Erwin Rommel had been a military man for decades by the time that World War II broke out. Having fought in World War I for Germany, he was a key general for Nazi Germany by the time of World War II. During the war, Rommel was to play a major role in North Africa, and even tried to remove Hitler from power. Samuel Mitcham Jr., the author of a new book on Rommel (Amazon USAmazon UK), explains.

Erwin Rommel in 1942. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-013-07 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available  here .

Erwin Rommel in 1942. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-013-07 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

The Desert Fox. The words conjure up an image of a dust-covered, sunburned military genius, making quick and incredibly brilliant decisions against overwhelming forces. He is seen as a Godlike and almost infallible figure, winning victory after astonishing victory over his numerically superior but less astute opponents, yet fighting a war without hate and even with a degree of chivalry. This myth is not entirely accurate, of course, but there is a great deal of truth in it.



Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Wuerttemberg, in the southwestern region of Imperial Germany known as Swabia, on November 15, 1891. His father, Erwin Rommel, Sr., was the headmaster of a secondary school, and young Rommel grew up in a stable, comfortable middle-class German environment. In many ways, he was a typical Swabian: self-reliant, pragmatic, thrifty, with a strong work ethic and a streak of stubbornness. He was a simple, practical young man and would remain so until the day he died.

Despite the lack of military background in his family, he decided to become a soldier. With his father’s help, he gained an appointment as a Fahnenjunker(officer-cadet) in an infantry regiment in the isolated garrison town of Weingarten. Here, lonely and away from home for the first time, he had an affair with a woman who was a fruit seller. He was shocked when she turned up pregnant. In the class-conscious world of the Second Reich, however, she was not considered officer wife material. He decided to marry her anyway; then his father pointed out that he would have to resign his commission if he did so. It was 1913, and many could see what was to become World War I on the horizon. If he left the army now, Professor Rommel pointed out, everyone would think he was a coward. That settled the issue for Lieutenant Rommel. He broke up with his girlfriend, although he provided financial support for his daughter for the rest of his life.

Erwin Rommel learned his lesson. He married Lucie Mollin, the daughter of a West Prussian landowner, and they remained happily married the rest of his life. He apparently didn’t even think about being unfaithful.



Rommel joined the army in 1910 and was commissioned in January 1912. His career was not out of the ordinary until World War I broke out. The battlefield changed him from an ordinary, if overly serious second lieutenant into a first-class warrior. As Desmond Young, who fought in the Indian Army against Rommel in Africa and went on to write the bestselling Rommel: The Desert Fox (Amazon USAmazon UK), would explain, “From the moment that he first came under fire he stood out as the perfect fighting animal: cold, cunning, ruthless, untiring, quick of decision, incredibly brave.” He fought on the Western Front until the fall of 1915, when he was transferred to an elite battalion of mountain shock troops. He served with them in France, Romania, and Italy. In October 1917, during the Battle of Mount Matajur, Rommel (now a 1stlieutenant) took charge of four companies in addition to his own and captured two Italian brigades and several smaller units, totaling 9,000 men and 81 guns. His total strength never exceeded 800 men. A couple of days later, he captured the entire Italian 1stInfantry Division at Longarone: 10,000 men, 18 guns and 200 machine guns. For this feat, he was awarded the Pour le Merite, which was the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor when granted to someone so young. He was promoted to captain shortly after that.

After the Armistice ended World War I in late 1918, Rommel was selected for the Reichsheer, as the peacetime army was called. Here, he was a content family man. He took to marriage enthusiastically. At home, he was good-tempered and an excellent fix-it man. His only flaw was attempting to play the violin—apparently without a great deal of success.

Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Rommel’s political convictions and his ambivalent relationship with the Nazis have been the subject of controversy in recent years. Like many Germans, he supported Hitler at first—at least to a degree. He was pleased with Hitler’s successful economic efforts to end the Depression in Germany, as well as his public works programs (including the building of the autobahnen), his renunciation of the odorous Treaty of Versailles, his rebuilding of the military, and his reoccupation of former German areas taken from the Reich after World War I. Only gradually did this change. Sacred vows were broken, and outlandish statements which Rommel and most Germans dismissed as wild rhetoric turned out to be uttered in deadly seriousness. But all that was in the future.



Rommel was a lieutenant colonel in 1935, teaching at the War School in Dresden, when he wrote a book based on his lectures and World War I experiences. It became a best seller and Adolf Hitler read it. He determined to meet the author and had Rommel attached to his escort for the Nuremberg Party Rally of 1936. The Fuehrer liked the Swabian and named him commander of the Fuehrer Bodyguard Battalion during the occupations of Czechoslovakia and Memel, and during the invasion of Poland in 1939. He promoted Rommel to major general on August 23, 1939.

In Poland, Rommel saw the blitzkrieg at first hand. Although he had no armored experience, he saw the future lay in the armored branch. After the fall of Warsaw, he asked Hitler for the command of a panzer division, and the dictator gave it to him.

Erwin Rommel had a natural grasp for mobile warfare. As commander of the 7thPanzer Division during the French campaign (1940), he captured 97,468 men and captured or destroyed 458 tanks and armored cars, 277 guns, 64 anti-tank guns, 4,000 to 5,000 trucks, tons of supplies, five French admirals, and about 20 Allied generals. He had approximately 10,000 men and 218 tanks, mostly inferior Czech T-38s.

Rommel was on occupation duty in southwestern France in early 1941 when the Italian 10thArmy in Libya collapsed under British attack. Hitler ordered Rommel to North Africa as commander of the Afrika Korps (15thand 21stPanzer Divisions) to restore the situation. Here he won victory after victory and made himself a renowned military general. In his First Cyrenaican Campaign (1941), Rommel pushed on to the Egyptian frontier and overran all of Libya except Tobruk, smashing the British XIII Corps (the former Western Desert Force) in the process. With less than one full panzer division, he destroyed the British 2ndArmoured Division. Only four of its tanks escaped.



Rommel was forced to lay siege to Tobruk. It lasted 242 days. The British made three attempts to liberate Tobruk: Operations Brevity, Battleaxe and Crusader. Rommel was severely handicapped, because the British sank 85% of its supplies, and he had only 15% of his needed petroleum and ammunition. Fighting an entire British army with only two divisions, Rommel destroyed 814 British tanks and armored cars, while losing only 167 himself. He had only about 80 tanks left when he was forced to retreat in December 1941.

“If Rommel had an outstanding quality, it was resilience,” British Brigadier Desmond Young wrote later. “He was like one of those weighted toy figures, no sooner was he knocked down than he was on his feet again.” In January 1942, when he received a shipment of 50 new panzers, he assumed the offensive again. This was the Second Cyrenaican Campaign. In five days, he destroyed or captured 299 tanks and armored cars, 147 guns, and 935 prisoners. He lost three tanks and 14 men. 

The British dug into the Gazala Line, which they enhanced with a million mines. Rommel outflanked it on May 26 and started a battle that lasted until June 21. He had 333 panzers and 228 mostly useless Italian tanks against 900 British tanks. The British 8thArmy had fewer than 100 “runners” when it retreated into Egypt. Rommel overran Tobruk and took 19,000 prisoners. Hitler was so pleased that he promoted the Desert Fox to field marshal.

After the fall of Tobruk, Rommel invaded Egypt, even though he had only about 55 runners. A heavily reinforced 8thArmy checked him at El Alamein, just 60 miles from the Nile. The British then launched a series of counterattacks against Panzer Army Afrika, aimed primarily at Rommel’s Italian units. Rommel checked them all.

The Desert Fox launched a last-chance offensive at Alam Halfa Ridge on August 30. He had 259 panzers. Montgomery had 713 tanks and absolute command of the air. Rommel lost almost 3,000 men and 49 tanks. Monty lost 1,750 men and 67 tanks. It was the turning point of the Desert War.

The decisive battle in North Africa began on October 23, 1942. When it started, Panzer Army Afrika had 104,000 men (half of them German) against Montgomery’s 195,000. The Germans were outnumbered 4 to 1 in men, 5 to 1 in tanks (excluding Italian tanks), 3 to 1 in anti-tank guns, and 3.6 to 1 in aircraft. Rommel’s forces were dangerously low on fuel, making a battle of maneuver impossible. Rommel had 293 tanks when the battle began. Only a dozen of them survived the battle. The British lost about 500 tanks.

In December 1943, Rommel’s Army Group B assumed command of the 7thArmy, 15thArmy, and Armed Forces Netherlands. They were part of Rundstedt’s OB West (Oberbefehlshaber West), the German Supreme Command in the West. OB West had 58 divisions. Hitler had 151 divisions fighting on the Eastern Front.



Rommel significantly thickened the defenses of Fortress Europe. When the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, Rommel was able to check but not repulse the Great Invasion. Meanwhile, Rommel learned that Hitler and his cronies were committing mass murders in the East. He turned against the Nazis and joined the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and his regime. 

Field Marshal Rommel was seriously wounded by an Allied fighter-bomber on July 17. Three days later, the conspirators detonated a bomb under Hitler’s table, severely injuring him. After the coup attempt failed, the Gestapo launched a full-scale investigation. They discovered Rommel’s part in the plot. On October 14, 1944, a pair of Nazi generals offered Rommel a choice: stand trial in front of the People’s Court or commit suicide. Under the doctrine of Sippenhaft—collective family responsibility—the Nazis would then arrest his family, and they would end up in a concentration camp, if they were lucky. However, if the field marshal committed suicide, they said, his family would be spared, and would even be allowed to draw his pension. Rommel declared that he would be dead in 15 minutes. He took a cyanide pill provided by the Nazis and was dead within half an hour. Thus ended the life of the military general.

