history

The 1918 pandemic and COVID-19

Food market in Taiwan. Note the plastic partitions separating customers. Photo taken by Isabella Mori in May 2020.

Like many people, I’ve been struck by the parallels between the current COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 pandemic.  In 1918 many media outlets in Europe and the United States did not initially give the outbreak adequate coverage, because they were censored during the war, or did not want to reveal their nation’s weaknesses. In the United States and Brazil now, populist leaders are dismissive of the news and data on COVID-19, because it reveals their failures. For this reason, their followers tend to view all COVID-19 information through the lens of partisan politics. Indeed, President Bolsonaro of Brazil has called his followers to storm hospitals to take photos and videos to show whether COVID-19 patients are truly filling hospital beds, as the hospitals and state leaders claim. Such denial has caused painful climbs in COVID-19 deaths in both Brazil and the United States. …

Crazy Book Prices

As authors, the prices that Amazon and other e-stores charge for our books can be mystifying. Today I received an email from a graduate student interested in accessing a book (Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and Legend) that I had written on an evil-spirit being in Algonquian religion. They said that they couldn’t afford over $700 for the book, and asked if I could help them. I was confused and went online to look on Amazon. Sure enough, what I saw was the prices that you can view on the screenshot below. This left me rather mystified. The Kindle version of the book is under nine dollars (U.S. funds), while on Apple books the e-book is selling for just under ten dollars. Why would anyone pay $1,187.50 for the physical book? And why didn’t I save a couple of copies myself to sell on Amazon?

I know that the windigo is a common subject in pop culture, such as young adult novels, television and video games. I also know that a movie on the windigo called Antlers (set in Oregon) is coming out shortly. But these prices are unbelievable. Just to be clear: I certainly receive no share of these inflated prices, and my profits on the book have been quite modest. That’s typically the way it is for academic authors. I spent eleven years researching and writing my first book, and my first (and by far the largest) royalty check was about $220 U.S. dollars. My wife and I used it to go out for dinner to celebrate. You can imagine what the hourly rate for writing that book must have been, especially after spending a year researching amongst dusty papers in Brazil’s military archives. I try not to think about it.

So when you see such elevated prices for a book, please don’t think that this has anything to do with the authors, or that we are somehow receiving a large share of these funds. For anyone who is interested, you can obtain a paperback copy of the book for $19.95 Canadian from my publisher, Heritage House press. If you can afford to buy it from the publisher (and are in Canada), your purchase supports a small, independent house that’s an important venue for books on history.

Want to learn more about the windigo? You can watch a video by PBS’s Monstrum on YouTube here.

Shawn Smallman

Dangerous Spirits on Amazon

Iran, history and War

Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal. …

History’s decline

Why are so many history department’s struggling? Many people may have read the New York Times article by Mitch Smith: Students in Rural America Ask, ‘What Is a University Without a History Major?’ The article described how the The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is eliminating its history department. Although totally closing a department is extreme, other departments are losing funds for adjuncts and summer classes; in other cases faculty who retire are not being replaced. …

The Mystery Woman of the Baltimore

Captain’s quarters of an 18th century sailing vessel, such as that in which the mystery woman was found. Photo by Audrey Smallman, 2018.

 

Every Halloween I discuss an international mystery, or an aspect of folklore such as the ghost stories of southeastern China. This year will be different, because I am going to do three posts dealing with mysteries or the supernatural. With this post, I want to discuss the strange ship the Baltimore, a mystery with threads that reach from Ireland to Canada, and from the United States to Barbados. In his book, Maritime Mysteries: Haunting Tales of Atlantic Canada, Roland H. Sherwood tells the story (pp. 24-29) of how the ship mysteriously appeared in Chebogue, Nova Scotia. The local people wondered where the brigantine had come from, and why no people were seen on deck, even though someone had anchored the vessel. They sent ships, and people called out to those aboard, but no answer came. When local men boarded the ship on December 5, 1735 they saw signs of a struggle, including blood splattered all over the deck. There must have been a terrible battle aboard the ship. But of the crew there was not a trace. Seemingly, every single crew member had vanished. And everything valuable had been stripped from the ship. Then they heard the moaning within the cabin. They tried to open the door, but it had been barricaded shut. On that blood-soaked ship, they must have feared what they would find inside. When they burst through the door they found a woman on the floor, the only survivor. She said that her name was Susannah Buckler. Could she tell them what had happened to the ship’s crew? …

