28 August 2023

Culture of Puritans

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 17-18:

The culture of Puritans, so their detractors thought, could be dangerously irreverent towards accepted hierarchies and social norms. Personal conversions were all very well, but they came from individual moments of revelation rather than participation in communal worship and ritual. And was it not suspiciously egalitarian for these people to go from place to place in search of sermons, critiquing them based on their own reading of Scripture, picking and choosing which preachers they listened to? Why not accept the minister they had been provided with in their own parish? Puritans believed that all members of the church were essentially equal, linked by their own personal conversion experience rather than deference to any worldly authority. They thought that ministers should be chosen by their congregations (though as one was at pains to point out, this meant that the ‘chief fathers, ancients and governors of the parish’ should do the choosing rather than the ‘multitude’). If they accepted bishops at all – and not all of them did – they certainly did not accept that their position existed by divine sanction. To some, indeed, the Puritan suspicion of earthly hierarchies represented a dangerous, even a revolutionary, ideology. Just like Catholics, so one sceptic alleged, ‘Puritans will have the King but an honourable member, not a chief governor in the churches of his own dominions.’

A key goal for Puritans was to reform society more widely, to stamp out practices they felt were damaging to the commonwealth and offensive to God. Calvin himself had turned Geneva into a morally pure commonwealth by using secular authorities to crush sin. Puritans wanted to do the same in England. It would, they hoped, become a new Jerusalem, a shining city on a hill rid of vices such as illicit sex, excessive drinking and swearing. They wanted people to pray, read Scripture and give willingly to support the poor. A particular bugbear was therefore traditional festivities and pastimes, especially sport on the Sabbath but also festival days. Pancake day, Morris dancing, wrestling after church and, of course, rushbearings like that at Cartmel were all ‘heathenish’: the ‘storehouse and nursery,’ wrote one cynic, ‘of bastardy’. Traditional celebrations were both disorderly, and they had Catholic connotations, such as the marking of saints’ days. They may have been exceedingly popular, especially with younger folk, but they were an affront to God, and often themselves brought drunkenness and illicit sex.

Naturally this was a campaign which ensured Puritans were seen by their enemies simply as wretched miseries: cantankerous prigs who instead of socialising sat ‘moping always at their books’. The Puritan, someone quipped, was a person who loved God ‘with all his soul, but hates his neighbour with all his heart’. Puritans were therefore disruptive in ways that transcended fine points of theology. They went about telling people the things they enjoyed were offensive to God and they caused bad blood between neighbours. They put communities on edge, created cultural conflict that burrowed deep into society.

26 August 2023

King James I vs. Parliament

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 42-45:

From the 1530s, therefore, the royal household moved out of the Palace of Westminster and settled in a short distance north in the Palace of Whitehall. It meant they were physically separated from the law and from Parliament, for the first time.

Meanwhile, Parliament had evolved into a regular, if not permanent, fixture of the political landscape. Within the great complex of yards, buildings and cloisters that made up the Palace of Westminster, the House of Commons sat in the large chapel of St Stephen. Members of the Commons – of whom by the middle of the seventeenth century, there were well over 500 – were elected to represent the English people, although ‘election’ was a rather complex concept. In the majority of cases, the successful candidate was decided before the election day, and simply presented to voters who dutifully assented: selected rather than elected. In a minority of constituencies, albeit a growing one, there was a formal contest. In such cases, the electorate really mattered. Some 90 Members of Parliament, known as ‘knights of the shire’, represented counties, where voters comprised all freeholders whose land was worth more than 40 shillings (£2) a year. The vast majority of MPs, though, were burgesses or citizens, representing boroughs and cities respectively, and here the franchise might range from all male residents of the town in question to a tiny number of landowners.

All told, however, and partly because elections were only one part of a consultative process which included lobbying and petitioning MPs, the Commons existed as a powerful voice for ordinary Englishmen and (to a point) women, especially those of the literate gentry and middling sort. Parliament was therefore of real significance. Indeed, English government was held to be balanced, between monarchy, aristocracy (broadly represented by the House of Lords) and democracy (represented by the House of Commons).

Yet these were not equally poised. Parliament only sat at the behest of the monarch, and existed to pass laws and grant taxes, not to have any direct control of the actual government. Absolutists, meanwhile, believed that, in times of necessity, the king could override the law (and Parliament). Neither was the Common Law the only system in play. The church courts, for example, administered canon law, while there were also courts of ‘equity’ which based judgements not on precedent but on conscience. Star Chamber, meanwhile, was a criminal court whose jurisdiction came entirely from the royal prerogative. Such institutions could, in the wrong hands, act as bulwarks to royal power, even to royal tyranny. One maxim, drawn from the Roman scholar Cicero, had it that salus populi suprema lex esto: the health of the people was the supreme law. Taken to its logical end, this meant that, if necessity demanded it, the king could tax his English subjects without getting consent from Parliament. He could even imprison them without recourse to the Common Law. Ultimately the king might have an absolute right to his subjects’ property, if he needed it.

And James did need it. One of the first things that will have impressed him as he came to England will have been its wealth. On his way south he stopped at Newcastle, its stone buildings home to a growing and extremely lucrative trade shipping locally mined coal to London. From there he visited the great cathedrals of Durham and York, passing through the verdant arable fields of eastern England, skirting around East Anglia, the great breadbasket of the country. He passed thriving market towns, great new prodigy houses built by the landed rich, and hunted on great deer parks shaded by leafy oaks. As he travelled, aristocrats, townspeople, landed gentry and the dons of Cambridge University all came out to see him in their finest clothes. When he reached London he was welcomed by the richest men of the City. James could be forgiven for thinking, as he did, that it was just like Christmas.

The trouble was, while England was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, its monarchy remained chronically short of money. When James came to the throne, finance was being badly affected by population growth. Because it caused inflation, rising population increased the cost of basic government functions, most importantly warfare and defence. War was becoming more expensive anyway, thanks to the growing size of armies, to gunpowder weapons, elaborate fortifications and to the increased need for great warships with three enormous masts and broadside-mounted copper and iron cannons. In 1603, England was at war with Spain and in Ireland. Both conflicts James brought hastily to a close, but while this was a major saving, it was offset by the cost of his family and entourage, which was much larger than that of his unmarried predecessor. James also had the rather unfortunate habit of paying off his courtiers’ debts for them. Worst of all was in 1606, when he blew an astonishing £44,000 by paying off the debts of two Scots and an Englishman of the royal bedchamber. The consequence was to make much needed financial reform politically very difficult. People blamed the parlous state of the royal coffers not on long-term structural issues like inflation, but on the king’s own profligacy.

24 August 2023

Rise of the English Yeomanry

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 35-37:

The yeomanry (not to be confused with the military uses of the term) were a class of affluent countryfolk with good farms and decent landholdings, but below the level of the gentry. They had a reputation for honesty, plain-speaking and credit. ‘The yeoman wears russet clothes, but makes golden payment, having tin in his buttons and silver in his pocket’, it was said. He was the ‘main man’ on juries and though he seldom went far, ‘his credit stretches further than his travel’. The yeomanry thought of themselves, not completely without good reason, as the backbone of rural society.

