28 April 2023

Angaur: Crucible of Pacific Arts

In researching the origins of modern Palauan music and dance, Jim Geselbracht has assembled many perspectives on the phosphate mine at Angaur, which seems to have served as a crucible where Pacific Islanders from Micronesia, Okinawa, Taiwan, and other parts of the Japanese Empire came together and learned from each other during their few precious leisure hours.

As I discussed in an earlier post, foreign workers who were brought to Palau to mine phosphate brought with them their music and dance, which in turn had a significant influence on the development of modern Palauan music.  This, I believe, was the “big bang” event in Palauan music, where it changed from chants with lyrics that were handed down from the gods (chelid) to modern, composed music (beches el chelitakl).  Let’s first explore the history of the mining operation in Angaur.

According to a USGS report [1]:

Mining of phosphate on Angaur begin in 1909 during German administration of the island and continued from 1914 to 1944 under Japanese administration.  Mechanized methods were introduced just before the start of World War II.  From June 1946 to June 1947 mining was carried out by an American contractor under the control of the US Navy.  Mining was resumed on June 30, 1949, by a Japanese company, the Phosphate Mining Co., Ltd. (Rinko Kaihatsu Kaisha).

The labor for the mining operation consisted of Palauan, Carolinian, Chamorran, Filipino and Chinese workers.  In a book on Micronesian development [2], David Hanlon describes the “troubled history” of phosphate mining on Angaur.  I’ve extracted a portion that describes the labor force used to mine the phosphate:

Begun in February 1909, the mining of phosphate and the environmental havoc it wreaked had quickly turned Angaur into the “hottest place in the Pacific.”  The construction of a railroad, drying plant, sawmill, loading dock, warehouses, thirty-two European residences and eleven workers’ dormitories further blighted a landscape already ravaged by the open-pit technique used to extract phosphate.  German overseers and mechanics drank excessively, fought each other, and openly defied their company supervisors.  The abuse of Carolinian and Chinese laborers brought to mine the island’s phosphate included low wages, frequent payment in the form of near worthless coupons rather than currency, forced purchases with these devalued coupons of overpriced goods in the mining company’s store, physical punishment and extended working hours.  By 1911, the situation had deteriorated so badly that German colonial officials elsewhere in the Carolines were refusing to assist in the recruitment of islander labor for Angaur.

Fr. Francis Hezel extends the story in his book Strangers in Their Own Land [4]:

As the German Phosphate Company made preparations to begin mining operations, the island population of 150 … were moved to a small reservation in the southeast corner of the island.  At first company officials intended to rely on Chinese labor for the Angaur mines, and they brought in eighty workers from Hong Kong.  The Chinese proved as troublesome to the German overseers on Angaur as they were on Nauru.  Dissatisfied with their working conditions and benefits, and insulted by the floggings they received, they killed a German employee and called a general strike during the first year of operations.  To provide “more complaisant material for the company than the Chinese”, the German government began recruiting Carolinians.  With the assistance of chiefs from Yap and its outer islands, a hundred men were sent to Angaur on a one-year labor contract; a second recruiting voyage produced another two hundred laborers, eighty of them from Palau and the rest from Yap.

Fr. Hezel continues:

In the evenings, during their few hours of leisure, they often entertained themselves by singing and dancing, thus passing on the stick dances, German marching dances and other stylized art forms that have come to be widespread in Micronesia today.

These dances are what are known as matamatong in Palau today.  By 1911, the initial 300 Carolinian laborers had doubled in size [4]:

the island now contained a polycultural community of 600:  a few dozen Germans, … Chinese, some Chamorros and Filipinos, and the five hundred Carolinians from various islands who worked there.

During Japanese time, the mining labor importation practices continued.  According to Hanlon [2]:

Japan’s later civilian colonial government assumed supervision of all phosphate mining on Angaur in 1927 and relied upon labor from the Marianas, Palau, Chuuk and Yap.  These island laborers were recruited by village chiefs or headmen who received a small bonus or fee as compensation for the loss of manpower from traditional activities.  Most of these laborers were drafted against their will for a year of “totally exhausting work.”

Hezel [4] describes the mix of workers on Angaur during Japanese times as a continuation of German times:

the 350 islanders at work in the mines … generally served year-long contracts and lived under slightly improved conditions … The mines had always drawn heavily on Yapese, who had the reputation of being the hardest workers in the territory, but their numbers fell off from 200 to 50 during the 1920s because of the serious population decline on the island. Chuukese were called on to provide a proportionately larger share of the labor force, at first under threat of imprisonment, but in time half-voluntarily as the allure of a salary grew among the people.

Virginia Luka describes the impact of the phophate-mining workers in Angaur in a paper written at the Southern Oregon University [3].  In it she cited the observations of Pedro [5]:

Foreign workers from places such as Guam, Saipan, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Japan and China introduced new plants, animals, food, dancing, singing and lifestyles.  In Angaur they learned how to bake bread, sew, western dance and how to play some musical instruments such as the guitar, harmonica and accordion from the Saipanese.

Based on these accounts, the 300 to 600 Carolinian workers far out-numbered the local Angaur community of 150.  The Palauans observing and participating in the Carolinian dances likely led to the adoption of the matamatong as a Palauan dance.  Junko Konishi [dissertation in English available here] states that the word matamatong likely derives from Pohnpei [7]:

The term [matamatong] seems to have originated from the progressive form of the Pohnepeian word mwadong (mwadomwadong) meaning “to play, to take recreation” and dancing.

In fact, Junko relates that over 400 Pohnpeans were exiled to Palau in 1911 after the uprising in Sokehs and over 100 Pohnpean males were sent to Angaur to work in the mines [8].

However, Konishi developed a detailed explanation [8] of how the Marshall Islands were actually the birthplace of the marching dance, with diffusion of the dance in the early 1900s from the Marshalls to the Eastern Caroline Islands (including Pohnpei) and Nauru.  She states that:

Yapese and Palauan elders recount that Chuukese spread the marching dance in Angaur.

The matamatong dance was also picked up by Japanese settlers in Micronesia.  During the 2004 Festival of Pacific Arts, held in Palau, a Japanese dance group performed [6]:

… a dance style called Nanyo-Odori (South Seas Dance) [links go to Youtube videos of Bonin Islanders, the latter with subtitles in Japanese, with katakana for foreign words], presented as an adaption of the songs and dances from the Pacific brought back to the Ogasawaran islands of Japan by Japanese people who had sailed around the Pacific for trading … [and] lived in Micronesia during the period of Japanese occupation and control … The dance is an adaption of a Micronesian dance called the Matamatong … The dance, which was accompanied by songs in a mixture of Palauan, Japanese and English, is said to have been created in about 1914 at the end of the German era in Micronesia and continues to be popularly danced today.

A fascinating exchange [at the Festival of Pacific Arts] ensued between Palauans … and the Japanese performers, in which they compared the dance steps of the Nanyo-Odori with those of the Matamatong (as well as the words of the accompanying songs, some of which the Japanese did not understand).  A Palauan musician … Roland Tangelbad, noted that the Japanese still danced the old way, with a German soldier’s style of marching step (goose step) whereas the Palauans had since adapted theirs to the marching step of the US soldiers.

The impact of the Eastern Caroline Islanders among the Palauans went beyond the matamatong dance step [8]:

The Chuukese, who had a tradition of love songs, created many dances for love songs in Angaur during the Japanese colonial period.  And those songs, composed with lyrics in Japanese (which was the common language at that time), became popular among different island groups.

I witnessed both marching dances (call maas in Yapese) and stick dances during my fieldwork in Yap in the fall of 1974. One feature that defined both as "modern" was that men and women performed together in the same dance, and not separately as they did in traditional dances.

27 April 2023

An Iroquoian Empire, c. 1680

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 123-125:

AROUND 1680, ABOUT FIFTY YEARS after the terrible smallpox epidemic that cut their numbers by half, the Five Nations were at the height of their power; they were now the domineering nation in the great interior. The French feared them, the English respected them as allies, and the Dutch no longer had a colony in North America. The Iroquois seemed to be everywhere. Their fleet-footed war parties ranged across the Great Lakes, seeking captives, pelts, and spiritual and emotional healing. Their world had expanded explosively, covering a massive domain. They seized pelts and captives from the Ottawa Valley to the western limits of the pays d’en haut, which the French still claimed—feebly now—as part of their empire.

