The Shah of Iran led a coup d’état in Iran in 1953, with the help of the UK and US. This article considers what happened after the coup, in particular how the awarding of a road-building contract to a British company ultimately led to resistance to awarding major contracts to some foreign companies. Guan Kiong Teh explains.

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza, with his wife and son in 1967.

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza, with his wife and son in 1967.

I wrote this article on the road building and vehicle industry in the late Pahlavi state to respond to two aspects of Iranian historiography. The first is the lack of scholarship on the technique of science and technology within Iranian modernization. Many scholars mention science and technology within Iranian political discourse. However, I focus upon scientific technique - defined as the legal, political and societal context and consequences of the application of technology. This only started gathering force recently, with for instance, Katayoun Shafiee’s focus on ‘sociotechnical’ processes in Machineries of Oil(2018).

The second is the thin analysis of the social impacts of consumerism during the years between the 1953 coup and the announcement of the Peykan car in 1966 through an integrated system of the private market and public infrastructure. Drawing upon British governmental and personal sources, and documents produced by the Iranian Government, Mowlems, and Chrysler, I examine how road building and the related vehicle industry contributed to Iranian political practice and discourse between the spring of 1954 and the announcement of the Peykan car in 1966, particularly towards the concept of independent foreign policy and an Iranian state for the Iranian people. The Mowlems contract was a blessing and a curse. While it demonstrated to the Iranian government that they had the sophistication to turn perfidious Albion on its heads, its costliness contributed to the pro-business spirit of the 1960s and the mythical White Revolution.

 

Iranian Vehicle Industry

The vehicle industry represented a fertile opportunity to win over the Iranian people and execute leverage against countries such as Britain, America, and Germany, particularly given the lessons of the Mowlem’s affair from 1954-57. Commercial development projects grew in geopolitical significance during the Cold War. Iran shared a border with the Soviet Union. The increasing burden of aid, military and nuclear expenditure in Iran in the 1950s compelled Mohammad Reza Shah to pursue a more independent foreign policy, most notably through the ‘soft’ weapon of the trade of goods and services within Iran. The logic: to reap the benefits of aid and expenditure without furthering the impression and consequences of Anglo-American political puppetry. Between 1954 and 1959, the PO sought to consolidate its uniquely ‘educated’ and powerful role in government through these formative exercises, refining its technique of portraying British firms as undeserving of their prestigious commercial reputation. The diplomatic successes and economic costs, however, led the government to pursue diplomatic success through economic profit, as evidenced in the birth of Iran’s automotive industry, culminating in the Iran N Peykan.

John Mowlem & Co Ltd. were British construction agents. By the 1950s they were established names in Britain, supervising Thames drainage projects at the turn of the century. In April 1954, Glossop was approached by Ebtehaj, Fazlollah Zahedi and the Shah to negotiate for a road-building contract, with vocal support from Roger Stevens, the British Ambassador to Iran. Mowlem’s first problem was demonstrating hostility towards the Iranian Government’s demands for accountability in technical expertise, exacerbated by the British Embassy’s lack of technical knowledge. A July 27 telegram states the position of the Iranian Government as interpreted by Ambassador Roger Stevens. Mowlems was expected to seek a contract to acquire the road plant material from a preferably non-British firm. The Iranian Government did not, as a matter of practice, enter multiple contracts in its pursuit of development projects. The Embassy advised that this was a clear warning that Mowlems’ would be held to the highest technical scrutiny. Since the previous month, Ebtehaj repeatedly expressed that he was under pressure from American firms to ensure that plant contracts were not exclusively awarded to British firms. Finally on May 10, 1955, Richard Glossop, the Managing Director of John Mowlem & Co. Ltd, exchanged contracts with Abdolhassan Ebtehaj. These were the roads to be constructed.Mowlems committed, as ‘managing agents’, to supervise the construction of 6,000 kilometers of roads in Iran over eight years. This was, according to the British Embassy, ‘the most important contract we have secured in Persia since the resumption of diplomatic relations. For years past foreign contractors have tried and failed to get it.’ Yet Mowlems’ shortcomings in its mastery of technical information served as a wake-up call for the Iranian government. When this contract was terminated in December 1957, barely 300 kilometers of roads had been refurbished in small stretches, with no new roads built. The contract was formally annulled on September 10, 1958. Further road building contracts until the mid 1960s never rivaled the Mowlems’ contract on scale, and were overwhelmingly awarded to Iranian firms or, at most, a minor supervisory role was awarded to Belgian, South African or Danish firms notably Kampsax - never Anglo American again.

 

How the Agreement Ended

The Plan and Budget Organization enacted political leverage against Britain by purporting that Mowlems failed to deliver the technical excellence necessary to justify maintaining the contract. The experience demonstrated that Iran had the strategic sophistication to manipulate perceived British commercial opportunism. Yet this was executed at the expense of contributing towards a balance of payments crisis between 1958-60 and presenting unfinished roads to the public, instilling further ambivalence about the merits of the incorporation of ‘Western’ development and Iranian nationalism advocated by the Shah. 

While the extraordinary expenditure of the Mowlems’ contract makes it difficult to argue that money was judicially used, the Plan Organization took some steps towards independent foreign policy by challenging Mowlems not on explicitly financial or political but technical grounds. The PO presented limitations upon British commercial advantage as a moral and financial obligation to find the most technologically competitive route to infrastructure development. The contract negotiation period between April 1954 and May 1955 was formative for the PO in coming to terms with manipulating technical expertise of road building. 

Relations were warmest where British and Iranian interests in road building and foreign policy clashed. During the second half of 1956, Mowlems’ dedication towards technical competitiveness improved. In November, a 36 kilometer stretch of road between Qazvin and Takestan was successfully refurbished, of which General Ansari gave a tour to Majlismembers at the end of the year. By December 1956, Ebtehaj grew more praiseful of Mowlems, announcing early in January 1957 to commit to fund a new flagship project: a road from Qazvin to the Turkish border at Jolfa, via Tabriz, and a direct route between Isfahan and Shiraz[1]. The route to the Turkish border provided easy access to a ‘friendly’ missile base, and would also serve Iranian interests in regional links.

However, Mowlems’ astonishing cost-saving by refusing to study soil composition exasperated the Iranian government. By mid-1957, only 240 kilometers of roads had been refurbished with no new roads built. Early batches were cracking and potholed, the result of importing a road plant mixture designed for British weather and soil. The Shah summoned Stevens, decrying it as ‘the worst piece of propaganda I’d ever seen’. Once he said this, Ebtehaj went for the pincer. The Shah had promised Mowlems’ reputation to the Majlis in 1955. If Mowlems’ did not improve or concede incompetence, the Iranian state was headed for a crisis of confidence that could rival what happened 1953. Eventually, Ebtehaj wrote to Mowlems to annul the contract on 23 December 1957. 450 million rials had been wasted over two and a half years.

 

The Consequences for Iran

This experience primed commercial instinct during the White Revolution. It gave the Iranian Government an obsession with ensuring Iranian - particularly Persian,Pahlavicharacter was evident in national ‘modernization’ and ‘development’, as evidenced in the automotive industry, particularly the Iran National Peykan, announced 1966, and the Pars Khodro Shahin, announced 1967. Cars were a uniquely potent symbol of the West and a unique absorption point for discontent therewith. Unlike Western lecturers or artists, ‘ordinary’ Iranians interacted with the benefits of the car on a practical (as opposed to abstract) level. Unlike refrigerators, hydroelectricity or the sewage system, ‘ordinary’ Iranians interacted with the car for extended periods of time. Unlike radios or TV sets, the value of the car as a tool and means of earning income were more obvious. Further, in an experience common around the world, the car was often the most expensive product and second-most expensive that a family bought, after their house. The passenger car has political capital. Note the situation that Volkswagen found themselves in during 2018, when they faced criticism that they withdrew from the Iranian market due to lobbying by the American ambassador in Germany.

To begin, the Government ostensibly took steps to secure Iranian national input; ostensibly committed to Import Substitution Industrialization as defined in the Third Development Plan (1963-68). A June 1963 news broadcast announced that the Government was planning initiatives to boost car battery production within Iran. The Government favored entrepreneurs to the detriment of the consumer’s pockets by enforcing considerable economic incentive to encourage importers and distributors to seek tenders for nationalized Complete Knock-Down Kits. For instance, 126 ‘saloon cars’ were imported between 27 September and 2 October 1965. These cars were worth 9,500,000 rials to their importer and subject to governmental duties of 92%, at 8,740,000 rials. High tariffs were imposed upon cars that were supposed to be relatively affordable. While the exact make and model of the 126 saloons are unknown, they were all the same model, giving a market price of 75,397 rials and a tariff of 69,360 rials per vehicle, costing the importer 144,757 rials per vehicle in total. As sold to consumers, the vehicle would have cost slightly more than the 150,000 rial Peykan and was a likely competitor. Yet the pressure upon importers was clear: one could be subject to heavy tariffs, or one could try hard to persuade car brands to license cars for CKD production. These were not technologically advanced cars: the Volkswagen Beetle’s air cooled engine was far more appropriate for Iran’s arid climate. Overall, the impetus to produce the national car came from an interest in profit and symbolism of adopting a British and American car; symbol that the Iranian government could actually reign in foreign powers and, to quote British politician Nigel Farage, ‘make a titanic success out of it’. 

