sandstone slab. Fresh ice-cold water was funneled to the operation via wooden troughs from an uphill spring. The wood they needed for making buckets and barrels and for fires was plentiful around the bald. All they had to haul up was the main ingredient. When they were making apple brandy, or applejack, Devil Anse’s specialty, they needed three hundred bushels for a large batch, and lugging those apples up to the still on the corn sled was a major task. Up top, the men took turns mashing the apples a bushel at a time in a solid tub, using the butt of a small buckeye tree. They shoveled the apple pulp into 125-gallon vats and stirred in water to create what looked like a thin applesauce. They made about 1,300 gallons of apple mash at a time and then let it sit for ten days while it soured.

On the eleventh day, they began filling the still with the fermented apple mash. The cap was screwed onto the still, and the worm—a copper coil—onto the cap. They built an intense but low-smoke hickory-wood fire beneath the stone. By heating the stone instead of directly heating the boiler, they never burned the mash. Once the stone and still were hot, it took just a small fire to keep the batch at a low boil, just right for making moonshine. Alcohol vaporizes at 173 degrees F, and they kept it as close to that temperature as possible to avoid scalding it.

As steam rose from the simmering mash, it passed through the copper coil, which ran through a wooden barrel filled with cold spring water, and condensed. The resulting liquid trickled out into a wooden bucket. Each full bucket was emptied into a barrel. As long as the stream of liquid coming from the barrel tasted like brandy, they kept it coming, usually for about four hours. Once it got watery, they snuffed the fire, emptied the still through the door in the bottom, and started over again. This way they made six singlings—the amount of whiskey from a full still—in a twenty-four-hour period. Each singling amounted to about ten gallons. It was intense work, and when it was finished, they were only halfway there; a man could get very drunk and very sick off singlings, but this was not the product they were after.

Once enough singlings were collected to fill the still twice, the men gave the still a thorough cleaning, then filled it with the singlings and lit the fire; the steam ran through the worm and was condensed again, this time producing an even purer whiskey, the doublings. It was about 98 percent pure alcohol. Around ten gallons were produced before it began to weaken. Then the men put the fire out, topped off the remaining liquid with more singlings, and lit the fire again.

In this way, six gallons of mash produced a gallon of singlings, and a hundred and twenty gallons of singlings yielded forty gallons of top-quality Hatfield applejack.

28 September 2018

What Sparked the Feud, 1878

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 49-50:
By July 1866, Congress had reduced the army to a peacetime level of just over 54,000 men. By 1876, the number had dropped by half again, to 27,000. That year, America’s centennial celebration took a blow when the news hit the week before the Fourth of July that General George Custer had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of two thousand Lakota and Cheyenne, under Sitting Bull, in the Montana Territory. Custer had been dispatched to open the Black Hills to gold prospectors, which the Indians, whose land it now was, hotly opposed, and to make a statement that would hit newspaper front pages from coast to coast during the presidential political conventions. Instead, Custer’s Last Stand shocked the nation.

The disputed election of Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, a former Union general, to the presidency that fall resulted in a compromise with the Democrats that ended Reconstruction and the federal occupation of the South. Army forces were shifted to the West to fight Indians and police the frontier. As America rebuilt, laid rails, and expanded, the Indians would be pushed onto smaller and more marginal reservations in the West, and the blacks, now free but left to their own devices, would be oppressed and persecuted in the South. In southern Appalachia, the isolated hill people would be conned out of their land by wealthy northeastern industrial interests, which, as the railroads opened up the region to mass extraction, swooped in and snatched up coal and timber rights before the locals had any idea what they were worth. In little more than a decade, the industrialists would wrest almost complete economic and political control of the region from the people who lived there.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT the Hatfield-McCoy feud found a new spark at this juncture in history, as the strictures and safeguards of the Reconstruction era suddenly vanished. What does come as a surprise is that amid the high-risk and often turbulent work of the timbering industry, with its unbridled inebriation and rowdiness of unleashed mountain men on payday, it was a rather prosaic dispute over livestock that ignited the tinderbox of the feud.