With most English colonies now in their orbit, the Five Nations moved to draw their Native neighbors within their sphere of influence. Weakened Susquehannocks, Piscataways, and others sought refuge in Iroquoia against Maryland and Virginia, and soon Iroquois-Susquehannock war parties set out to “scour the heads” of the Potomac, James, and Roanoke Rivers to bring their Native tributaries into Iroquoia. The Iroquois also took in “Christian Indians” from Massachusetts and refused to return them—now their “flesh and blood”—to New England when asked. In the West, the Iroquois raided the French-allied Illinis, Miamis, and Odawas, taking hundreds of captives and shattering France’s commercial networks in the interior. When the Miamis offered three thousand beaver pelts in exchange for their relatives, the Iroquois took the furs but refused to release the captives. Iroquois sachems thought it politic to inform the governor of New France—Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac—that “they would not eat his children.”

As Iroquois ambitions swelled, the confederacy became entangled in complex foreign political arrangements with the surrounding colonial powers. Since the mid-seventeenth century, New France had posed the most serious challenge to the Five Nations’ ambitions and sovereignty. Tracy’s invasion of Iroquoia in 1666 appeared to have locked the Iroquois into the French orbit by opening their towns to Jesuit black robes. The Five Nations had suffered enormous losses in their relentless beaver and mourning wars, leaving them uncertain of their spiritual virtue and political primacy. Many seemed to have become stout Francophiles who embraced the Christian god, accepted Onontio as their father, and opened their settlements to French merchants.

Against this backdrop, the Five Nations’ Covenant Chain with New York in the 1670s might appear to signal a splintering of the Iroquois League into rival factions. The sudden Jesuit ascendancy among the Saint Lawrence Iroquois seemed like a capitulation to a colonial power, and it fueled virulent anti-French sentiments within the league. The pro-English bloc of the Iroquois was emboldened to steer the league into a tighter alliance with the increasingly powerful New York. All this did not mean, however, that the Five Nations were divided or in conflict. On the contrary, the Francophile and Anglophile blocs together enabled the Iroquois League to keep North America’s two most powerful empires in a state of uncertainty, nurture commercial and political relations with both, and draw major concessions from each.

Suddenly, New France was besieged by a newly ascending Five Nations. France’s North American empire did not exist outside of its web of Indian alliances, and the Five Nations were at once usurping that web and tearing it apart. Captives poured into Iroquoia—a single raid yielded eight hundred Illini captives—and the number of Iroquois villages increased from fifteen in 1666 to twenty-four in 1680, while the area covered by their settlements increased from roughly seven thousand square miles to forty-five thousand. Iroquois war parties looted French vessels and demanded tributary goods at Fort Frontenac, while selling the bulk of their pelts to Albany. New France suffered a twenty-five percent drop in its fur revenue. Governor Frontenac kept postponing direct talks with the Iroquois. He had a good reason: they had threatened to boil and eat him.

There had never been anything like the Five Nations League in North America. No other Indigenous nation or confederacy had ever reached so far, conducted such an ambitious foreign policy, or commanded such fear and respect. The Five Nations blended diplomacy, intimidation, and violence as the circumstances dictated, creating a measured instability that only they could navigate. Their guiding principle was to avoid becoming attached to any single colony, which would restrict their options and risk exposure to external manipulation. French officials believed that the Iroquois strove to become “the sole masters of commerce." Such an idea was not far-fetched. Having observed how the Five Nations “completely ruined” several Native nations, the French knew they were defenseless. An Iroquois empire was consolidating in the interior.

26 April 2023

Palau's Mandolin King

Pacific Island string bands are far better known for their guitar and ukulele artists than for their mandolin virtuosos, but Palau seems to have had a strong mandolin legacy. On his  Palauan music blog, Jim Geselbracht, an accomplished mandolin player himself, digs into the history of the local composers. Here's part of a post that summarizes an obituary of a mandolin composer, written by Jackson Henry based on his interviews with Neterio Henry in his later years, published in Tia Belau about 2011.

Neterio Henry was born on the island of Angaur, Palau on April 18, 1939. During the outbreak of WWII, Neterio and half of his family escaped the aerial bombings of Angaur by taking a boat to Ngaraard.  Neterio remembers enjoying the tranquility of living in Ngaraard and swimming in the river with the Bells brothers. The other half of his family had to endure the hardship of hiding in caves and having nothing to eat for months during the height of the battle of Angaur.

At the age of 12, shortly after World War II,  Neterio returned to Angaur and met Mr. Isii, a Japanese musician employed at the Pomeroy phosphate mining company.  Mr. Isii taught Neterio the basics of the 6-string guitar.  However, Neterio soon acquired a love for the Mandolin from his brother, Tony Henry.  Tony gave Neterio his first Mandolin, and with the basic knowledge playing guitar, Neterio soon mastered the Mandolin.  Neterio loved the sweet sounds of the Mandolin, so he practiced his instrument daily until his fingers bled.  He often went to bed with his Mandolin. He soon acquired a name from his peers, “King of the Mandolin”.

Neterio’s talent was admired by his friends and fellow Angaurians.  His audience boasted that Neterio had the skill of making his Mandolin strings weep like a bird.  In the late 1950s, Neterio and his cousins formed what is now considered the first organized musical group in Palau named – ABC Band. ABC stood for Angaur Boys Club. All of their instruments were donated by the Pomeroy Mining Company. Neterio and his brother Michael Henry, composers Anaclaytus Faustino, Carlos Salii, harmonica player, Kyoshi Ngirangol, leader guitarist, Jose Itetsu, rhythm guitarist Santos Edward and female vocalist Talya Santiago performed right into Palau’s music history.

Kebtot el Bai

In the late 1950s, ABC Band had their first public concert during the Island Fair held at Keptot el Bai in Koror.  Their syncopated island sounds took Palau by the storm.  ABC became the biggest talk of the town and their musical exploits soon spread to the other villages in Babeldaob like wild fire.

Shortly after their public debut, their first musical recording was completed and aired throughout Palau on the TT Government AM station WSZB.  Palauans got to know the ABC Band and their young and agile Mandolin player named Neterio.  All other band members became musical stars in Palau. “We were the first band in Palau so everyone treated us like stars,” recalls Neterio.

25 April 2023

French Yield to Mohawks, 1622

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 92-94:

In 1622, desperate to put an end to the violence that disrupted the fur trade, the raison d’être of New France, Champlain yielded to Mohawk demands. The Dutch came to their own conclusions about Mohawk power around the same time, retreating from closer interactions; and Champlain, spotting an opening, extended a peace proposal to the Indian nation. The Mohawks accepted a treaty, which freed them to focus on their Native rivals. They attacked Montagnais towns in the Saint Lawrence Valley, securing the northern and western flanks of Iroquoia, the Iroquois homeland. In the south and east, Mohawks, the “Keepers of the Eastern Door,” moved to discipline the Dutch, who, placing profits before politics, had opened Fort Orange to Mahicans. By 1628, the Mahicans and the Dutch had seen enough. The Mahicans agreed to pay the Mohawks an annual tribute in wampum, and the Dutch resigned to placate the Iroquois League with goods. Mohawk sachems now controlled who was allowed to trade at the fort—whose guns, lead, and powder could make and unmake Indigenous regimes in the Northeast.

France’s support for its Native allies was not altruism; it was secured by a generous trade in beaver pelts and through the social alchemy of sharing. “The Beaver does everything perfectly well,” a Montagnais hunter declared, “making sport” of French traders. “It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; and, in short, it makes everything.” It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the beaver also made New France itself. In 1627 the colony was home to mere eighty-five people, yet its charter granted it all of North America, from Florida to the Arctic Circle. To prop up the colony, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of King Louis XIII, established the Company of One Hundred Associates to facilitate immigration. Expectations were still modest. The company had to bring in fifteen hundred French “of both sexes” during the first ten years, or face heavy sanctions. It was clear that collaboration with the Indians through the beaver pelt trade would remain New France’s lifeline.

However, New France was also a religious and moral project that mobilized French officials, missionaries, and soldiers to make a concerted effort to enforce acceptable behavior. Marriage customs, especially polygyny, became a source of contention between Jesuits and Indians. For Native men, having multiple wives was essential as a mark of status, as well as insurance that they would produce more children who would contribute to the household’s prosperity and reputation. When French missionaries challenged Indigenous marriage arrangements, both Native women and men fought back fiercely. But large numbers of women—especially captured secondary wives—also sought relief from the grueling labor and lack of autonomy under authoritative and abusive husbands. For them and others, missionaries and Christianity could be useful: they could offer a different life.

In the early 1630s, New France, already inseparable from its network of Indian allies, encompassed an expanding domain around the Saint Lawrence Valley. French traders were reaching out to the Indians for their furs, and Jesuit friars were reaching out for their souls, entrenching the French in North America. In 1631, Champlain wrote a booklet on French and English colonization in the New World, stating that the English “do not deny us all New France and cannot question what the whole world has admitted.”