 

Conclusion

The Peykan divided urban and rural more than it united. The Hillman Hunter GT was rebranded the Peykan Javanan, heralding the prominence of youths in the country and the role of youth in Iranian politics. Few in the countryside, however, could afford to maintain cars. In villages, those who drove taxis were respected as ‘chauffeurs’, their ability to drive singled out by hopeful mothers trying to matchmake sons. In 1969, 4 million - 15% of Iran’s population - lived in cities. Yet 80% of the passenger car market was urban. 

The Pahlavi state made genuine efforts to ensure that ‘development’ initiatives from the United States, Britain and their Cold War allies were practical for those outside Tehran and Iran’s major cities. The road building experience was good. However, the Pahlavi state focused on the wrong aspect of the lessons, valuing money over expertise. This was the main takeaway: without subscribing to determinist narratives on the inevitability of the White Revolution leading to a Black instead of Red Revolution, Iran’s determination to make sense of the point of scientific and technical control meant that following a clear path of ‘development’, as suggested by Huntington or Moore, was never going to be likely.

 

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


[1]Tehran to FO, 16 February 1957, FO 371/127117

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark follows his first article in the series (here) and considers the naval battle between USS Constitution and HMS Java.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

USS Constitutionversus HMS Java

It was December and in the South Atlantic before USS Constitution caught the second British frigate. This time under the command of Commodore Bainbridge the Constitutionhad, in partnership with the much smaller USS Hornet patrolled to the port of Salvador, on Brazil’s East Coast. Leaving the Hornet to challenge the Royal Navy sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenneto a battle, Bainbridge had sailed northwards up the Brazilian coastline. The decision to leave the Hornet was taken because Bainbridge hoped that by withdrawing the Constitution, HMS Bonne Citoyennewould emerge from the port and fight. However, the Royal Navy sloop ignored the Hornet’s challenge. Ignoring a challenge might damage a ship’s reputation but HMS Bonne Citoyenne made the correct decision because her cargo contained bullion and specie, which was needed to sustain Arthur Wellesley’s Army in Spain.[1]By not fighting, HMS Bonne Citoyenne avoided USS Hornet’s Master Commandant James Laurence; the same man who would later reduce HMS Peacock to a shattered hulk but would go on to die in command of USS Chesapeake in the momentous fight with HMS Shannon

Aside from this matter, the important engagement occurred on December 29, 1812 as Constitution sighted HMS Java. HMS Java was identical to HMS Guerriérebecause they were both French warships originally, but pressed into British service after they were captured. Such similarities meant similar weaknesses because HMS Java, like Guerriére, had 49, 18-pounder cannons, whilst Constitutionmounted 55, 24-pounder cannons. 

Aboard HMS Java Captain Lambert decided to fight. This decision makes sense when we consider that Lambert was unaware of the destruction of HMS Guerriére; as communicating with ships at sea was extremely difficult.[2]The engagement began with Java chasing Constitutiontowards the open sea only for Bainbridge to suddenly turn towards the Java. Sailing parallel to one-another, Java on the left, or port and Constitution on the right, or starboard and the two ships remained out of range. Keeping the distance was certainly Bainbridge’s idea, knowing full well that 24-pounder cannon could outrange Java’s 18-pounders. By 14:00 PM Constitution andJava were ready for battle and the first shots boomed out across the calm sea; fired at long range by the Constitution these cannon balls struck the Java which was powerless to respond. 

 

The Battle Gets Fiercer

The battle was decidedly one sided for these first forty minutes. HMS Java made efforts to close the distance between the ships but each time Lambert steered to starboard, Bainbridge drew Constitution away and as a result the British cannon could not be brought to bear. Unlike the engagement with HMS Guerriérewhich Constitution began in a poor position taking heavy fire and then concluded at short range with broadsides, here Bainbridge shrewdly chose to bombard Java without putting Constitutionin harm’s way. 

Once satisfied that Java had been struck repeatedly by the heavier US cannonballs and damage sustained by the British gun crews, Bainbridge chose to bring the Constitutionalongside for the final reckoning. However, the maneuver did not go smoothly because Java was also attempting a similar move. The two ships came together with Java’s prow smashing into the rear port side of Constitution. Here was an opportunity that the British could not miss! Captain Lambert called for boarders to stream across the wooden bridge formed by Java’s jib-boom - the large mast rising above the prow - which was entangled with Constitution’s mizzen, or rear mast. This tenuous link was all the incentive the British needed as having endured an hour of maneuver where every attempt to engage was frustrated by Constitution pulling away, Lambert’s cry for boarders was eagerly answered. The pivotal moment approached as the British swept forward across Java’s deck. Faced with this charge the crew of Constitutionrose to the challenge and rapid musketry broke out from Constitution’s rigging. The British charge was doomed; not only had Captain Lambert and most of the boarders been smashed down onto Java’s deck by musket balls, the USS Constitution then pulled to starboard tearing Java’s jib-boom away and breaking free. 

With the range closed, the two ships began firing broadsides. Huge crescendos filled the air as smoke, fire and iron seared the gap between the warships. Aided by her thick wooden walls and larger cannons Constitutionkept the advantage. Below decks the cannon balls ripped great holes in the wooden walls and sent splinters through the tightly packed gun crews. The carnage was worse aboard Java as 24-pounder balls blew cannon from their mounts, smashed stairways and floors, but worse of all caused catastrophic damage to Java’s masts. By 16:00 PM Javawas a hulk, with masts down, rigging and sails draped across the deck and over the sides of the hull. Most of the crew was incapacitated including Captain Lambert, who was mortally wounded, and the British gunnery dropped away to sporadic single shots. Realizing that Javawas stricken Bainbridge turned out of range to assess damage to his own ship. 

Provided with time, the Java’s replacement commander, Lieutenant Chads, nailed the Royal Navy ensign to the stump that remained of the main mast and reorganized the ship. Unsurprisingly, Chads display of leadership was not enough and as the Constitution took up position for more broadsides, the Royal Navy ensign was hauled down. The time was 17:30 PM and HMS Java surrendered to USS Constitution.

The aftermath of the fight was a sorry affair; HMS Java was no longer seaworthy, 48 men were dying and 100 more were wounded. Due to Bainbridge’s decision to keep the Constitution out of range of the British guns for parts of the battle the US casualties were much lower, only 12 men being killed and 22 wounded. In this engagement with HMS Java‘Old Ironsides’ had once again protected her crew from the ravages of battle.

 

Analysis

The power of the Royal Navy was undisputed from 1805 until 1812 when the United States’ frigates targeted British warships. Here we see the primary reason for British defeat: unpreparedness. Professor Jeremy Black has suggested that the British warships were lacking a full complement of sailors which would reduce the frigates’ ability in battle.[3]This reduction in ability was due to the difficulty of firing and maneuvering a warship under fire without enough sailors for each role. The lack of sailors on board also suggests a lack of resources but the larger problem remains. By allowing the British frigates to patrol off the US coast whilst under-crewed shows unpreparedness because the US threat was deemed so weak that Royal Navy frigates were crewed for sailing rather than for fighting. This is demonstrated in the case of HMS Java which had an inexperienced crew as well as civilians on board. In light of these weaknesses, Phillip S. Meilinger concludes that HMS Javawas “hoping to avoid a fight”[4]which does not fit with the Royal Navy’s Nelsonian tradition of victory. 

The major inaccuracy in the story is the supposed equality of the USS Constitution and the British warships that she destroyed. Firstly, the Guerriéreand the Java were smaller in size and had thinner outer-walls, added to which the British cannons fired smaller projectiles which did less damage. In the case of the Guerriérethe US frigate had another advantage because the British ship was an elderly French warship and her masts were rotten and too weak for rapid changes of direction, such as tacking into the wind.[5]In another inaccuracy, the British gunnery is downplayed to the point of ineptitude. However, aboard HMS Guerriéreand HMS Java the traditional Royal Navy excellence was in place.[6]Despite this, George Canning MP and a previous Treasurer of the Navy spoke in Parliament of how the “sacred spell of the invincibility of the British navy was broken by those unfortunate captures”. Canning went on to stress that this war “may not be concluded before we have re-established the character of our naval superiority, and smothered in victories the disasters which we have now to lament, and to which we are so little habituated.”[7]

 

Conclusion

The Royal Navy had lost two warships in foreign waters and this shocked the establishment. The loss of HMS Guerriére and HMS Java to a fledgling US Navy was the 19thCentury equivalent to HMS Repulse andHMS Prince of Wales being sunk by the new Japanese naval air arm in 1941. With time the British overwhelmed the United States Navy, blockaded the coastline, retained Canada, and burnt the White House. Signed on Christmas Eve 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and arguably came just in time for the United States.[8]

For historians this is the tale that is remembered; for example in his magnum opus,The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy does not mention the US frigate victories at all. Instead Kennedy focuses upon the obvious limitations of British sea power, namely that in the future a large continental land mass like America could not be conquered by warships alone.[9]However, it remains ironic that the Royal Navy was held at bay by a warship named Constitution, evoking the document which had set North America apart from the British Empire. The British victory over the United States may have settled the relationship between the two countries, but the US successes at sea suggested an alarming future; a future which foresaw a rise of US maritime and naval power that would eclipse Britain in just over a century. 