On this occasion, the Nazis actually kept their word. They did not harm Rommel’s family. Lucie Mollin Rommel died of natural causes in 1971. Their only child, Manfred, died in 2013. Gertrude, Rommel’s illegitimate daughter, passed away in 2000.

Let us know what you think about the article below. 


Dr. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. is the author of newly-released Desert Fox: The Storied Military Career of Erwin Rommel (Regnery History; March 12, 2019 - Amazon USAmazon UK), and more than forty other history books. He has appeared on the History Channel and the BBC, been a visiting professor at West Point, and served as an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.

The Wall Street Journal praised his previous title, Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War (Regnery History; June 4, 2018 – Amazon USAmazon UK), as a work that “thoroughly recounts the series of battles leading to the gates of Vicksburg and illuminates some underappreciated aspects of the war.”

He lives with his family in Monroe, Louisiana, where he is now devoted to writing military history books.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was one of the great men of the Renaissance. Born in 15thcentury Florence, as well as painting the Mona Lisa, he invented, or designed, a great many visionary machines that did not become commonplace until the 20thcentury. Here, Jamil Bakhtawar tells us da Vinci’s 9 greatest inventions.

Leonardo da Vinci. Painting by Salvator Mundi, c. 150..

Leonardo da Vinci. Painting by Salvator Mundi, c. 150..

Leonardo da Vinci captured the scientific foundations of Renaissance art — perspective, light, proportions, and anatomy — and extended them into every aspect of the investigation of nature. He regarded art as the ultimate form of visual knowledge, founded on an understanding of how nature works. In all his activities, he sought a core of mathematical rules that governed the operation of all things in nature. The rules dictated how humans should explore nature in art, science, and technology. Every machine can be regarded as a new kind of 'body', taking its cue from nature but not directly imitating it. All of his inventions were based on an understanding of the science of nature.



In terms of technology, da Vinci's vision embraced the potential of civil and military engineering on colossal scales and involved complex levels of automation. The designs for the grandest machines were consciously visionary and lived on paper as a form of 'visual boasting' directed at patrons rather than aspiring to be actual constructions.

The inventions that Leonardo da Vinci put into practice were his expensive and massive mechanisms for the theatre, which involved such things as mountains that opened up. His most important intellectual contribution to engineering was that he was the first to insist that mechanical devices should be designed in keeping with the mathematical laws of nature. He was also the first to invent separate components or 'elements of machines', which could be deployed in various devices.

Here are nine of da Vinci’s greatest inventions.


1. Barreled cannon (the automatic weapon)

Leonardo was heavily preoccupied by the inadequacies of contemporary warfare, frustrated particularly by the time-lag between rounds of cannon fire, caused by the necessity to reload. Leonardo devised a multi-barreled cannon that could be rotated to fire a line of cannons whilst another was being reloaded: a primitive ancestor of the modern day machine gun.

Cannons from a late 15th century/early 16th century drawing as shown in  The Life and Times of Leonardo , Paul Hamlyn.

Cannons from a late 15th century/early 16th century drawing as shown in The Life and Times of Leonardo, Paul Hamlyn.


2. Helical aerial screw (the helicopter)

The 'helical aerial screw', conceived by Leonardo in 1493, consisted of a spinning linen screw designed to compress air to induce flight: a mechanism similar to that employed in contemporary helicopters. Leonardo’s design is widely credited as the vertical flight machine.

Da Vinci’s helicopter.

Da Vinci’s helicopter.

3. Anemometer

In conjunction with his studies of flight, Leonardo conceived a modern design for an 'anemometer', a device that measures the speed of wind. Adapted from an original design by Leon Batista, Leonardo’s additions made the device considerably more accurate. Habitually doing things with style, Leonardo’s anemometer is also a beautiful thing to look at.


4. Revolving bridge

Leonardo’s revolving bridge was not just an engineering marvel and an innovation in warfare, but also a rare early example of flat-pack design. Designed in the 1480s for Duke Sforza, the bridge allowed troops to cross rivers quickly, and could easily be packed up and transported for reuse elsewhere. In technical terms, the bridge was envisioned to a have a counterweight tank that would make the structure balanced on both sides. As for its ease of transportation, the design was contrived to have wheels and a rope-and-pulley system for effective deployment in a brief span of time.


5. Winged flying machine (the airplane)

Leonardo is widely considered the first engineer to be credited with designs for man-powered flight. The discoveries made during countless dissections of bird and bat wings are evident in the designs for the Ornithopter, a device that flies by flapping winged appendages. The influence of his drawings can clearly be seen throughout flight designs for the next 400 years. Arguably the most famous of da Vinci ‘hacks’, the flying machine (or the ‘ornithopter‘) was basically envisioned as a wooden frame with two extending wings that amounted to a wingspan of more than 33 feet (about 10 meters). This core frame was to be built from lightweight yet sturdy pinewood while being draped in raw silk to add to the ‘feathery’ equation. As for the powering mechanism, the conceptual design boasted a rod-and-pulley system that would have controlled the wings while the pilot placed his effort into the pedals (bolstered by a hand crank that could increase the energy output). The pilot could also steer the contraption via a headpiece – an unenviable task as demonstrated by one of the levels in the video game Assassins Creed: Brotherhood. In any case, what separated the flying machine from modern aircraft is its lack of an engine mechanism. Therefore, while the ornithopter could have flown in mid-air, it would have been challenging to get the machine off the ground.

Da Vinci’s flying machine.

Da Vinci’s flying machine.

6. Diving equipment 

Neither sky nor sea knew any bounds for Leonardo. Conceived in Venice as a sleuth weapon to strike invading ships, Leonardo’s 15th century design of a diving suit consisted of cane and leather tubes attached to a facemask and supported by steel rings to resist water pressure. The premise of the suit bares remarkable similarities to the systems that are still in use today. The diving gear was also envisaged as military equipment which could be used for marine-based surprise attacks on enemy vessels. Interestingly, the diving gear was imagined in such a manner that the mask would possess an additional inflatable balloon-like device that would aide the diver to submerge or come up above the water level.


7. Self-propelled cart (the car)

The self-propelled cart, allegedly designed for theatrical use, was designed to move without being pushed. Powered by coiled springs, it also featured braking and pre-programmable steering systems. Possibly a precursor to modern-day automobiles, the self-propelled cart is equally unique due to its ‘robotic’ credentials that pertained to pre-determined steering features. Once again, the self-propelled cart was re-imagined in contemporary times, by people at Italy’s Institute and Museum of the History of Science. The machine was created by basing its design on da Vinci’s initial sketches, and the outcome was remarkable. Researchers found that the furnished vehicle looked much like the Mars Rover, while its navigation system worked according to its conceptualized origins.


8. Parachute

Although the first parachute is frequently credited to Frenchman Sebastian Lenormand in 1783, evidence has been collected that shows Leonardo got there first. A sketch of his is accompanied by the annotation: 'If a man has a tent made of linen of which the apertures have all been stopped up, with twelve braccia across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury'. It is unfathomable to believe something as 'modern' as a parachute could have been invented over 500 years ago. Leonardo’s parachute design consists of a sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles — about 22 feet (or seven meters) long. The invention would allow any man to glide down from a tremendous height. Still, because his ideas were ahead of his time, the technology was unable to sustain his ideas, thus nobody invented a practical parachute until 1783. Like many of his monumental discoveries, Leonardo’s parachute was never tested. However, in the year 2000, daredevil Adrian Nichols actually built a parachute based on Leonardo’s designs. Despite considerable skepticism from many people, the parachute worked smoothly and Nichols even complimented its smooth ride.


9. The robotic knight 

The robotic knight was an early example of automation which was operated via a series of pulleys and levers that mimicked Leonardo’s anatomical observations of the human muscular structure. Clad in heavy German-Italian medieval armor, the mechanical knight was conceived in 1495 and was ceremoniously displayed at the Court of Milan during a gala hosted by the city’s Duke Ludovico Sforza. Fueled by these internal mechanisms (distributed evenly across the torso and the body’s lower-part), the robotic ‘knight’ theoretically maintained the capacity to both sit down and stand up, whilst demonstrating its ability in lifting its visor and even moving its head. And quite intriguingly, the famed roboticist Mark Rosheim (known for his contributions to NASA and Lockheed Martin) successfully constructed a version of this humanoid automaton in 2002 by making use of da Vinci’s drawings. The result aptly demonstrated the effectiveness of the original design with the robot being able to fluidly move and wave.



Leonardo da Vinci may well have been the greatest inventor during the Renaissance; however he had very little effect on the technology of his time. Da Vinci drew sketches and diagrams of his inventions, which he preserved in his notebooks, but he either neglected building them or was unable to convince his wealthy patrons to finance construction of the designs – although many of them could not have been built with the technology of the day. As a result, almost none of da Vinci's inventions were built during his lifetime; and because he never published his diagrams, little was known about them until his notebooks were discovered after his death. His inventions have continued to inspire engineers and scientists to this day.