In previous peasant uprisings, like those of Wat Tyler (1381), Jack Cade (1450) and Robert Kett (1549), many yeomen had joined forces with their poorer neighbours to oppose the very rich. But this group was now becoming very prosperous. Yeomen were able to benefit from the rising prices, rising land values and falling wages that came with population growth. In other words, they did well out of exactly the things that were harming their poorer neighbours like John Reynolds. Between the mid-sixteenth century and the second quarter of the seventeenth, yeomen saw their wealth rise fourteenfold. They were rebuilding their houses and investing in their farms, thousands of which still survive today.

Of course, in theory, England remained a strictly hierarchical society, with a ‘great chain of being’ from the king down through the 60 or so temporal lords, the rest of the nobility, the roughly 15,000 members of landowning gentry (accounting, with their families, for about 2 per cent of the population, but owning 50 per cent of the land), to the farmers, tradespeople and labourers who made up the rest of society. This had never been entirely static, but the changes of the sixteenth century were notably destabilising. The rise of the yeomanry was part of a more general improvement in the position of those in the middle of the hierarchy, whom historians call the ‘middling sort’. This included many small-town traders and manufacturers – like, say, Shakespeare’s father John, who died in 1601, a prosperous glovemaker at Stratford, living in the impressive rebuilt timbered town house on Henry Street.

Shakespeare himself would ascend from his ‘middling’ background and, as he became rich later in life through landholding, grain trading and a successful literary career, would purchase the coat of arms that allowed him to present as a gentleman. In this, he was like many members of the rising middle sort, buying their way into the next rung of the landed class. Indeed, many of gentry were doing very well, too. On average, their wealth increased sevenfold between about the 1550s and 1620s. Like the yeomen, they were able benefit from rising food and land prices.

These newly wealthy classes enjoyed richer lives. They bought more consumer goods, invested in businesses and farms and rebuilt their houses. Curtains, chimneys, glass windows, furniture and fashionable clothes all became markers of the newfound status of the gentry and middling sort. Reading and book ownership became much more common. Spurred by this growing wealth and by the ballooning of the population of London, ready markets developed for almanacs, pamphlets, polemics, plays, penny ballads, true crime, foreign treatises and books about everything from how to run an efficient farm to how to play chess, or even how to be a dutiful wife. Most of all, there was a torrent of books about faith: how to be a good Protestant, and on the finer points of the liturgy, not to mention Bibles, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, England’s Book of Common Prayer and catechisms.

There were more schools now than ever before, and more children of the gentry and yeomanry attended Oxford and Cambridge or the Inns of Court. The Inns, in which young men learned the basics of the legal trade, were in fact more socially prestigious than the universities. And London offered just as much of a lively student experience as old Oxford and Cambridge. Students at the Inns could sample the delights of the City, its drinking holes and theatres.

23 August 2023

Wordcatcher Tales: Hempe, Skimmington

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 12-14:

A change of leadership is always disorientating, but a change of ruling dynasty was all the more so. In March 1603, the last Tudor ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth I, died at Richmond Palace, the grand seat built by her grandfather Henry VII, on the winding banks of the Thames in the tree-shaded landscape of northern Surrey. With the country in a state of high alert, and watches placed on the coastal towns, the plan to bring in a peaceful succession was put into play. A messenger was sent north to Holyrood in Edinburgh, to King James VI of the Scots. Within a few days, the wily and coarse James was on his way south, following a grand procession down the eastern side of England as the great and good of his new southern realm flocked to give allegiance.

In Elizabeth’s reign, a prophecy had circulated widely: ‘When Hempe is spun, England’s done.’ ‘Hempe’ was an acronym for the Tudor monarchs since the break with Rome: Henry, Edward, Mary and Philip (II of Spain, Mary’s husband), and Elizabeth. Prophecies were taken seriously, as signs of God’s plan, and the belief was that once Elizabeth died, England would collapse into anarchy. But the peaceful accession of James allowed a more benign conclusion: now England and Scotland were under the same ruler. England was done: long live Britain.

There were other signs, though, that the older, more apocalyptic prophecy might still be the true one. Intellectuals and commentators of the day pored over cosmic events to assess whether the universe lay unbalanced and whether God’s wrath was imminent. What they saw did not bring comfort. They looked at England and saw a land full of witches: ‘They abound in all places,’ fretted the Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Edmund Anderson. People tried to divine signs of the future in meteorological phenomena like unusual tempests, and strange biological prodigies, such as ‘monstrous’ human births, and saw warnings from God. For, as it was said, ‘God doth premonish before he doth punish.’ There were blazing stars in the heavens, which were sure to be signs of cosmic disturbance. Comets, such as those of 1577 and 1580, foretold trouble, and most worrying of all, there were great new stars that shone bright enough to be seen in the daytime. One had appeared in 1572 and another would shine in 1604. No one remembered anything like this ever before.

The Cartmel wedding was a joke about the collapse of the universe. It was about the uprooting of the social order and the world turned upside down. Specifically, it was celebrating the fact that the world was about to be set the right way up again. Momus was a character who symbolised disorder; his expulsion brought balance.

Raucous processions like this, in which humour was made out of the world turned topsy-turvy, were part of the culture of the age. The most famous kind of procession was the charivari, what in England was called the ‘riding’, or ‘skimmington’. Here, some poor local folk would have offended the parish, perhaps two were living together unmarried, or perhaps a wife dominated her husband. The skimmington, which took its name from a kind of wooden ladle with which a wife might beat her henpecked spouse, was a way of ritually humiliating such transgressors. A procession of villagers would pass through the streets, banging pots and pans and making horn gestures with their fingers, symbolising cuckoldry, and leading an effigy of the couple seated backwards on an ass. The disorder, the noise and the inversion of the expected order all symbolised the way in which the subject of the skimmington had turned the world upside down. It betokens a world where the fabric of order is seen as fragile, where small deviations from social norms could take on a cosmic significance.

What Jane Thornborough organised at Cartmel was a skimmington against Protestantism. Momus, who was widely known from the bestselling Aesop’s Fables, was the Greek god of satire. He represented a world turned upside down. He, the discordant music and the transgressive wedding were saying something straightforward enough: Protestantism had overturned the natural order, it had turned things topsy-turvy. After the procession had left the church (very symbolic), a mock-proclamation announced the end of Momus’s time. The Protestants were being cast out of Cartmel church, fittingly enough a former priory. Their unnatural religion would reign here no more, and the old order could return. Such were the hopes of Catholics like Jane Thornborough when James I came to the English throne.