 

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.


[1]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[3]Jeremy Black, A British View of the Naval War of 1812 (Naval History Vol. 22 Issue 4, August 2008, pp: 16-25)

[4]Phillip S. Meilinger, Review of The Perfect Wreck—“Old Ironsides” and HMS Java: A Story of 1812by Steven Maffeo (Naval War College Review

 Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp: 171-172)

[5]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[6]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77 and 99.

[7]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) 

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/18/address-respecting-the-war-with-americaDate accessed: 05/02/2019)

[8]Matthew Dennis, Reflections on a bicentennial: The War of 1812 in American Public Memory(Early American Studies Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2014), 275. 

[9]Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Penguin, 2017), 139.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig concludes his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He considers events around South Carolina’s secession in late 1860 and early 1861, specifically how conflict started and the role that Buchanan played.

You can read the earlier articles in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here, and preparing for secession here.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

On December 20, 1860, James Buchanan’s fears had come true as South Carolina seceded from the Union. The President had long foreseen the possibility that the South would take such drastic measures.  As we have seen prior, Buchanan attempted to prepare for secession, but Congress had ignored his advice and request to prepare for such an event.  Congress never raised the five regiments that the President had asked for nor did they make any efforts to enforce forts in the South.  The debate over slavery and the inability for the nation’s lawmaking body to agree on the issue left America in a divided state.  

Once Buchanan became aware of South Carolina’s treachery, he immediately ordered Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the forts in Charleston Harbor, to do nothing to provoke the situation but to stand firm.  The President advised Anderson to stay at Fort Moultrie on the mainland and to only move to the heavily fortified Fort Sumter offshore if an attack was imminent.  Buchanan believed that his orders were quite clear, however, just six days later he received word that Anderson had moved his location to Fort Sumter.  The President was perplexed by Anderson’s decision to disobey his orders.  Despite this, he believed that the major would not have left his location at Fort Moultrie unless he truly felt threatened.  As he recalls in his memoirs “the president never doubted for a moment that Major Anderson believed before movement that he had ‘tangible evidence’ of an impending attack required by his instructions.”[1]He thought it unlikely that South Carolina would initiate an attack since it had sent commissioners to Washington in order to find a peaceful solution. With that he waited for Major Anderson to send word of his decision and why he had violated orders. 

Major Anderson’s explanation was examined by Buchanan and he determined that Anderson had moved on a false alarm.  However, he could not confirm what caused the alarm because once Anderson moved, the remaining forts and all federal property in Charleston were taken over by state authorities.  On December 28, two days after the siege of federal property, Buchanan (who had not been informed of what had happened yet) received the commissioners from South Carolina as private citizens.  This was because he did not recognize the legality of secession and could not see them as ambassadors of a foreign republic.   He would listen to their requests, but it was only Congress who could receive them in the role in which they were sent. After hearing their request Buchanan wrote that “to abandon all those forts to South Carolina, on the demand of the commissioners claiming to represent her as an independent State, would have been a recognition, on the part of the Executive, of her right to secede from the Union.  This was not to be thought of for a moment.”[2] In stating this, Buchanan made it clear that he did not accept the legality of South Carolina’s secession. His strict adherence to the United States Constitution supported his decision. 

 

A growing divide

Even though the President had received the commissioners in good faith, South Carolina’s representatives in Congress justified their actions in Charleston, stating that Anderson had committed an act of aggression by moving his location to Fort Sumter.  They had acted in “self-defense” in seizing the remaining federal property in the city.  For this they blamed Buchanan and discredited his honor in such a way that his cabinet wrote a reply to their allegations stating, “this paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to accept it.”[3]From this point on, hostilities between Buchanan’s administration and South Carolina would increase.  In a special address to Congress about the situation in South Carolina in January 1861, despite calls for him to take direct action by the public, Buchanan wrote “I certainly had no right to make aggressive war upon any state…to Congress (and) to them exclusively belongs the power to declare war or to authorize the employment of military force in all cases contemplated by the Constitution…I refrain them from sending reinforcements to Major Anderson who commanded the forts in Charleston Harbor, until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent…”[4]

Although his message was meant to reassure South Carolina that he would not take direct military action at the present, he still intended to collect tax revenue from the state because in his eyes, South Carolina was still part of the Union.  Senator Jefferson Davis argued against Buchanan’s failure to recognize his state’s right to secede and his ignorance to continue to collect taxes.  At that point, all of Buchanan’s hopes to negotiate with the state ended as “all friendly intercourse between them and the president, whether of a political or social character, had ceased.”[5]

 

Military build-up

Buchanan was not going to let the South leave under his watch. Although he strongly believed that many of the other Southern States wanted to negotiate with the North and the Federal Government, he recognized that military action may be required. Pending Congressional approval, President Buchanan had made preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter with an additional two hundred soldiers.  By December 15, the Brooklyn a heavily armed ship of war was prepared to be sent to Fort Sumter with supplies and reinforcements. Buchanan was well aware of its preparation sanctioned by the Secretary of the Navy and General Scott.  However, at the time, there was no call for alarm because the President had received a note from South Carolina insisting that they had no intention to attack the forts in Charleston Harbor.  In addition, the state had not officially seceded from the Union yet according to the Federal Government.  The Brooklynstayed ready in New York Harbor incase the situation changed in the state.[6]

When South Carolina officially cut off all negotiations with the President in early 1861, James Buchanan realized that war was imminent. He took immediate action in ordering the Brooklyn to Charleston Harbor via General Scott.  However, General Scott, after seeking the advice of a naval expert, transferred the orders to an unarmed merchant vessel Star of the West.  His reasoning was that a faster ship would provide for the element of surprise and a quick delivery of the reinforcements to Fort Sumter.  This was against the knowledge of the President, who was intent on getting troops to the fort as soon as possible.  General Scott, upon some consideration, recognized his error and immediately sent word to New York to transfer the orders back to the Brooklyn.  However, it was too late as the ship had sailed for Charleston and was beyond reach for communication.[7]

 

Charleston Harbor

When the Star of the West arrived in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, the batteries set up in the harbor opened fire on the ship forcing it to change course and return to New York.  Its captain had been instructed to land his troops at nearby Fort Monroe and to await the Brooklyn for support in the event he was unable to land at Fort Sumter.  These orders apparently were disregarded in the haste of the retreat to sea after the attack.  Major Anderson did not return fire because he believed that the guns had been fired by mistake and not by the South Carolina governor’s orders.  He was wrong, Governor Pickens had given the order and after the attack sent a message to Anderson demanding that he surrender the fort to him.  Anderson told him that he would not surrender by any means.[8]This marked the last time that the government of the United States under James Buchanan attempted to use military action to secure Charleston Harbor via Fort Sumter.  

Between January and February, before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, James Buchanan could only stand by and watch as the nation dissolved around him.  He grew irritated over Congress’s lack of action in declaring war against the South or in giving him the powers to do so.  Buchanan believed that Congress and Congress alone had the authority to authorize him as commander-in chief to take direct action.  He states that it was the “imperative duty of Congress to furnish the President or his successor the means of repelling force by force, should this become necessary to preserve the Union.  They, nevertheless, refused to perform this duty as much pertinacity as they had manifested in rebuilding all measures of compromise.”[9]

Unfortunately for James Buchanan, the South at the time still had a dominant presence in Congress and the string of events had created confusion within the other states.  Therefore, little could be accomplished as the nation’s governing body had been divided by secession.  It was only after Buchanan had left office, under a new Congress, the powers that Buchanan had wanted were given to his successor Abraham Lincoln.[10]

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during the secession of South Carolina? Let us know below.


[1]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 120. 

[2]Buchanan, 121. 

[3]Buchanan, 121. 

[4]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 82-84. 

[5]Buchanan, 85.

[6]Buchanan, 110.

[7]Buchanan, 126.

[8]Buchanan, 127

[9]Buchanan, 102. 

[10]Buchanan, 102. 