Appalachian Timber Boom, 1870s

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 43-45, 47:
With the South eagerly rebuilding after four years of bitter destruction, timber was in great demand, and the Tug River Valley had it in spades. Indeed, there was not only a seemingly inexhaustible expanse of timber, but also an easy way to transport it: logs could be floated down brooks, streams, and rivers—the Levisa and Tug forks of the Big Sandy and the Guyandotte River in West Virginia—to sawmills on the Ohio River, and from there the lumber could be shipped around the nation.

Giant tulip trees—native only to the East Coast and China and, at two hundred feet, North America’s tallest trees—blossomed in spring, catching sunlight in brilliant lanterns. The mountain men, who called them yellow poplars, put them to the ripsaw and ax. They also felled and floated other hardwoods—steely hickories, dense elms, and sprawling walnuts—on westward rafts. Sawmills on the Ohio hummed, turning these trees into the lumber that was building America. At the international Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the state of West Virginia would proudly display at its much-visited exhibit samples of its wide array of commercial lumber: from cedar, spruce, and white walnut to chestnut, sugar maple, white ash, and black cherry.

To construct a raft of logs, the loggers floated or sledded their timber to a cofferdam in a river bend. There they interspersed floaters—logs of lighter wood, like poplar, chestnut, basswood, or sometimes pine—with those of the denser ash, oak, hemlock, hickory, maple, or walnut to keep them buoyant. Once the logs were in line, they fastened oak or hickory binders to the ends with hardwood pegs. Over time, metal chain dogs, wedge-shaped steel points joined together by short chains, replaced the wooden pegs. Then the men attached rigging made from ropes or grapevines.


A timber merchant could harvest land he owned, or he could buy trees for a dollar apiece, or two dollars for an especially good specimen (though the most prized wood, walnut, cost up to ten dollars per tree). The price of the labor to fell the trees, peel them—all logs were floated to the mills without their bark—haul them to a waterway, build the raft, and then float it to the mill was a dollar a day per man.

High-quality poplar brought sixteen cents a cube (twelve inches in length by eighteen in diameter). Oak and sycamore and many other species brought in ten to twelve cents. Top walnut went from twenty cents to a dollar a cube. Walnut was so valuable that men would go back and dig up the stumps to sell for veneer.

Those selling timber had their tricks, sometimes concealing rotten cores with solid pegs. Logs with bad knots or holes were locked into rafts with the blemishes facing down to avoid detection. Buyers had their own stratagems: some were known to squeeze their calipers together when measuring logs to trim an inch here and there, which, when compounded across a raft, added up.

11 September 2018

Ransom Values of Christians c. 1810

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 147-149:
As Riley was about to discover, a Christian’s value as a ransomable commodity depended on his rank, wealth, health, and location. On the desert, where a tent with a life of four years was worth a camel, and a camel was worth a dozen goats or half a dozen sheep, a Christian’s worth fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel, except in rare circumstances. Officers were worth more than seamen, though the Arabs, desperate for practical skills, would hold indefinitely a gunpowder maker, a surgeon, or a smith who naively admitted it. Married men brought more than single men for their perceived added wealth. The Arabs quickly noticed a man’s fine accoutrements. Brisson, who had lavished watches, silver buckles, and money on his first captor to ingratiate himself, was sold from one owner to another for five camels, while the ship’s baker went for one. Ultimately, Brisson regretted the gifts, which served only to inflate his ransom price.

To ransom a Christian, a Sahrawi had to deliver him to the imperial port of Swearah, where foreign merchants or consuls could make the payment. To get there, they had to cross the desert, past hostile bedouin tribes, past the fortified Berber towns of the Souss region, and finally past the operatives of the Sultan of Morocco, where Christian slavery was technically illegal and the sultan was fond of the “gifts” Western nations paid for their citizens’ freedom. All the while, the captor had no guarantee he would actually receive the agreed-upon sum. Instead of making the long, risky journey, a Sahrawi often sold his slave locally at a small but sure profit to a buyer who would sell at a small profit to another buyer.