By the mid-seventeenth century, the colonies in Maine that had been founded by European powers were confined to the Atlantic coast below the Penobscot River, and most of those colonies were small and vulnerable. European maps were remarkably accurate when depicting coasts and rivers, but the rest of the continent remained terra incognita. The English, French, and Dutch colonies had not become launchpads for territorial expansion, and only the French had a plan for colonization—a plan that emphasized coexistence. All colonial powers simply struggled to survive. Rather than looking to the west for conquests, they looked to the east, toward their mother countries, for goods, weapons, and soldiers to keep them safe. The settlements were more footholds than full-fledged colonies. It is telling that the out-of-the-way Great Fishery was still the most lucrative of the European schemes, and it was a business venture, not a colony.

The Spanish Empire had instigated an early European surge consisting largely of ruthless pillaging, which was lucrative but not sustainable. It had not led to permanent possessions in North America. By 1600, the Spanish were seriously questioning their methods. More than a century of colonialism had merely scratched the surface of the Indigenous continent.

24 April 2023

Early Palauan Enka Composer

Here's another excerpt from Jim Geselbracht's Palauan music blog, about one of the early Palauan enka: Wakai Inochi (young life) by Tekereng Sylvester.

Today’s song — Wakai Inochi [young life] — is another song of heartbreak, with words mostly in Japanese.  The song was composed by Tekereng according to Diane’s lyric collection [1].  This is possibly Tekereng Sylvester, who was born in 1920 in Yap, moved to Palau at age 5, then Indonesia at age 14 to further his education.  He then went to Japan in 1942 and worked as a translator for Japanese and Indonesian soldiers during World War II.  He returned to Palau in 1953 to work as a telephone operator and then moved again to Saipan in 1966, where he spent the rest of his life [2], passing at the age of 95 in October, 2015 [3].  I don’t know the year that this song was composed, but with his life’s story, it would make sense that he was the Tekereng who composed this song.

The earliest recording of this song I have is from the Ngerel Belau [Voice of Palau] Radio Tapes, recorded in the 1960s, sung by Kui-Roy Arurang and backed up by the Friday Night Club.  The recording is good and Kui-Roy’s voice is very strong.  The tape box was labeled with the title “Ng Kol Mo Oingerang,” a line which comes from the last verse of the song.  Diane’s lyric collection [1] listed the title as “Wakai Inochi”, as did Gailliard Kladikm’s tape.  And since there is another, different, song with the title “Ng Kol Mo Oingerang,”, we’ll use “Wakai Inochi” for this one.

The rough transcriptions of the Japanese amid the Palauan lyrics (which I've italicized) give a feel for the heavier mix of Japanese lyrics in the 1930s and 1940s. Below I've added best-guess glosses in square brackets to the beginning and end of the lyrics (and attempted light corrections to the Japanese transcriptions). My glosses of the Palauan are also rough.

Wakai inochi [t]o mangokoro wa [若い命と真心は]
Ng diak kubes era [it not I-forget ART] kimi no omokange yo [君の面影よ] ...

A young life and a true heart
I can’t forget you in my memory ...

Natsukasii omoide, kazukazu to [懐かしい思い出数々と]
Kanasii kago no tori no you ni [悲しい籠の鳥のように]
Tsubasa orarete [翼折られて], ng ko el mo oingerang [it will be when?]
A cheldedechad [ART story-our(INCL)]

Dear memories, they are many
Like a sad bird trapped in its cage
With a broken wing. When will it be,
our story?

23 April 2023

The Fox of the Mohegans

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 86-87:

THE MOHEGAN SACHEM UNCAS SEEMED TO BE everywhere, shaping every major development in the borderlands between the colonists and the Indians. In 1626, at the age of thirty-six, he had forged a Mohegan-Pequot alliance by marrying the daughter of Tatobem, the great sachem of the Pequots. Uncas accepted a subordinate role under the senior sachem, only to immediately challenge Pequot authority when Tatobem died in 1633. Uncas persuaded the Narragansetts to join him but struggled to challenge the supremacy of the Pequots, who had drawn the Dutch into their orbit. The Pequots banished Uncas to live among the Narragansetts. Stripped of followers, Uncas seemed to have exhausted his options. The Mohegan territory was shrinking rapidly, and he had but a handful of followers.

But then Uncas spotted an opening in the form of the new English colony of Connecticut. He approached the newcomers and established ties with the leading Puritans. He warned the colonists of an imminent Mohegan attack and earned their trust. When the English moved against the Pequots, Uncas supported the colonists, having become alienated from the haughty Pequots. When the Pequots were crushed, he adopted several survivors as newly born Mohegans. He was one of the crucial signers of the 1638 Treaty of Hartford, which dispossessed all the Indians who were not party to it. He promised to live in peace with the English; in return, the remaining Pequots would be divided between the Mohegans and the Narragansetts. It was at once revenge and an attempt at ethnic erasure. The treaty’s clause that the Pequots “shall no more be called Pequots but Narragansetts and Mohegans” was as much Uncas’s doing as it was that of the colonists. Acutely aware of their weakness in the midst of powerful Indigenous confederacies, the English expected the Mohegans and Narragansetts to punish the Pequots and “as soon as they can either bring the Chief Sachem of our late Enemies the Pequots that had the chief hand in killing the English to the said English or take off their heads.” When peace came, the English held more than three hundred Pequots captives. They carried many of them to the colony of Providence Island, near the Spanish-controlled Mosquito Island, trading them for African slaves. New Englanders did not want Pequots nearby.

With the Pequots utterly defeated, the Mohegans emerged as a major regional power. While maneuvering to marginalize the leading Narragansett sachem, Miantonomi, Uncas directed the English—apparently through misinformation—to move against the Narragansetts. In the mid-1640s, the English began to encroach on Narragansett lands. Uncas captured Miantonomi and turned him over to the English. The colonists sentenced the sachem to death and asked Uncas to execute the order. With a Puritan delegation witnessing, Uncas’s brother Wawequa sank a tomahawk in the sachem’s skull. The Narragansetts soon signed a peace treaty with the Connecticut Colony.

Uncas’s opportunistic diplomatic maneuvering and his ability to create and break alliances placed the colonists at a significant disadvantage in the contest for position and power. Uncas and his Mohegans endured endless colonial challenges, large and small—not just surviving as a people but controlling the world around them. Huddling in their small colonial enclaves, the English and Dutch were insular and powerless in comparison, managing little more than glimpses of the Indigenous politics that determined events and outcomes. The English thought they could regulate matters of war and peace in the New World, but more often than not, Indians steered them into fighting and financing Indian wars and facilitating truces and treaties with goods and gifts when the fighting stopped. The colonists—whether Spanish, French, English, or Dutch—could be arrogant and brutal, but the Indians had learned how to exploit them for their own purposes. Properly managed and manipulated, they could be useful.

22 April 2023

Heydey of Dutch Wampum Trade

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 74-76:

IMPERIAL RIVALRIES among the European powers exacerbated the tense situation in New England. More quietly than the Spanish, French, and English, the Dutch had entered the contest for North America in 1609, when Henry Hudson, having failed to find a sea route to China through North America, came to a river that still bears his name. When Dutch merchants arrived in the Hudson Valley in the 1610s, they realized it was a place of vast advantages. The Hudson was navigable for 160 miles into the interior, allowing access to bustling Native markets along the Saint Lawrence Valley and in the Great Lakes. Uninterested in converting and “civilizing” the Indians, the business-minded Dutch treated Indians as customers and trading partners.

The Dutch Indian policy was persistently practical. Dutch merchants quickly determined where the power lay and acted accordingly, forging close ties with the Mahican Nation, which dominated the interior trade. The Dutch built Fort Nassau in 1614 on the Hudson and, through the Mahicans, sold guns, powder, and iron tools across an enormous hinterland. In return, Fort Nassau was flooded with beaver pelts, North America’s most coveted commodity, making a fortune for the Dutch. The fort had only about four dozen employees, half of them traders and the other half soldiers. This kind of light colonialism was not exactly by design—Dutch imperial ambitions in Asia drew most of the available resources—but the relative modesty of their operations in North America would serve the Dutch well.

Dutch commercial prowess alarmed the English, triggering an unexpected imperial contest centered on processed clamshells. Clamshells were the raw material for wampum beads, which were sacred to many eastern Indians. They painted them with various colors and strung them into belts that were used in religious ceremonies, to proclaim social status, to stabilize border relations, and as mnemonic devices in relating traditional stories. Wampum also served as currency, and there the entrepreneurial Dutch merchants spotted an opportunity. They began to supply the coastal Indians with metal lathes that enabled them to manufacture wampum on an industrial scale. Native women could produce five to ten feet of wampum belt a day, and soon some three million monetized wampum beads were circulating in the Northeast, fueling an expanding exchange economy. Europeans had accepted a currency that a moment earlier meant next to nothing to them.