Peace Treaties and Ancient China

Map of the Chinese plain, 5 century BC. Start of the Warring States Period. By Yug [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Although we think of arms control and peace treaties as relatively modern concepts, they have ancient roots. I’ve been reading Richard Louis Walker’s book, The Multi-State System of Ancient China, which was published by Shoe String press in 1953. He describes major negotiations that followed a period of devastating warfare during the Spring and Autumn period, as contending states struggled for primacy in China. Interestingly, his description of how the ancient states of China interacted would be all too familiar to a scholar in the modern Realist School. The idea of a Balance of power dominated Chinese politics in this distant time period in the same manner that it did in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the sixth century BC a Sung statesman named Hsiang Shu (p. 56) lobbied the courts of multiple Chinese states, to try to reach an agreement to end the perpetual warfare. Even states that had little interest in negotiations found that they had no choice but to at least pretend to take part:

“The states had, of course, at least to pretend an interest in his idea. A Chin leader said, “War is destructive to the people, an insect that eats up the resources of a State, and the greatest calamity of all small States. If any one try to put an end to it, though we think it cannot be done, we must sanction his proposal. If we do not, Ch’u will do so, and proceed to call the States together, so that we shall lose the presidency of the covenants.” (Walker, 56).

As Walker describes (56-57) fourteen major states took part of in the discussion. Predictably, once an agreement was reached there was a dispute between the two most powerful states over who should sign first (57). The negotiations had gone so poorly that during the meetings “the Ch’u representatives even wore armor.” (57). In the end, even though an agreement was reached to end warfare, many states refused to sign, while the signatories ignored it (57).

As for statesman and peace-maker Hsian Shu, he sought a reward from the Prime Minister of Sung, to whom he presented a signed copy of the treaty. The Prime Minister responded with scorn, in a speech that deserves to be as frequently remembered in International Relations studies as the Melian Dialogue recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. According to the Prime Minister of Sung, war was an inevitable tool of statecraft. To seek to abandon these tools was a delusion. He told Hsian Shu that he was lucky to have escaped without punishment, but now he was coming to him looking for a reward. The Prime Minister cut the copy of the treaty to pieces and threw it away (58).

Without the signature of all major states the peace treaty had no power, and the bitter wars continued.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

When Europe ruled the world

The European Union is currently passing through a prolonged social, political and economic crisis. Britain will soon vote on whether to withdraw from the European Union altogether. There are grave doubts that the common currency can be made to work. Unemployment, especially amongst youth, is very high throughout southern Europe. When I was in Spain last summer, I was struck by the signs in stores that promised discounts for the unemployed, which suggested how entrenched such unemployment has become.Throughout the region relatively low rates of economic growth have undermined people’s faith in the region’s current economic model.

In Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, in particular, there are serious doubts about a resurgent Russia (for an explanation of why, see Brooks and Wohlforth’s excellent article “the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century,” International Security, Winter 2015, pp. 20-21). The events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine make it clear that invasion and warfare remain threats for European states, particularly the Baltic nations.  At the same time, the disastrous violence from Syria to Libya has let to a flood of migrants, who are crossing borders in Italy and Greece. The result is a human catastrophe, as boats sink in the Mediterranean, families are divided, and poor states are overwhelmed by a flood of migrants. In relative terms, Europe’s global influence relative to other major powers -such as China- is waning. The European Union is beset by multiple crises, which perhaps explains the rise of populist and nationalist political parties, which reflects some citizens’ belief that fundamental change is desperately needed. …

Free MOOCs on World War One

Although I teach both hybrid and online classes, I haven’t yet taken a MOOC, which is a free online class made available to a large number of people. Now the BBC has worked with four British universities to make available four MOOCs on World War One, and I’m thinking about joining. Curious too? You can sign up here.

Professor Smallman, Portland State University

The Christmas Truce of 1914

I follow a number of blogs in Latin America, of which my favorite is Historias Inesperadas by Daniel Balmaceda, who focuses on the unexpected aspects of Argentina’s past, from the first parachute jump in Latin America, to the early life of San Martin. As the nights grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s good to have a positive story to think about. So I loved this video clip on the blog, which tells the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, through the song “All Together Now,” by the Farm in 1990. As the First World War entered its first winter, German and British troops declared an unofficial truce in the trenches of Belgium, during which they fraternized, shared cigarettes, and played soccer. The officer corps on both sides were horrified by the outbreak of peace, and managed to prevent this truce from happening again. The pictures with this version of the video are evocative, and although you probably don’t need the subtitles in Spanish, they suggest how this story has inspired people in many countries. To watch the video scroll down until the subtitle “Tregua de Navidad” here.

Shawn Smallman

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