The King who would be slapped

September 29, 2008

Esagila. The shrine to the god Marduk, the savior of cosmic order and the creator of mankind. Built by Marduk himself, Esagila is the center of the universe, and dominates the heart of its premier city, Babylon. Nearby, the Etemenanki, multicolored seven leveled pyramid like ziggurat of Marduk, rears 300 feet into the Babylonian sky, its massive bulk encompassing 13 acres, its tiers a veritable stairway to the heavens and the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Atop the ziggurat, whose grandeur culminates a century of effort, a temple complex that is the dwelling on Earth of the great Marduk.

It is the fifth and climactic day of Akitu, the most important of Babylon’s many religious festivals. The new year has dawned, bringing with it a new spring, new beginnings and a spate of ritual activity. The temple priests, whose mythologies sculpt the Babylonian intellect, execute a series of elaborate and arcane procedures, sacrifices and purifications in preparation for the main event of the day. The temples have been exorcised of the year’s accumulated evils, Marduk fed his morning meal, and the king is on his way.

Cyrus the Great is not of Babylon, but he is its new king. His Persian armies have exploded out of their hinterland of Paras, smashed the Empire of the Medes and in 539 BC, conquered Babylon, a city of fabulous wealth, decadence, mystery and sorcery, a city with a history that is already ancient. Cyrus is a shrewd politician who knows that the king who rules Babylon must do so with the approval of Marduk. The vengeful and sulky god who reacts as poorly to disrespect as a gangland don, must be appeased, as kings of Babylon have done annually since their inception. But Marduk is no easy god to appease. It takes more than prayer and spectacular sacrifice to earn the favor of this deity.

Once a year, during Akitu, Marduk definitively shows the ruler of Babylon who is boss. He imposes a ritual humiliation designed to rip the king’s royal hauteur to shreds. However, since Cyrus is also the King of a host of other Kings, this maltreatment, even at the hands of a god, is tantamount to political suicide. At the same time, to defy Marduk is to be cast a heretic, anathema in a Babylon obsessed with its religion. Cyrus cleverly solves the problem by sending his son Cambyses to Esagila in his place.

Cambyses arrives at the gates of Esagila in full royal regalia, his royal circlet on his head, his scepter and symbolic mace in his hands. He is met at the gates by the sesgallu, the high priest, who escorts him into the temple’s sacred inner  sanctuary. The prince’s considerable entourage and bodyguard who surely accompany him everywhere are left behind, for what is to follow is a private matter between Marduk and Cambyses. Only the god’s wily priests receive the privilege of the enjoying their ruler’s embarrassment.

The process starts mildly enough when Cambyses is asked to purify himself by washing his hands. Then – the first shock – and Cambyses, who is no doubt prepared for what is to come (the details are no secret to Babylonians) is surely rattled. The high priest peremptorily strips the symbols of office from the king – an offence that in any other situation would result in the priest’s prolonged and excruciating death. The circlet, the scepter,  the mace, are all taken from Cambyses and placed at the feet of Marduk’s towering golden statue. Then, the priest tenses, focuses his energies and unleashes something unthinkable, unforgivable in any other time, in any other place, in any other land. The priest slaps Cambyses on the cheek as hard as he can. Whack! The slap echoes one the temple’s stone walls in a cruel simile of Marduk’s laughter. The prince of Persia can only swallow his pride and hope his father knows what he is doing.

The sesgulla is not finished. He now reaches out and grabs Cambyses by the ear! He boxes the prince’s ear as one would a mischievous boy, then drags him by the ear into Marduk’s inner sanctuary and casts him before the god. In one symbolic move, the king is no longer king. The king has been dethroned and reduced to groveling for Marduk’s mercy.

Cambyses’s face blazes with fury, but politics is politics, Babylon priceless and the priest granted implicit immunity from being flayed alive and then impaled. Cambyses kneels before the god, a supplicant,  praying that his powers and privileges to rule be restored. Marduk’s domination over him is complete. All that remains is for the god to raise a leg and mark the prince with his scent.

Yet, Marduk is not satisfied. Cambyses now recites a standardized prayer in which he reassures Marduk that despite what the god may think, he has not sinned, has not violated his religion and stayed true to his royal charter of nurturing his charge, Babylon. Miraculously, this magical prayer does the trick and the surly god’s mood turns. Speaking through the voice of the high priest (for high priests everywhere have a private line to their bosses), Marduk informs Cambyses that he has, in his infinite mercy, decided to let his father keep his job for another year. The stewardship of Babylon is summarily restored to the Persians.