Struggling to enter into the lucrative wampum trade and to pay their European debts—building colonies was extremely expensive—the still fragile Puritan colonies approached the Wabanakis, who were expert mariners and trappers equally capable of producing great quantities of prime beaver pelts, swordfish, cod, or right whales. Living far to the north of the main clamshell-farming area, Wabanakis were eager for access to wampum; the Puritans began to demand it from their Native neighbors to buy Wabanaki furs. Their methods were harsh, ranging from naked extortion to thinly disguised tribute payments. New Englanders and the Dutch began using wampum belts as currency in their internal trade. In 1637, the Massachusetts General Court declared wampum legal tender, exchangeable for shillings and pennies. Weetamoo, a saunkskwa—female sachem—of the Pocasset people of the Wampanoag Confederacy, relied almost exclusively on wampum in her expansive diplomacy with colonists. It was a precarious dynamic, and the Wabanakis began to carefully consider the extent to which they should engage with the Indians in the interior. For them the interior was a terrifying place where the contest over territory unbalanced the world. The amphibious Mi’kmaqs, not the English, were their most dangerous neighbors. Mi’kmaqs traded with Europeans, accumulating guns and powder and projecting their power deep into the interior and far out into the sea, securing a near monopoly on fisheries and other maritime resources around the Saint Lawrence Bay. They became the foremost maritime power along the Northeast Coast. In their slipstream, the Wabanakis extended their operations in the Saint Lawrence Valley and New France, unnerving New England traders and officials.

21 April 2023

Reviving Palauan Musical Traditions

At points during its period of Japanese rule (roughly 1915-1945), Palau had more Japanese colonists than native Palauans, who incorporated many Japanese words, names, and songs into their local traditions. Even after the war, Palau continued to be a repository of old-style Japanese enka musicians, who retained many Japanese evocative phrases in their Palauan renditions. Lots of Palauans also mastered the mandolin as well as the guitar.

From Ouchacha: Musings on Palauan cha-cha and other musical forms:

In March of 2018, my friend Tony Phillips and I went to Palau to perform some of the old songs in the 1960s String Band style as “Ngirchoureng“, meet and play with some of the musicians and composers, and talk to folks about how much we love this music.  After returning to California, we spent some time recording the Palauan songs that we had worked up for our trip. Just like our performances at the Night Market and Museum back in March, but this time, you can adjust the volume to your liking. Hopefully I fixed the pronunciation problems that you all so kindly overlooked. We’ve produced a CD of 20 songs, and we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out. Thanks again for the wonderful hospitality of our friends in Palau, old and new.

I selected the title “Mengemedaol er a Irechar” because I like the sense that the word “mengemedaol” can mean either “to welcome” or “to celebrate.” The way I think of this word, is through its relation to the word “klechedaol,” the activity where one village invites another to come and spend some time together, dancing, singing and just renewing their friendship. Mengemedaol is like the welcome that one family makes to another, as they come together to share some joy. And it is also the prelude — the first step — to a celebration of shared experiences. And I think that is what we should do with respect to the past: welcome it into our lives and celebrate the beauty that was brought to us by our elders and ancestors. I don’t know about you, but I think it is pretty cool that in 2018 I am singing a song — Tobiera — that two remechas named Dilmers and Degaragas sang in 1936 and was composed by some unidentified person in 1931, 87 years ago. How different their lives were to ours today, but we can cross the bridge to the past (adidil er a irechar) and join them for a song.

If you click on the link you can listen online to all the songs on the CD.

20 April 2023

Little Ice Age Effects in North America

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 21-23:

IF THE LITTLE ICE AGE posed daunting challenges to North America’s agricultural societies, it was a boon for the continent’s hunters. The cool and wet conditions favored buffalo and grama grasses, the bison’s preferred forage, and the springs were wet, supporting crucial early growth of grass after the winter’s deprivations. Now the sole surviving species of megafauna, the supremely adaptable and prolific bison faced no serious competitors, and the herds expanded their range all the way from the Rocky Mountain foothills to hundreds of miles east of the Mississippi River, and from the subarctic to the Gulf of Mexico. And where bison herds thinned out, thriving deer herds took over, their domain covering much of the eastern half of the continent.

The majority of North American Indians became generalists who farmed, hunted, and gathered to sustain themselves. Instead of striving to maximize agricultural output—an aspiration that had animated Ancestral Puebloans, Cahokians, and other early farming societies—they sought stability, security, and solidarity. Instead of priestly rulers, they preferred leaders whose principal obligation was to maintain consensus and support participatory political systems. Power flowed through the leaders, not from them. Most North Americans lived in villages rather than cities. Ancestral Pawnees, Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas were typical. They settled along the upper Missouri Valley, where capillary action drew groundwater to the surface. They lived in dome-shaped earth-lodge villages that housed hundreds rather than thousands. They were horticulturists and built fortifications only rarely. This sweeping retreat from hierarchies, elite dominance, and large-scale urbanization may have turned North America—along with Australia—into the world’s most egalitarian continent at the time.

The collective mindset that prevailed, reflecting broad-based and carefully balanced economies, also distinguished North America’s Indigenous peoples. The continental grasslands—the Great Plains—were teeming with tens of millions of buffalo. Huge herds blackened the flat plains to the horizon, pulling humans in. The Shoshones moved east from the Great Basin, the Blackfoot came from the northeast, and the Crows, Omahas, Poncas, and Kansas abandoned their villages and fields along the Missouri Valley. The Kiowas migrated south from the upper Yellowstone Valley and forged an alliance with the resident Apaches. Former farmers did not give up tilling, but all of them now hunted bison, surrounding them in large communal hunts and felling them with spears and arrows, chasing them into concealed corrals in riverbeds, or driving them over cliffs to their deaths. In the Black Hills, hunters stampeded bison herds, driving the panicked animals into a corridor marked by stones that channeled the beasts toward a buffalo jump, a steep sinkhole where the high fall did the killing.

16 April 2023

J. Chamberlain on Annexing Colonies

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 201-202:

A change of government saw the appointment of Joseph Chamberlain as the new Colonial Secretary. Chamberlain was arguably the most expansionist secretary the Colonial Office had ever seen, and he was a devotee of all the political intrigue that surrounded the Scramble for Africa. He saw events in Asante as being part of the process by which Britain would extend its influence and empire. Chamberlain had anticipated a French challenge into Asante and this he was not going to permit. Thus, he latched onto [Gold Coast Governor] Maxwell’s proposal and replied by cable in September 1895 that [Asante King] Prempeh must be told that the government now expected the 1874 treaty to be met and honoured in full. In addition, he informed Maxwell that Prempeh must also be told that Asante must refrain from attacking neighbouring tribes and that he had to accept a British resident at Kumasi. Crucially, Chamberlain was prepared to back his words with military intervention.

This tougher stance was fully supported by the British Chamber of Commerce as well as many of the British newspapers. For example, The Times of 21 January 1896 claimed that Asante had long formed a block of savagery between the British coast and the interior. This had prevented trade and that the French were taking advantage of the situation by opening their own markets, which may now be lost to Britain.

On receiving Chamberlain’s instructions, the governor despatched Vroom to Kumasi with an ultimatum for Prempeh which required of him either a written reply or a personal interview with the governor before the end of October. Although treated with courtesy, Vroom received no direct answer from Prempeh, and he returned to the coast. It seems Prempeh was putting all his hope in his deputation that had been sent to London and he sent a sword bearer and court crier to the coast to inform the British that he was awaiting a response from his messengers to Queen Victoria. As no written response was received to the ultimatum it was taken by Maxwell, Scott and Chamberlain as a rejection. Maxwell had already informed Scott that he would be in command of the proposed military expedition and preparations were well under way.

Chamberlain had already warned the Cabinet in November 1895 that private enterprise was now inadequate for opening Britain’s vast ‘underdeveloped estates’, and that the government must lead the way with money and troops. Without consulting the prime minister, he announced a punitive expedition to Asante.

15 April 2023

Who Led the Scramble for Africa?

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 193-195:

When examining the British government’s actions before 1895, it seems evident that ministers felt no urgent requirement to expand British influence in West Africa. They were not interested in using imperial power and capital to work in West Africa for the purpose of investing in new markets and resources. It is often thought that the empire existed to create more business for Britain, yet, according to Robinson and Gallagher in the seminal work Africa and the Victorians, in the Gold Coast, before 1895, it would be truer to say that the merchants were expected to create empire and that the British government expected them to do so without imperial rule, to make do with the limited protection and to pioneer their own way inland.

The ‘Scramble for Africa’ was to change that thinking. This term refers to a period in the late 1880s and 1890s during which many European powers, including Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, sought to expand their own empires or spheres of influence across the African continent. The motives behind such actions were often economic enhancement or dominance, but the nations were equally driven by the desire for their European rivals to be excluded from a region. Although this was true across Africa, West Africa was to be dominated by a strong rivalry between the British and the French.