What do you think is da Vinci’s greatest invention? Let us know below.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an Italian poet of the Middle Ages. He was one of the great writers of the Middle Ages, and perhaps this is why he has remained relevant and important to many people to this day. Here, Nathan Barontini, a lecturer on Dante (find our more here), explains why many 20thcentury US leaders have found Dante’s works so important.

Dante Alighieri, by Giotto di Bondone. The work of art is in the chapel of Bargello Palace. 14th century.

Dante Alighieri, by Giotto di Bondone. The work of art is in the chapel of Bargello Palace. 14th century.

Theodore Roosevelt’s biography reads like a how-to manual for achieving great things. While he had many influences, one poet in particular fascinated him, Dante Alighieri. The sound of that name conjures up images of souls in torment, people crying in agony, and absolute horror. Roosevelt, however, didn’t read Dante as a house of horrors, but as inspiration for living the strenuous life.

Roosevelt knew Dante well enough to author an essay for Outlookmagazine entitled “Dante and the Bowery”. IN the magazine Roosevelt wrote, “Dante dealt with those tremendous qualities of the human soul.” He also included an allusion to Dante in his greatest speech, “The Man in the Arena”: 

“It is not the critic that counts… the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who… if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat (emphasis added).”


Here he references the first group of souls Dante encounters - those who refused to side either with God or Satan, who refused to enter “the arena.” When Dante hears the “accents of anger, words of agony, and voices high and horse,” he, both author and protagonist of the poem, asks his guide, “what folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?” Virgil responds that these are,

the melancholy souls of those

Who lived without infamy or praise….

Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,

Nor faithful were to God, but were for self. 


Now neither Heaven nor Hell will accept these “timid souls” who

Have no longer any hope of death;

And this blind life of theirs is so debased,

They are envious of every other fate.

No fame of them the world permits to be;

Misericord and Justice both distain them.


Such is the fate of the man who refuses to enter “the arena.”

Taking inspiration from Dante is not distinctive to Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt read Dante enough to mention him in his acceptance speech from the 1936 Democratic National Convention:

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.


The list doesn’t end there.

Robert Kennedy told reporters, “President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” This was a line that was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 speech explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War. King also used the imagery of Dante in a 1968 speech on nuclear disarmament:

it is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament… may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.


These men of action, some of the greatest in American history, when in quiet contemplation, turned to this thirteenth-century Italian poet for inspiration. 


We might ask why?

The answer lies in the “immortal Dante’s” life. Dante lived in what he called the most agreeable place on earth, Florence, Italy. Florence is a city we think of as a center of art and culture. In Dante’s day all of that was in the future. His Florence was embroiled in a medieval civil war, which drenched the city’s streets in blood. This century long conflict saw many victories and reversals of fortune. One side would defeat and banish the other, only to see their enemies retake the city and be banished in turn.

Dante’s party would win the war and he would ascend to the highest political office in the city, but peace would not last. The victorious party would fracture and war among themselves. Dante was on the wrong side this time. Falsely accused of taking bribes, he was banished, under threat of being burned at the stake if he dared return.

Having served at the Battle of Campaldino, he planned with his fellow exiles to take the city by force. He soon abandoned the plan realizing they were incapable of forcing their way back into Florence. Dante became “a party of one,” determined to find another path home.

It was in these circumstances that Dante wrote the poem which would inspire generations of men committed to a life spent “in the arena.” It is infused with Dante’s conception of the active life. Throughout our journey we meet the great actors of contemporary Italian life. We watch as the leader of the losing side in the civil war, Farinata degli Uberti, looks upon even Hell with scorn. We see the emperor Manfredi still bearing the sword gash that felled him in battle as he fights his way up the mountain of Purgatory. Here chosen struggle and suffering leads to final bliss. We meet Dante’s crusader great-great grandfather in the Heaven of Mars,and a cast of great warriors, popes, and politicians.


The Strenuous Life

Dante’s treatment of these men represents his view of the “strenuous life.” A life of striving for the good, even when falling short of the ideal is certain. This is why the poem doesn’t end with the sight of Satan, of the active life gone horribly wrong, but in triumph. In one of Dante’s last visions of paradise, he sees the saved seated in a heavenly Roman arena. 

Reading “The Comedy,” in a superficial way, as a tour of tortures, is a grave mistake. Like the great men of the past, we must pick up the poem as a roadmap leading us from the selva oscura(dark forest) of cowardice to the celestial paradise of those who refused to give up.

Dante said the aim of his work is to “remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and to bring them to a state of happiness.” The poem shows us the way to do this is to fight the battle of virtue. Will we fall short time and again? Dante tells us yes, we will. Is refusing this fight worthy of damnation? Dante tells us there is no worse fate.

This is why a man born over 700 years ago, more than 5,000 miles away, has inspired the great men of our past. More importantly, it is a poem that can change your life.


What do you think of Dante? Let us know below.


Nathan Barontini has dedicated years of study to European history with a special emphasis in late Medieval / early Renaissance Florence, especially the works and life of Dante Alighieri. More information can be found at his personal website,, and on his blog,

The formation of the nation of Scotland took place over centuries through the migration of peoples originally from mainland Europe and Asia. Here, Steven Keith, originally from Scotland and living in India for twenty years, explains the origins of Scotland and the Scottish people.

Kenneth MacAlpin, or King Kenneth I, often seen as being the first King of the Scots in Scottish folklore.

Kenneth MacAlpin, or King Kenneth I, often seen as being the first King of the Scots in Scottish folklore.

Thinking of Scotland, as I do from the somewhat similar mountains of northern India, which have been my home for near on twenty years, I do so from a rather Indian perspective, that of families, clans and tribes living on land that they consider to be their ancestral land, however with the understanding that those same ancestors had themselves migrated from their ancestral lands in a far off past kept alive in stories from both manuscript and memory. 

What began as a fascination with the origins of the peoples of the Himalayan ranges led quite naturally to an interest in where we all come from, our origins. The Indians of course, as the most ancient of civilizations, had an understanding themselves of the world, how it was made, when and, more importantly for this piece, who populated it and where they settled.

One of the more ancient of the Vedic texts that form part of the ‘liturgy’ of the Hindus is the code of Manu,[1]the lawgiver, not dissimilar to Maru, the lawgiver of Japanese culture, or Minos of Crete or Moses who we are perhaps more familiar with. The laws of Manu tell that from the caste of the Kshatriyassprung the peoples they knew as Yavanas and we know as Greeks; the Pahlavasor Persians, others who would eventually form the cultures of Siam, China, Burma and Tibet and the people known to us as Scythians but to the Sanskrit writers, as Saka.

The Scythians are mentioned too in the Old Testament, as are many of the same names of the nations of people described and located in other contemporary texts and tablets. The Egyptians and the Hittites of Anatolia being the two others who were to play leading roles and help us to make significant strides in understanding the ancient and transcendental culture that was to become Scotland.


The Origins of Scotland

In the Scottish people’s Declaration of Arbroath[2], the authors gave a brief history of their forefathers, their journeys and the Europe of that time. Although written in the 14th century, the document is remarkably similar to the stories written in the centuries before by Greeks, Romans and the English writer, Bede, to name but a few.

The seventh century Saint Isidore writing in his Encyclopedia of Knowledge[3], drawn from ancient Latin and Greek sources, recorded that the ancient inhabitants of what is now Spain and Portugal and was then known as Iberia, were the war-like Haspernians,a name not too dissimilar to the Hibernians of Hibernia or Ireland. We know that the Atlantic seaboard provided the route for genes to move from south to north as northern Europe was repopulated after the ice that had marked that age had receded and reshaped the land and sea. The genes had names and names tell stories even if they change after generations of whispers.

The Scots of Ulster and Dal Riataasserted that they had hailed from the marriage of an Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter, Scota, and a Scythian general of her father’s army who had refused to pursue the Israelites as they fled across the Red Sea. They settled in exile with their entourage in Ulster as the Scots and then Scotland, giving Scotland its and her name.

In the old German spoken in the ancient times, the word for Scotland and for Scythian is the same, Scutten. The Scythian peoples dominated the steppe north of the Black Sea at that time. A matrilineal culture who painted their bodies and who had developed an extraordinarily high standard of craftsmanship with metal, particularly gold, they faded from history at about the time that scholars first begin to describe another matrilineal, body painting, metal working people, the Picts. Were they the same people?


The Picts

Pictland was an amalgamation of minor kingdoms, the northernmost being Cait, that eventually would give its name to the county we know as Caithness. To the Gaelic speakers of Dal Riataand Ireland, the part of Pictland known as Cait, was known as Cataibh,meaning ‘among the cats’ and to the Norse speaking Orcadians it was called Katanes, ‘headland of the cats’. 

According to the seventeenth century historian, Sir Robert Gordon[4], in AD 82 two boatloads of warriors had arrived in Caithness from their lands in Friesland, Batavia, the modern-day Netherlands, where they had made their home after retreating to there from the southern part of the Roman province of Germania, in the area of modern day Hesse, which had been occupied by the legions of Rome in the decades that had preceded. These people were the Catti.History goes on to tell us that the chief of the Cattihad married a daughter of the Pictish King, Brude, and by the time Kenneth MacAlpin, King Alpin, had joined the Scottish and Pictish thrones (from 843 AD), the Senachies had named Gilli Chattan Noir as the chief of the Cattiand from him are descended Clan Keith and also the clans of MacKenzie, MacPherson, Sutherland and Davidson, known as the confederation of Clan Chatten.