Cambyses steps out of Marduk’s sanctuary, his royalty restored, mace and scepter in hand, glad that the ordeal is almost at an end. Almost – because a final humiliation remains.

Whack! The high priest plants a crucial second slap on the prince’s still stinging cheek. The blow so stuns Cambyses that it brings tears to his eyes. The courageous Prince of Persia, future ruler of the largest and most powerful state in the world, reduced to tears by a slap! Amazingly enough, the priests rejoice at the sight, for they have been watching Cambyses for precisely such a reaction. The tears are a sign of Marduk’s favor. The thicker the tears, the happier the god.

In a nation obsessed with foretelling the future, the tears of the king who would be slapped are the truest sign of good fortune to come. No amount of astrology, star gazing, soothsaying or sorcery can come close to the potency of this augury. And the universal relief it brings. For in Babylon, the ultimate harbinger of disaster, the dread beyond all dreads is the the king who would not be slapped.

For ritual details, refer to The Akitu Festival, by Julye Bidmead.

The Revolutionary Work Week

September 24, 2008

The French are famed for their work week. 35 grueling hours, intermingled with scrumptious lunches, glasses of wine, and the expectation of 6 glorious weeks of summer vacation. Life is pretty good if you are a French worker. But for all the stereotyped fun the rest of us overworked and plainly envious suckers poke at the French, the 35 hour week works well enough for them to build and operate the amazing TGV trains, the mighty Arianne space lifter and the ubiquitous Airbus (the latter two in partnership with their European brethren). Not only is your Dior and Chanel French, but so is your Dannon yogurt and the publisher of your World of Warcraft. And in spite of working less and spending a minimum of five more hours a week on eating and drinking than us Americans, the French aren’t nearly as fat.

The French had experimented with the length of their work week once before in their history, although not in a way you might expect. The revolutionaries who began separating head from aristocrat in 1784, wanted liberation from all the old ways. The scientists and rationalists among them held a particular peeve for the antiquated and often conflicting systems of measurement that hobbled their Age of Reason. With universal divisibility by the number 10 as their sworn goal, these visionaries had, by 1793, introduced the most telling contribution of the French Revolution to the world – the metric system. And they applied it not just to distances and volumes, but also to time. For in the new land of liberty, equality and fraternity, there was to be no place for the 7 day week. In addition to not being a factor of 10, the 7 day week had too many Biblical associations for the religiously neutral revolutionaries (as did the Notre Dame Cathedral, which like other churches, was re-christened a ‘Temple of Reason’). With a quick stroke of a reforming quill, on October 24th 1793, the French National Convention replaced the 7 day week with a 10 day one.

The reforms introduced by The French Republican Calendar were dramatic. A single year was split into 36 10-day weeks. The year continued to have 12 months, but like the lunar calendar, each was assigned an identical 30 days. Sensibly, the 360 day year was eschewed and the remaining 5 or 6 days tacked on at the end of the year as public holidays (what were they thinking?). But there were to be no January, February, March… in this brave new year. The newly liberated months now sported poetic names Germinal and Thermidor. And poor January lost more than its name. The French year now began on the Autumn Equinox. 

Clocks changed radically. No more would they strike 12! Their new faces were now divided into a metric compliant 10 hours! And the hours didn’t pass as quickly either. For 10 hours was all the French gave themselves in a day. The 24 hour day was gone! A day with 10 hours, each hour divided into 100 minutes and each minute into 100 seconds!

The metric system made logical sense in every way. Except when it came to time and the 10 day week. As you were no doubt quick to notice, the biggest implication of the 10 day week was that the weekend only came about every 10 days. The poor French men and women had won their liberty only to be cast into an institutional sweatshop where 9 straight days of work before a day of rest – was the law.

The French Republican Calendar hung around for nearly 12 years, until it was finally abolished by Le Empereur Napoleon in 1805. One day of rest in ten had proven so odious that there was little protest and much celebration at the return of the ancient cycle of seven. And their ancestor’s struggle for a little more rest was not forgotten by the children of modern France. In the year 2000, France wrote into law what everyone knew anyway – that working over lunch gives you indigestion and all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy. 