At the height of the Scramble it was common that local officials were several steps ahead or even led opinion as to what action should be taken. Often the Colonial Office in London was slow in offering definitive guidance and policy could be made by the officials in situ. This was certainly true of the Gold Coast. The Governor Brandford Griffith had already alerted London that French colonial ambitions were being extended by exploration westwards into the hinterland of the Gold Coast, from their colony of the Ivory Coast. In 1886 a French officer, Captain Louis-Gustave Binger, had been tasked by the French government to lead a reconnaissance mission along the Niger River. To avoid arousing British suspicions he started from the interior and by 1889 he had covered a huge area between Bamako, Kong and Wagadugu and he encroached on British influence in Salaga and Kintampo. In 1888, Binger even managed to secure a treaty of protection with the Bontuku under the noses of a British mission. Brandford Griffith feared that the French might even penetrate into northern Asante and so in 1886 he informed the Colonial Office that Asante territory should be quickly brought under British jurisdiction.

The following year the governor gave a further warning to London of German encroachment into Asante from Togo in the east. These warnings were not, initially, taken very seriously and the secretary of state, Henry Holland, 1st Baron of Knutsford, even wrote, ‘If Ashanti is to be annexed to any European power let it be by the Germans.’ However, over the next few years such complacency disappeared from the Colonial Office in light of further European penetration of the interior of West Africa and diplomatic disagreements in Europe. It was felt that some action, at least to the north of Asante, would have to be considered. Here diplomacy within Europe secured two important agreements. The Anglo-French Agreement of 1889 defined the western boundary of the Gold Coast according to treaties made with the local chiefs. Similarly, the Anglo-German Treaty of 1890 established a neutral zone to the north east of Asante in which European nations bound themselves not to acquire protectorates. The treaty also defined the southern Gold Coast–Togoland boundary in general terms, but detailed interpretation on the ground aroused local resentment and the king of Krepi was outraged that the new boundary split his lands. Furthermore, the creation of the neutral zone merely heightened colonial rivalries in the adjacent territories. When the king of Attabubu approached the British seeking protection from German encroachment, the governor was delighted to recommend that a treaty of friendship and protection should be drawn up and this was executed in 1890, much to the annoyance of the Germans.

14 April 2023

Dutch-British Swap on the Gold Coast

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 74-76:

The Dutch had first traded on the Gold Coast in 1580 and in 1637 they had attacked the castle at Elmina and seized it from the Portuguese. From Elmina the Dutch continued the slave trade begun by its former owners and developed a strong relationship with both the king of Elmina, who controlled the surrounding lands, as well as the Asantes who supplied the Dutch with slaves in exchange for European goods and weapons. The king of Elmina had secured a supportive relationship with the Asantes over the years, which was based on trade and a mutual distrust of the British. The people of Elmina traded fish and salt to their immediate neighbours, in exchange for food stuffs, such as maize and cassava, as well as cattle. There was also an important trade with much of the Akan hinterland, including the Asante, in which the traders of Elmina exchanged goods, such as cotton cloth, leather goods, powder, ammunition and weapons for palm oil, food stuffs, animal skins and slaves.

Over the following centuries, the Dutch, working alongside Elmina traders, very much concentrated their efforts on economic activity. Although the abolition of slavery severely limited the trade in human cargo, it did not eradicate it and the Dutch continued to play a part in this trade, but not in such an overt manner as before. The Dutch maintained a neutrality in conflicts between the Asante nation and the British and their native allies and this can be partly explained by the fact that the Asantes, through conquest, held the ‘Notes’ to Elmina Castle and the Dutch would pay a yearly rent to the court at Kumasi in return for good relations between the two. Yet, this placid relationship was to alter as the nature of trade changed throughout the nineteenth century. The Dutch found it more and more difficult to make their economic activities along the Gold Coast financially viable and in the 1860s they began to negotiate with the British as to how both countries could benefit by working together.

In March 1867, in the hope of introducing and operating an effective tariff along the whole of the Gold Coast, and to reduce budgetary losses, the Dutch and the British agreed to consolidate their trading interests into two blocks. Elmina was used as the dividing line and the British took the area to the east and the Dutch to the west of the castle. In true imperial style, neither country gave any thought as to how the local population might react to a change in governance and none of the local chiefs were consulted. The treaty came into effect on 1 January 1868 and in its terms the British handed over control of the forts and trading posts of Apollonia, Dixcove, Sekondi and Kommenda and in return gained Dutch Accra, Moree, Apam and Kormantine. Crucially, the British also relinquished to the Dutch the protectorate over the peoples of Eastern and Western Wassa, Apollonia and Denkyira.

13 April 2023

The Asante Capital in 1817

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 40-42:

Osei Bonsu was correct in his assessment that the British were focused only on trade. Yet, with the parliamentary victory of the abolitionists this trade, as far as the British viewed it, would no longer be based on slavery. Of course, one of the primary drivers of Asante military expansion was the need to secure supplies of slaves. Indeed, the African Company formally recognised as early as 1809 that the Asante nation could not be expected to ‘acquiesce in the destruction of a trade [slavery] not inconsistent with their prejudices, their laws or their notions of morality and religion and by which alone they have been hitherto accustomed to acquire wealth …’. This contradiction of aims would result in further conflict throughout the century and see the African Company losing its role as the main British presence along the Gold Coast. However, this was in the future and in 1817 the major British concern was the urgent need to come to some sort of arrangement with the Asante nation to secure Britain’s immediate economic and political position.

The African Committee in London decided upon a direct course of action and ordered Governor John Hope Smith, who had replaced Colonel Torrance, to despatch a mission to the Asante capital of Kumasi to negotiate with the king for the establishment of a British Embassy at his court. Hope Smith selected four of the company’s officers for the task. Thomas Bowditch, a clerk, was to write a detailed account of the mission and became the lead negotiator for the company. The officers set out from Cape Coast Castle on 22 April 1817, along with a retinue of carriers. The journey was to take them nearly a month before they arrived in Kumasi on 19 May. En route they passed through Fante towns and villages that had been devasted by the Asante army until they reached the jungle belt and the condition of the path slowed their progress. At the town of Fomena, the first in Asante proper, the group met the local chief, who expressed his delight that he was able to greet a white man before he died for he was awaiting execution having offended Osei Bonsu in some way. The chief was, according to Bowditch, philosophical about his circumstances and, seated on a cloth, displayed dignity rather than shame whilst he calmly awaited his fate. The chief’s head duly arrived in Kumasi the day after the mission.

Kumasi grew from a tree-encircled crossroads of trading routes. Tree is kum in the local Twi language. The city itself was situated on a hill overlooking the Subin River and when Bowditch and his party pushed their way through the 5,000 warriors who had been sent by the king to greet their arrival they discovered a city of 27 major streets, the greatest of which was used for significant receptions and parades and was over 100m wide. There were named quarters, or abrono, and trades, such as goldsmiths or umbrella makers, occupied specific quarters. When the mission finally reached the palace, which was the largest building in the city, covering a total area of 5 acres, they were formally greeted by Osei Bonsu. Apart from being the royal residence, the palace also housed a forum in which the council of the nation would debate important matters. Bowditch wrote of the elaborately carved doors and windows and even the lavatories found in the palace and described the wealth he saw, in terms of gold ornaments and rich clothes. When his work was published in Britain it was met with scepticism for the reviewers could not comprehend that Africa could possess such a large and elaborate native city.

Bowditch and his colleagues remained in Kumasi for several months and although treated with respect, they were not given the freedom to explore the local area and at times they must have thought they were little more than prisoners. However, Osei Bonsu was keen to negotiate a treaty with the British and Bowditch was finally able to return to the coast with a treaty signed by the king. In it the king pledged himself to ‘countenance, promote and encourage’ trade between his subjects and Cape Coast Castle and allowed for a resident to remain in Kumasi. In return the officers in charge of the British forts would give ‘every protection in their power’ to such Asante people who might require it. This feature of the treaty, point seven of ten, was quickly tested and the British were found wanting.

12 April 2023

Asante Army Structure, 1800s

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 27-32:

The Asante army was not a regular force, although there did exist a small trained cadre stationed in Kumasi to protect the capital and the Asantehene. This formed the nucleus of any expeditionary force. However, in other respects the army was more akin to a feudal levy of the European Middle Ages in that most of the manpower was assembled at the outbreak of war from troops raised by the twenty-four tribal heads and later from tribes that had been annexed into the Asante Empire. At its maximum, the Asante army was said to have been up to 100,000-strong. However, most armies were not as large as this; for example, around 40,000 warriors opposed the British in 1874. The fact that such a force could maintain its cohesiveness and discipline, especially as its ranks did include men taken from recently vanquished tribes, is miraculous and its success can be attributed to several factors.