In this way, in an agonizing peristalsis, the Sahara slowly yielded Christians north one territory at a time, the nearer to Swearah the higher the price, with the medium of exchange switching from bartered goods to cash at Wednoon, on the edge of the desert. On the Sahara, the French merchant Saugnier was traded once for a barrel of meal and a nine-foot bar of iron, and later for two young camels. He was sold twice at Wednoon, first for $150, then for $180. Seamen with him brought $50 to $95. Robert Adams of the Charles went in the latter range, once for $50 worth of blankets and dates and a second time for $70 worth of blankets, dates, and gunpowder.

In 1810, the English merchant and author James Grey Jackson proposed paying a fixed rate for Westerners delivered to Mogadore. “A trifling sum would be sufficient,” he maintained, if it was always on hand and the policy well known. This would eliminate the uncertainty that led to the repeated reselling of Christians and extortionate ransom prices. Jackson estimated that $150 per man would be enough, “a sum rather above the price of a black slave.” The British adopted the practice to the south at Saint-Louis, on the Senegal River, where in 1816 the speedy recovery of some of the passengers of the Méduse proved its soundness, but no such standards existed for Christians being transported north.

10 September 2018

Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:
The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:
What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:
It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

03 September 2018

Surviving a Sahara Sandstorm

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 4-6:
Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel’s caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels’ joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel’s owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah’s sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods—iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices—in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.


For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!” When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

24 August 2018

Slavery in Mauritius and Seychelles

From "Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles" by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 136-137:
Mauritius is a volcanic island of some 720 square miles located about 500 miles east of Madagascar and 20 degrees south of the equator. Seychelles is an archipelago of more than 90 islands with a total area of 107 square miles about 1000 miles east of Mombassa and 4 degrees north of the equator. Mauritius includes the dependency of Rodrigues and a few outlying islands. Seychelles comprises two sorts of islands: a compact granitic group with a continental base and a widely scattered coralline group consisting of atolls, reefs and sand cays. The granitic group has 80 per cent of the land area and 99 per cent of the population. The largest island, Mahe, is 56 square miles in area and has 86 per cent of the population. Neither Mauritius nor Seychelles had any indigenous inhabitants when they were first discovered by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. They were not effectively colonised until the French took possession in the eighteenth century. Britain seized the islands in 1810 and they became British colonies in 1814. Today Mauritius has a population of 900,000, of which about two thirds is of Indian descent comprising both Hindus and Muslims from five linguistic stocks. Another 28 per cent is known as Creole and is of mixed African and European ancestry. About 3 per cent is Chinese and a further 2 per cent is European, mostly of French ancestry. Virtually all of the 62,000 inhabitants of Seychelles are Creoles, though there are a few Indian and Chinese merchants and a small number of Europeans, again mostly of French descent. The economy of Mauritius is based almost entirely on the production of cane sugar while that of Seychelles rests precariously on copra and tourism. Both Mauritius and Seychelles have recently become independent nations within the Commonwealth: the former in 1968 and the latter in 1976.

From their inception Mauritius and Seychelles were slave societies. The first colonisers of Mauritius were the Dutch who landed in 1598. They made two attempts to settle the island bringing in slaves from Madagascar to cut down the forests of ebony. They also introduced sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, cattle and deer, but they never imported a labour force sufficient to establish plantations. In over a century of sporadic occupation it is doubtful if there were ever more than about 300 settlers. The Dutch finally abandoned Mauritius in 1710. Five years later the French claimed the island. In 1722 the French East India Company brought colonists from the neighbouring island of Bourbon (now Reunion) which the French had occupied since 1674. Settlers were given tracts of land and slaves, and the plantation economy became well established by 1735. The emphasis was on cash crops beginning with coffee and followed by sugar cane, cotton, indigo, cloves and other spices. Sugar cane best resisted the terrible cyclones which periodically strike Mauritius and became the principal crop by the early nineteenth century.

The islands of Seychelles were colonised from Mauritius in the mid-eighteenth century. They remained dependencies of Mauritius until 1903 when they were constituted a separate colony. A similar system of land grants and slaves was provided to early settlers when cotton and spices and some food crops were grown.

The economy of the islands rested on slave labour. By 1735 slaves constituted 77 per cent of the population, and the percentage remained between 75 and 85 until emancipation in 1835 (Barnwell and Toussaint 1949:225).

