Mapping America

May 10, 2019

There are few things I enjoy more than history and maps.  So, finding a site that perfectly matches both is a joy and something to be shared. I came across one today: It is the America Transformed: Mapping the 19th Century exhibit at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Centre.  To quote their Introduction:

“During the 19th century, the United States expanded dramatically westward. Immigrant settlers rapidly spread across the continent and transformed it … Historical maps, images and related objects tell the story of the sweeping changes made to the physical, cultural, and political landscape. Moving beyond the mythologized American frontier, this map exhibition explores the complexity of factors that shaped [America] over the century.”

This is Part One of a two-part series, covering The United States Expands Westward, 1800-1862.  Part Two — From Homesteads to Modern Cities, 1862-1900 will be available in November.

If you have any interest in 19th century American history and/or an interest in how maps and graphics help shape our view of history, this is a site worth spending some time exploring.


Books Read in Q1 2019

April 2, 2019

These are the books I managed to squeeze in this last three months:


Barrington Moore jr: “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”

Downing, Taylor:  “1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

Laura Shapiro: “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America”

Ursula K. LeGuin:  “No Time to Spare

Jack Ashby: “Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects”

Fred Thirkwell and Bob Scullion: “Greetings From British Columbia

Richard Wrangham: “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Sam Wiebe: “The Last of the Independents

Sam Wiebe: “Invisible Dead





In Praise of Jimmy Carter

March 29, 2019

Regular readers will no doubt know that I am not a fan of politicians, especially senior American politicians.  However, I have always admired and been impressed by Jimmy Carter. The following profile is from an email newsletter from Mother Jones. I hope they won’t mind me reprinting it in full as it says exactly what I would like to say:

“He has never sought great riches, or to capitalize on the presidency for personal gain. He lives in a home that is assessed for a lesser value than the armored Secret Service vehicle that sits outside it.

Last week, at 94, Jimmy Carter became America’s oldest living former president, prompting praise for the human rights champion and Navy veteran. When in power, he looked ahead, installing solar panels in the White House and promoting a slew of judges of color and women to the federal bench, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Out of power, he oversaw election monitoring in many tight votes worldwide and has spent decades volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

“We…are grateful for his long life of service that has benefitted millions of the world’s poorest people,” said the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on public policy.

As a public servant and after the presidency, Carter embodied the traits we feature each week in this newsletter. He thought of others and refused to take credit for the daring rescue of six US diplomats in Iran (an episode later made famous by the movie Argo). The reason? Carter didn’t want to endanger the lives of other US diplomats held hostage there.

Carter took the hard road internationally, seeking to burnish America’s standing by refusing to coddle strongmen, such as Chile’s authoritarian leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. As a young reporter in neighboring Argentina, I witnessed testimony from Carter’s human rights chief, Patricia Derian, on how she directly confronted a leader of that military government on torture. (Busted, Argentina’s naval chief rubbed his hands and replied: “You remember the story of Pontius Pilate, don’t you?”)

Although reviews of Carter’s presidency have been mixed, political scientist Robert A. Strong writes that “some consider him to be the nation’s greatest former President,” and that his work is admired by people on both sides of the aisle.

In a Washington Post interview last fall, the former president said it was difficult to abide President Donald Trump’s constant lies, and he called the current presidency a “disaster.” Carter recalled that he would have been expelled from the Naval Academy for a lie, and hinted that his father, who whipped him six different times with a peach tree branch, would not have tolerated mistruths, either.

“I always told the truth,” he said simply.”

The Standing Stones As National Arena

March 23, 2019

A month or so ago, I reported on some research that indicated that the stone ring at Stonehenge had originally been built in Wales and only later moved to Salisbury Plain, almost 5,000 years ago.


This most famous of henges was erected in an area that is replete with rings and ritual sites of various descriptions, the most well-known of which would be the Avebury circle, linked by pathways to Stonehenge.  New research has shown that these sites may well have had a national rather than local significance.