21 August 2023

Denmark Dumps the Nicobars, 1868

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle p. 337:

Although Tranquebar and Serampore were sold in 1845, the colonial experience in Asia was not quite over. The Nicobar archipelago was not included in the sale. However, due to malaria, these islands were uninhabitable, and a last Danish colonization attempt was abandoned in 1848. Thereafter, there was no Danish connection with these islands. The islands were subsequently used as bases for pirates: therefore the British envoy approached the Danish government in 1868 with a request that it, as the holder of sovereignty, would intervene against the pirates and restore law and order, or alternatively hand over the sovereignty to Great Britain. The Danish government astonished the British envoy by not demanding any payment at all for such a transfer. After 1864, Denmark was not willing to risk anything.

20 August 2023

Denmark Becomes a Nation-State

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 330-332:

The cession of the duchies [Schleswig, Holstein, Lauenburg] in 1864 meant that Denmark now became a nation-state. A nation-state is defined as a state where there is one common culture, one common language, one common history, etc. There were certainly still other nationalities within the Danish empire, namely Icelanders, Faroese, and Greenlanders along with the nationally and ethnically diverse population of the West Indies. However, the relationship cannot be compared at all with the Danish-German united monarchy. When tallied both separately and together the above-mentioned groups represented such a small proportion of the inhabitants of the empire, whereas those that were German-affiliated had made up a third of the inhabitants in the united monarchy. On the other hand, this did not mean that all Danes lived in Denmark. There were around 200,000 Danish-minded southern Jutlanders in Schleswig, who after 1864, became German citizens against their will.

For Prussia, 1864 had been a stepping-stone in a longer process towards a united Germany under Prussian rule. This goal was met in 1870 when Germany became a unified, centralized empire. This put the Danish state in a completely new historical situation. Previously it had been a medium-sized European state, and while Germany had been an empire or later a confederacy, it was relatively decentralized and consisted of many different and both large, medium, and small states. The Danish empire had been larger than many of these German states. Now the balance of power was markedly different: Denmark had in 1814 and even more so in 1864 become a smaller state, while Germany had become the continent's largest power. Denmark's position was thereby extremely vulnerable and threatened. For Denmark, there was nothing to do but pursue a policy of neutrality, but in practice take extensive account of its overpowering neighbor. During World War I in 1914–1918, Denmark managed to remain neutral by adapting to its great neighbor to the south.

Internally in Denmark, 1864 represented a trauma that had an effect on Danish politics and the general way of thinking for a very long time. Together with Germany's unification in 1870, widespread concern was raised about the extent to which it would ultimately be possible to preserve Denmark as an independent state.

The nation-state of Denmark was the successor to a much larger empire. Copenhagen remained the capital. It was a legacy of the far greater empire that this smaller state should be organized as a highly centralized state with all of its important institutions gathered in the capital rather than following a federal state structure with considerable independent, regional decision-making power. When virtually all nationwide institutions and organizations of importance were also located in Copenhagen after 1849, and that Copenhagen is by far the largest city in Denmark, was a result of Copenhagen’s status in the empire transferring to the smaller state of Denmark's capital. It can thus be compared to an overcoat that is several sizes large. The historian Steen Bo Frandsen has written on these conditions: “The construction of a national economy placed Northern Jutland in the role of supplier of raw materials and of people for Copenhagen's expansion. Denmark was designed entirely on the capital's premises and Copenhagen became, if possible, even more than ever the Danish state … Everything of importance was located in Copenhagen. Industrialization strengthened the city's dominance” (Frandsen 1996, 566).

A new constitution was adopted in 1866.

19 August 2023

Rise of Nationalism in the Danish Empire

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 272-274:

It appears that distinctive Norwegian and German (Holstein) identities can be traced during this period. Furthermore, an unmistakable Danish identity arose in the second half of the eighteenth century. The government in Copenhagen at the time of Frederik V was, as before, dominated by many foreign-born who had entered the service of the Danish king. The majority of the members of the King's Council as well as the heads of the administration and at the court were born outside the Danish king's kingdoms and countries, especially in Germany. Often they did not speak Danish at all. This internationally oriented aristocratic elite, which formed the leadership of the state, pursued an ambitious and cosmopolitan cultural policy. This included convening foreign-born cultural personalities to hold illustrious positions in Denmark (i.e. the educator Basedow and the poet Klopstock). Furthermore, it awarded civilian and military posts as well as business privileges to foreign-born protégés. This international orientation had been the case for a long time, but it was increasingly perceived by the growing middle class, especially in Copenhagen, as an omission and oversight of local talent. The middle class was growing, and as it became more involved in foreign trade, it gained increased weight in society during the flourishing trade period, particularly in opposition to the great aristocratic landowners. After the middle of the eighteenth century, the middle class began to cultivate the Danish language, culture, and history as a protest against the internationally oriented aristocratic state leadership. The German-born Struensee, who in his short reign from 1770 to 1772 introduced radical reforms, which, however, had been ill-prepared and revealed his lack of knowledge of Danish conditions and traditions, just as his relationship with Queen Caroline Mathilde had aroused public indignation. His actions further fueled the development of nationalism. Unlike Struensee, his successors, Frederik V’s Dowager Queen Juliana Maria, her son, the king’s half-brother, Prince Frederick and her closely connected statesman, Ove Høegh-Guldberg, understood that they had to appeal to public opinion and to win the favor of the frustrated urban middle class.

Immediately after coming to power, they made Danish the administrative language for Denmark and Norway rather than German, and the following year Danish was made the command language in the army and in 1775 Danish was made a formal subject in the grammar schools. The crown jewel of their efforts was the Naturalization Act of 1776, which stated that only those who were born within the Danish king’s kingdoms and countries, i.e. the empire, could in the future hold public offices. This law seems to have been met with spontaneous enthusiasm in Copenhagen and other cities across the country. How should this Danish identity be interpreted? The question is whether the Danish-German national antagonisms that tore apart the entire Danish state in the nineteenth century can be traced as far back as the eighteenth century. Perhaps in the eighteenth century it was first and foremost a matter of contradictions between an aristocratic and internationally oriented upper class and a more domestically oriented bourgeoisie (middle class), whose importance in social and economic was growing. Germans made up approximately a fifth of the capital's population, a representation of the fact that Copenhagen was the center of the entire empire and not just the kingdom of Denmark. Yet, the Naturalization Act was not aimed against these people since it was applying to everyone in the empire and was aimed at foreign-born, in practice Germans, but—significantly—not at German-speaking Danish citizens from the duchies or Copenhagen. In 1790, however, a heated debate unfolded: the so-called “German feud.” The German-speaking fellow citizens and their alleged dominant position were conceptualized as a threat. The feud, however, ceased again, presumably because other problems on the political agenda took precedence, such as agricultural reforms. These national identities ultimately led to the dissolution of the empire, but the question is whether secession from the empire was an idea that originated in the eighteenth century or, whether the dispute at that point solely concerned the distribution of rights, duties, burdens, and privileges between the various nationalities within a perennial empire. There was not necessarily anyone at the time who thought nor desired that these schisms would eventually lead to dissolution, although in hindsight it may certainly seem the case. The development towards an identification with those whose nationality, language, culture, and country one shares, rather than identification by status and as a subject in a particular territory under a particular prince, and where the language was secondary, was an expression of the unitary state. Here, as in the conglomerate state, the empire was not held together by the subjects’ duty of obedience to their prince, but by the loyalty of the citizens to their fatherland, state, and nationality (Feldbæk 1992).