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark considers the background to the War of 1812 and the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

Background to war

The naval war was driven by the British Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of United States’ Navy sailors into British service.[1]In fact, the British warships would stop and send Marines aboard the American ship and forcibly remove Royal Navy deserters. In naval terms, impressment is the term for forced servitude on board ship and is best known from ‘press-gangs’ which searched harbor towns for Royal Navy recruits. In his popular study of the USS Constitution Donald Macintyre views the British infringement on the United States’ shipping as deeply wounding to American national pride.[2]Today this diplomatic incident may have resulted in increased naval activity or tense diplomatic discussions but in 1812 the only viable option for the US Government was war. This decision could not be taken lightly by the United States because the Royal Navy was not only highly skilled but also superior in size. For instance, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 83 warships in American waters, and by 1813 this number had increased to 129 warships, including a number of 74 gunned ships of the line.[3]Macintyre makes the point that only a fraction of the Royal Navy would be dispatched to the US; but regardless of British focus on Napoleon in Europe, victory against the United States seemed to be assured.[4]

In contrast to the Royal Navy, the United States Navy appeared woefully inadequate. However, whilst the US Navy was hopelessly outnumbered there were three initial advantages. Firstly, the US Navy was fighting in home waters in close proximity to friendly harbors which meant that repairing and resupplying ships was straightforward. Compare this to the British, who had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain or northwards to Halifax in Canada in order to reach home bases. This was a key component of A. T. Mahan’s famous thesis on sea power which predicted victory for a navy with closer port facilities.[5]Secondly, the crews of the US ships were well-trained and led by officers who possessed skill and ability. Captain Isaac Hull, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge are notable figures who each gained successes against the British and whose actions will feature shortly. Thirdly, the US had commissioned a new fleet of frigates whose size and armament was superior to the Royal Navy’s frigates. As an example, a typical British frigate HMS Java carried 49, 18-pounder cannons whilst the USS United States mounted 55, 24-pounder cannon.[6]Clearly, the American frigate, which was a sister-ship to the USS Constitution, possessed a firepower advantage in both numbers and size of shot. So with these local advantages the US frigate fleet put to sea; let us focus on the USS Constitution.

 

USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriére

Interestingly, the first confrontation between the USS Constitutionand the Royal Navy took the form of a wager back in 1798. Challenged by a Royal Navy frigate, Constitution agreed to race into the wind for one day and the winner would receive a cask of Madeira, a highly desirable fortified wine. The US trumped the British in the race, thus foreshadowing later US successes. 

The first battle under examination was fought by the Constitutionon August 19, 1812 when Captained by Isaac Hull, the USS Constitution met Captain James Dacre’s HMS Guerriére whilst patrolling off Nova Scotia. If the British were confident of victory before the battle, they certainly had a right to be pleased once the engagement began. With a better initial position, HMS Guerriére was able to fire broadsides at the Constitution whilst the US frigate was still attempting to maneuver alongside. The British held the advantage because whilst the Constitutionremained to the rear of the British frigate, the US crew held their fire. In contrast, the British loaded and fired but without much effect.[7]

At this point however the battle turned as Isaac Hull brought the Constitution alongside the Guerriéreand finally authorized the cannon to open fire. Having held a slim advantage up to this point HMS Guerriére was unable to out-maneuver the Constitution because Captain Dacre worried that his ships rotten masts would not handle the strain.[8]Unable to escape from Isaac Hull’s grasp, the greater size of the crew, armor and armament of the US frigate left the Royal Navy warship riddled with jagged holes. Furthermore, following deliberate targeting by the US cannon Guerriére’s masts had been felled and the British frigate was motionless. Having fired a number of broadsides into the stricken warshipHull accepted the British surrender from Captain James Dacre. The battle was over and the Americans’ had suffered fourteen casualties, compared to the British with seventy eight casualties.[9]

The imbalance in casualties can be attributed to superior US gunnery which was faster and more accurate, and the construction of the Constitution meant that British rounds did not penetrate. It is worth mentioning that USS Constitution’s nickname, ‘Old Ironsides’, was borne of her wooden walls which were thick enough to cause British cannon balls to bounce-off. The result was further illustrated by the need to scuttle the British warship because the damage was so severe that towing the prize back to the US was impossible. The once proud HMS Guerriére was set alight and left to burn in the lonely ocean.

 

The second and final part of the series is here.

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.


[1]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) 

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/18/address-respecting-the-war-with-americaDate accessed: 05/02/2019)

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 36.

[3]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 196 and 243.

[4]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 36.

[5]Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783(The Project Gutenberg eBook: September 26, 2004, accessed: 22/04/2019. Originally published: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 535.

[6]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39 and 43.

[7]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77.

[8]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[9]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

Art in the Soviet Union underwent a number of phases – from great restriction in Stalin’s time to some more open, less restricted periods in the decades after. Here, Alyse D. Beale provides an overview of the history of art in the USSR, with a focus on Socialist Realism art.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

As with all else under Joseph Stalin’s domain, arts within the Soviet Union glistened with the red tinge of communist propaganda. Whereas Realism in the West sought to illustrate an unromanticized vision of daily life, Socialist Realism employed its artists as propagandists. Soviet authorities ordered countless works of herculean factory workers, the victorious motherland in all its monumental glory, and its robust leaders strolling the Kremlin. Yet with Stalin’s death, Soviet art evolved parallel to its country, becoming at once more democratic, realistic, and rebellious. Socialist Realism, once created as propaganda for a political machine, later became a tool for working against the very regime that created it.

 

We recommend you view:Gerasimov, Aleksandr MikhailovichI.V.Stalin and K.E.Voroshilov in the Kremlin after the Rain (1938). 296х386. https://painting-planet.com/iv-stalin-and-voroshilov-in-the-kremlin-by-alexander-gerasimov/

 

What is Socialist Realism?

Socialist Realism in its early form was not so much art, but a political machine that sought to indoctrinate every citizen with communist ideology. The movement first appeared in 1932 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers and was later adopted as the Soviet Union's official and sole art form two years later when the Soviet Writer's Congress outlined the criteria for all future works for art. Socialist Realism, as Karl Radekexplained during the Congress, meant a reflection of "that other, new reality -- the reality of socialism...moving towards the victory of the international proletariat…[and a] literature of hatred for putrefying capitalism."

 

We recommend you view:Mikhail Khmelko.The Triumph of the Victorious Mother-Motherland (1949) . https://01varvara.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/mikhail-khmelko-the-triumph-of-the-victorious-mother-motherland-1949/

 

The Writer's Congress mandated that Socialist Realism embody the Soviets' vision of themselves and their future. The movement emphasized monumental sculptures and buildings to depict the country’s strength and wealth. Bold music prompted workers to action, and paintings displayed cheerful workers, happy peasants, or aggrandized leaders, such as Stalin and Lenin. Each work of art had to meet four requirements: it must be proletariat, typical, realistic, and partisan. Each artwork must show a connection to the proletariat on a basic level, meaning that they be simple to understand and depict scenes from the common man rather than the bourgeoisie. More importantly, each work ought to be partisan, an unquestionable endorsement of the communist party. Socialist Realism left no room for interpretation; it was either total support for the regime, or it was treason.

 

Art in Thaw

Stalin's death ushered in a somewhat freer era, popularly known as "the thaw" under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Though arts within the Soviet Union remained restricted, Stalin's death allowed many new artists to enter the scene. Existing artists, too, embraced this more relaxed atmosphere and created more freely and originally. 

As the country underwent a de-Stalinization, authorities altered works to eliminate Stalin's likeness. The Stalinskaya Station was renamed as Semenovskaya, and removed the dictator's portrait and quote from its walls. At Belorusskaja Station, the new regime replaced a mosaic of Stalin with a red labor flag. 

 

We recommend you view:On left, Stalinskaya Station. On right, the renamed Semenovskaya Station with Stalin's head removed.  Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.realussr.com/ussr/moscow-underground-without-stalin-see-the-gaps/. 

 

Because the USSR remained highly censorious, even during “the thaw,” many artists opted to create truly realistic works that avoided any political references at all. Other artists and writers, such as V. Dudintsev who penned Not By Bread Alone, an indirect criticism of the regime, pushed the limits of what Khrushchev would allow as art, and helped pave the way for the late Socialist Realism movement.

Though Khrushchev publically supported more liberal policies concerning the arts, he often contradicted himself, which inadvertently popularized the later, more defiant movement. When the 1957 All World Festival of Youth introduced the USSR to an array of American modern and pop art, Khrushchev denounced it and martyred artists unwilling to conform to state guidelines. 

Late Socialist Realism garnered even more support when authorities ended a 1974 art show with bulldozers and a show of force. Government critics thereafter renamed the event as the "Bulldozer Exhibition." These actions divided art within the Soviet Union into two sects: official and unofficial. While the official state art remained Socialist Realism, unofficial art became more rebellious.