“A detailed scientific analysis of 131 pigs found at four key feasting sites in Wiltshire and Dorset … reveals that the vast majority of the pigs eaten at the feasts had been brought there from up to hundreds of miles away … The conclusion is that Stonehenge-era Britons had some sort of “national” intercommunal or pan-tribal identity, as well as presumably their local tribal or clan ones. In that sense, the megafeasts may well have represented the birth of Britain as a cultural or even geopolitical or ideological concept …

“These gatherings could be seen as the first united cultural events of our island, with people from all corners of Britain descending on the areas around Stonehenge to feast on food that had been specially reared and transported from their homes .. The emergence of some sort of country-wide identity now appears to have been part of a package of new cultural and political developments that occurred at around the time the great stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury were built.”

Some 2,000 years later, in the Iron Age, there was a pan-tribal Druid elite extant throughout much of Britain. They may well have emerged from these earlier “national” gatherings.  What is certain is that our Neolithic ancestors were a lot more interesting and organised than we were taught at school.

The Remarkable Growth of Cities 1500-2018

March 22, 2019

Regular readers will perhaps recognize that I am a great fan of well done data visualizations of historical issues. Here is another one constructed by the folks at the Financial Times. It follows the growth of the world’s largest cities from 1500 through to 2018.  It lasts about 3 minutes and is quite fascinating.

The History of Sushi

March 18, 2019

“Sushi is not simply a meal to be eaten, but a dish to be savoured. As the celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa has recently pointed out, it is ‘an art’ in itself.”

I love sushi and sashimi and their accompaniments. I have eaten it here in Vancouver (wonderful), in Nairobi (potentially disastrous), in dozens of places around the world, in posh places (often mediocre) and street carts (usually delicious). I seek it out. I was primed therefore to be enticed by an article in History Today entitled A Short History of Sushi.  And it was well worth the read.

Image: History Today

Sushi has a long and involved geographic history,

“Though the evidence for its early history is rather sketchy, it seems to have begun life at some point between the fifth and the third centuries BC in the paddy fields alongside the Mekong river, which runs through modern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam … From the Mekong it made its way south towards Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and north, along the Yangtze and into the Yunnan, Guanxi and Guizhou provinces of modern China … Eventually, nare-sushi reached Japan. It is not known exactly when it arrived, but the earliest reference to it appears in the Yōrō Code, a legal code compiled in 718.”

The manufacture of the food moved unusually from highly complex to simple.

“First, the fish were gutted, rubbed with salt and placed in a barrel to dry for a few weeks. Then the salt was scraped off and the bellies of the fish packed with rice before being placed into wooden barrels, weighed down with a heavy stone, and left to rest. After several months – sometimes up to a year – anaerobic fermentation would begin, converting the sugars in the rice into acids and thus preventing the microorganisms responsible for putrefaction from spoiling the flesh. Whenever there was a need, the barrel could then be opened, the rice scraped off and the remaining fish eaten …

“By the middle of the 17th century … haya-zushi (fast sushi) … did away with fermentation altogether, while preserving the dish’s familiar tart flavour. Instead of waiting for the sugars in the rice to be turned naturally into acids, vinegar was simply added instead. It was then packed into a box, under slices of cooked or cured fish, and pressed with a heavy weight for no more than a couple of days.”

In the 19th century, even the pressing was eliminated, and something similar to the nigiri sushi we know today was introduced in Edo and eventually spread to the rest of Japan, and beyond:

“In the 1960s, Californians even pioneered their own form of sushi – the inside-out roll. Since then, ever more inventive variations have been introduced the world over.”

Our own master Tojo-san might quibble with the invention of the inside-out roll. But this is a fascinating brief history of a wonderful food. Recommended.

The Political History of the UK

March 11, 2019

As some readers will recall, I am a great admirer of data visualizations and their educational use in history. I was very pleased, therefore, to come across this fascinating video by Ollie Bye and made available on You Tube.

In less than 8 minutes, this map shows the political divisions into which the United Kingdom and Ireland have been divided for every year from 54 BC to 2016.

It is particularly useful in those confusing years between when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s through to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The small Scottish “kingdoms” of those years are represented by numbers rather than names and are equivalent to the following:  1. Caithness 2. Sutherland 3. Ross 4. Small Vassals 5. Buchan 6. Mar 7. Atholl 8. Angus 9. Stathearn 10. Fife 11. Dunbar 12./13. Galloway.