Slaves for Arms in Madagascar

From "Modes of Production and Slavery in Madagascar: Two Case Studies" by Maurice Bloch, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 103-105:
The connection of Madagascar on the one hand, and Mauritius and Reunion on the other, lay in in the fact that the East Coast of the great island was sometimes inhabited by small pirate colonies and sometimes by traders and adventurers who supplied the Mascarenes with rice and cattle but also, increasingly, with slaves to be used on the plantations of these islands (Filliot 1974:113-127). Up to 1770 the trading links between Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion had been relatively small-scale and fluctuating over time. They had, however, been extremely significant in Madagascar in that they had supplied petty rulers with European weapons for their aggrandizement and slave raiding (Filliot 1974:205-208). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, the small but growing central state that was to become Imerina, profiting from the disarray of the Betsimisaraka League, captured most of this trade both canalising its network and reducing rivals. The trader Dumaine wrote in 1790 that Imerina 'is the part of Madagascar which supplies most of the slaves for our islands' (Mauritius and Reunion). This process was truly momentous in the history of Madagascar because in return for slaves the Merina obtained armaments of high quality in much greater quantities than had been available to anybody else before, since they were lucky in reaching the coast precisely at the time when the demand for slaves in the Mascarenes had boomed and the prices soared (Curtin 1969:266-269; Filliot 1974:62-65, 216).

The war materials that they obtained were probably the major cause of the continuing expansion of the Merina and their ultimate domination of the islands. This expansion, however, was itself in part necessitated by the need to supply slaves in ever greater numbers in order to obtain the armaments necessary for conquest (Bloch 1977:314). By engaging in this sort of trade in order to acquire political power the Merina were following a long tradition which had dominated the political process of Madagascar perhaps since as far back as the sixteenth century. We know this pattern well in the eighteenth century when the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka managed to dominate large areas of the island by exporting slaves to various European or Arab traders in return for armaments which enabled them to conquer their neighbours and obtain more slaves. The process in the case of the Merina, however, was even more dramatic. The reason was that they captured the trade at a time when the Mascarene economies were booming and so was the demand for slaves.

Once the Merina kingdom had really become established through this process, the pattern began to change in a way which was particularly significant for the history of slavery. In 1814 Mauritius, as it was renamed, became British and, in taking over Mauritius, the British had also gained vague but promising rights over Madagascar. Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius, therefore encouraged the trade between his island and Madagascar since he saw the expansion of a kingdom dependent on supplies from Britain as a first step towards conquest, a policy we are familiar with in other parts of Africa. This policy was not without difficulty as it was taking place at a time when public opinion in Britain was moving strongly against the slave trade and slavery. Farquhar at first resisted pressure for the abolition of the slave trade, arguing that, in the first place, it would ruin the economy of Mauritius and make his unruly subjects even more difficult to control and, in the second place, it would end the promising connection with the Merina which he intended to use for ultimate conquest.

By 1817, however, the pressure from Britain had so increased that he had to give way, although by then the two stumbling blocks to ending the slave trade with Madagascar had vanished. The economy of Mauritius had been moving away from its dependence on the importation of slaves. Secondly Farquhar had discovered a way whereby he could keep his Merina contact. He signed with Radama a treaty which in return for the abolition of the slave trade would guarantee Radama a yearly supply of armaments, as well as military assistance. By this treaty the British hoped to continue their influence in Madagascar and to ensure the ever-important supply of rice and cattle to Mauritius. This treaty had its ups and downs and for a significant period was abrogated altogether, but it remained the major template for British Merina relations during the nineteenth century. It also ensured that whenever it was in operation the Merina would be dependent on the British. For the Merina the advantage of this treaty is also obvious. Radama, the Merina King, still retained a steady supply of British armaments but gained as well, and this is probably the most significant point, a monopoly of European weapons in Madagascar, a monopoly which many tried to break but never with complete success. When the treaty was in operation British frigates patrolled Madagascar to stop any signs of the slave trade. In doing so they were stopping any potential rivals of Radama from obtaining arms with which to resist him. They were, so to speak, putting Madagascar in a vacuum in which only one group had access to modem weapons. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that nobody could offer any significant resistance to the Merina during their greatest period of expansion.