18 August 2023

Iceland's Dark 18th Century

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 260-262:

While the eighteenth century in Denmark and Norway was considered a period of peace, progress and prosperity as reflected in expressions such as “the flourishing trade period” in Danish history and “the golden age” in Norwegian history, Iceland’s eighteenth century became a dark time. All land in Iceland was owned either by the crown, the church, or an elite mainly consisting of civil servants leasing it to the peasants: in other words, an agricultural system that did not differ much from that known in the Kingdom of Denmark. The country was characterized by social and occupational stagnation, which the trade monopoly that Iceland was subject to greatly contributed. When Bishop Ludvig Harboe 1741–1745 resided on the island, attributes of the unitary state were increasingly introduced. His work led i.e. efforts to increase the population’s literacy, but also with increased social control, i.e. restrictions on people’s right to move. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, factories were set up by Icelandic initiative, but with financial and other support from the royal power in Copenhagen, to promote Iceland's economic and social development. These were mainly wool processing factories. However, there were many initial difficulties: deliveries did not occur, deficits necessitated large subsidies from Copenhagen, until the factories were for a time transferred to a private trading company headquartered in Copenhagen, before taken over by the state. Nevertheless, this initiative was of great importance for the modernization of Icelandic society. A factory was built near Reykjavik, and around this a settlement grew, which in 1786, when it had approx. 300 inhabitants, received a municipal charter. Iceland had thus gained its first city. The central government in Copenhagen intervened again in the early 1770s and sought to secure the social and legal rights of the peasant population vis-à-vis Iceland’s elite landowners. It was also a result of these efforts that in 1774 the state took over the monopoly of trade from a private company. 12 years later in 1786, the monopoly was abolished, trade was now free, but admittedly only to the king's subjects. But between 1774 and 1786 something terrible also happened in Iceland. In 1783, the island was hit by a volcanic eruption that has been characterized as “one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recent millennia of Earth's history.” (Thorsteinsson 1985, 190). Large areas were flooded by lava, toxic ash rained down over most of the island and the sky was covered with volcanic mists. All this, together with violent earthquakes, destroyed the vegetation and thus Iceland’s agriculture in the following years. It is estimated that approx. 20% of the population died as a result of these natural disasters, and a smallpox epidemic in 1785 deepened the crisis. All the previous decades’ attempts to commercially develop Iceland were now in ruins. It was in that context that the trade monopoly was abolished. The following decades saw the sale of land to tenant farmers, an action that was also done in the Kingdom of Denmark. This, too, can be seen as an attempt to bring the social and occupational structures within the Danish empire closer together, although there were undeniably large differences and the basic conditions were highly disparate. The old Althing (unicameral legislature in Iceland) was moved from the historic Tingvellir to Reykjavik in 1798, and in the year 1800 the Althing was abolished in favor of a national court and judicially trained judges. Thereby, a century-old institution had been erased. Both the move and the abolition two years later were justified with practicalities. Reykjavik was considered easier to reach than Tingvellir, and the replacement with a national court can be seen as an expression of bureaucratization and another attempt to streamline the systems throughout the different parts of the empire. Iceland in the eighteenth century came to witness first-hand the intrusive unitary state, but compared to other parts of the empire there were hardly other places where the opportunity for growth of the unitary state was greater.

16 August 2023

Danish Empire Shrinks, 1536-1720

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle p. 240:

During the short 200 years from 1536 to 1720, the Danish empire experienced a considerable weakening and serious land divisions. From being a medium-sized European power, enjoying supremacy over Sweden, the dominant power in the Baltic Sea and Northern Germany as well as in the North Sea, Denmark’s positions in the Baltic Sea region and in Northern Germany were overtaken by Sweden. Moreover, the more vital interests of Britain and the Netherlands in the trade and shipping in the Baltic Sea meant that the conditions became internationalized, and both the Danish Empire and Sweden had to submit to the dictates of super powers. This is also seen in the Danish empire's failure to recapture the Scanian territories or its numerous futile attempts to solve the Gottorp problem, although this was otherwise Denmark’s primary security priority. The prolonged conflict that the empire engaged with Sweden led to extensive efforts to strengthen the Danish empire inward and outward through the introduction of the tax and military state, of an active and multifaceted business policy and of royal absolutism in 1660. But all in all, both the empire and Sweden (despite conquests from Denmark and Norway) were in the long term weakened by their continuous rivalry. Perhaps the efforts to maintain the position of power that the Danish Empire still had in 1536 were simply too great a burden: the empire was thinly spread geographically, had relatively small resources, and a small population. Perhaps this was an inevitable situation, because the trade and shipping on the Baltic Sea were so vital to the larger naval forces. At the very least, by 1720 both the Danish Empire and Sweden had been transformed into actors (albeit not puppets) in an international system in which Britain and Russia set the bar.

14 August 2023

Denmark's Top-Down Reformation

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 201-203:

Thus, in the conglomerate state, there were large differences between the various state entities, as well as within each territory. But the regime seems not to have found an issue with this, let alone display any desire to unify and harmonize conditions. Only at one point did the government actively intervene and seek to create uniform conditions: in the political and religious spheres of the Lutheran Reformation. In the duchies [Schleswig and Holstein], especially in Schleswig, the Reformation movement had grown in strength as early as the 1520s, through the support and promotion by Frederick I, and especially his son, the later Christian III. The Reformation Movement was supported by several local priests as well as members of the nobility and the town's citizens. The movement spread to the kingdom in the 1520s. In some parts it was met with great enthusiasm among the priests and other sections of the population (Viborg, Copenhagen, Malmø), but other parts were untouched (Ribe) by the movement. After Christian's victory in the Count's Feud in 1536, the Reformation was officially completed. The organization of the old church was purged, the bishops imprisoned, monasteries and church property were expropriated by the Crown, but the clergy in the ministry remained, now as Lutheran clergymen. In 1537, the church ordinance was issued, which was the legal basis for the new Evangelical-Lutheran State Church.

Thus, both in the duchies and in the Kingdom of Denmark, the Reformation was carried out with a top-down approach, but it was done with considerable assistance from large sections of the clergy and the lay population. The introduction of the Reformation in other parts of the empire was a different case. The Danish church ordinance of 1537 was extended to Norway that year, which had come under Danish control. The Catholic priests remained in their positions, while new bishops and eventually also new Lutheran clergymen—virtually all Danish-born—joined.