The Asante military leaders quickly realised the important advantage that firearms gave them over their foes and the leadership generated a winning mentality and even a sense of superiority amongst their troops that they had a share in a glorious military tradition. This went even further in that the Asante nation, with each victory and conquest, rapidly gained amongst its people and from those of other tribes and nations, even European ones, a reputation as a self-governing, independent state that was wholly indigenous and not one that had evolved as a result of outside influences.

Once war was declared against another tribal state the decision to do so would be made by the Asantehene, his privy council, the chiefs of the twenty-four individual states that comprised the nation, and, as time went on, the chiefs of the newly acquired vassal states that had been brought into the Asante nation by conquest.


If war was declared, then the chiefs, who also served as the captains of the various states, would return to their lands and call their people to arms. Every male citizen was a soldier and all able-bodied men were expected to ready themselves for military service. However, a quota system existed so that only a proportion of men were called for action with the remainder left at home to provide security as well as, crucially, manpower to ensure that the farming systems continued, and future famines were avoided.

There was a large element of discipline, even subjugation, which was used to maintain the army’s effectiveness. There were severe punishments, including death, for failure to report for duty, for desertion and cowardice. A military police force armed with whips and swords had to be used to encourage some into battle and those few that refused were despatched on the spot with an axe. Yet, overall the command structure centred on the king, his privy council and the army general staff was incredibly effective not only on the battlefield but also in bringing the army to readiness and for ensuring that logistically it was able to fight and achieve victories. Each army group took its own supplies of food and ordnance on campaign. Uniquely amongst African armies, the Asante boasted a corps of medical orderlies, the Esumankwafo, who accompanied the army into battle. This corps attended to wounded troops as well as removing the dead from the battlefield, for immense trouble was taken to conceal losses from the enemy.

A typical Asante battle column was said to have originated by observing ants on a march and comprised a body of scouts, an advance guard, the main body, in which the army commander was found and secured, left and right wings and a rear or home guard. Certainly, in wars with tribal states the battle could be effectively won if the opposing king or general was either killed or captured so the Asante army ensured that their battlefield commanders were well protected in the centre of the formation. The home guard was tasked either with staying in the capital Kumasi or returning immediately to the capital after a battlefield victory, or a rare defeat, to ensure that the security of the capital was maintained. The scouts would first engage with the enemy who would then be drawn in towards the main body. As this was happening the left and right wings would endeavour to surround the enemy for, although the principal aim was to defeat their foe, the secondary one was to capture as many as possible so as to sell them to the slavers on the coast. In addition, in a society in which fetishism and the worship of ancestors was important a number of the recently captured enemy were diverted to human sacrifice, a practice that continued right up to the late nineteenth century.


The Asante army was composed entirely of infantry for the inhospitable forest zone, and the presence of the tsetse fly there meant that horses and ponies would soon succumb. Most Asante troops were equipped with standard European trade muskets, which were poorly made with a limited range. On the West African coast such weapons had the common name of ‘Long Danes’, supposedly named as it was the Danes who first introduced them to the Gold Coast. This weapon was over 6ft in length and weighed nearly 20lb and a more unsuitable musket for forest warfare could not have been designed. In theory such guns had a range of 200yd but were rarely accurate beyond 30yd and although the enemy might be frightened by the explosive fire, it was unlikely to hurt them unless hit at very close range. Yet, the nature of the jungle fighting meant that if the enemy had not already fled at the sound of the approaching Asante army, then fire would often be at close proximity as the two protagonists were unable to see each other through the near-impenetrable forest.

11 April 2023

Foundation of the Asante Nation

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 25-27:

The Asante nation we know today, and that came into conflict with the British in the nineteenth century, is also known as Asanteman; a homogeneous society comprising twenty-four individual states, each with its own chief, serving one king, known as the Asantehene who resides in Kumasi, the capital of the Asante nation. The name Asante seems to have derived from a special red clay the people sent to the dominant tribe, the Denkyira, as a form of payment or tribute of allegiance. The Akans call clay ‘Asan’, therefore the Asantes were differentiated from others with the name ‘Asan-tefo’, or those who dig clay.

The foundation of the Asante nation can be dated to the late seventeenth century with its rise as a military power under the leadership of its first king, Osei Tutu, and the inspiration of a priest, Okomfo Anokye. With the ambition of freeing the Asante people from the dominance and servitude of the paramount Denkyira tribe, and thereby forging a nation rather than simply a tribe, these two men realised the vital importance of both a religious and military system with which to bind a new nation together. As the historian R.S. Rattray has rather cynically written of Okomfo Anokye, ‘with a true insight into the psychology of the people with whom he had to deal, he realised that the only way to unite independent and mutually jealous factions [within the Asante tribe] was by playing upon their superstitious beliefs’. According to Asante tradition a wooden stool covered in gold was summoned from the sky by Anokye and this descended upon the lap of Osei Tutu, who was anointed as king. Anokye declared that the Golden Stool contained the spirits of the Asante ancestors and the strength and wellbeing of the new nation depended on its preservation. Every Asante, and heads of each of the twenty-four tribal states, had to show allegiance to the Golden Stool and its guardian the king, or Asantehene, the head of the Asante nation. The British lack of understanding regarding the paramount importance to the Asante nation of the Golden Stool was to be the central reason for the Anglo-Asante War of 1900.

To consolidate and reaffirm his position the king, Osei Tutu, quickly realised that the energy and resources of his new nation should be directed towards military conquest and this would begin, in 1701, with war waged against the Denkyira tribe. Although the Denkyira, under their king, Ntim Gyakari, initially achieved success against the Asante forces, Osei Tutu was able to draw the Denkyira into a trap and at the Battle of Feyiase the full military might of the Asante nation routed the Denkyira army. Ntim Gyakari was captured and beheaded on the battlefield. Having secured independence from Denkyira servitude, Osei Tutu now turned his focus on expanding his new nation. By the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century slavery was at its height and it is no coincidence that the rise of the Asante nation occurred at the same time. Osei Tutu and then successive Asantehene, such as Opoku Ware (1720–50) and Osei Kwadwo (1764–77) directed forces against neighbouring tribal states. There was a seemingly never-ending series of wars. For example, the Sefwi, Bono and Gyaman states were added to the Asante nation during Opoku Ware’s reign, whilst Osei Kwadwo defeated the Wassa and Banda peoples, annexing their lands. He also expanded the Asante nation northwards into Dagombaland to slow the southward spread of Islam into the region.

However, the thrust of Asante expansion was primarily southwards and was motivated largely by the desire to sell those captured in battle as slaves directly to European buyers on the coast. Even the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and then the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 did not slow Asante expansion for there were always notorious traders and nations who would buy slaves. Furthermore, the Asante army was now dependent on firearms and gunpowder to maintain its supremacy and the various Asantehene and military leaders considered it imperative to have direct access to European suppliers of weapons, powder and ammunition who were based on the coast.

10 April 2023

British Military Expansion, 1800s

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: "The White Man's Grave" by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 16-18:

The truly massive expansion in the British Empire throughout Victoria’s long reign (1837–1901) saw British troops (‘The Soldiers of the Queen’) and naval personnel deployed across the world in such diverse countries as Russia, New Zealand, India, Canada, Egypt and South Africa, to name just a few. Such deployments were made to right a perceived wrong, to defeat a European foe, to stop a competing country securing spoils or simply to expand British prestige and power. On many such occasions British troops were placed in direct conflict with indigenous ethnic tribes or nations and the resulting military actions have become an important part of British colonial history, which some view with immense pride and others with shame or even disgust. Whatever personal views are held there is no doubting the immense bravery and fortitude of the British troops and equally these terms can be applied to their foes.

In most of the colonial wars of the Victorian age the British had a significant technology advantage in terms of weaponry over their enemies and this allowed them to achieve some crushing victories such as at the battles of Magdala (9 April 1868) and Omdurman (2 September 1898). Yet, there were occasions when despite this advantage the British were defeated, most famously at the Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879). When the British met defeat at the hands of an indigenous enemy such foes became respected and even achieved mythical status. This is certainly true of the British relationship with the Zulu nation, but it also applies to the Maoris of New Zealand, the Dervishes of Sudan and the Sikhs of Northern India. Less well known are the numerous conflicts that the British fought against the Asante nation in what is now modern-day Ghana in West Africa.