Guarding Democracy

September 24, 2008

Democracies serve the will of the people. But without ceaseless vigilance, democracies can start serving the will of the few who are willing to turn them into something else. Putins can subordinate the will of the people to their own, and then convince them that they like it. Mugabes can embezzle their very mandate. Bushes can succeed Bushes and Gandhis can follow Gandhis to the throne. Democracies can be possessed by lobbyists, governments turned into funnels for personal fortune. But worst of all, democracies can cease to function at all. Legislation can be smothered by partisan bickering, the greater good can be sacrificed in favor of parochial myopia, democracy itself held hostage by pernicious politics.

The ancient Athenians used an astonishing last resort to guard their nascent democracy against such threats. If a politician came to wield too much power, started taking the people for granted, or became just too big for his boots, the Athenians could call for a special referendum on the errant leader. If two opposing leaders or factions paralyzed the work of government by ceasing to cooperate and compromise, the Athenians would hold the same special referendum on both, to break the deadlock.

On the appointed day, Athenian voters would head to the voting pens set up in their city square, the Agora. Next to the pens they would find stacks of pottery shards known as ostraka, which served as their ballots. Voters would take a shard of pottery and scratch the name of a candidate on its undecorated side, frequently including rude drawings of the candidate and other pithy commentary. They would then throw the shard into the waiting ostraka pen, with election officials watching closely to ensure they didn’t cheat by voting again.

If the citizens had voted to break a governmental logjam, the leader who lost would find himself banished from Athens for a period of 10 years. It was better for the government to do something, the citizens felt, than to do nothing at all. If the citizens had voted on a politician who had become too powerful, or a politician they were just plain sick of, he too could be banished from the Athens for 10 years. The Athenians strongly believed that a little time away from home would take care of the excessive influence, the cults of personality.

In this way, Athenians used the power of their ostraka to ostracize their fellow citizens at annually held ostracisms. Ostracism, they felt, could help restore and protect their democracy. They were only partially right. For although banished and excluded from direct involvement in the democracy, the rich and the powerful lost neither their wealth nor their networks of influence. The state did not confiscate any wealth or property, nor discriminate against the ostracized politician’s family in any way. The rich remained rich and could exercise their power, albeit weakened, at a distance.

When appearances meant everything (Part II)

September 24, 2008

A tale of Mughal India, ..
continued from Part I:

On September 6th, 1657, The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan awoke to discover that he could not pee. He had fallen victim to an overindulgence in a medieval Viagra that had interfered with his ability to urinate. The passion for a silky new Moorish slave girl had driven the ageing monarch to seek an injection of explosiveness into his tired libido. He had consumed quantities of stimulants and aphrodisiacs designed to restore his youthful ardor. Instead, he suffered the agony and ignominy of extreme urinary retention, his limbs swollen, his body bloated, the Emperor of the world reduced to a mere mortal. Or so was alleged by the rumors that arrived on horseback into Mughal cities and towns over the next several days – and spread rapidly beyond. Was the old man dying? Would he be dead soon? Was he dead already? No one really knew. All that was known for sure was that the Emperor had not been seen in public for an entire week! Even a passably healthy Emperor took pains to assure that the world that he lived. A complete absence of appearance did not bode well.

Dead or not – Shah Jahan’s sons were not about to wait to find out. The death of a father, or even the rumor of a death, was not a time of mourning, worry or concern for these imperial princes, but one of war, intrigue and survival. For the best that the losers in the struggle of succession could hope for was to have their eyes put out by the winner. And so, like lions who begin eating their prey while it is still alive – for fear of losing their share – Shah Jahan’s sons made their first moves. Moves that they had been planning all their lives. The horse messengers began racing all over the country, calling in favors, promising positions and gold, mobilizing secret agreements and regiments.

Shah Jahan’s need for his Moorish slave girl was perhaps understandable. Though he maintained a well stocked harem and multiple wives (most just seals on political alliances), he was, in many ways, a lonely man, and had been since the passing of his beloved Mumtaz – whose death in 1631 had left him distraught and alone. The couple had met and fallen in love as teenagers, and remained inseparable companions for over 19 years of marriage and permanent pregnancy. In 19 years of passionate bliss, Mumtaz had conceived and given birth to 12 children, until she had finally perished during the birth of their 13th child. It was presumed that the Emperor had turned to his Moorish temptress to ease any guilt or responsibility he felt for Mumtaz’s death. For the marble of the Taj Mahal he had built in her memory lacked the Moor’s fiery embrace and beguilingly soft skin.