In the Faroe Islands, the Lagting—the parliament—recognized Christian III in 1535, and when the bishop objected to the new church ordinance, he was dismissed and replaced by a Lutheran. In 1557 the Faroe Islands ceased to be a separate diocese and were placed under the Diocese of Bjørgvin in Norway. It was far more elaborate and dramatic when the Lutheran Reformation was introduced in Iceland. In an attempt to bring ecclesiastical lands to the crown, one of the king's prominent officials was assassinated in 1538. In 1541, an armed expedition was sent to Iceland, which imprisoned one of the two Icelandic Catholic bishops and enabled the Reformation to gradually actualize. But in 1549, the second Catholic bishop succeeded in reintroducing Catholicism by a coup, imprisoning his Lutheran colleague and banishing a prominent representative of the king. In 1551, therefore, a significant military expedition was sent from Denmark to Iceland, but when it arrived, everything was in chaos. The Catholic bishop had clashed with the local Icelandic grandee, who had seized and executed him. Order was now restored and the reformation introduced—even in Iceland.

13 August 2023

Early Danish Explorers

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 183-184:

In Europe, the fifteenth century was the period of the great explorers. This led, among other things, to a collaboration between Portugal and the Danish Empire to find a route to India (Jensen 2007). The Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator had written to Christopher of Bavaria about the project, and a Danish nobleman Vallarte arrived in Portugal in 1448 and participated with the Portuguese Order of Christ in a long expedition south of Africa to Cape Verde, where he lived the rest of his life in captivity of the local tribal chief, who turned out not to be Christian, as the expedition had expected. In 1461, King Afonso V of Portugal wrote to Christian I and warmly recommended Christian’s herald Lolland. Heralds could function almost as ambassadors and were often named after provinces or landscapes (i.e. Lolland). Lolland had participated in the Portuguese crusades and voyages of discovery to North Africa, and Afonso was so impressed by his bravery that the king knighted him when he returned to Portugal. These connections between Denmark and Portugal were later expanded. Around 1471, when Christian presented his grand crusade plan to the imperial diet in Regensburg, an expedition to the north embarked, led by well-known captains Didrik Pining of Denmark, Hans Pothorst of Iceland, and João Vaz Corte-Real and Alvaro Martins Homem from Portugal. They reached Greenland, where they erected a large memorial on one of the more recognizable mountains. From there, they proceeded to America and reached Newfoundland, which was known among Portuguese fishermen as “terra do bachalau,” the land of the stock fish. The goal was to find the northwest passage to India. This was reattempted later. In 1519, Christian II equipped a new expedition under the leadership of the notorious pirate and admiral Søren Norby: prior to this, he had wrought papal bulls that authorized the raid as a true crusade. The goal was to win Greenland back from the pagans, which would only be the beginning. At the time of Christian II it was believed that Greenland was the outermost peninsula of the great Asian continent, and if one could lead a crusade there, one would be able to confront the Muslims with a two-front war. At the same time, Christian's army would land in the Far East near where the legendary Christian priest-king Prester John was supposed to live in a giant kingdom ready to support Christian Western Europe in the fight against Islam. During the fifteenth century, it was said that Prester John was descended from Holger the Dane, hero to Charlemagne, and thus King Christian's distant ancestor. The Danish empire was so large that it included not only huge areas of the north with diverse peoples, but also a bridgehead to Asia. However, the Great Crusade to Greenland and Asia never commenced, because Christian II became preoccupied with problems in Sweden [trying to maintain the Kalmar Union].

12 August 2023

Medieval Germanic Nationalism

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 146-148:

A song of lamentation of the time began with the words: “Sigh and twist your hands in anger, sorrowful, my fatherland.” It continues to lament the lax morality of Danish noblemen and the urge to imitate everything German. It has been widely cited ever since and an important starting point to consider whether some form of Danish nationalism or patriotic sentiment existed in the Middle Ages (discussed in Jensen and Fantysová-Matejková 2020). There is no doubt that in the Middle Ages one could think of nations as attached to various stereotypical notions. For example, “from the Germans has never come anything but fraud and cunning,” Rydårbogen wrote, or “from the German has never come anything but softness and sausages,” written by Saxo. The Danes on the other hand were internationally known for being drunkards, perhaps even more than the English. Some, however, also emphasized Danish eloquence, and a single Paris professor at this time described that the Scandinavians were particularly good at necromancy. This kind of generalization existed at all levels: people from Scania were considered lazy and cowards, those from Falster untrustworthy, while Jutlanders always came to late. Of course, it is a form of nationalism, a sense of community between those who are of the same nation or people or lineage. It differs from modern forms of nationalism in several ways. It was less related to territory or land than nineteenth-century nationalism, and ones “fatherland” was a flexible concept. Usually, it described an area ruled by a king, and it could very well include newly conquered areas with a population that did not speak Danish. Medieval nationalism was also far less attached to language than the nineteenth century. The language was sometimes highlighted as a marker for distinguishing between Danish and German, but only in the Late Middle Ages, and perhaps surprisingly only a few times. This was likely due to the fact that there were very large dialectal differences, so it was difficult to speak about a particular form of common Danish language, and that German was becoming prevalent everywhere, geographically and socially. It left its mark. A very large percentage of modern Danish words and sentence structures are simply taken from German, especially during the 1400s. Linguists may debate whether it is a third or a half, but there is no doubt that there has been a massive linguistic influence from German in Danish. Not only did the German language have an influence, but many in the territories of Denmark were also able to express themselves in both Danish and German, and this apparently applies to all strata of the population. Thus, the various anti-German statements in several sources during the Middle Ages do not acknowledge the existence of a contradiction in practice. On the contrary, movement has been great across language boundaries, and large groups from German territories have slipped into the Danish-speaking community as noblemen and traders and craftsmen. Around 1400, every third fiefholder in Denmark had a German background.

10 August 2023

Photos of Historic Sites in Maui

Pioneer Inn, Lahaina, Maui 

Pioneer Inn, Lahaina Historic District, 2010, destroyed by wildfire in 2023

The Far Outliers paid a visit to Maui in March 2010 and, as is our custom, we made an effort to photograph sites on the National Register of Historic Places. I uploaded most of them to Wikimedia Commons, put them in the public domain, and then inserted them into the Wikipedia NRHP listings and articles for sites in Maui. The rest I uploaded to my Flickr site, where I created a separate album for Maui. In the wake of the destructive wildfires on Maui, I'm now adding my Wikimedia Commons photos to my Maui album on Flickr for extra backup.

09 August 2023

Tourism Extortion in Vietnam

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 279-280:

I am having breakfast when a tour bus pulls over and parks in front of the café. Road-dazed foreigners totter off the bus and into the hotel across the street. The driver, a young guy, takes a cigarette break in front of the bus. Before his third drag, the police materialize from nowhere, swaggering in their drab olive uniforms and vinyl belts. The pair beelines to the bus, one whipping out a citation pad, the other swinging his nightstick in short, impatient arcs. The driver’s jaw drops. He nearly swallows his cigarette, knowing that he and his tour company are going to suffer huge fines.