In old German, Hesse was known as Hatti, the same name that they gave to the Hittites of Anatolia, to the south of the Black Sea and the same name the Hittites knew themselves by. The Egyptians knew the Hittites as the Kethi. The emblem of both the Hatti (Kethi)and the Catti(Hatti)was the black cat. The black cat remains on the banners of the Earls of Sutherland and Clan Chatten, each themselves descendants of theCatti/Pictish nobility.

The Indo-European Hittites had been amongst those at the forefront of the civilizations of the time, pioneers of the Bronze Age’s technological advancements, they had been the first to introduce codified civil and criminal law, indeed the first example of an international peace treaty to conclude a war is between the Hittites and the Mitanni of northern Mesopotamia, signed by their leaders, under oath before the Indic Gods VarunaIndra,Mitraand Nasatya.[5]A copy of this legal first adorns the United Nations building in New York City, a testament to what can be achieved by mediation rather than militarism.


The People of Scotland

Scotland was populated from the collapsing civilizations of the Mediterranean and the near east; from the Hittites and Scythians of the Black Sea, the Egyptians and dare I say, some of the sons of Esau who had married into both Hittite and Egyptian royalty and whose genetic characteristics of red hair and blue eyes are still disproportionately found in the blood of the Scots. Around the globe, between one and two percent of people have red hair, a figure that rises to thirteen percent in Scotland, with almost 40 percent being carriers of the allele. In the Ashkenazi Jewish community significantly higher than average levels of red hair can be detected, but not nearly to the same level found amongst the modern day Scots and Irish. Indeed, in Eastern Europe and Russia, red hair was associated with being Jewish and in Spain during the Inquisition, red hair could be a death sentence based on the same prejudice.

The building of Hadrian’s wall guaranteed that those families on the northern side were isolated, the distinctive system of clans that would come to define the country could develop and the ancient bloodlines that had long before sought refuge and sanctuary on the fringes of the known world, could bond and maintain themselves as a united collective amidst the mayhem and murder that would come to mark the Dark and Middle Ages. The fact that these people remained outside of the formal Roman Empire, meant that they could define themselves as being free and independent as well as maintaining their distinctive culture until the union with England in 1603. Indeed Samuel Johnson, the doctor of letters who gave the world the first English dictionary and who was the preeminent English academic of his time, had lamented, that with a Stuart on the throne in London, the Scots had infiltrated and polluted the good peoples of his green and pleasant land.

It was peoples originally from the Middle East who gave the Scots the contents of their memory and their minds, as well as the confidence that emanates from a successful, proven people. It is this ancient heritage, that is embedded in the subconscious of the Scottish people, that has meant that to this day Scots will always consider themselves as being free and independent, irrespective of our circumstances, and as being Scots from Scotland. 


What do you think of the origins of Scotland? Let us know below.

Steven Douglas Keith is a Scotsman living for twenty years in the mountains of India, an essayist, an artist and a poet. His work seeks to find the commonalities shared by cultures, specifically between the traditions of the orient and occident.

He can be found on Twitter @k_el_ph and

[1]“The Laws of Manu”, Wendy Doniger, published by Penguin

[2]“The Declaration of Arbroath”,1320, Sir James Fergusson(1970)

[3]”Etymologiae” (Encyclopaedia of Knowledge), Saint Isidore, circa AD 700

[4]“Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its Origins to the year 1630”,Sir Robert Gordon edited by Henry William Webber, published in Edinburgh 1813

[5]“The Sun King and Dasharatha”, Subash Kak,

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

Women’s History Month begins on March 1 every year to recognize and celebrate the contribution of women to monumental and ground-breaking moments in history and how women will contribute to events in the future. This year, the theme of Women’s History Month is ‘Visionary Women’, and who fits this theme better than the women who fought and still fight for women’s suffrage? 

The team at Historic Newspapers have put together an interactive timeline which highlights the key dates in the history of women’s suffrage, and uses graphics and images to describe women’s right to vote.

Gaps between when women were given limited and full voting rights by selected countries. Image produced by, and re-printed with the full permission of, Historic Newspapers, available  here .

Gaps between when women were given limited and full voting rights by selected countries. Image produced by, and re-printed with the full permission of, Historic Newspapers, available here.

The Right To Vote

The fight for women’s suffrage, or the right for women to vote in general elections, began in the late 1800s and has continued ever since. After a phenomenal struggle, with campaigns both peaceful and forceful, changes started in New Zealand in 1893 when the British colony made the first steps in granting women the right to vote. Unfortunately, women all over the world are still fighting for the freedom they deserve.

With the Vatican City and the United Arab Emirates still not granting voting rights to their female citizens, the fight for global suffrage for women still exists. In the majority of other countries women do have the right to vote; however due to strong stigmas held in some societies, it is a constant struggle.


Full Voting Rights

Something that is not spoken about enough is the disparity in the date women were granted limited enfranchisement and the date that women received full voting rights. Broken down, this means that although some women were given limited rights to vote, it may have taken decades for this to be granted to the full female population and across all aspects of voting.

It may come as a surprise that the United Kingdom took ten years for full voting rights to be given, after initial, limited enfranchisement in 1918. Initially, only upper class and privileged women were given the opportunity to vote in some elections. This is also shown in other developed countries such as South Africa, which took 63 years to grant women full rights after initial enfranchisement, and Australia, which took a staggering 68 years


Celebrating Women’s History

Women’s suffrage has made progress over the decades, however oppression in women still exists and there is a long way to go before equal rights will be attributed globally. This Women’s History Month, take the time to read, learn and talk about what needs to be done in the future, whilst remembering the visionary women of the past.

Modern-day China differs greatly from its days of imperial monarchy. The origins of this change are rooted in the events of the 19th century. Here, Chris Galbicsek explains how Empress Dowager Cixi played a key role in resisting internal attempts at Westernization in 19th century China.

Empress Dowager Cixi  by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Today, we know China as a modern communist colossus, and yet we also know China as a nation steeped in a long history of imperial monarchy. In our busy lives, most of us carry around these two images of China without really thinking much about the connection. But how and why did the Chinese monarchy fall in the first place, prior to taking its modern form? Given that China looms so large on the world stage, and given that the Chinese political transformation occurred so recently in history, this lack of public awareness is striking. A closer look reveals some important insight into the ideological and political forces at play in the world around us, as well as a fascinating chapter in the human story.

By the eighteenth century, China had been a remarkably insular empire for hundreds of years. The British had long tried to gain access to the Chinese market by reaching out to the Manchu dynasty, but had little success. However, British merchants eventually did find an effective entry point with the illicit sale of opium. As the Chinese addiction to opium grew to staggering proportions, so did the British addiction to the profits.

By the time Chinese officials finally got around to enforcing its opium prohibition with more seriousness, British merchants were not cooperative. When the Chinese then seized huge stockpiles of opium contraband, this only prompted an indignant British response. As the British demanded reimbursement for their seized property, conflict quickly escalated into violence, and then came war.


The Opium Wars Changed China

The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its terrible effects.

As a result, the Chinese empire, which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to humbly bear witness to a very different geopolitical reality. No longer could China deny the wide margin of military superiority in the hands of the Western "barbarians". Nor did China any longer have the luxury of choosing its preferred level of economic involvement vis-à-vis the West. If China had indeed been the center of the Earth, then the Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.

The situation represented a critical precipice for China, and the nature of the Chinese response was to be enormously consequential. Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into this new phenomenon of "Westernization".


The Response

The Chinese leadership, in contrast to Japan, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. While there were some voices that did urge immediate adoption of Western technology and institutions, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian worldview, which had proven so enduring.

When the Chinese emperor died in 1861, he left only a four-year-old son to take the dragon throne. The resulting power vacuum only magnified the challenges for an imperial court which already lacked a unified voice.

Nevertheless, in 1861, Prince Gong managed to spearhead an initiative known as the "Self Strengthening Movement", in an ambitious effort to bring about Western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, modern schools were formed, and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Additionally, Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion, along with railroads and telegraph lines. Initially, the program seemed to be creating meaningful change in China.


What Went Wrong?

But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-Western voices like his, were soon drowned out by others, and most notably by the young emperor's mother: the Empress Dowager Cixi. Virulently anti-Western, the empress soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, and managed to thoroughly consolidate power around herself within the royal leadership. It has been reasonably presumed that part of the motivation behind Cixi's strong ideological stance, resulted from her calculation that Western governmental reforms would only serve to reduce her influence. In the endCixi would prove so politically irrepressible, that she would go on to profoundly influence China for an astonishing forty-seven years.

While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued, Cixi (pronounced "tsuh-shee") and her cohorts steadily undermined (and even outright sabotaged) various aspects of the project, and set out to marginalize its proponents. As a result, critical momentum was stymied.

On one occasion, Cixi refused to approve construction for an important railway line from Beijing, and when the project finally did move forward, she insisted that the train cars be pulled by horses, so as not to disturb the souls resting in nearby tombs with engine noise. On another occasion, Cixi sent for seven de-commissioned British warships, but then for seemingly trivial reasons, ordered the ships to turn around and head back to England upon their arrival.

In 1893, Cixi continued to frustrate national affairs when she allegedly embezzled thirty million taels of silver, which had been set aside for naval shipbuilding. Instead, Cixi redirected the badly needed funds toward the restoration of the imperial summer palace. Significantly, it was the case that no new Chinese naval ships were put into service from that point forward.