Whilst the Zulus did indeed inflict a crushing defeat upon the British at Isandlwana, a minor one at Intombi Drift (12 March 1879) and a more serious reversal as at the Battle of Hlobane (28 March 1879), the Asante nation was a thorn in the side of both British politicians and the military throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, the casualties endured by the British in the various campaigns against the Asantes were comparable to those suffered during conflicts with the Zulus and the Dervishes. The Anglo-Zulu War lasted a mere seven months, although the unsatisfactory political settlement that was imposed by the British resulted in lesser conflicts which extended into the beginning of the twentieth century. By contrast, the Asante nation and the British were in both political and military conflict for over seventy years during the nineteenth century and three major wars resulted in which there were significant military reversals for the British. This volume is split into three separate parts to reflect and illustrate these wars, each of which possessed fascinating moments and challenges which are captured in this work. Whether this is the death of the British Governor, Sir Charles McCarthy, at the Battle of Nsamankow (22 January 1824), Sir Garnet Wolseley’s brilliant planned and orchestrated expedition of 1873–4, or the siege of the British fort at Kumasi in 1900, all offer a rich and engrossing history. Indeed, the 1900 siege tells a tale of bravery, fortitude and ineptitude that can stand alongside other more famous sieges of Victoria’s reign, such as Ladysmith and Peking. One particularly fascinating aspect of these three major wars is how the unsatisfactory settlements reached at the conclusion of each were the lifeblood for further conflicts.

07 April 2023

Soviet Campaign for Latin Scripts

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 188-192:

In 1921, twenty-two-year-old Qu Qiubai was dispatched by a Chinese news syndicate from Beijing to the Soviet Union with a mission to report on the post-Bolshevik regime. The journey would become a personal quest as well as a political pilgrimage for this rookie journalist with delicate features and a touch of melancholy. Qu unexpectedly met many compatriots on his way to Moscow, among them Chinese laborers and shopkeepers ensconced in the Far East cities of Irkutsk and Chita.


Qu was sent back to Russia in 1928 with many of his fellow Chinese Marxists to regroup under the tutelage of their Bolshevik brothers. By this time, the language question occupied the forefront of the Soviet Union’s policy toward its own national minorities. The newly unified Soviet Union included swaths of Central Asia that did not speak or read Russian. Among the groups in these regions that already had a written tradition, Arabic had been in use for almost a thousand years. Some of the national minorities in Turkic Central Asia had no script at all. Pacifying and assimilating these groups would require careful strategy from the Soviets. Reducing illiteracy with Latinized scripts became a key part of a general campaign to educate and control the population.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Central Asia Turkic republics began testing the Latin alphabet as a medium for their spoken languages. Many Turkic groups saw Arabic script as increasingly insufficient to meet the practical demands of modern life, much in the same way that Chinese reformers had viewed character writing as a disadvantage in the technological age. As a Soviet Tajik poet explained, the Latin alphabet flew at the speed of an airplane, while the Arabic script limped along like a weak donkey in pain. Others saw the conversion to Latin script as a matter of sharing in humanity’s survival, because written records provide continuity from the past into the present.

The Soviet Central Committee supported the Latinization of the Arabic script in pursuit of a multinational language policy. The idea was to give each group its own right to linguistic self-determination within the newly unified Soviet state. Fifty-two languages were targeted for conversion to Roman script and about seventy were eventually Latinized, spanning an area that stretched between Norway and Korea.

In truth, Latinization was also a way to divide and conquer. From the Russians’ perspective, Central Asia was about as savage and backward as a place could be—and they found its inhabitants difficult to tell apart. The Azerbaijanis were often referred to as the Tatars, Uzbeks as the Sarts, and Tajiks as the Uzbeks. If the Soviet East were to be brought to heel, the Russians thought, it would have to be purged of its Islamic influence. It was convenient to seize on the Arabic script as an object of backwardness in need of reform. And as long as the Turkic republics had their own separate writing systems—in Latin script, not the Turko-Persian Arabic that a few groups were already accustomed to—it would be harder for them to form a pan-Islamic alliance that could challenge Soviet rule. Only later, in the late 1930s, would language policy shift from Latinization to Cyrillization. Once these groups were sufficiently distant from their mother tongues, Russian control and influence could strengthen.

The Soviets were eager to include the Chinese laborers of the Amur region as a test group in their anti-illiteracy Latinization campaigns, hoping to extend their influence even further into Asia. These were the Chinese laborers whom Qu had met during his first trip to the Soviet Union. Their illiteracy rate was almost 100 percent.

The Soviet campaigns were instructive for the Chinese Communists, at the time young political upstarts. During his time in China serving the CCP, Qu had been immersed in Chinese language debates and consequently had a more informed perspective on language reforms when he returned to the Soviet Union. Yet Qu was not a trained linguist. He solicited the help of the Russian linguists Vsevolod S. Kolokolov and Aleksandr A. Dragunov. He drafted a proposal for the Latin New Script in February 1929 and distributed two hundred copies among Chinese workers. A revised version, with further input from Kolokolov, was published that October and reprinted again the year after with three thousand additional copies in distribution.

The Chinese laborers cheered the effort. Night schools opened to teach them how to recognize simple phrases like “boiled water” or “I sell dumplings,” as well as ideological questions like “To what class do poor people belong?” More than five thousand factory workers and peasants were able to read and write letters to their families by the time they graduated, thanks to the comrades who volunteered their time as instructors and administrators. Between 1931 and 1936, scores of Latin New Script textbooks and several literary works were circulated and taught. The demand was overwhelming. The language reformers could not train teachers or print textbooks fast enough. A weekly newspaper wholly printed in Latin New Script, Yngxu Sin Wenz (Support the New Alphabet), was published in Khabarovsk, with its forty-third issue appearing in late 1934.

Instruction in Latin New Script was touted as a hallmark event in an era of socialist brotherhood and mutual aid. The Soviets saw it as an opportunity to finally address the problem of illiteracy among the community of one hundred thousand Chinese laborers within their territory. As for the Chinese Marxists, they now had a linguistic instrument with which to reach their revolutionary goals: If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script. For Qu, it was inevitable, even imperative, that Latinization would replace written characters. Unlike National Romanization, which was designed by a small coterie of academically minded intellectuals and based on fancy linguistic theories, he remarked, Latin New Script was a practical phonetic script that served every dialect and every class.

06 April 2023

Simplifying Chinese Characters

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 170-171, 174-175, 177-178:

Mao did not speak a word of Putonghua, the common speech derived from the northern-based Beijing Mandarin. Yet Mao went down in history as, among other things, the political figure who guided the Chinese language through its two greatest transformations in modern history. The first was character simplification, which would reduce the number of strokes in more than 2,200 Chinese characters. The second was the creation of pinyin, a standardized phonetic system using the Roman alphabet and based on the pronunciation of Putonghua (“pinyin” means “to piece together sound”). Mao would lead the country through these dramatic changes, but not by example; he would never get used to writing simplified characters in his lifetime, or even Roman letters. Following Mao, the Communists had fought and won a civil war in the name of the people—workers, peasants, and every member of the exploited underclass. At the founding of the PRC, more than 90 percent of the country was still illiterate and communicated in regional dialects. Romanization would be Mao’s way of delivering his promise to the people, and the people to their linguistic destiny. It would be a new bridge to learning Chinese characters, employed in aggressive anti-illiteracy campaigns. The Committee on Script Reform was appointed to orchestrate the effort.


While the Nationalists dawdled, the Communists took up the cause of simplification and made it their own. During the War of Resistance against the Japanese, they began to print simplified characters in the local newspapers that were circulated in the areas under their control. The use of these characters fanned out into the rest of the country after 1949. Simplified writing attracted more and more attention as discussions and debates grew. Eventually the Ministry of Education selected around five hundred simplified characters to be reviewed by experts and linguists. The task was handed over to the Committee on Script Reform for further investigation once it was established in 1952.

The committee completed the first draft of the official simplification scheme by late 1954. A list of 798 characters was formally introduced the following January to great enthusiasm. The Ministry of Education delivered three hundred thousand copies of the Preliminary Draft of Han Character Simplifications to various cultural organizations and educational institutions around the country for comment and feedback. More than two hundred thousand individuals weighed in with opinions. The Committee on Script Reform alone received more than five thousand letters. Up to 97 percent of those polled approved of the preliminary simplification scheme.


While there were reservations and objections to the simplified script—largely for cultural and aesthetic reasons—the rate of illiteracy began to decline under the twin implementation of character simplification and pinyin. By 1982, the literacy rate for people over age fifteen nationwide had risen to 65.5 percent, and it reached 96.8 percent in 2018.

Whatever support there was for character simplification among the Nationalists dwindled after 1949. After losing the mainland to the Communists and retreating to Taiwan, the Nationalists appointed themselves the true guardians of traditional culture and have kept the traditional written characters intact to this day. By distancing themselves from character simplification, they left room for the Communists to claim it as a central platform for New China.