“This is a no-parking zone!” barks the cop loud enough for everyone in the café to hear. There is no sign and the space is just an empty dirt lot.

“I’m sorry, Officers!” the driver squeaks, smiling apologetically, placating. “I’ll move it right away.”

“Too late,” snorts the other cop, barring the driver from the door with his nightstick. “It’ll have to be towed.”

The driver disintegrates into pure panic. They want to see his license and the papers for the vehicle, so reams of multihued permits and authorizations exchange hands. The owner of the café, from where I am sitting, sends her son to the hotel across the street to warn the hotel owner and the tour operator. In seconds, two older welldressed men emerge, wearing big friendly smiles. They approach with hands extended, each deftly steering one cop to a different end of the bus. Divide and subdue. Seeing now that they are in the presence of money and power, the cops adopt grave, almost serene countenances. A flock of spectators watch the proceedings from a wary distance—this here the only event where onlookers aren’t practically trampling on what they’re watching.

I turn to the café owners. “All this for a parking violation?”

She nods. “Big fines.”

“Lunch fines?”

She chuckles and looks at me with interest. “You know the way, eh?”

I shrug.

Within minutes everything is resolved. The big men never stop smiling and the cops never crack as much as a grin. The driver takes the bus across the street into the hotel’s courtyard. The big men stroll into the café, each draping an affectionate arm over his cop. The foursome take a table next to mine. The owner rushes to their elbows for the orders: espresso, Coke, beer, omelets, steaks, and four packs of Marlboros, two packs apiece for the cops. Small talk and a few American cigarettes, the ice is broken and they are chatting like old friends. Afterward, the big men show the cops into the hotel. Additional mollification required.

The café patrons, all white foreigners, observe the entire extortion with great amusement, marveling at the brazenness of the transaction.

08 August 2023

Foreign Tourists in Hanoi

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 225-226:

The one thing a solo traveler can count on finding in an area crawling with backpackers and expatriates is a bargain bed for the night. Usually, the food isn’t bad either. I have no idea where Hanoi’s tourist town is, so I buy a map and meander. It is an easy task since Hanoi is a more sedate city than Saigon. The traffic is much lighter, and in the cooler air under tree-shaded avenues, the smog is more tolerable. Hanoi lives on a scale more comprehensible than Saigon. The trees are smaller, more abundant, and not so tall and tropical like those of Saigon. I stroll along the fine mansions, taking in their faded, colonial French glories, their expressive arches, French windows, and wrought-iron balconies. Every structure holds itself up proudly in a state of elegant decay. At the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake, I find six young Caucasian travelers, lurking timidly on different street corners. Backpackers, baby-faced, flushed even in the tropic winter, treading about, wide eyes eating up all the sights, the details. Their pilgrim hands clench dog-eared copies of The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam. Alas, I have found my home for the next few weeks.

For tourists, everything that happens in Hanoi happens in the backpacker cafés. Anything that can be had, rented, chartered, borrowed, exchanged, and bought can be obtained or arranged in them. They sneak tourists illegally across the border into China for day jaunts, book hotel rooms, lodge people in-house, serve decent Western food, sell traveling supplies, fresh baguettes, and Laughing Cow cheese, which is the staple travel food for foreigners who fear stomach bugs. They book anything. Legal, illegal. You got the dollars, they can find your pleasure.

I bum around Hanoi with Australians, French, Danes, Brits, Germans, and Americans just soaking up the culture, exploring the urban sprawl one district at a time. The city is broken up into ridiculously distinct commercial sections, guild oriented, another French legacy. If you want to buy shoes, you go to the shoe district, where thirty or so adjacent stores sell only footwear, often the same style and brand. There is a part of town for every category of goods and services: clothing, poultry, silk, jewelry, and electronics. There is even an area with shops making headstones, where dust-covered men kneel on the sidewalk chipping names into slabs of granite. Our favorite is the street of nem nuong diners. Around dinnertime, straddling the sunset hour, the street is perfumed and grayed with the smoke of meat sizzling over coals. If you catch a whiff of this scent, you never forget it. It is a heady mixture of fishsauce marinade, burning scallions, caramelized sugar, pepper, chopped beef, and pork fat. Women sit on footstools grilling meats on hibachi-style barbecues. Aromatic, stomach-nipping smoke curls to the scrubby treetops and simply lingers, casting the avenue into an amber haze. When hungry folk flock from all over the city to this spot, they have only one thing on their mind. And the entire street, all its skills and resources, is geared to that singular satisfaction.

The days pass without difficulty. I am at last among friends of similar spirit, all non-Asian, not one of them Vietnamese. And I am happy, comfortable merely to be an interpreter. Every day, we troop off to some part of the city on sight-seeing missions. At night, we congregate for great bouts of drinking and barhopping. We splinter into smaller parties and sign up for organized boat tours in Ha Long Bay and ride rented motorcycles to the countryside. We joke, we romance each other with the wild abandon of strangers cohabiting in exotic moments. We ask about Hanoi and its people, we ask about each other. Bonding, trading addresses, and fervently believing that we will never lose touch.

07 August 2023

Vietnam's Highway 1 in 1990s

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle p. 125:

On Highway 1, a concrete divider keeps the chaos going in one direction from colliding head-on with the chaos going in the other direction. Though the road is wide enough for three lanes in each direction, there are no lane markings, no shoulders, not even oil tracks, just one big long river of asphalt boiling with Brownian motion. If there are laws concerning what types of vehicle or creature are allowed on the national highway, the traffic cops aren’t enforcing them, too busy extorting bribes—unofficial fines, they call them—from truck and bus drivers who prove more lucrative prey than single travelers. Besides the pedestrians who walk along the edge of the road and occasionally attempt mad sprints across the highway, the road teems with cattle-drawn carts, horse-drawn wagons, load ponies, wheelbarrows, herders with cattle, cyclos, bicyclists, and everything motorized. Dust cloaks everything. The air, a metallic blue fog, makes the road murky, twilight-like. With the tropical humidity, it doesn’t so much settle as it condenses on the skin like a poisonous mist. The engines roar, the animals bleat, the horns, the curses, and the screams boil into a fantastic cacophony. Set back from the road under the shade of a few scraggly trees, the spectator cafés dot the length of the highway on both sides, their sooty lawn chairs all facing the traffic.

06 August 2023

New Vietnamese Family in Shreveport

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 164-166:

The First Baptist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana, was our bridge to America. They loaned us the airfares. They rented us one of the church properties, found Dad work, and generally took care of the family, making sure our transition to America was comfortable. We went to church three times a week: all morning Sunday, Wednesday night for Bible study and bowling, and Saturday night for church youth-group activities. Except for two trips to the movies, we never went anywhere in our nine Shreveport months except to church. It was the most magnificent place we had ever seen. It had huge white Roman columns, lofty marbled halls, great diamond chandeliers, walls of stained glass, miles upon miles of cardinal carpets, and velvet drapes that went almost to heaven.