But the tactics of the empress included more ruthless measures as well. Historians widely believe that Cixi was responsible for the poisoning of her own emperor son in 1875. Likewise, she pushed Prince Gong (the architect of the Self Strengthening Movement) into semi-retirement in 1884. And when the subsequently installed emperor (who had replaced her son) later attempted another sweeping national reform movement (known as the "Hundred Days' Reform") in 1898, the empress again intervened. This time Cixi led a coup to overthrow the young reformist emperor, banishing him to house arrest on an island for the remainder of his life.

As might be expected, with all of this internal resistance, China did not fare well when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in Indochina. In 1895, China was again beaten badly by the Japanese, losing its hold on Korea and Taiwan, and revealing just how much more industrial progress Japan had managed to achieve.

After orchestrating the coup against the emperor in 1898, reactionary conservatism, atavism and xenophobia were ratcheted up by the Manchu government. Soon Cixi was cracking down on reformist-minded intellectuals, and even blaming natural disasters on Westerners.

When the empress openly endorsed the "Boxer Rebellion" at the turn of the century, the Manchu dynasty further alienated itself. Believing themselves to be invulnerable to Western weapons, over ten thousand “boxers” rampaged throughout the country against anyone and anything pro-Western. After great loss of life, the rebellion was soon put down, and the resulting war reparations exacted by the West left the Manchu royalty desperately in debt. Not long after, with the dynasty barely hanging on and the situation now increasingly precarious, the mighty Cixi died in 1908.



Within three years of her death, the spark of revolution caught fire, and spread across China. Province after province began to declare independence. Having been continually rebuffed, the impulse toward reform gave way to revolution. The weakened dynasty was now powerless to defend against the wave of resistance, and the monarchy was soon toppled. In 1911, the two hundred and sixty-eight year Manchu dynasty had come to an end.

What followed for China was nothing short of disaster for most of the twentieth century. After a valiant attempt at republicanism failed, China fractured and fell into a chaotic decade of rule by warlords, followed by a bloody national civil war, and then by the now infamous (though not infamous enough) communist reign of Mao Zedong. The result for the Chinese people was more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history over a similar span of time.



Looking back, it is hard not to wonder how much longer the Chinese monarchy might have lasted, had pro-Western technology and political institutions been more fully embraced within the royal court. Even after the British shamefully imposed the scourge of opium upon China, the Manchu dynasty was left standing for another half century. And while it may not be fair to lay responsibility for the fall of the monarchy directly at the feet of any one individual, the outsized nature of Cixi's direct and decades-long personal anti-Western impact certainly was a key contribution which invites attention, and begs questions. Under different guidance, how much longer might the monarchy have lasted? How much of the political turmoil and human suffering in the century that followed might have been mitigated? How much differently things might have turned out for China and the world, both in the twentieth century and today.


Chris Galbicsek studied Philosophy at Colgate University. He came to intensely appreciate history in the time since, and has recently launched a historically-themed t-shirt site, Exoteric Apparel, which aims to raise historical awareness through fashion.



Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.

Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf Publishing, 2013.

The American Civil War produced many outstanding figures. One of those was the nurse Hannah Anderson Ropes. Ropes had an intriguing life before the Civil War, and fought to improve the conditions of soldiers during the war. Joshua V. Chanin explains.

The book  Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes  by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here:  Amazon US  |  Amazon UK . Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

The book Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK. Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

I currently work at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where the university is expecting to christen a state-of-the-art nursing facility in the fall. I have known several nursing students during my undergraduate and graduate studies, who have told me that their major is one of the toughest offered at the university due to the lab classes after school hours and the numerous reports they have to write—I agree (sometimes they look like they do not decently sleep). To celebrate the tough, rewarding, and sometimes overlooked work of nurses, I have decided to write about Hannah Anderson Ropes, a nurse during the Civil War who was dedicated to improving her craft.


Early Life

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. As her parents were prominent state lawyers, young Hannah was privately educated and raised in a wealthy household that championed Christianity. Hannah’s religious faith grew stronger as she aged, coinciding with her developing opposition to slavery. Although she was more vocal than many other women—a displeasure to the patriarchy—Hannah attracted the attention of William Ropes, an educator who believed the sexes were equal. The couple married in January 1834 and had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. 

The marriage was fruitful until in 1847, citing health concerns, William abruptly moved to warmer temperatures of Florida, leaving his wife and children behind. Abandoned by her spouse, Ropes moved to the Kansas Territory with her children. Ropes, along with her daughter, played a major role in spurring support for the 1856 abolitionist movement in the region, cooperating with male abolitionist leaders in local meetings. As she became more involved in the growing fight against slavery, Ropes strengthened the close bond she had with her children. Amidst the violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas,’—where pro-slavery raiders from Missouri were a threat to anti-slavery families—Ropes always went the extra mile to protect her children as she kept “loaded pistols and a bowie knife upon my table at night, [and] three sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Ropes did not let the disappearance of her husband upset her. Hannah Ropes became a liberal-feminist, a woman who vocally championed for the elimination of slavery while dutifully (and passionately) attending the household needs.


An Interest in Nursing

Hannah Ropes—who described the Kansas fighting as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”—moved back to Massachusetts in 1857, where she knew her family would be safe. It was in New England when Ropes became an author. Her unique writing talent led to the publication of her first book, Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady, which compiled a collection of letters Ropes wrote to her ailing mother while she lived in the mid-west. Ropes would later write a popular paperback of prairie life, Cranston House: A Novel, in 1859. Still active in political movements, Ropes desired an opportunity to help people. Her interest in nursing stemmed from reading literature by English nurse, Florence Nightingale. After Ropes’s nephew gave her a copy of Nightingale’s 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, which depicted the English’s nurse’s account of the Crimean War, Ropes’s career trajectory changed, foreshadowing the professional role the New England woman would play in the next stage of her life.   


A New Position at the Union Hotel Hospital

At the start of the Civil War in spring 1861, the Union Hotel in Washington D.C.—which had been built in 1796 and hosted many prominent citizens including Robert Fulton and George Washington—was seized by the government and converted into a Union Army hospital. After Edward enlisted as a private in May 1862, Ropes quickly offered her services to the Office of United States Army Nurses, and was subsequentially placed at the former capital tavern. During this era, the nursing occupation was linked with a negative stigma—woman nurses were associated with prostitutes or ‘fallen women.’ However, as blood was shed as a result of several major Confederate victories, nurses became heroes of the Union Army. ‘Women of good conduct’ were speedily recruited to care for the sick and wounded. Ropes rose through the ranks because of job dedication, and in the autumn she was named the head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital. Her job responsibilities included training the hospital’s nurses and monitoring the general operations of the institution.

Upon taking the managerial post, she actively criticized the appalling conditions of the building and the former management—the complaints included lack of sanitation in the wards, the building’s decay, an absence of necessary supplies, and the cruel treatment of soldiers. Ropes strongly believed that every man in uniform (of every rank) deserved healthy surroundings, good food, and humanitarian treatment. This belief is evident by a diary entry she wrote in the first week of her new appointment in October 1862: “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Rather than ignoring the problems at hand—as elected officials did at first—Ropes swiftly picked up the mantle, restructured the hospital’s management style, and brought real change to the depleted building. The head matron selected women who were eager to enter the nursing field, and trained them to treat all their patients with compassion. Moreover, the nurses were taught to ignore long hours of work (often without decent pay) because the soldiers were first priority and a nurse could not leave the building until their patients were comfortable. Discipline among the staff was introduced by the new management, as Ropes was not afraid to terminate nurses if they failed to address the needs of the wounded soldiers.


Strong Leadership 

Head Matron Ropes quickly found out that most of the male staff at the D.C. hospital, including the surgeons, wanted to only help those who would survive—some argued that they did not have enough supplies for all the wounded soldiers. Ropes took disagreement with this belief as she wanted to save all the soldiers—she cited the laziness of men. Thus, she personally took extensive actions against staff who were cruel to the patients. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!” Subsequentially, Stanton wrote an order forbidding anyone from removing the head matron from her post. As she pressed on with her progressive nursing agenda, breaking down gender barriers, Hannah Ropes constructed an identity that emulated masculine traits—she was professional and dutiful in the toughest times. Although military generals often resented the sight of strongly opinionated women in hospitals, Ropes constantly butted heads with male colleagues, and held her ground with the best interests of the wounded soldiers at heart.


Comfort Among Chaos

In her position, Ropes worked longer hours than her colleagues—writing reports, ordering supplies, tirelessly advocating for hospital infrastructure improvements, and keeping a daily activity log. It was not uncommon to see Ropes tending to soldiers in the late hours of the night, only then to see her again at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Moreover, the head matron took an interest in writing letters to elected officials, politely asking them to either send extra blankets and supplies to the hospital or coaxing them to try and advocate politicians to pass funding stipends for the hospital. Ropes was in contact with a powerful figure in Congress. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—the elected official who is famous for being nearly caned to death by South Carolinian politician Andrew Butler in 1856—was an established supporter of Ropes’s hospital reforms, and continuously tried to push parts of the head matron’s agenda on to the Senate floor.