20 August 2018

Chinese Market in Slaves, Servants, and Heirs

From "Transactions in People: The Chinese Market in Slaves, Servants, and Heirs" by James L. Watson, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 223-224:
Until the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949 China had one of the largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world. In many parts of China, notably in the south, nearly every peasant household was directly or indirectly affected by the sale of people. A unique feature of the Chinese market was its concentration on children, especially those under the age of ten. Adolescents and younger adults were sometimes bound over to a creditor for a limited time to pay off debts but, in most cases, these people were not exchanged or sold on a permanent basis. The only exceptions were found among the urban elite who bought and sold adult concubines almost as a form of sport. For ordinary peasants the market was directed exclusively at children-male and female-who were sold for cash and were rarely, if ever, returned to their birth parents. In keeping with the highly developed system of commerce and exchange that has characterised Chinese peasant society for over a thousand years, the sale of a child was legalised by a signed receipt that specified the rights of both buyer and seller down to the minutest detail.

Transactions in children were, in most cases, the consequence of extreme poverty, since by selling one child a parent might hope to feed the remaining family members. Male children thus sold had two main uses: first as designated heirs of the buyer, and second as domestic slaves for the owner's household. A purchased heir had most of the rights and privileges of a normal son (subject to the adopting father's pleasure); a slave had minimal rights-he was, in fact, a chattel whose descendants remained the hereditary property of the owner's family. Girls, on the other hand, could be used in several ways in the buyer's household and were not categorised, or 'typed', with the same rigidity as their male counterparts. It was not impossible for a girl to be purchased as a daughter in infancy, exploited like a slave during adolescence, and married to one of her buyer's own sons in adulthood.

The difference in treatment between male and female can be traced to their positions in the Chinese kinship system. The Chinese, especially the southern elite, are fiercely loyal to the patriline and allow very little flexibility for males (Baker 1968; Freedman 1958; Potter 1968; J. Watson 1975b). In contrast to many African patrilineal systems, membership in the Chinese lineage is only conferred at birth or by adoption during infancy (J. Watson 1975a). The role of women in the Chinese patrilineage is much more complicated (M. Wolf 1972). Recent research has shown that, contrary to earlier views, Chinese women are not members of first their fathers' and later their husbands' lineages-they stand outside the male-dominated patrilineage (R. Watson n.d.). This may explain why purchased women are treated with such flexibility: unlike males they do not, indeed could not, represent a threat to the patrilineal system. Women do not inherit and, hence, are not involved with the landed ancestral estates that form the material foci of Chinese lineages. Furthermore, women are not a matter of concern for any unit larger than the household, which means that they can be bought and sold at will. Male children, especially outsiders brought into the kin group, are watched with great care by everyone in the lineage. Innumerable rules, written and unwritten, have been devised to regulate the entry of male heirs into elite Chinese lineages (Liu 1959); in contrast, the few rules that relate to the purchase or sale of women are rarely observed. Thus, while girls are treated with a certain flexibility, a boy will enter his new life as a full heir or a chattel slave. There is no possibility of change in later life.

Vigilante Justice in Nigeria

From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 84-85:
So it surprised everyone when, in June 2013, a mild-mannered taxi driver named Lawan Jafar apprehended a Boko Haram member in an area of Maiduguri called Hausari. With a few other men in tow, Jafar went to the home of a man he believed was involved with the terrorists. They found him in possession of a gun, and turned him over to the security forces. News spread of the citizen’s arrest. People talked about how Jafar was a hero, a simple man who had done something even the military couldn’t do. It was inspiring. Men, and some women, in other quarters then banded together.

Elder considered Jafar a would-be martyr who had truly sacrificed himself, and enviably become a leader in the process. He set out to emulate him. His neighborhood was the fourth to join. “We knew the Boko Haram members who were living in the neighborhood with us. We just started getting them in the night. We would catch them and then bring them to the authorities,” he said. He was the oldest of the group he joined up with back then, a loose association of men who lived near each other. They used sticks and cutlasses to defend themselves.