The wounds of this contentious past are still fresh and reopen from time to time. The political weaponization of simplified scripts since 1949 on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which divides mainland China from the proclaimed Republic of China in Taiwan, has only sharpened the differences between the old and new scripts. Proponents and opponents of simplification continue to hurl jabs and insults at one another. The character for “love” (愛 in traditional form and 爱 in simplified form) is a favorite example. The simplified version replaces the component for “heart” 心 with “friend” 友. What is love, the champions of traditional characters ask, with no heart? One online critic argues that “since the simplification of Han characters, one can no longer ‘see’ one’s ‘relatives’ (親 vs. 亲). . . . The ‘factories’ are ‘emptied’ (廠 vs. 厂 ), while ‘flour’ is missing ‘wheat’ (麵 vs. 面). ‘Transportation’ has no ‘cars’ (運 vs. 运). . . . ‘Flying’ is done on one ‘wing’ (飛 vs. 飞).”

Advocates of simplified characters, in turn, have come up with their own character tales to tell. They argue that simplified “love” is more expansive and modern, extending generously to friends and comrades rather than being narrowly guided by the selfish heart. Another case is “masses.” After some strokes were judiciously pruned away, the character is now composed entirely—and rightly—of “people” (眾 vs. 众). “To destroy” no longer has the superfluous radical of “water” (滅 vs. 灭), which served no semantic or phonetic purpose. And as for the character for “insect,” who wouldn’t want to avoid the creepy-crawly pests as much as possible? At least one is better than three (蟲 vs. 虫).

05 April 2023

Early Chinese Telegraph Codes

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 91-92, 106-108, 110-111, 123-124:

In Morse code, the basic symbols were dots and dashes. The system’s twenty-six combinations of dots and dashes, ranging from one to four symbols, were meant to accommodate the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, with another ten combinations of five symbols each for numbers zero to nine.

To send a message, a telegraph operator pressed an electric switch, in the form of a key: a short tap for a dot and a long one for a dash. The message was converted into an electric current that traveled along the wires and was reverse translated into letters and numbers on the receiving end. The sound of clicking patterns could become so familiar that an experienced telegrapher could tell what word was being coded from its distinct rhythm. Telegraph costs were determined by how long they took to transmit—each dot or space was a single unit, and a dash—three times as long as a dot—was three units. As Morse explained early on, his system was designed to be cost-efficient. The most frequently used letter in English, “e,” was also the least expensive: It was represented by a single dot. The high frequency of “e” holds true for most European languages, from Italian to Dutch. But Morse code clearly favored the American English alphabet. An English letter takes up somewhere between one and thirteen units. To add even a single diacritical mark to the letter “a”—as when making the French “à”—required ten more units. So there was already plenty to disagree about among Roman alphabet users.

The inequities of Morse code were on a different scale for the Chinese. International telegraphy recognized only the Roman alphabet letters and Arabic numerals used by the majority of its members, which meant that Chinese, too, had to be mediated via letters and numbers. Whereas English could be English, and Italian mostly Italian, Chinese had to be something other than itself. Every Chinese character was transmitted as a string of four to six numbers, each of which cost more than a letter. The assigned code for a Chinese character first had to be looked up in a codebook before being converted to the dots and dashes of Morse code. Coding and converting Chinese characters into an ordinary telegram of twenty-five words required at least half an hour, whereas a comparable message in English took only about two minutes. Untold opportunity costs accrued with every telegraph that was delayed when the operator had to pause to check a character against its assigned number in a codebook or had to take extra time to correct an error.


[Septime Auguste] Viguier possessed the confidence and skill set that Great Northern [Telegraph Company (大北電報公司 / 大北电报公司 Dàběi Diànbào Gōngsī)] was looking for. He had already worked on developing a code for Chinese telegraphy years earlier for the French government in support of their failed efforts to interest the Chinese Empire in their telegraph cables. He was well versed in early word-copying machines like the Caselli pantelegraph, a precursor to the modern-day fax machine. When the French project was shelved, Viguier ended up in Shanghai—ripe for the Danes’ recruitment. He was the best candidate but not well-liked. Colleagues immediately noted his preening and boastfulness—the French way, they sneered. Viguier later also had a nasty exchange with the managing director Suenson, and his relationship with the company soured over questions of compensation and credit. Nonetheless, Viguier was able to work quickly enough to build out the Danish professor’s incomplete scheme. By June 1870, he had the first version. In 1872, he delivered the final, standardized telegraphic code table for 6,899 characters in The New Book for the Telegraph (Dianbao xinshu).


Viguier came up with a tabular form of twenty rows and ten columns per page. He assigned an arbitrary four-digit code from 0001 to 9999 to each character, with empty spaces left for potentially 3,000 more codes to accommodate customized vocabulary for individual business purposes. Each page contained 200 square spaces for listing 200 characters and their numerical codes. The code only included a relatively small number of characters out of the 45,000 or so that were extant. The mass scaling of telegraphy meant that it was geared toward the common person and the common tongue, so restricting the number of characters was not only efficient but also practical.


But Viguier’s telegraphic code did not go unchallenged. Almost immediately, the Chinese tried to outdo and improve upon it. A quiet young Chinese translator who had been part of that diplomatic mission to Europe in 1868, Zhang Deyi, became the first Chinese to do so. Zhang noted the pain of having to send Chinese messages back to the Chinese office in China in “foreign letters” whenever more urgent service was required. He also saw how Western telegrams were more secure, as secret messages were sent in numbers. That inspired Zhang to construct his own Chinese telegraphic codebook by following a similar format.

While the published version of Viguier’s work was an important landmark, Zhang zeroed in on its sloppiness. Viguier’s numbering of characters did not make them terribly easy to use for the Chinese. The continuous numbers did not separate out characters into groups, which was how the Chinese were accustomed to searching for characters in a dictionary. He decided to trim down the format of Viguier’s system and do some reorganization to make its content clearer. Zhang’s own New Method of Telegraphy (Dianxin xinfa) was published two years after Viguier came up with a draft of his telegraphic code in 1873. It reordered the characters so that the numbers were less arbitrary. Zhang used the same 214 radicals, but reselected about 7,000 characters from the Kangxi Dictionary and assigned them numbers from 0001 to 8000.


Westerners like Viguier had mapped Chinese onto numbers. Then the Chinese themselves had tried to use numbers to remap the alphabet. They kept bending the stick back and forth. Wang [Jingchun] was increasingly of the mind that one could put the Western alphabet in service of Chinese Romanization more permanently. He turned to Bopomofo, the Chinese phonetic alphabet approved at the 1913 National Language Unification Conference in Beijing, and its idea of an auxiliary phonetic alphabet formed from different styles and parts of Chinese characters. Working from this basis, Wang designed a use for Roman letters that was Latin in name but readapted to signal the three linguistic properties of Chinese characters: the phonetic representation of sound, tone, and the radical.

To indicate sound in his New Phonetic System, Wang mapped the sounds of Bopomofo—represented by symbols ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, ㄈ, etc.—onto alphabet letters that shared similar starting consonant sounds. So ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, ㄈ would match the letters “b,” “p,” “m,” and “f.” To show tone, Wang picked five letters to represent the five tones used in traditional and medieval phonology: “B” stands for the level or even tone; “P” marks the second or rising tone; “X” represents the third tone, which falls first then rises; “C” is fourth or falling tone; and “R” denotes the fifth or neutral tone. The last property, the radical, takes up two letters—a consonant and a vowel. Wang used two letters to spell the pronunciation of the radical part of the character only; e.g., tu for 土, li for 力, ko for 口, etc., in a way that was not dissimilar to what Wang Zhao had done with the Mandarin Alphabet. With one letter for sound, another letter for tone, and two more for phoneticizing the radical’s spelling, this system yielded a four-letter code for every character. The Chinese character could then be transmitted via telegraphy without using numbers at all. Wang’s idea took after other Romanization systems of the time, which were developed not for telegraphy per se, but to address the broader question of literacy. He borrowed from that conversation, run by linguists and ethnographers, to design a solution for what he had seen in the diplomatic arena.

During the year the Far Outliers spent in China in 1987-88, we had occasion to send a telegram to fellow teachers who were spending winter holidays in their hometown of Jingdezhen, famous for its pottery. They had written most of the text of the telegram and all we had to do was add the day and time when our train would arrive. So before we boarded the train for Jingdezhen, I handed the text of the telegram to a clerk at the telegraph office who proceeded to rewrite the message in a series of 4 digits for each Chinese character. It was very short and she had probably memorized some of the most frequent codes for 'arrive', 'depart', and dates and times, but it still looked like a tedious chore.

This interesting chapter includes a very misleading table, shown below. It shows American Morse code (also called Railroad Morse) that was standardized in 1844 and used by American railroads as late as the 1970s. Also called Morse landline code, its variable spacing and variable lengths did not travel well through undersea cables. Central Europeans used a modified code, the Hamburg alphabet, that evolved into the International Morse Code standardized in 1865. Working in the 1870s, Viguier and Zhang almost certainly used the international standard, the one where 'SOS' is rendered by the familiar dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit.

Erroneous Morse Code