Hannah Ropes’ passion for nursing and devotion in monitoring the wounded (day and night) are evident from several diary entries written by nurse Louisa May Alcott, who joined the staff at the hospital on December 13, 1862, shortly after her 30thbirthday. At this time, the Union Army was heavily engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, which resulted in over 10,000 wounded soldiers. The hospital’s staff was overwhelmed during the five days of conflict as nurses dispensed food and medication, changed smeared dressings, bathed patients, wrote letters to loved ones for soldiers, and held the hands of those who were dying. Although chaos occurred in the wards and bloody carnage littered the hospital’s floors, the steady hand Ropes provided her staff and the patients brought some assurance to those who were stressed. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till dully ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on…and in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.” Alcott also recalls a time when she suggested the idea of drastically rationing the wounded’s meals after food was in short supply—Ropes, a selfless patriot, thought otherwise: “When I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: ‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one [bowl], and, if there’s not enough ready tonight, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.”


Sudden Illness and A Life Remembered 

During the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. Ropes’s health continued to fade. On January 19, Ropes’s daughter, Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital to her brother: “Mother has been ill for some weeks and indeed all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little.” The next day, January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old. Family and colleagues mourned. The Union Hotel Hospital was draped in black and a moment of silence took place among the wounded soldiers. Senator Sumner eulogized the matron’s life in a letter addressed to the family: “Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers.”

In an era where women were expected to master the roles of domesticity, keep their mouths closed, refrain from accepting educational or employment opportunities outside of the home, and sexually satisfy their spouses, Hannah Ropes convincedly (and tirelessly) blended the two spheres of a woman’s life together—nurturing and protecting her household while progressively crafting the nineteenth-century nursing field.


What do you think of Hannah Anderson Ropes’ life? Let us know below.


Finally, you can read about US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here).


Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. New York: Applewood Books; Reissue edition, 1991. 

Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. First edition was written by Hannah Ropes.

Granstra, Pat. “Hannah Ropes: The Other Woman Behind ‘Little Women.’” Civil War Primer. Accessed January 18, 2019.

MacLean, Maggie. “Hannah Ropes: Head Matron at Union Hotel Hospital.” Civil War Women. Accessed January 19, 2019.

New England Historical Society. “Hannah Ropes Spends Six Months in Kansas with Loaded Pistols and Bowie Knife.” Accessed January 18, 2019.

Nightingale, Florence. Notes On Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Harrison, 1859.  

Ropes, Hannah Anderson. Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1856. 

From the 1980s American Ana Montes supplied the Communist Cuban government with very valuable information. During the 1980s she helped Cuba support communist insurgencies in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and she continued to help Fidel Castro’s Cuba even after the end of the Cold War. Scott Rose explains.

You can read past articles in the series about spies who shared American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union (read more here), the 1950s “Red Scare” (read more here), and the American who supplied the Soviets with secrets in the 1980s (read more here).

The mugshot of Ana Montes after her arrest.

The mugshot of Ana Montes after her arrest.

Throughout the Cold War and in the years afterward, the United States has had to combat spies who were either giving or selling information to America’s enemies. The majority of the cases involved individuals who were aiding the Soviet Union, as the Soviets had a powerful and proven espionage network around the world. Most observers probably wouldn’t think of the small Caribbean nation of Cuba as a country capable of carrying out successful spying operations against the U.S. However, the Cuban intelligence services were vastly underestimated, and they were able to acquire top-secret information from an American mole named Ana Montes for nearly two decades. 


The Makings of a Spy

Ana Montes was one of four children born to U.S. Army doctor Alberto Montes and his wife, Emilia. The family moved several times during Ana’s early years before settling in Maryland, where Alberto became a well-regarded psychiatrist. While Dr. Montes undoubtedly helped many people, he was at times cruel to his children, losing his temper and beating them with a belt. This abuse had emotional effects on Ana, as she became distant and aloof at a young age. Years later, her sister, who was only a year older, would remark that she never really knew or felt very close to Ana. One of the effects of having an authoritarian father was that she seemed to gravitate toward those who were less powerful, or “underdogs.” The parents would divorce while Ana was in her teens.

In spite of her turbulent home life, Montes was an excellent student. During her high school years, she was viewed by her peers as extremely intelligent and perpetually serious, but this paid off as she graduated near the top of her class, with a 3.9 grade point average. She would move on to the University of Virginia, where her academic success continued. While at Virginia, she got to participate in a study-abroad program in Spain for a year.

It was during her time in Spain that Montes began to harbor anti-U.S. sentiments. She began a relationship with a fellow student in Spain, a young Marxist from Argentina. This was her first real boyfriend, and to a certain extent, she fell under his leftist spell. He often told her of American support for authoritarian governments in Latin America, such as those of Somoza in Nicaragua and Pinochet in Chile. Together they attended anti-American rallies, and in time she came to genuinely buy into her boyfriend’s theories and adopt them as her own. Eventually she returned to Virginia, earning a degree in foreign affairs in 1979.

Montes’ brother and older sister both worked for the FBI, and after graduating, she took a job as a typist at the Department of Justice. At night, she attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, and eventually she obtained her masters’ degree in Advanced Foreign Studies. During her time at Johns Hopkins, one of the main topics of discussion was the civil war in Nicaragua. Montes detested the fact the United States was sending aid to the Contra forces that were fighting against Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government. She performed well at the Department of Justice, and in 1984 she received a high-level security clearance, passing an FBI background check in the process.

While at Johns Hopkins, Cuban intelligence services identified Ana Montes as a potential spy. A former Cuban agent later stated that the Cubans have often looked to find American students with strong political leanings who appear destined for government jobs. Reportedly, one of Montes’ schoolmates at Hopkins was already in contact with the Cubans, and set up a dialogue with Ana. At first, Montes was asked to help the Cubans with small tasks, such as translations. However, the Cubans knew the passion Montes had for the Sandinistas, and when they asked her for American information about Nicaragua, they had pressed the right button. She dove in headfirst, and by the end of 1984, she had become a major Cuban asset.


No Turning Back

In early 1985, Montes made a secret trip to Cuba to receive intelligence training, and disguised herself by wearing a wig. The Cubans knew that they had an agent with star potential in Montes, and they went out of their way to make sure she got a favorable impression of Cuba and its government while she was there. They even introduced her to a young Cuban gentleman who showed her around the country’s cities, beaches, and countryside. During her training in Cuba she learned how to decipher coding and make information drops. They taught her how to pass a lie detector test if she came under any suspicion.

Ana’s Cuban handlers urged her to begin applying for government jobs that would give her more access to the most highly sensitive American intelligence. Not long after returning to Washington, she was hired by the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Cubans could not have been much happier. Other than the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) handles more classified data on foreign governments than any other sector of the American government. The DIA analyzes intelligence and informs American leaders, all the way up to the President, of the military capabilities and intentions of foreign governments, and most of the information is acquired from human spies. From the beginning of her time at the DIA, Montes misled her superiors and much of the government by making Cuban espionage threats seem minimal when they were actually very serious. She also downplayed Cuba’s role in the civil wars taking place in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In truth, the Cubans had thousands of military advisors on the ground in both countries.

Montes seemed to be the perfect employee, for both the United States and Cuba. At her DIA job, she displayed a steely efficiency, and was known for being unapproachable by her co-workers. The intelligence community tends to be very tight, but Montes remained a virtual loner while her superiors recognized her obvious intelligence. She could turn on the charm, but only when it was helpful for serving her purposes. At night, she worked at her other job, as a Cuban spy. Using a radio, she received numeric messages from Cuban intelligence, which she then decoded with Cuban decryption software on her personal computer. She sent information back in the same way, but Montes was too smart to bring classified papers home from the DIA. Instead, she was actually able to memorize the content of highly sensitive documents at work before translating it into numeric codes for the Cubans. Sometimes she would pass information to Cuban agents at crowded restaurants in Washington. All the while, the DIA considered Montes to be the ideal employee, and she received several performance-based promotions.

In time, Montes was named chief DIA analyst for El Salvador and Nicaragua, and at that point she started doing serious damage to American operations. In El Salvador, the American-backed government was fighting a civil war against Marxist rebels who were receiving support from Cuba and the Soviet Union. The United States supplied military equipment to the Salvadoran army, and covertly sent a Special Forces unit to help advise and train the government forces. In early 1987, the DIA sent Montes to El Salvador, where she visited the hidden Special Forces base. After she left El Salvador, Montes gave the location of the base to the Cubans. Shortly thereafter, Cuban-led Salvadoran guerrilla fighters attacked the base, and an American Green Beret was killed in the ensuing firefight. Amazingly, Montes eluded suspicion even though she was one of only a handful of people who had even known the base had existed.

Eventually, the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua ended, and American intelligence efforts in those countries were scaled back. Ana Montes was put in charge of political and military intelligence on Cuba, and her Cuban handlers couldn’t believe their luck. A Cuban spy actually being put in charge of analyzing the Pentagon’s intelligence on Cuba seemed almost too good to be true. She promptly gave the Cubans the names of four American spies in Cuba, and all four were arrested. Still, Montes was not considered as a source for the intelligence leaks. Her bosses at the DIA were dazzled by her knowledge of Cuban affairs, chalking it up to her tireless work ethic. They even nicknamed her “The Queen of Cuba,” never knowing just how fitting the moniker was. During the early years of the Bill Clinton Administration, Montes fed misinformation about Cuba all the way to the White House. She led the American government into believing Cuba’s posture toward the U.S. was purely defensive, and that the Castro regime was nothing more than a harmless annoyance.