The very first day, they went after three young men, named Shehu, Usman, and Bukar, who they suspected of being militants. The suspects all lived with their parents in the neighborhood. Elder and the thirty other men were organized. They headed on foot to the suspects’ houses. At the first house, they didn’t find anyone. At the house of the next one, they found all three of them together. The relatives of the second man were also there. They watched, stunned, as Elder and the group crashed into the main room and tied the hands of each man behind his back, and then led them outside. “They didn’t say a word,” Elder recalled. “Because they know the habits of their boys.” He told the young men that he knew who they were and what they did with Boko Haram. The suspects were laughing. They had tried to run when Elder and the rest came in, but had nowhere to go. They had known the vigilantes would be coming after them, but seemed to be in a state of disbelief. The men said they weren’t the only Boko Haram members in the area. They started calling out names, people Elder and his group would pursue in the following days.

Slavery and the Ngaoundere State

From "Raiders and Traders in Adamawa: Slavery as a Regional System" by Philip Burnham, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 46-48:
The Adamawa jihad was undertaken by small groups of Fulbe who were substantially outnumbered by the autochthonous 'pagan' groups of the region. Ngaoundere was certainly no exception in this regard, and the rapid integration of conquered Mbum and other peoples into the Fulbe state, which transformed large numbers of former enemies into effective elements of the state political and economic apparatus, is truly remarkable.

The limited information that we possess concerning the organisation of the Wolarbe Fulbe who first penetrated the Adamawa Plateau and attacked the Mbum of Ngaoundere suggests that they were a semi-nomadic pastoral group. Slaves definitely formed a part of Wolarbe society prior to the jihad, and it is possible that some of these slaves were settled in fixed farming villages which served as wet-season foci and political and ceremonial centres for the transhumant families of Fulbe pastoralists. At least a rudimentary system of political offices, with titles for both freemen and slaves, was in operation prior to the jihad and had probably been adopted by the Wolarbe during their earlier period of residence in Bornu.

On analogy between the pre-jihad Wolarbe and better-documented cases of similar semi-pastoral Fulbe groups composed of both free and slave elements, it is probable that the initial group of Wolarbe who took Ngaoundere did not exceed 5,000 in number, including women, children and slaves. But in the course of several decades of fighting against the indigenous peoples of the Ngaoundere region, the Fulbe were able to conquer and reduce to slavery or tributary status large groups of local populations who certainly outnumbered the Fulbe conquerors by several orders of magnitude. These conquests were assisted by alliances between Ngaoundere and other Fulbe states as well as by the progressive incorporation of 'pagan' elements into the Ngaoundere army. Conquered 'pagan' village populations located near Ngaoundere town were often allowed to remain on their traditional lands. Their chiefs were awarded titles, and the whole village unit was allocated to the tokkal (political following) of a titled Fulbe or slave official in the Ngaoundere court, who became responsible for collecting annual taxes and raising levies of soldiers for Fulbe war expeditions. In return, the 'pagan' group's loyalty to Ngaoundere was rewarded principally by opportunities to secure booty in war, and this incentive was probably the primary factor which allowed the Fulbe to secure the allegiance of conquered groups so rapidly.

The tokke units (plural of tokkal) which formed the basis of the Ngaoundere administrative system, had their origins in the leadership patterns of mobile pastoral society and were not discrete territorial domains ruled by resident overlords. Rather, tokke were sets of followers, both Fulbe and members of vassal peoples, who were distributed in a scattering of different rural villages or residential quarters in town and who were allocated to individual office holders living at Ngaoundere at the whim of the Fulbe ruler (laamiido). Such a spatially dispersed administrative organisation lessened chances of secession by parts of the Ngaoundere state and yet was an effective means of mobilising and organising an army.

In addition to locally conquered 'pagan' peoples, the size of the servile population at Ngaoundere was further enlarged by slaves captured at distances of 200 to 500 kilometres from Ngaoundere town itself. These captives were brought back for resettlement at Ngaoundere either as domestic slaves or as farm slaves in slave villages (ruumde). This long-distance raiding, which was a regular occurrence from the 1850s up until the first decade of the twentieth century, was a large-scale phenomenon, and European observers at the end of the nineteenth century estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 slaves might be taken on these raids annually (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972:76, 204-205; Loefler 1907:225; Ponel 1896:205-207). Those captives who were not settled at Ngaoundere were sold to Hausa or Kanuri traders, and Adamawa soon gained the reputation as a slave traders' Eldorado (Passarge 1895:480). By the second half of the nineteenth century, Adamawa had become the main source of supply for the Sokoto Caliphate (Lacroix 1952:34).