When we boys weren’t in church, we were in school. It was dull, particularly because we didn’t speak English. The teachers couldn’t talk to us and, not knowing what to do, they left us alone. A college student was sent down to work with us. He did flash cards and taught us how to tackle a guy carrying a football. I got into scrapes regularly with kids calling me Viet Cong. I fought with every boy who wanted to try kung fu with Bruce Lee. The teachers called home. Dad just shrugged and said I’d better keep up my grades. He had too much on his mind.

A few months into our immigrant lives, Uncle Hong in California called about a telegram from Vietnam: Grandpa Pham had passed away.


During the night, it snowed a thin layer. Dad rose at his usual 5 a.m., made his lunch of ham and cheese on white—he preferred rice but wanted to fit in at work—and went to his janitorial job. I found his small, black footsteps mincing over fresh snow in the wintry stillness. I felt very sorry for him. He was so utterly alone in a foreign land, poor with the weight of the entire family to bear. There was no wake here for him to make his peace with Grandpa. No brother, sister, or friend to partake of his grief.

For Dad, life in America wasn’t easy. In Vietnam, he was a teacher and an officer with two thousand men under his command. In Shreveport, he was a janitor in an industrial plant. It was physically demanding. His back was killing him. He’d injured it in the labor camp. And for Mom, America was a lonely, scary place. After she delivered Kay, Mom rarely left the house. She didn’t know anyone and she didn’t speak a word of English. The supermarket used to be her favorite destination. Dad got mad at her because she could never make up her mind. The choices were stupefying. After they stripsearched her for sampling a grape at the supermarket, she did her shopping only once a week, making Dad drive her to a different grocery store across town every Saturday.

Her fears of America abated significantly when Christmas came around. During that season of giving, the kindness and hospitality that the Southern folks showed our family—the only Asian family in town—warmed us to America. People started showing up at our door with presents, wishing us a merry Christmas. There were so many visitors Mom had us wear our good clothes all day. Mom fretted that she might run out of tea and sweets before she ran out of guests. Dad busied himself with taking names and addresses for thank-you cards. The doorbell kept ringing. Strangers, neighbors, and friends brought us presents, food, clothes, little things, big things to help us make a life in their town. The glittering piles of gifts grew steadily until it dwarfed the Christmas tree. Mom, wanting to make the Christmas spirit last as long as possible, suggested that each person open only one present a day, every day until the entire hoard of goodies was gone. This would have seen us through February. Fortunately, our sponsors, the Harrises and the Johnsons, stopped by and convinced her that all presents should be opened on Christmas Day.

05 August 2023

Vietnamese Forms of Address

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 129-130:

Tam, a musician my age, introduces himself. Solely on his salutation, I know we will be friends. This is easy because the Vietnamese form of address allows two people to assess each other and extend overtures of friendship. It has several tiers, each indicating the nature of acquaintance (informal, formal, business, friends, intimate) as well as the hierarchy. Just by pronouns used, one can discern the type of relationship between two people. For instance, if Tam refers to himself as toi (I) and calls me anh (big brother, or, in this context, you), then the relationship is formal and equal, with neither having the upper hand despite age; however, if Tam is in fact younger than me, then unless there is something else—social, economic status—to normalize the age difference, Tam is being disrespectful by not referring to himself as em (little brother). And if I were, say, fifteen years older than he, Tam should use chu (uncle) and chau (nephew). There are many forms, including regional variations.

Tam calls me ban: friend.

I like him instantly. He reminds me of an old childhood friend from my days at the French Catholic school in Saigon, who used his own name, in the third person, instead of “I” and called me “friend” rather than “you.” Tam invites me to one of his regular gigs at a hotel disco.

04 August 2023

Breakfast Options in Vietnam

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-123:

I wait for the rice-cake woman on the stoop. Normally, I mimic her cry from any part of the house, and no matter how noisy the neighborhood is, she hears and waits for me in the alley. I buy a mug of tea and two rice cakes—Vietnamese Twinkies wrapped in banana leaves. The gooey grains of glutinous rice, green and fragrant with the banana leaves, taste fat and fruit-sweet, like candied caviar. Embedded at the center, the ladyfinger banana has changed to a lavender hue haloing an ivory core. Hot tea in hand, I savor them, standing in the alley, back against the wall, watching the strip of sky navying over.

One by one the breakfast women weave through the alleys. The parade of food baskets ribbons the morning air with the varied aromas from every region of Vietnam: banh canh (udon in chicken broth), bun bo hue (spicy beef and anchovy-paste noodle soup), hu tieu (Chinesestyle noodle soup), banh beo (rice dumpling with shrimp powder and fishsauce), tau hu (soft tofu with ginger syrup), banh cuon (rice crepes with Vietnamese sausage and fishsauce), soi (sweet rice with mung beans and coconut shavings), banh mi thit (ham-and-pickled-daikon sandwiches), and a host of other morning food. Vietnam is a country of food, a country of skinny people obsessed with eating.

03 August 2023

Memories of Saigon's Last Night

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 69-70:

It was a night of madness and spectacular fires. I was eight and wild with greed for all the loot people had tossed in the street. You could find almost anything that night. The defeated army discarded guns, ammo, helmets, knives, uniforms, boots, water tins, and heaps of things covered with the flat green paint of army-issued equipment. Fugitives, peasants, and city dwellers left belongings where they dropped them: baskets, food, clothes, chairs, sleeping mats, pottery, wads of no-longer-valid currency. The night was choked with those who fled, those who hid, those who scavenged, and those who went mad with fear, or greed, or anger.

The bullies chased me down the alley. I heard them pounding the pavement hard on my heels. They were yelling. BANG! A shot went off. I couldn’t tell if they were shooting at me. Maybe they were shooting in another part of the neighborhood. Guns had been going off around the city all day, but I was pretty sure they were shooting at me.

Earlier, I had been down by the empty lot showing off some of my loot to the other kids. Mom and Dad were busy packing suitcases and burning documents, so I was able to sneak out of the house and scavenge the streets. All the kids had something, mostly guns, ammo, and broken telephones. Some had pliers and were using them to take the tips off the bullets to get at the gunpowder. We drew dragons in the dirt with the powder and ignited them. I was firing my name when the older bullies came around. They had pistols and demanded we hand over our loot. The biggest bully wanted my pistol, which wasn’t the black metal army kind. It was a shiny, pug-nosed six-shooter.

They started waving their guns at us, just fooling, when a shot went off and hit a boy in the leg. He screamed and blood squirted out of the wound. We scattered. I bolted with my gun and bag of goodies. The bullies yelled for us to stop. I glanced back and a couple of them were after me and my six-shooter.

I fled down a dark alley, running by instinct, feeling my way with the tips of my fingers on the moist walls. Turn right. Run down another alley. Keep the gun. Drop the bag. Too heavy. Turn again. Run through a larger alley. They were closing in on me. I stumbled over trash. Kept going, heading for the clear up ahead.