In 1996, a DIA co-worker became suspicious of Montes, and reported concerns about her. However, these concerns couldn’t be substantiated, as they were based entirely on the co-worker’s “gut feeling.” Montes was questioned, but in short time, the situation blew over. The next year, she even received a Certificate of Distinction for her performance from George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. However, Ana was approaching mid-life and having thoughts of settling down to have a family. Her role as a spy had made it difficult for her to have relationships, but the Cubans had no intention of letting her retire. They sent her a Cuban lover, but after a few days Montes lost interest in the gentleman.


The Price of Spying

The FBI busted a Cuban spy ring called “Wasp” in Miami in 1998, and one of the arresting agents was Montes’ sister Lucy. Both Ana and the Cubans were horrified, and for several months, she heard nothing from her handlers. Worse, she became paranoid about getting caught, suffering through bouts of depression and panic. She started seeing a psychiatrist, although she couldn’t tell her doctor the true reason for her mental and emotional state. By the end of the year, the situation had died down and she was contacted by the Cubans once again. She even managed to receive a fellowship to the National Intelligence Council, and she was moved to CIA headquarters.

The FBI suspected there was an American government employee helping the Cubans, but the Bureau had little information to go on, other than suspecting the spy was using a Toshiba laptop. Eventually the FBI asked the DIA to look into the files of current and former employees. A DIA agent named Scott Carmichael led the investigation, and became convinced Montes was the spy. At first, the FBI rejected Carmichael’s theory, but in time it was decided to put Montes under surveillance, and she was observed making suspicious phone calls from pay phones. While examining her financial records, it was seen that she had bought a Toshiba laptop at a computer store in Virginia. The FBI obtained search authorization, and went inside Ana’s apartment one weekend while she was out of town. They found the laptop, and copied the hard drive. Later, they were able to sort through her purse while she was in a meeting at work. They found codes and a New York phone number that was traced to Cuban operatives.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI decided it was time to act. It was feared that Montes would supply information that the Cubans could in turn relay to the Taliban. She had completed her fellowship and was back at the DIA, and she was called to a meeting at the DIA Inspector General’s office. When she got there, two FBI agents were waiting for her. When they told her they were investigating a potential Cuban spy, her nerves betrayed her. She began sweating profusely, and her neck broke out in red patches. The agents had expected Montes to try to explain away any suspicions they had, but instead she asked for a lawyer. At that point, they placed her under arrest, charging her with conspiracy to commit espionage.

Ana Montes could have been given the death penalty for her actions, but she accepted a plea agreement and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. She remained defiant, insisting that her actions came as a result of America’s “unfair treatment” of Cuba, and remarking, “ Some things are worth going to prison for.”

The Cubans tried to free Montes by offering an exchange. Years earlier, an American named Assata Shakur had been convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper, but Shakur escaped from prison and somehow made it to Cuba. Fidel Castro’s government gave asylum to Shakur, and she still lives there. However, the Cubans offered to return Shakur to the United States in exchange for Montes, an offer that was rejected by the U.S. State Department. Montes is still serving her sentence at a maximum security prison in Fort Worth, Texas. The prison is the home of some of the most notorious female criminals in the United States, and Montes serves her time in solitary confinement.


What do you think of Ana Montes’ actions? Let us know below.


Pablo De Llano, “No Sign of Release for the Last Cuban Spy in a U.S. Jail” El Pais, March 8, 2017

Jim Popkin, “Ana Montes Did Much Harm Spying for Cuba. Chances Are, You Haven’t Heard of Her” The Washington Post, April 18, 2013

Scott W. Carmichael, True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2007

Brian Latell, “New Revelations about Cuban Spy Ana Montes” The Miami Herald, August 2, 2014

The first world of paper is the period during which papyrus paper was the standard medium for writing in the Western world. Here, John Gaudet (author of a book on the history of paper: Amazon USAmazon UK) considers the importance of Ancient Egypt in the production of papyrus paper and whether history stood still while papyrus paper was used.

The Heracles Papyrus, containing an ancient illustration on papyrus paper.

The Heracles Papyrus, containing an ancient illustration on papyrus paper.

So, did history stand still during the first world of paper? The short answer of course is that it didn’t, but you’d never know from reading most books on the history of paper.

Many books on the history of paper will tell you that the invention of paper and its development into modern pulp paper began with the Chinese in the early part of the first millennium, which completely ignores the fact that a world of paper existed for thousands of years prior to that. The story of paper really began much earlier, during the time of the ancient people along the River Nile, who had been using paper made from papyrus since nearly 3000 B.C. and would continue to do so until the time of the Crusades. 

The first paper known to man was discovered in Egypt and dates to about 2900 B.C. It was no accident that the Egyptians used the paper reed, papyrus, to make this paper. Papyrus is a sedge, a tall reedy swamp plant that is among the fastest growing, most productive plants on earth. Under the hot sun and cloudless skies of old Egypt, it prospered in the ancient swamps of the Delta, which were millions of acres in size. By chance it was the most common reed in the ancient wetlands that could be used in this way and so its name “paper reed” is both unique as well as well-earned.

Most often reeds, such as those growing in the Mesopotamian floodplains and marshes of the Fertile Crescent, were of little use in those days for making paper. The problem was that making paper from pulp was a process that had yet to be discovered and wouldn’t be until just after the first century A.D. Most reeds, rushes and grasses are stiff, hard and often hollow at maturity. Papyrus stems on the other hand contained a soft pith that could be used to make paper in Egypt using a simple, direct technique. It required nothing more than shaving thin slices from the interior pith of the stem and compressing these slices into thin sheets. These sheets could then be glued together to make rolls. Thus, paper was available in Egypt from the end of the Stone Age and possibly even before. In fact, the Egyptians were not only using paper, but the Greek and Roman civilizations that followed were dependent on it. For thousands of years papyrus paper, made into rolls from sheets, was exported from Egypt to meet an ever growing demand for paper in the West. 

So for millennia papyrus paper was the most commonly used type of paper, and there was already a ‘paper world’ then just as today.


Earliest Writing on Paper

The earliest written paper documents were data sheets found in Egypt that accounted for material used in building the Great Pyramid. These were the world’s first spreadsheets. Egyptians also recorded on paper their first literary effort and maps as well as illustrated books, called, Books of the Dead, which were left in their tombs.

What were the Chinese doing during all this time? They were writing on strips of bone or bamboo that were tied or sewn together into bulky rolls. So the Western world had already made great strides using paper while others were still experimenting.  Yet by the first century, early Christians such as Paul, used papyrus paper to draft letters, epistles and Bibles to propagate their new religion and further the cause of Christianity because that was still the only paper available! 

It wasn’t until the tenth century that Westerners began using pulp paper in any great quantity. During all the intervening time history did not stand still. The Western world had learned to live with and use papyrus paper to write things down, to wrap things up, and to create books, letters, newspapers, and maps. 

Because of this, it has been said that paper was the key element in global cultural advancement. According to this theory, Chinese culture was less developed than the West in ancient times because bamboo, while abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus.

One reason for the popularity of papyrus paper was that unlike tablets made of lead, copper, wax, or clay or writing surfaces made of tree bark or leather, papyrus paper weighed almost nothing and yet was quite durable. It soon became vitally important both economically and culturally. In agriculture, which economists deem a reason for Ancient Egypt’s greatness, tracking crop and food production depended on lightweight paper to process and manage data sets

This medium was the property of the king, since paper manufacture was at that time a royal prerogative. In later years under the Romans the industry was privatized as papyrus paper went on to become the most commonly used information medium in the world. 

Far from fragile, this ancient paper was an especially handy writing surface; books and documents in ancient and early medieval times made from it had a usable life of hundreds of years.


The Earliest Use – Spreadsheets, Really?

How was this paper used in practice? To answer that question we might look first at how we use paper today to record data and events. For that purpose in modern times we use data tables or spreadsheets that help us sort and label data in a way that makes sense, so we can reference it and perform calculations later. We do this because otherwise our brains can’t easily recall data sets. The remarkable thing is that Egyptians recognized this same problem in 3000 B.C. and resolved it in the same way, they invented spreadsheets by drawing lines on papyrus paper to represent the rows and columns now found on modern counterparts.

The oldest diary and account sheets on paper were found by Prof. Tallet of the Sorbonne in 2013. The documents were the work of Inspector Merer, an agent of Pharaoh Khufu. The place of discovery was a remote cave in Wadi el-Jarf, an ancient Egyptian seaport on the Red Sea coast. Some of the documents discovered by Tallet consist of timesheets, grids with horizontal lines subdivided into thirty boxes with columns to record the daily activities of a large team of workers over the course of each month. This mostly concerned their progress in fetching limestone slabs at Tura and delivering them to Giza. The team scribes entered tasks and project goals on lists separated by horizontal lines. At every stage of the operation, a notation of progress or date of completion would be added to track overall progress. Forward progress was definitely needed to satisfy the boss, who was in this case a pharaoh with a reputation for quick and harsh reactions.

It is evident that Merer and his team were important links in the trade and development of Egypt. And this large royal team had to be supplied and fed while on the road. Now, thanks to Tallet, we have detailed daily and monthly accounts kept by the team of the foodstuffs they received and consumed. Local officials had to provide for them since they were on assignment from Pharaoh. The names of those contributing to the maintenance of this team were also entered on the sheets, perhaps serving as an official receipt to let Pharaoh know exactly how the various provinces were carrying out their obligations. There is an entry for every item that had to be delivered to the team. On the papyrus account sheet, alongside the accounting of food and supplies, Merer and his clerks drew three boxes: one to indicate the amount anticipated, then an entry of what was actually delivered, and finally what was still pending. The most complete of these sheets was the delivery record of different types of cereals, or the “account of bread.” 