Summing up the demographic situation at Ngaoundere in the nineteenth century, we can say that at no time following the establishment of the Fulbe state did the proportion of slaves and vassals to freemen ever fall below a one-to-one ratio and that for most of the period, the ratio was probably more like two-to-one. Modern census figures, although they can be applied retrospectively with only the greatest of caution, tend to support this interpretation. Thus, in 1950, there were approximately 23,000 Fulbe living in the Ngaoundere state as compared with 35,000 non-Fulbe who were still identifiable as ex-slaves, vassals, or servants of the Fulbe (Froelich 1954:25). It goes without saying that in modern conditions, when all legal disabilities and constraints on movement have been removed, the proportion of servile to free would be expected to drop. But nonetheless, as late as 1950, we still encounter almost a three-to-two ratio.

Whatever the exact number and proportion of slaves in the pre-colonial period, they were not all of uniform social or legal status, and it is instructive to attempt a classification of the various forms of servitude in practice in nineteenth-century Ngaoundere. The Fulbe language makes a distinction between dimo and maccudo, meaning respectively 'freeman' and 'slave', a discrimination paralleling the basic one made in Koranic law. Membership in the legally free category was attainable through birth to two free parents, through birth to a slave concubine having relations with a freeman, or through manumission. A slave concubine herself, having borne a free child, would also become free on the death of her child's father. Free offspring of slave concubines were not jurally disadvantaged and as the decades passed after the conquest, many of the Ngaoundere aristocracy and even several of the rules had such parentage.

Slavery in Mauritania

From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 33, 38-39, 40:
In 1981, Mauritania’s government abolished slavery, becoming the last country in the world to do so. But the presidential decree offered no legal provision to punish slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, the government passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persisted, even as the government and religious leaders denied it. In 2013, the Global Slavery Index estimated that at least 140,000 people were enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Women and children make up most of Mauritania’s slave class. When boys come of age, they sometimes manage to leave their masters’ families. Adult women are considered minors by Mauritanian custom, and female slaves face greater difficulty escaping. In the countryside, entire communities of slaves live in the service of their masters, on call for labor whenever they are needed....

Over the course of centuries, Berbers from North Africa and Arabs came to inhabit what is now Mauritania. They took black African slaves, creating an entrenched racial hierarchy. Over time, the bloodlines of the masters and the slaves mixed and they came to share a language—Arabic or an Arabic dialect—and cultural practices: As the masters imposed their traditions, the slaves lost their own. As a result, and disturbingly, slave owners often referred to their slaves as family. In modern Mauritania, people speak of the mingled Arab-Berbers as White Moors and the slaves as Haratin. White Moors, a minority, hold most of the country’s wealth and political power. Haratin, who have dark skin, are a permanent underclass, even after they are freed. Haby and Biram, the activist who freed her, were Haratin. Somewhere between these two castes are Afro-Mauritanians, ethnic groups also found in Senegal that have never been enslaved. People endured slavelike conditions in nearby countries, but slavery in Mauritania was unusually severe and persistent. Because of those extreme conditions, the antislavery movement in Mauritania had become among the most radical activist movements in Africa....

I arrived in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, in late January 2014 from my home base in Lagos, Nigeria. I wanted to see the place where, almost unbelievably, widespread slavery still existed, and to meet the man who was fighting back. It took two flights: one to Senegal, which lies just under Mauritania, and its seaside capital city, Dakar, where I stayed for a night with a photographer friend in her apartment that faced the sea. After a quick pancake breakfast the next morning, I boarded a Senegal Air flight to Nouakchott.

I was a little uneasy before going. I had been to North Africa just once, to Egypt, and, even though Mauritania was not considered wholly North African, the racism and xenophobia I had seen in Egypt against black immigrants made me wary.