 

A Painted Rebellion

The Severe Style and Sots Art were two artistic movements that grew from Soviet artists’ rebellion against traditional Socialist Realism. While the Severe Style under Khrushchev’s rule critiqued the government implicitly, the later Sots Art movement grew increasingly blatant in their criticisms, and even mockery of, the Soviet Union.

The Severe Style portrayed Socialist Realism much more realistically than the overly propagandized, early works. Late Socialist Realism became more pessimistic in their view of the working class and embraced western styles of Expressionism. Many artists, sick of communist ideology, refused to paint any topics resembling works done under Stalin at all. Instead, they opted to create depictions of daily life or images that represented change in their country. The Severe Style favored construction sites for this reason, as it implied support for a newer, freer country.

 

We recommend you view:Bohouš Cizek.Untitled (circa 1960). http://www.eleutheria.cz/socpresent.php?lang=en&image=023

 

Technically the fusion of Soviet and Pop Art, the Sots Art movement was a complete rejection of the state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Sots Art is defined by its satirical nature and inclusion of Pop Art as a means of criticizing Soviet policies. Art critics claimed that Sots Art pieces, such as those done by Komar and Melimid (famous for their representation of Stalin sitting aside E.T., with a hiding Hitler in the shadows) were "at once subversive and nostalgic." It was a "manifestation of so-called styob, which can be translated as a kind of 'mockery' that involves miming something to such a degree that the original and the parody become indistinguishable."

 

We recommend you view:Komar & Melamid.Yalta Conference (1982).Tempera and oil on canvas, 72”X48”. http://russian.psydeshow.org/images/komar-melamid.htm

 

Art in Transition

Late Socialist Realism became a channel for protest, but also a symbol of their society’s transition to becoming, though with varying degrees, more democratic, realistic, and free.

Perhaps Soviet artists' boldest move was exposing the lie of happiness under Stalin's totalitarian regime. They did so not by political sabotage or physical rebellion, but by implementing ink and paint to portray what life was truly like for the ordinary Soviet citizen. Late Socialist Realism took no part in "heroic idealization of the working man," as Stalin had. These new artists exposed the monotony, drudgery, and grime of factories and fields if they chose this subject at all.

 

We recommend you view: Ivan Babenko. Waiting, set in 1945 at the end of WWII (1975-1985). Oil on canvas, 123x167 cm.

https://kieramotorina.tumblr.com/post/118353730352/week-8-waiting-ivan-babenko-1945

 

Late Soviet art became more democratic in the sense that it became available to all, rather than just state-sanctioned artists. Shortly after Stalin's death, the first public art competition took place, accepting submissions anonymously and allowing non-established artists to enter. Even the jury had become more democratic, composed of those with various professions and without allegiances and vested interests.

 

Embers to Flames

Socialist Realism ended with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Artists, glad to be free from a controlling communist regime, began creating works independently from the state. It seemed as though all were glad to forget Soviet art and life in general. A "fatigue" of anything remotely Soviet led many to dismantle and hide works of Socialist Realism.

Recently, however, the discussion of Socialist Realism has gone from "stultifyingly boring" to trendy. Art collectors and Russian moguls began snatching Socialist Realism pieces, interested more in their history than in the artists' ideologies or techniques. Such pieces have been put on display around the world, featured in exhibitions from Berlin to London and even Minneapolis. One article, interestingly named "Socialist realism: Socialist in content, capitalist in price," dubbed 2014 "the year of socialist realism." The article described a 2014 Sotheby's auction that featured around forty Socialist Realism works, but the exhibition was only one of many. A June 2014 auction estimated that about twenty-four of the pieces were collectively worth about $7.7 million. Socialist Realism, once a tabooed subject of art history, gained a universal interest in a way that it failed to do even in its prime.

 

We recommend you view:Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov.First of May Celebration (1950)
This work, celebration International Worker's Day, was sold for 1.5 million by Sothebys London. https://tmora.org/2009/02/02/russkiy-salon-select-favorites-and-newly-revealed-works/yuri-ivanovich-pimenov-first-of-may-celebration-1950-132x300/

 

What do you think of Socialist Realism? Let us know below.

References

 

  1. Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  2. Hosking, Geoffrey A. The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.409.

  3. Khidekel, Regina. It's the Real Thing: Soviet & Post-Soviet Sots Art & American Pop Art. Minneapolis, Minn.: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum :, 1998. P. 19.

  4. Lindsay, Ivan. "Socialist Realism." Agents | Dealers - An Authority on Russian Art. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.russianartdealer.com/socialist-realism/.

  5. Neumeyer, Joy. "Socialist Realism’s Russian Renaissance." Socialist Realism's Russian Renaissance. May 19, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.artnews.com/2014/05/19/socialist-realism-has-a-russian-renaissance/.

  6. Pyzik, Agata. "Get Real: Why Socialist Realist Painting Deserves Another Look." The Calvert Journal. December 18, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/3475/socialist-realism-Soviet-official-painting.

  7. Radek, Karl. "Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art." Karl Radek: Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art (August 1934). Accessed December 6, 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/radek/1934/sovietwritercongress.htm#s7

  8. "Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art." Guggenheim. https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/reflections-socialist-realism-and-russian-art.

  9. "Socialist Realism History, Characteristics of Political Propaganda Art." Encyclopedia of Art Education. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  10. Thorpe, Vanessa. New Exhibition in Berlin Brings Forgotten Soviet Art Back to Reality. October 24, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/25/soviet-art-painting-berlin-exhibition.http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/socialist-realism.htm.

  11. Vinogradova, Yulia. "Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price." Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price. July 24, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://rbth.com/arts/2014/07/24/socialist_realism_socialist_in_content_capitalist_in_price_38351.html.

Ancient Rome was the center of one of the most powerful empires that the world has ever known. But who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome? Here, Adrian Burrow of www.imagininghistory.co.uk explains why he thinks the intriguing Vestal Virgins were the most powerful.

You can see some of Adrian’s past articles for the site on the weapon that conquered Ancient Egypt (here), bizarre World War One body armor (here), and the three most bizarre tanks ever (here).

The Sacrifice of Vestal  by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

The Sacrifice of Vestal by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this thousand-word article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’. 

At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometers. Just to put that in perspective, the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 billion soccer pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five-a-side soccer. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.

 

Emperor Trajan

The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor - in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* - who was responsible for some sixty five million people. The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power then. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor? You could argue that both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people.** However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the vestal virgins.

 

Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; they did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours, “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”

The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome. We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’ (reference at bottom of article)

“Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta's fire.”

Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:

“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”

 

Vestals as ‘Super-heroes’

The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influencedby their words. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. This was a power that the Vestals would wield to influence and change the political landscape.

The Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious. 

That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through the besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.*** 

Yet, what power comes without severe danger? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?

 

Who do you think the most powerful people in Ancient Rome were? Let us know below.

 

Adrian is the co-owner of Imagining History School Workshops - an organisation dedicated to bringing the very best history workshops to primary schools across the UK. You can find out more at www.imagininghistory.co.uk or follow them on twitter at @imagininghist

If you want to keep up to date with Adrian's writing, including his regular Playing with History video game feature for thesixthaxis.com, then you can do so @adewritesstuff.

 

 

*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.

**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst taking a pee at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.

*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty-year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she thinks Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, a museum that considers the dark past of the Nazi regime, is an excellent museum.

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available  here .

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available here.

In my previous article posted here on ‘History is Now’ (here) I spoke about Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known tourist destination in Berlin. I talked about this over-commercialised site, and how completely insensitive and underwhelming I felt the ‘attraction’ was. Funnily enough, a few days ago and around a month after I wrote this article, my Dad handed me a page from the British Daily Mailnewspaper with the headline ‘Mona Lisa? It’s a bit rubbish’. It was a small section on the page and detailed the results of a survey done by the airline ‘easyJet’ about what the most desirable tourist destinations to visit in Europe were. While the Mona Lisa was named the most disappointing, Checkpoint Charlie came in at a close second with 84% of 2,000 Britons polled saying they disliked the site. At the risk of being smug, or using the phrase ‘called it’, I’m hardly surprised. It does, however, further the idea that this site is rather useless at its intention and doesn’t exactly educate or even interest many visitors. I was actually rather pleased to read this; at least quite a few other people actually agree with me and I’m not just overreacting!  

Now we’ve seen an instance of failure in the museum sector, perhaps I can offer a view and recommendation for a museum I feel could not be more opposite to the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Situated perhaps less than a five-minute walk apart, this museum to me is a symbol of the right way to do it; an example of how to educate accurately and effectively on a sensitive subject while remaining interesting and respectful: The Topography of Terror.