September 14th, 1657 – the eight day since the Emperor’s had been last seen. As the nascent rebellion took hold in the Mughal Empire, the day’s petitioners gathered below the Red Fort’s ramparts, shielding in the shadows from the vicious sun, and gazed up at the window of audience with little hope. Many, if not most, prayed aloud for their monarch, as they had all week, but the prayers found no sympathetic God. Some had already abandoned their posts and begun to retire. But as the rest considered the option, they observed a movement in the audience window. A shout of “Jahanpanah!” went up among the faithful, and those who had drifted away came racing back. For framed in that ornate and intricately carved window stood a man.

Or what seemed like a man. He was dressed in imperial finery, in cloth of gold, with pearls and rubies and diamonds. By his side stood his functionaries, their strong hands supporting him, as he swayed, staggered and barely kept his feet. The man was old, much older than the man that the onlookers recalled. For in the passing week, their memory of their ruler had returned to earlier times, to times when his youth and good looks had been the subject of tale and verse – a man who had looked like an Emperor. This man in the window was weak and withered. This man did not have the appearance of a king. He scarcely had the appearance of a man. This imposter had the appearance of an old palace eunuch dressed up to look like a king!

It took several months for the stories of the eunuch in the window to fade. Shah Jahan eventually convinced his Empire that he was not dead. But he was too late. By June of 1658, he had been overthrown by his wily and cruel son, Aurangzeb, and cast into a prison in his own capital of Agra. His only consolation was that his prison had a view. For from within his comfortable chambers in the Agra Fort, Shah Jahan beheld a vista dominated by his masterpiece – The Taj.

The former Emperor lived on for a further nine years. Some say he died in disappointment, unable to fulfil his last dream – the construction of his own mausoleum – a second, Black Taj on the opposite side of Yamuna river, a perfect reflection of The White Taj, the two linked together by a single bridge. But his soul could take solace in the fact that upon his death, his son Aurangzeb buried him besides his wife in the Taj, where together they give audience to millions of onlookers every day.

And who was the mysterious Moorish girl who proved to be such a potent political catalyst? History does not record her fate. Nor of the inventor of that deadly aphrodisiac. It is not known if the girl remained with her Emperor – if merely to ease the boredom of incarceration. In fact, it is not known if the girl existed at all. Or if Shah Jahan had been laid low by an aphrodisiac or merely the flu. For these were times when rumor was fact and appearances meant everything.

For an account of this episode in Mughal history, refer to the colorful and occasionally tabloid memoirs of the Venetian travelers Manucci and Careri.

When appearances meant everything (Part I)

September 24, 2008

A tale of 17th Century Mughal India.

It was a September morning like any other in Delhi. The air clung despairingly to the fading cool of the night, as the sun that would incinerate it began searing the smoky haze of the morning’s cooking fires. A crowd of petitioners, sycophants and sightseers had gathered on the sandy banks of the city’s lifeline – the Yamuna river. They stood at the foot of the looming sandstone ramparts of the colossal Red Fort, their eyes riveted expectantly upon an ornate viewing window built into the imperial chambers that overhung the bastion’s walls. For this was time of the daily people’s audience. It was the time when the Emperor, The Great Mughal Shah Jahan, made his daily morning appearance before the people of Delhi, when he sat himself down in the viewing window and devoted an entire hour of his extraordinary existence to their ordinary one. This was when the Emperor listened to his subject’s complaints, passed judgement upon their tormentors, tossed handfuls of gold coins at their heads, and generally looked regal, divine and – alive. He only missed the appointment on the occasions when the need to crush a rebellion or escape the terrible summer heat took him from his capital. For he was quite fond of tossing gold coins at his people’s heads, of dazzling them with his splendor and wisdom, and above all – of looking alive. Of all of Shah Jahan’s duties and responsibilities, looking alive was by far the most crucial.