Does all this sound familiar? Many thought it did. Apparently, four and a half thousand years ago man was just as bad at mentally processing information as today. Based on what he found, Tallet wondered how many other logbooks, data sets and spreadsheets equivalent to that of Merer’s may have been kept by the numerous teams that worked on the Great Pyramid during the 20 or so years that the construction site existed. 

The Great Pyramid is a magnificent creation, a tombstone composed of 2.3 million massive blocks and completed within a comparatively short period, but it is only one of over 120 pyramids that are known to exist in Egypt, each of which must have required a day-by-day account of activities during construction. The usual construction pattern required crews to quarry, transport and deliver hundreds of thousands of stones every year. Each crew, according to Prof. Tallet, amounted to roughly forty men including someone responsible for keeping records. He wondered how many tens of thousands of rolls of papyrus would have been needed to record it all! 


The Real Treasure of the Pharaoh’s – Paper

During early times it is true that the pyramids provided a national economic stimulus and a focus for mobilization of resources, but economists tell us that the real basis for Egypt’s greatness came from agriculture and the management of agricultural production. The Egyptians remeasured and reassigned land after every inundation based on past assignments, they assessed expected crops, and they collected part of the produce as taxes. This was stored or redistributed to those on the state’s payroll. Regional storage facilities with hundreds of storehouses provided produce in case there was a shortfall. All of this was recorded and tracked using spreadsheets, and so the country soon became a nation dependent on lightweight paper to process and manage data sets. 

Paper thus became one of the many basic things that made Egypt the wonder of its age. Spreadsheets of the type used by Merer became invaluable to the Egyptian way of life. It was also the medium used to record the immediate thoughts or sayings of the priests, pronouncements of the kings, property holdings, temple goods and the substance of history in the ancient world. As such, it was far more important than Khufu or his pyramid. In essence it was the pharaoh’s greatest treasure.


What do you think about the importance of papyrus paper? Let us know below.

John Gaudet’s newest book, The Pharaoh’s Treasureis a thought-provoking history of paper—from its origins in Egypt to its spread throughout the world—revealing how it helped usher in a new era of human history. (Pegasus, USA, 2018 distributed by W.W. Norton; Amberley, UK Jan. 2019; and in Chinese in Beijing, summer, 2019). It is available on-line at Amazon USAmazon UKand Barnes & Noble sites and in quality bookstores everywhere.

A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John Gaudet is a professional ecologist, environmental advisor, writer and consultant. His work has appeared in the Washington Post,SalonHuffington PostAncient Egypt Magazineand he remains active in African, agricultural, and conservation/environmental agencies. John lives in northern Virginia.

His earlier book, Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World, published in 2014 by Pegasus, NY introduced us to papyrus, a unique plant, one of the fastest growing plant species on earth. He has shown the world that papyrus is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. Harvard University’s Belfer Center voted this book the Innovation Book of the Week.

To connect with Gaudet, please visit his website (Http://, Facebook Page or look under Our Authors on the Pegasus Books website. 

Gentrification is typically seen as the process by which an area becomes wealthier, often resulting in changes to the inhabitants, businesses, recreational facilities, and cultural events. It is happening in places all around the globe, and as an illustration of this, here Anthony Ruggiero looks at the recent history of gentrification of the area of Brooklyn in New York City.

The Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 by Currier and Ives.

The Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 by Currier and Ives.

Time has always had a way of bringing about changes. During the latetwentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Brooklyn has undergone these changes through the process of gentrification. The book, The World InBrooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in a Global City, edited by Judith N.DeSena and Timothy Shortell (Amazon USAmazon UK), discussed how the changes brought about by gentrification impacted Brooklyn not only culturally, but also aesthetically. Gentrification prompted changes in the population, industry and community, and the redevelopment of parks. At St. Joseph’s College, these changes were recognized and discussed through different brochures that advertised walking tours of these areas. The school itself also experienced developments and modifications made to its buildings.


Impacts of Gentrification

Throughout the years, Brooklyn has been recognized for its diverse population. According to DeSena and Shortell, these individuals are not just native-born; a large number of the population is foreign-born. This includes individuals from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia, South America, Mexico and Central America, as well as South East Asia.[1]For example, people from Caribbean countries are the largest immigrant group, with approximately 302,000 Caribbean people making up the foreign-born population.[2]However, as parts of Brooklyn continued to experience gentrification, and the cost of living and obtaining an education increased, newcomers to the borough became less from majority foreign groups (blacks and Latinos), and more from white and Asian backgrounds, and more wealthier and educated homeowners.[3]As wealthier homeowners continued to move into areas in northern Brooklyn, studies show the displacement of black homeowners who could not afford the increased cost of living that their new neighbors could afford.[4]

Along with the change in population, gentrification also affected industry and the communities close to it. A prime example of this in Brooklyn is seen in Williamsburg. Initially, Williamsburg was a working-class community, made up of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, with a large number of manufacturing firms; DeSena and Shortell described the landscape of the neighborhood as, “gritty and disinvested.”[5]However, as the early 2000s carried on, businesses such as cafés, trendy thrift stores, vegetarian restaurants, lofts, galleries, and clubs opened; this business attracted new, younger, and more artistic individuals and students.[6]Thus, the landscape began to alternate. An example of this would be an image provided by DeSena and Shortell, which displayed the transformation of a rundown, hardware store into a boutique.[7]Another example of the changed community is the summer event of the Williamsburg Walk. Created by the Department of Transportation, the Williamsburg Walk was designed to celebrate the neighborhood’s individualism and artistry. Although many of the newer inhabitants of Williamsburg were in attendance, many longer-standing residents of Williamsburg, such as those form poorer Hispanic and Polish backgrounds, rarely attended the walk, highlighting the divide gentrification has created within the community.[8]


The Changes in Different Areas

St. Joseph’s College experienced changes, as well as the surrounding Clinton Hill area. According to a brochure,Clinton Hill in Bloom, the original allure of Clinton Hill was the mansions that belonged to oil tycoon Charles Pratt, as well as the brownstones surrounding the area. However, years later, the site of the mansions is what is now St. Joseph’s College and several apartment complexes. Even so, after interest in the history of the area remerged in the 1980s, it once again saw a resurgence as many people came to open houses and on walking tours to see the history and brownstones.[9]Despite this resurgence in interest the Clinton Hill area had always maintained a stable community. Another brochure, published by St. Joseph’s College, Our Neighborhood…Clinton Hill, discussed that industry made its way to the neighborhood in the form of supermarkets, antique shops, art supply stores, and health food stores.[10]

Further areas that were impacted by gentrification were the parks in Brooklyn. An example of this is Prospect Park. Built to rival Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park was a sight of much crime during the 1970s. After an outcry from the neighborhood to revive the park, Mayor of New York City at the time, Ed Koch, gave money to restoration projects, which were successful. However, according to DeSena and Shortell, the renewal of the park area attracted new businesses that have contributed to the gentrification in the area, as many of the residents could not afford the higher prices of the new businesses.[11]A walking tour of the Fort Greene Park brochure in the St Joseph’s College archive recognized these different restoration projects. The tour called for further funds to be raised for the awareness of the park in order to fund The Atlantic Terminal Renewal Area project to restore the park.[12]These restoration projects spanned different areas around Brooklyn, once again showing the power and reach of gentrification.


In Conclusion

The gentrification of Brooklyn has had its positive and negative affects. On the one hand, failing areas such as Williamsburg and Prospect Park were restored with new renewal projects and industry, attracting new people in the process. However, in attracting new people, the original inhabitants of the area have been pushed out. DeSena and Shortell’s bookoffers prime examples of these effects. The brochures provided by St. Joseph’s College also demonstrate that gentrification during this time had its effects in different areas in Brooklyn as well. And though the effects of gentrification are evident today, only time will tell how gentrification evolves in Brooklyn and the wider New York City area.



This article has frequent references to the book The World In Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in a Global City, which is edited by Judith N.DeSena and Timothy Shortell. This book is available here: Amazon USAmazon UK

What do you think about gentrification? Does it impact your area?

[1]DeSena, Judith N., and Timothy Shortell. The World In Brooklyn: Gentrification, 

   Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in A Global City.2012: 10-16

[2]The World In Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in A Global City, pg.11.




[6]Ibid, 91-92.

[7]Ibid, 93.

[8]Ibid, 89-90.

[9]St. Joseph’s College, NY, Clinton Hill in Bloom, McEntegart Hall Archives, St. Joseph’s College Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn, NY. 1986

[10]St. Joseph’s College, NY, Our Neighborhood…Clinton Hil1

[11]Ibid, 124-128.

[12]St. Joseph’s College, NY, Fort Greene’s Finest The Park Blocks, McEntegart Hall Archives, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn NY, Brooklyn, NY. 1986


DeSena, Judith N., and Timothy Shortell. The World In Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in A Global City. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012.

St. Joseph’s College, NY, Clinton Hill in Bloom, McEntegart Hall Archives, St. Joseph’s College Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn, NY. 1986.

St. Joseph’s College, NY,Fort Greene’s Finest The Park Blocks,McEntegart Hall Archives, St. Joseph’s