 

The Topography of Terror Museum

The building is initially imposing, yet it is not obvious as to what it contains. Situated next to a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, and on the site of the SS central command, this simply curated museum takes the visitors through the chronology of the reign of terror that the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security lead over the people of Germany and beyond during the Second World War. With room for temporary and special exhibitions within the space that remain within the general theme of the museum, this site doesn’t hide anything. The site that it is on also provokes thought. What better way to keep the memory of the horrors inflicted alive than by placing them in a building sat on the area where the headquarters of the main perpetrators once resided. There is something fairly poetic and thought-provoking about this. Furthermore, with the remains of a piece of the Berlin Wall encompassed into the site that you can walk along and see the remnants of the graffiti from those that lived through it, it further serves as a reminder of the humanity caught up in war, and seeks to remind you that you are learning about individual and real people who had to face the horrors that presented themselves to them during both the Second World War and the Cold War. The area is alive with history, and therefore is the perfect place to keep history alive in. 

When you first enter the Topography of Terror, I would argue that most would be struck with the expanse of space, cleanliness and I should think some would argue sparsity of the place. The museum is free, something that I always appreciate. So, there is no funnelling towards a desk where they’ll ask for your money and try and sell you an overpriced guide book on top of your tickets. Furthermore, and thankfully, there is no gift shop. I hardly think it would be appropriate to place the SS symbol on a pencil or a tote bag to sell at the end of your visit, so a huge well done to the person that manages to keep the retail and commercialisation issue away. Therefore, upon entrance you are free to roam wherever you wish to begin. Despite this, the fantastic curation of the museum lends itself to naturally leading you in a chronological order through the build up to the Nazi regime and through the Second World War.

 

The Curation

I mentioned that it is the fantastic curation that pulls you into a kind of ‘one-way system’ concept around the room, yet the curation is simple. The entire concept is just boards hung from the ceiling, with one main introductory board per section, numbered in order to help the flow. As you can see, it pulls you around each corner and makes you curious for the next board, in a rather morbid way perhaps. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. Just because these subjects are some of the darkest and bloodiest points in history doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Besides, if people are interested, or if it is interesting to them then they are learning about the topic. Ultimately, isn’t this the aim of museums such as the Topography of Terror? Education of these subjects so they shall never be repeated again is of course the main remit of the museum. Consequently, I see no issue with a visitor of this museum finding the content of interest, and with a want to learn more around each information board. 

The phrase ‘it pulls no punches’ may be a little insensitive on this subject, but also fairly appropriate. Perhaps one of my favourite things about this museum is it does not seek to hide the facts, or veil them in mystery and inaccuracy. The facts, the stats, the numbers and the photos are clear for everyone to see. It perhaps for some is an overload of information and writing; if you aren’t already interested in the topic then perhaps this isn’t the museum for you. Certainly, it isn’t a museum to bring younger children. They would find it pretty boring, with no interaction or engagement tailored to them. But in my opinion, this isn’t poor planning or curation on the museum’s part. They knew their target audience, and they knew what information they were aiming at who, and in my opinion they have pulled this off very well. The text is simple and fairly broken up into smaller paragraphs, interspersed with many photos of varied sizes. It gives the exhibition variety, but also makes it an information packed display which is of course the overall aim.

 

The Meaning of the Museum

The reason I wanted to speak about this museum though, is because of its greater meaning. It has been created by the German people in full knowledge of the history of the site that it is sat on, and it is a symbol that they are not afraid of the truth. While a comical concept, there was once a thought of ‘don’t mention the war’ when it came to the countries that were involved. However, this museum shows that education and information does not have to be hidden from its place of origin and removes the concept of guilt or blame and simply seeks to teach so we can learn from mistakes. It baffles me that there was once a thought that Germany should not be open about the crimes that occurred during the Second World War. After all, and I think I can be accurate and agreed with when I say this, the Nazi regime and the extreme SS that came from it were not truly representative of the country or the majority of its people at the time. These days, while neo-Nazism does exist in various countries and that is a terrifying thought, the viewpoint that caused the atrocities that the Topography of Terror details are reserved luckily to a small section of people. This museum proves that the past doesn’t have to be hidden, or glossed over and more to the point can in fact be shown in greater detail to educate as many people as possible. 

This museum, and certainly this mindset, is a triumph. I can only hope that this continues and spreads wider. The Topography of Terror achieves what all museums should set out to do; clear and accurate information, accessible to as many people as possible and presented in an intriguing and unique way. Even if the subject matter is difficult and sensitive, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, usually the total opposite. It is these subjects that need to be understood the most, by as many people as possible. Its museums like this one that ensure that it can be understood, so it is never repeated in history again. 

 

I would highly recommend this museum. If you are interested, here is the website and if you are in the area, I would urge you to visit. Let’s keep the knowledge of topics like this and the museums that tell the stories as widely known as possible. Link here.

 

I hope you can come along with me on this exploration. Don’t hesitate to comment, feedback, and you could even email me for a chat about all this on s.k.bent@hotmail.co.uk. I would really love people to get involved in this.

The U.S. Coast Guard played a key role during World War Two. Here, Daniel L. Smith tells us about the varied and important role the service played in saving lives and contributing to the US and Allied Powers’ war efforts around the globe.

You can read a few of Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here) and Medieval jesters (here).

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The naval history of World War II is propense, given the size of the war and participation of nations involved. And more often than not, the United States Navy offers a huge and understandingly repetitive presence over the naval history of WWII. More often than not however, it is the United States Coast Guard’s selfless service and true expense that is lost in that large shadow. As an Honorably Discharged U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, I wear a Coast Guard “Excellence” Ribbon, as well as the 9/11 Transportation Medal for service in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. With experience in rough seas, law enforcement, and search and rescue – I am pleased to share this story about the U.S.C.G. in WWII.

In November of 1941 the Coast Guard went from the Treasury Department to the Department of the Navy; so perhaps this was why the histories of WWII usually look past or only shortly mention the Coast Guard’s priceless role in the great event. The United States declared war after the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, and spent four years and eight months in the fray of internal and external conflict. It was this catalyst that the Coast Guard’s accountabilities to its service to country extended significantly, being valued more than just search-and-rescue, and law enforcement; now it was seen completely integrating militarily.[1]

The Coast Guard was actually involved in some very significant events in World War II. How effective were they? Seaman John Cullen, for instance, was walking the beach performing routine night patrol on the 13thof June of 1942. During his walk Seaman Cullen observed four Germans landing ashore, on a saboteur mission code-named Operation Pastorius. Seaman Cullen of the U.S. Coast Guard was actuallythefirstAmerican who came into contact with the enemy on the shores of mainland USA during WWII.[2]Another incident, CGC Icarus (WPC-110), a 165-ft patrol boat that once had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, put a German U-352 under water on 9 May 1942, off the south coast of Charleston, South Carolina.[3]The Icarus crew took on 33 prisoners that day. They were the first German nationals taken in combat as prisoners by any U.S. armed force.[4]

During the entire length of WWII, U.S. Coast Guard elements sent 12 German and two Japanese submarines to the bottom of the ocean, and would end up capturing two German warships. Finally, Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro was the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It was at the 2ndBattle of the Matanikau, Petty Officer Munro was tasked with leading the extraction of 400 United States Marines that had been beaten and overrun on the Japanese island. Munro used a 7.62 mm deck-mounted machine gun aboard his “Higgins Boat” to direct a suppressing fire against the Japanese positions as the other recovery boats took on the beaten and battered American Marines. He would end up selflessly putting himself between heavy fire from the Japanese forces and the U.S. Marines – leading the ten landing craft and saving all five-hundred U.S. Marines, including 25 wounded, all escaped.[5] 

 

A DRIVING FORCE

The United States Coast Guard wasand continues to remain to be the most professional, elite, and underappreciated service out of the 5 branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. In WWII history, evidence suggests the U.S. Coast Guard was more involved than the history books lead on. So, justhow effective was the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II? Admiral Chester Nimitz highly praised the valuable and selfless performance of Coast Guard men and women in World War II by stating: “I know of no instance wherein they did not acquit themselves in the highest traditions of their Service, or prove themselves worthy of their Service motto, ‘Semper Paratus’—‘Always Ready.’”[6]

It was back in 1837 that the Coast Guard went even further with the order to save lives and property. The main functions of the service were no longer just law enforcement related, but now relied upon as the saviors of life and property with maritime safety taking up an equally important role. For a branch of service that has less peopleserving in it than the New York City Police Department, it always seems it is the U.S. Coast Guard that always stands out at the end of their long days. The Coast Guard has been involved in every single one of our nations wars at sea –along the side of their Navy counterparts. These brief aforementioned illustrations stand as evidence to the examples of the Coast Guard, its crew, and its mission capabilities. Of course, all of this centered around being a 5thmilitary branch of service, with all privileges entitled. 

There is another historical event that would equal silenceto the incredible effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s mission capabilities. Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro, is the aforementioned Coast Guardsman who would equally compare in this quiet and unpromotedglory in while their service. Its interesting in part to think about just howunrecognized the service is. Proof? Half of my recruit training company didn’t even know the Coast Guard was a seagoing service when asked about it by the Company Commanders.[7]If recruits are naïve about the mission, is it unreasonable to assume that the general public wouldn’t have an idea of Coast Guard’s mission effectiveness? Of course not.