On this warm day, the people waited in vain. The hours went by, the sun rose high into the sky, but of the Emperor, there was no sign. Eventually the surprised and disappointed crowd drifted away, some looking back over their shoulders as they went, hoping that their ruler may yet show them his face. They speculated on the reasons for his absence. Perhaps he had been overwhelmed by the memory of his dead wife and departed to Agra to gaze upon the grand mausoleum he had built in her name. Perhaps he had hurried away to combat a defiant Sultan who had raised the flag of insurrection. Or perhaps the great one had fallen ill, as he might, for he was no longer the spry Prince he once was.

By that evening, the bazaars of Chandni Chowk were abuzz with rumor. Sources inside Shah Jahan’s palace had confirmed that the Emperor was not well. Fortunately, he was attended to by the greatest physicians, holy men and quacks in the land and was expected to make a complete recovery. The Emperor’s heart, said the sources, had lost little of the vigor of its youth and all that ailed him was a minor attack of constipation. But despite the reassurances, the first messengers had already left the city, racing for the far corners of the sprawling Empire, to the lands where Shah Jahan had posted his sons as Governors. He had done so because he believed that governing the uncooperative inhabitants of those distant realms would train his sons in the affairs of state. He wanted to keep his sons as far away from each other as possible – to keep them from killing each other – at least while he was still alive. For like their counterparts in Turkey, the Mughals had no belief in primogeniture, preferring that the royal progeny compete openly and violently for the royal crown. And the royal progeny in their distant fiefs waited impatiently for their old man to die.

A new day dawned in Delhi and the people went about their daily routine. Like his subjects, Shah Jahan was also a man of habit, and typically rose at 4.00 AM to spend his day in governance, pleasure, audiences, art and watching elephant fights – a favorite pastime. But for a second day in succession, Shah Jahan did not rise from his bed. For a second day in a row, the Emperor did not make the all important appearance to his people! The crowd of petitioners who had customarily gathered below the royal window again left without a glimpse of their king. The Emperor, claimed the gossips in Chandni Chowk, was bed-ridden with a case of severe constipation, swollen limbs and overwhelming malaise. Soon, the city could speak of little else, as the average citizens took to evaluating their options and what a royal demise would mean to their fortunes, careers, and lives. And the agents and spies that the Mughal princes maintained at their father’s court hastily scribbled updated reports and a fresh batch of horseback messengers raced away with the sealed scrolls.

A third day went by without any amelioration in what was fast becoming a major imperial crisis. And then a fourth. The Emperor remained confined to his bed, alive, but in considerable pain and discomfort. There were many who feared that he was already dead, or else he would have made at least a token appearance at the royal window. Others took comfort in the doctors, priests and quacks who were hard at work, feeding him elixirs, tonics with ground pearls, incantations on scraps of paper, and other exotic medications much trusted at the time. None had any effect. The only progress was in the nature of the rumors, which had taken on a dominantly salacious tone. For the Emperor, it was alleged, was not constipated at all. The Emperor, they said, had actually lost the ability to express bodily waste of the other kind. And this embarrassing condition was not the consequence of age, ailment or injury, but of taking too much of a certain concoction whose sole benefit was the restoration of a vital masculine capacity known to decline with age! The aging Emperor, the diehard romantic who had spent untold millions on building a Taj Mahal to the love of his life, had apparently developed a raging passion for a nubile Moorish slave girl who had recently been added to his harem…

To be continued… Part II

They Stole it from Us

September 24, 2008

April 6th, 1850. The paddle sloop HMS Medea slipped away from its mooring in the
port of Calcutta and began the long journey to its home port of Portsmouth, England. The charter was unusual, for the ship carried but two passengers: Captain Ramsay and Lt.Colonel Mackeson, both soldiers in the employ of the East India Company and aides to the Governor General of the Company’s Empire in India, Lord Dalhousie. In addition to their personal effects, the men carried with them a single, innocuous dispatch box that presumably contained dispatches from Dalhousie to his board of directors in London. It was uncommon for Her Majesty’s Navy to be deployed on what appeared to be mundane Company business, for the Company had vessels aplenty of its own. What the Medea’s skipper, Captain Lockyer, did not know was that Lord Dalhousie had specifically asked the British Admiralty for the loan of a warship to carry this very particular cargo. Though no doubt curious about their odd assignment, Lockyer and his men could at least content themselves with the prospect of a summer voyage considerably more relaxed than their spring, which they had spent fighting pirates off the coast of Hong Kong.  