Then I burst onto the street. Crashed into the flood of refugees swarming in one direction. Refuse covered the ground, stampeded over and over again. The air reeked of smoke, loud with people. Down the road, the fish market was burning unchecked. Gunfire snapped in staccato across the city. Somewhere far away a siren howled. Above, red zipping bullets crossed the night. The sky ruptured with false thunder. Dull flashes of light bruised the city skyline. Growling helicopters skimmed low, their humping air vibrating my ribs, their rope ladders trailing behind like kite tails.

I dove into the tide and was swept along with it. The air swelled with panic, lanced with torchlight. I ran with everyone else, coursing down the avenue. The crowd parted, then closed again around abandoned vehicles like a wild river. In the narrows, people crushed and hammered each other against the brick walls, stampeding, barreling to salvation—the American ships waiting in the harbor.

I had lost the bullies. I ran back to the house and pounded on the metal screen door, suddenly infected with the city’s terror. Let me in! Let me in! I want to come home!

02 August 2023

Two Old Opium Smokers in Vietnam

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 162-164:

Grandpa Pham smelled of plum candy and Chinese medicine.

It was an odor that made me nauseous and hungry all at once.

His opium smoke.

I served as the footman of Grandpa’s opiate dreams. As his family went through the process of closing doors, shutting windows, keeping the confidence, I knelt at the door of Grandpa Pham’s study, a servant awaiting his wishes, witnessing the rite that came to be the center of his existence. In the seasons before Saigon fell, Grandpa was many years into his pipes, his grown children’s wages keeping him in the habit. I brought him the accoutrements of his ceremony and he arranged them on the straw mat: an oil lamp, matches, crisp unwrinkled newspaper, a bowl with a spoonful of steamed rice, a kettle of lotus tea, porcelain cups, a water-smoke pot, and old-fashioned Chinese brick pillows. He produced a cough-drop tin rattling with loose nuggets of black opium.

He smoked with an old friend, both of them Hanoi expatriates so wizened and emaciated it was difficult to tell them apart in the gloom of their conspiracy—hovering over their opium, their instrument of sedition from the world. Those Nationalist bastards, one cheroot figure said to the other, sold nine American bullets out of ten, no wonder we are still fighting this war. The other figure protested, though without much passion, It’s good for the economy, all the foreign money pouring in. Impotent to the world, they were still supreme patriarchs of their extended families. This, their War Room: two ancients sipping tea in cement air. Saigon is too hot, too corrupt, nothing but barbarians, said one. Yes, yes, Hanoi is the true soul of Vietnam, agreed the other. Shirtless in the heat, they sat on a handwoven straw mat, propping themselves with one arm locked at the elbow like a tent pole, a knee up near their chins. The room was bolted tight against ill winds. Their liver-spotted hide, the texture of week-old tofu-skin, did not sweat but drooped, flaccid on their chests and bellies, stretched taut over the ridges of their spines. The Americans are generous with their aid, but the French, they knew how to live well, one observed. True, the other nodded, true, they built the most beautiful mansions in Hanoi. The two jurors reached into a bowl, clawed a few grains of leftover rice, and wedged these between their gum and cheek like chewing tobacco. The newspaper was smoothed out, folded, and torn into two perfect squares. Starting with one corner, they rolled the papers into tapered pipes, overlapping the layers tightly. They took the moistened rice out of their mouths, pressed it into a paste, and glued the pipes. With tinker deftness, they fit the pipes to the water-smoke pot. Every practiced motion carried the serene precision of a ritual even as they talked. The Japanese were the true bastards, weren’t they? All that killing and the famines. Yes, yes, but that was war and so is this. No, for the Northerners, it is war. For the Americans, it is politics. For the Southerners, it is business. A precious opium nugget was placed on the pot they shared. Ah, but wasn’t Hanoi beautiful in winter? Yes, persimmon winters. They lay their bones down on the mat, on their sides facing each other, heads on brick pillows, the opium between them. Don’t you remember that one hot summer, so hot catfish died and floated in the creek? Yes, but wasn’t the monsoon wind blowing off Ha Long Bay magical? They worked themselves back through the years to the good memories, and when they were ready, they touched the flame to the opium and, with great sighs, began to feed from their paper pipes. They perfumed the air with opium sweetness, making it wet and soft, filling it with the watery gurgle of two old men drowning.

Once they slipped far into their refuge, a pair of goldfish dying on the floor, I moved the oil lamp out of the reach of their limbs and left them to their slumber. Their smoke swarmed the house, announcing that their spirits were temporarily on a journey, yet everyone tiptoed past the room as though fearful of waking a baby.

01 August 2023

A Vietnamese Fish Sauce Baron

From Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Kindle pp. 52-53:

My step-grandfather Grandpa Le was a fishsauce baron, born into a sea-heritage that dated back before the Japanese and the French occupation. He used to claim that his ancestors invented fishsauce. The whole town was built on this industry. Everyone knew how it was made and at one time most people in town, when they weren’t dragging the ocean for fish, were putting fresh fish, unwashed and ungutted, into salt barrels to ferment. While they waited on the decomposition process, all they ever talked about was fishsauce. Which fish produced the best-tasting extract? How to mix various types of fish to make a balanced bouquet. Indeed, there were many varieties of fishsauce, each suitable for a certain style of cooking. The finest batches were flavorful enough to be savored directly from the bottle. In a few weeks, a smelly black ooze seeped out the bottom of the barrel. Fisherfolk diluted and bottled this black gold and sold it all over the country. Blend masters—like Grandpa Le—guarded their secrets zealously and made fortunes. In the old days, the village folk prized bottles of fishsauce concentrate as great gifts, the equivalent of fine wine and cash.

Uncle Long said these days people treated it like an illicit narcotic, hiding their production from the tax collectors, squirreling bottles of it away for bartering. Liberated into Communism or not, Vietnamese needed fishsauce the way we needed air. For us, it was salt and a thousand other spices, the very marrow of the sea to a country of coastal people. It was a good thing Grandpa left us a stockpile of fishsauce when he died.

Grandma Le’s house and sundry shop sat five yards from the main road, the national highway. The bus dropped us at the front door. Grandma, Auntie Dung, and all my siblings—Chi, Huy, Tien, and Hien—came out to greet us. Grandma took me into her shop and said I could eat as much candy from her store as I could swallow on account that she hadn’t had chance to spoil me as she had my siblings. They had been living with Grandma when we came back from prison. While I was locked up in Saigon, they were running wild with the local kids.

Auntie Dung took all of us out for milkshakes. We walked down the shady avenue, holding hands, singing, our sandals scrunching on sand—this a beach town—to a kiosk that had been in the same spot under a tamarind tree since I could remember. The vendor, whose laughs were as fresh as the sweet fruits she served, hand-shaved ice for us until her arms ached. Huy and Chi had durian milkshakes made with shaved ice and condensed milk. Tien had his favorite, a breadfruit milkshake. I had soursop.