The mission effectiveness pre-dating our modern era is apparent when looking back in the historical entries. The Revenue Cutter Service (as it used to be known) was re-named United States Coast Guard in 1915, after the U.S. Government observed justhoweffective they were as a wartime andnon-wartime entity.[8]It is amazing that with such successes in the field and low publicity, both publicly and within the other four military branches, the Coast Guard still continues to remain the mostunderappreciated branch of the services. 

 

UNDERAPPRECATED, MOST EFFECTIVE

Overall, the Coast Guard performed valiantly with statistics of their own military accomplishments during WWII. 12 submarines were sunk in the Atlantic Theatre by Coast Guard Cutters, Coast Guard Anti-Sub Planes, and Coast Guard-crewed naval vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard documented that from 1941, to the end of the war, Coast Guard crews had served successfully on board Navy attack transports (APs & APAs) and with personnel to spare. They continue on to say, “It was an obvious choice to let the Coast Guard continue to assist in manning various ships of the ever-increasing Navy fleet. They readily took to all of the various types of landing craft utilized by the Navy, including the Landing Craft Infantry, Large, or LCI(L)s, beginning in 1943.”[9]

Technologically, the Coast Guard headed a cooperative effort between scientists and the U.S. Navy, to develop the Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) system. The Coast Guard stated that, “Pulse transmission of radio waves permits LORAN to measure the time a signal travels. This allows an infinite number of lines of position to be placed over the Earth’s surface by radio. Using special charts and a simple receiver, a plane or ship could determine its general location within a few miles by longitude and latitude. LORAN is the first use of electronic navigation, precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS).”[10]

In June of 1942, legislation in the Executive Branch changed the face of the U.S. Coast Guard forever sealing their fate as a military service. Further, the presidential decree allowed for the centralization of the Coast Guard as the premier multi-mission branch of service. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office:

“The President delegates port-security to the Coast Guard. Responsibilities included: Control of anchorage and movement of all vessels in port; Issuance of identification cards and the supervision of access to vessels and waterfront facilities; Fire-prevention measures including inspections, recommendations and enforcement; Firefighting activities, including use of fireboats, trailer pumps and other extinguishing agents; Supervision of the loading and stowage of explosives and military ammunition; Boarding and examination of vessels in port; Sealing of vessels' radios; Licensing of vessels for movement in local waters and for departure; Guarding of important facilities; Enforcement of all regulations governing vessels and waterfront security; Maintenance of water patrols; General enforcement of federal laws on navigable waters and other miscellaneous duties.”[11]

 

Handling and piloting these small boats in the rough surf is most certainly a specialized skill. Additionally, this type of emphasized skillset was not common among men in the Navy. Not guys in the Coast Guard though. Many of the coxswains (small boat handlers) had learned this skill from pushing boats through the surf at coastal lifesaving stations. Coast Guard small boat handlers were actually only at lifesaving stations. Most were highly seasoned small-boat handlers, as this proved valuable to the service. Maneuvering landing craft through strong currents, reefs, sand bars and heavy surf, is what these lifesavers excel at. Further, their aid to amphibious operations during the entirety of the war is infinite. 

 

RISING UP

The experience of these surfmen were priceless during amphibious operations. The Coast Guard's surfmen acted as trainers and coaches to the U.S. Navy small boatmen trying to learn the complexities of controlling craft in the rough waters and heavy seas. During the early period of WWII, thousands of Coast Guard and Navy personnel were skilled and apt to handle landing craft in preparation for the beaches.

Part of that landing craft mission was landing troops at D-Day, but, given the sheer size of the operation, the Navy and Army asked that the Coast Guard also provide a flotilla of ships to rescue Americans stranded in the water. The Coastie’s punctually rose-up to complete the challenge, pulling from their daily experience in saving lives for over a century. The Coast Guards Cutters and other small-craft went to war on D-Day. They were literally behind the first wave of landing craft hitting the beaches of Normandy. They had been told to stay two miles away from the shoreline, but most of the Coastie’s took their craft closer to shore where they could rescue more lives. 

The United States Coast Guard pulled over 400 men out of the water that day. One small-boat named "Homing Pigeon," manned by the Coast Guard, rescued 126 lives in one day.[12]It was the Coast Guard Cutters Eastwind and Southwind that would end up capturing the Nazi vessel Externsteine off the coast of Greenland doing weather and supply duty after a brief fire-fight with nobody killed. The Coast Guardsmen gave the newly captured Nazi ship the name USS Eastbreeze and placed 37 men on board to man the vessel. Eastbreeze would end up sailing to Boston where the U.S. Navy renamed her USS Callao. Nazi supply vessel Externsteine was the only enemy ship captured while at sea by any U.S. naval forces during World War II.

What was the scope of the Coast Guard’s rescue operations in WWII? A thorough examination of the United States military’s records in the European phase of the war will reveal just how operationally effective the small services were outside of battle. 4,243 servicemen and merchant mariners were saved, and of these 1,658 survivors were picked up from being torpedoed along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. 810 souls were saved in the North Atlantic, and in the Mediterranean 115 saved. Further, 1,660 were saved from rescue cutters from the English Channel at D-Day. The fact is almost four and a half million fighting soldiers would embark by ship, to fight the enemy in Europe and Africa. Of all who were deployed , 3,954 were lost at sea.

 

THE TOUGH KEEP GOING

Over the course of World War Two, the U.S. Coast Guard remained completely active with the remaining landing forces until Japan surrendered. Other operations that contributed to the Coastie’s efforts were mine-sweeping off the coasts during occupation. At the finish of major military operations in the Pacific, the soldiers., sailors, and airmen being ferried home by the Coast Guard would come to know the last ride home as… “Magic Carpet” rides. These rides home would have to have been one of the most relieving moments of any war wearied serviceman. 

The Coast Guard contributed as much as any other branch of service to the war effort as part of the amphibious forces in the Pacific theatre of war. The men of this nation's smallest branch of service, – smaller than the N.Y.P.D. to be exact – proved as heroic and valiant as the men in the other branches. The Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, in 1946, would stand on the podium and publicly state that during the war the United States Coast Guard "earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of service." 

The fact of the matter is…“Their experience in operating in all types of surf conditions as well  as on the high seas made the Coast Guard crews a valuable addition to the Allied invasion fleets.”[13]The United States Coast Guard continues to be the most elite branch of service operational today, also making the Coast Guard statistically, the best the five branches of military has to offer. The truth is that for being the most underappreciated branch of service; the men and women of the Coast Guard display their moraland ethicalprinciples in the line of duty.[14]They truly were mission effective in WWII.

 

 

What do you think of the US Coast Guard in World War Two? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at complexamerica.weebly.com.


[1]Bishop, Eleanor C. 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co. https://archive.org/details/printsinsand00bish_0.

[2]Walling, Michael G. 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=31947742&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[3]Ibid., pp. 204-207.

[4]Ibid., p. 208.

[5]Quesada, Alejandro de. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online. p. 97.

[6]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (monograph 7).

[7]“USCG Basic Training Experience, Delta-162” Daniel L. Smith, 2002.

[8]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 17)

[9]"U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Aug/08/2001789793/-1/-1/0/LCIS.PDF.

[10]"Time Line 1900's - 2000's." United States Coast Guard (USCG) Historian's Office. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.history.uscg.mil/Complete-Time-Line/Time-Line-1900-2000/.

[11]Ibid.(USCG) Historians Office.

[12]Christy, Gabe. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/60-coast-guard-cutters-saved-400-men-d-day.html.

[13]"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-personnel-notebook/2018/01/whats-in-the-coast-guards-secret-sauce-for-high-retention/.

[14]"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014. https://allhands.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/02/05/from-the-homefront-top-10-things-we-wish-people-knew-about-coast-guard-life/.

Sources

Alejandro de Quesada,. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online.

Arch A. Mercey and Lee Grove, eds. Sea, Surf, & Hell: The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945).  pp. 12-14.

Eleanor C. Bishop, 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co. https://archive.org/details/printsinsand00bish_0.

"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014. https://allhands.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/02/05/from-the-homefront-top-10-things-we-wish-people-knew-about-coast-guard-life/.

Gabe Christy. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/60-coast-guard-cutters-saved-400-men-d-day.html.

Ken Wiley,. 2007. Lucky thirteen: D-Days in the Pacific with the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II. Philadelphia: Casemate. http://books.google.com/books?id=CIrxAAAAMAAJ.

Michael G. Walling, 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=31947742&site=eds-live&scope=site.

U.S. Coast Guard, Historian’s Office, “World War II” www.uscg.mil/history/WW2Index.asp

 "U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Aug/08/2001789793/-1/-1/0/LCIS.PDF.