The Medea did not reach Portsmouth until June 29th, where it docked in an isolated quay with little fanfare. The voyage had been more eventful than anyone had anticipated, for the ship had nearly met its fate in the Indian Ocean. About a third of the way into the journey, cholera had broken out on board and killed two sailors. Fortunately for the crew, the ship had been on the approach to the island of Mauritius, a British possession, and a crucial supply halt on the India route. But the Mauritians were terrified that the deadly cholera might jump ship onto land and refused to let the Medea birth. They demanded that the Medea leave immediately, which Lockyer flatly refused to do. Irked, they petitioned the island’s Governor to have the ship sunk, men and all. Tensions ran high, but eventually Lockyer had his way and loaded the Medea with fresh clean water, which miraculously banished fresh incidents of cholera from the ship. The Medea left Mauritius with generally better health and fresh food, only to sail directly into the storms that bedevil the environs of The Cape of Good Hope. Its crew battled gale force winds for nearly twelve hours before finally managing to get away.

The relief of the Medea’s crew and passengers at their narrow escape was magnified soon after arriving at Portsmouth, when the contents of the mysterious dispatch box were finally revealed. In the dispatch box was a small iron chest with two locks whose only keys were on the person of Col. Mackeson. Inside the chest sat a solitary stone. It was the Koh-i-Noor, the fabled Mountain of Light. It had been sent to England as a gift from the East India Company to its sovereign, Queen Victoria.

The Company had won the 186 carat diamond by force of arms. In 1849, it had confiscated the behemoth from the twelve year old Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh. The famed jewel was not all that Duleep had had to surrender. The blood soaked Second Anglo-Sikh War had resulted in the annexation of the Punjab and its 4 million citizens into the Company’s Empire. The powerful kingdom of the Punjab, built by the brilliant Maharajah Ranjit Singh, had crumbled a mere 10 years after his death, victim to the greed, pettiness and intrigue of his worthless successors. The Company, under the imperialist Dalhousie, had stepped in and picked up the valuable pieces. Ironically, the Punjab, like the rest of the British Empire in India, had been won for the British chiefly by Indians. Though lead by British officers and laced with British regiments, the wars of the East India Company were fought and won by an Army made up primarily of sepoys (sipahis) – native soldiers.

The Koh-i-Noor had always been a prize of war. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, the diamond had certainly been discovered in the mines of Golconda, the sole source of the stones in the world until the 18th century. It passed from hand to hand, and came to obsess any that possessed it. Among its most illustrious owners was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, then arguably the richest monarch in the world, which one would have to be in order to absorb the immense expenditure of state funds necessary for the construction of a mausoleum named The Taj Mahal. The jewel remained in the Mughal treasury until 1739, when it fell into the hands of the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah, and acquired its present name. Nadir Shah was in the midst of the bloody sack of Delhi, massacring thousands and looting the priceless imperial Mughal treasure – a treasure that the Mughal Empire had accumulated over two hundred years, by, in part, looting the rest of India. It is said that despite being surrounded by the fabulous hoard of gold and jewels, Nadir Shah was so overwhelmed by the diamond’s size, weight and brilliant light that he exclaimed in his native Persian: Koh-i-Noor, Mountain of Light!

The diamond did not remain Nadir’s for long, as he was murdered by his own men in 1747. The diamond made its way to Afghanistan, and from thence to Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was so enamored of the Koh-i-noor that he never let it out of sight. He even had it mounted on his bridle, so that he could admire (and guard) it while taking the long rides he loved.

The legend of the Koh-i-Noor owes much to the travelers, courtiers, ambassadors and common people who wrote, spoke and sang of its beauty. The giant stone was often in plain sight wherever its owners went, shining on royal turban, crown and in Ranjit Singh’s case, a singularly stunning bracelet. But never in its history had the diamond been in actual peril, for none who came under its sway would willingly harm it – until its voyage on the Medea, when it nearly ended up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor is not the giant it once was. It lost nearly 40% of its weight when it was re-cut by the Victorians to enhance its brilliance. At 108 carats, it is neither the largest nor the the most beautiful diamond in the world. It sits in the Tower of London in the company of the British Crown Jewels, where it is admired in passing by millions of tourists, most of whom know little of its history or mystique. Except for the tourists with Indian passports, who point at it as they go by and sometimes mutter: They stole it from us.

The Jerky Makers of Hispaniola

September 24, 2008

The 16th century Caribbean – Spain has ruled the island of Hispaniola since the time of Columbus and permanently changed its ecology and population. The city of Santo Domingo crowns the mouth of the Ozama River and has served as the base for the conquest of the continental mainland. The city is home to Spaniards and to drifters from France, England and Holland, many of whom have been brought here by the endless naval warfare that preoccupies the powers of Europe. Of the native
Tainos people there is virtually no sign, for they have been exterminated by the smallpox that has crossed the Atlantic on the Spanish galleons. Any survivors have succumbed to enslavement, to murder and to the hundred other bugs that have caught the ride with the smallpox. The Spanish have shored up the forced labor pool by importing thousands of African slaves – and put them to work on their sugarcane plantations, which have replaced large swathes of the island’s native jungles. They’ve also brought in European farm animals, most of whom have gone feral and prospered in the islands’s lush tropical bounty and lack of major predators. Hispaniola is overrun by wild cattle and pigs. They are to play a key role in the island’s future.

But by 1586, less than a hundred years after its founding, Hispaniola is in decline. The empire and gold of the mainland has drawn away the colonists and the sugar plantations have started to go with them. Investment in the island’s economy has been in precipitous decline and new slave imports are starting to dry up. And when Sir Francis Drake takes and ransoms Santo Domingo, the Spanish begin to lose interest. The island becomes a haven for desperadoes, fortune seekers and former sailors from all over Europe.

One thing that does not decline is Hispaniola’s strategic location. It dominates the Caribbean and the city of Santo Domingo remains a crucial port of call, where ships put in to replenish their supplies. The sailors want rum, water, and meat, all of which are available aplenty. Meat dominates a sailor’s diet, but since the ships can carry only so much fresh meat, if any at all, most of it is carried dried. And in this, Hispaniola’s population of drifters see an opportunity. For raw material, they turn to the wild cattle and pigs that seem to be everywhere and whose numbers don’t seem to fall, no matter how many they shoot. And from the natives (those that remain) they appropriate an ingenious technique for drying the meat. They smoke the meat using a wooden rack called a boucan. And so the drifters and immigrants make a living selling beef and pork jerky to passing ships – and to neighboring islands, which are in easy reach of their small boats. These makers of jerky come to be known as boucaniers.

It does not take long for the enterprising boucaniers to start supplementing their incomes by robbing their customers. And who can blame them? For they have come to the tropics to make their fortunes and there is none to be had in beef jerky. The ships, many of them fabulously rich, are conveniently birthed in Santo Domingo’s harbor, and the sailors are cooperatively drunk. The boucaniers go on to discover that their profits become quite significant when they take the occasional ship outright. And so they begin to waylay unsuspecting Spanish coastal traders that frequent the Caribbean. Beef jerky remains their bread and butter but the temptation of getting rich by robbing the Spanish is difficult to resist.

Getting rich by robbing the Spanish is such a good idea that the English have made it their national economic policy. The Spanish have themselves become wealthy by robbing the Incas and their brethren for a century. Lead by Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hind, the English launch an officially sanctioned wave of what is essentially piracy, though justified by the fact that Spain and England are at war and that attacking the enemy’s shipping is a sound military tactic. But the Atlantic is so vast, and the Spanish treasure ships so numerous that the English will need to fund an entirely new navy to put a dent in the inflow of treasure. And so the English turn to the free market and private enterprise. They issue licenses to privateersraiders – who have the official sanction of the English Crown to hunt Spanish shipping. Any warship, merchantman, sloop or boat that is game receives a license. The only condition imposed is that any spoils be shared with the Crown. Give England its share of the loot, and you are no pirate, but a sailor fighting for Queen and country.

The boucaniers of Hispaniola enlist as privateers en-masse – thus legitimizing their new profession. And over the next hundred years the boucaniers terrorize Spanish shipping and settlements. Some like Captain Henry Morgan acquire such fame that they are knighted, appointed Governor of Jamaica and used to name a brand of spiced rum. The boucaniers of Hispaniola give up making beef jerky as a business entirely and become professional buccaneers. The Jerky makers of Hispaniola became The Pirates of The Caribbean. The fecund wild cattle and hogs of Hispaniola who give them their start continue to feed them for years to come.