U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 1-30)

"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-personnel-notebook/2018/01/whats-in-the-coast-guards-secret-sauce-for-high-retention/.

In mid-to-late nineteenth century Victorian Britain, ‘freak shows’ were popular exhibitions where the general public could pay to go and observe individuals with physical abnormalities and deformities. By their very nature these shows were underpinned by exploitative institutions designed to make money from those rejected by society. However, when the bigger picture is scrutinized, it becomes apparent that the situation facing those involved within ‘freak shows’ wasn’t as straightforward as it might initially seem. Stuart Cameron explains.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Usage of the word ‘freak’

Before diving into the historical details of this subject it is important to justify the usage of the word ‘freak’ within this article.

The word likely conjures up different feelings to different people. By modern standards, most would agree that much of the language used by Victorians towards individuals exhibited within ‘freak shows’ - ‘freaks’ - would be considered distasteful, uncomfortable, and politically incorrect to say the very least.

Robert Bogdan, author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, produced a list of words that have been used to describe ‘freaks’ throughout time. Terms like ‘lusus natrae’ (Latin for ‘freaks of nature’), ‘curiosities’, ‘oddities’, ‘monsters’, ‘grotesques’, and ‘nature’s mistakes’ are a few of the many examples that carry clear negative implications. In contrast to those, terms like ‘wonders’, ‘marvels’, rarities’, and ‘very special people’ carry considerably more sympathetic connotations, but were almost only exclusively used within marketing and advertising materials for shows.[1]

Based on this non-exhaustive list, what is clear is that ‘freaks’ were not solely seen as something negative, but at times were actually valued based on the rarity of their existence. Such a variety of jargon exists towards ‘freaks’ as a result of blended scientific terminology and show-world hype, muddied further by the progression of time.[2]Regardless of whether the connotation was negative or positive, ‘freaks’ either way were seen as something different and non-compliant with social ideas of normality.

On top of that, ‘freaks’ came in all shapes and sizes. Some were born as ‘freaks’, some became ‘freaks’ at a point in their lifetime as a result of an accident or a medical condition, and others altered their bodies and became ‘freaks’ by choice. This in turn makes the word ‘freak’ a term that covers a lot of territory. It’s a word that has been used to refer to bearded ladies like Julia Pastrana (dubbed as ‘the Bear Lady’); conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins like Chang and Eng; and to people with full body tattoo coverage like George Burchett (dubbed as the ‘King of Tattooists’). The only trait these three very different people have in common? That they were physically not ‘normal’.

As such, this makes the concept of a ‘freak’ one that transcends gender, racial, economic, social, age, medical, and scientific boundaries. Naturally, however, this throws up some obstacles for historians examining the ‘freak show’ industry. As uncomfortable as the continued usage of the word ‘freak’ may be, it is used solely on the grounds that there is no modern equivalent that accurately represents the diversity of the men and women involved within the shows.

 

'Freak Shows' within Victorian society

‘Freak Shows’ were exhibitions of biologically abnormal humans and animals that members of the public could pay a small fee and observe a physical manifestation of something quite drastically different from themselves. The shows were at their peak in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and appealed to people across the economic and class spectrum of the United Kingdom. As well as that, private “for ladies only” viewing rooms were provided so that women had safe spaces within potentially dangerous urban places to attend shows.[3]The contemporary humor magazine Punchdubbed Britain’s “growing taste for deformity” as the ‘Deformito-Mania’, claiming that ‘freak shows’ were an “unhealthy admiration for the monstrous”.[4]Regardless of the social background of the audience, the reaction from those who attended shows was often a combination of shock, horror, andfascination.

The shows could be set up quickly, and at very low cost. In the same way that the circus travelled between towns and cities across the country, ‘freak show’ owners deployed a similar strategy. As such, the mobility of the shows proved a fundamental part of their popular appeal. Being able to set up quickly in community halls and in the back rooms of public houses kept outgoing costs at a minimum and helped to make the shows accessible to the working classes. Joseph Merrick, known more famously as ‘The Elephant Man’ was regularly exhibited in the back room of an east London pub known as a “penny gaff”. As well as these ‘pop-up' style shows, certain venues became infamous for their ‘freak show’ exhibitions. The Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London hosted a number of different ‘freaks’ throughout the nineteenth century including the ‘Living Skeleton’ (being a man who consisted of little more than skin and bone) and the ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng (who were conjoined by their stomach).[5]

 

The Showmen

To the showmen in charge, ‘freaks’ were undoubtedly their business commodities – and their way of turning a profit. In his memoirs, British showman Tom Norman (also referred to as ‘the Penny Showman’) admitted: “There was a time, in my career as a showman, when I would exhibit any mortal thing for money”, adding “there were always large crowds who were only too eager to pay and see anything that aroused their curiosity, no matter how repulsive, or how demoralising.”[6]From a twenty-first century perspective, seeing the ‘freak show’ industry as anything but exploitative can prove to be difficult. But, in a perplexing sort of way, ‘freak shows’ gave ‘freaks’ a platform to exhibit their bodies and make a small income – more than anything else in Victorian society offered to most of them.

It was common that ‘freak shows’ were advertised through promotions that established narratives and origin stories of the ‘freaks’ on display – which in most cases were totally fictitious. Storytelling was a common technique used by the showman in the knowledge that the audiences who came to view the exhibits were susceptible to believing the tales, no matter how whimsical or fantastic they were. This made the showman an understated, yet integral part of the entertainment success of his shows. It wasn’t just a case of ‘freaks’ taking the initiative to exhibit themselves and receiving the entirety of the profit without the showman. A massive part of their success lay in the way that the showmen marketed them, told their “stories”, and highlighted the rarity of their existence to the audience.

At their very core, ‘freak shows’ were exploitative. They were underpinned by an inhumane business model that capitalized on the misfortune of people rejected by society, and with no opportunity to make a living on the basis of them being physically different. Victorian society left ‘freaks’ in a situation with little option in life, and as a result their involvement within the ‘freak show’ industry was one that they themselves had little control of.

 

What do you think of the 19th century ‘freak show’ industry? Let us know below.

Author Bio

Stuart Cameron is a freelance copywriter and blogger on a mission to harness the past to better understand the now. More of his blog posts, his writing portfolio, and details about his copywriting services are available at http://writersblick.com/.


[1]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[2]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[3]Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). 7.

[4]“The Deformito-Mania” Punch Magazine. (4 Sept 1847). 90.

[5]Mayes, Ronald. ‘The Romance of London Theatres No.87. The Egyptian Hall’ Lewisham Hippodrome Programme, March 1930. (no further bibliographic details provided)

[6]Norman, Tom & Norman, George. The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman “Silver King”. (London, 1985). 23-24.

Across the world many languages have become extinct over the past decades. Here, Casey Titus considers this in the American context by telling us about five Native American languages that have become extinct in the twenty-first century.

Four members of the Osage Nation with US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Four members of the Osage Nation with US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

1.     Serrano 

This language was spoken by the Serrano people of Southern California, a Serran branch of the Uto-Aztecan family which is one of the world’s primary language families and that stretches from Idaho in the United States to El Salvador in Central America. Serrano translates as “highlander” or “mountaineer” in Spanish, and was given by Spanish missionaries in the late 18thcentury as the Serrano historically resided in the San Bernardino Mountains and other Transverse Ranges as well as the Mojave Desert. Due to forced relocations and smallpox epidemics for which the Serrano people had no immunity, their population was greatly reduced and by 1910, only 150 of the Native Californians were estimated to be left. The last fully fluent speaker was Dorothy Ramon, who died in 2002.

 

2.     Unami

 

An Algonquian language that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to Atlantic Canada, Unami was spoken by the Lenape people, who stretched across five states, but primarily Delaware, from the late 17thto early 18thcenturies. The Lenape had a matrilineal clan system whose women elders could remove leaders of whom they disapproved and families were matrilocal; newlywed couples would reside with the bride’s family where her mother and sisters could assist her with her growing family. By 1682, their population was endangered and subsequent decades of intertribal conflict and forced relocation pushed the Lenape people further west until the 1860s when the United States government sent most remaining Lenape to present-day Oklahoma under the Indian removal policy. Currently, the Delaware Tribe of Indians is one of three federally recognized tribes, with Unami being one of two Delaware languages, the other being Munsee. The last fluent speaker in the United States was Edward Thompson who died on August 31, 2002.

 

 

3.     Klamath-Modoc

A traditional language of the Klamath and Modoc people spoken around the Klamath Lake that extends to southern Oregon and northern California, both ethnicities speak a dialect of the language. Klamath is part of the Plateau Penutian language family and, like Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages, this language is abundant in ablaut, any sound change within a word that indicates grammatical information. By 1998, only one native speaker remained. Four years later, the last fluent Klamath speaker residing in Chiloquin, Oregon, Neva Eggsman, died at the age of 92. As of 2006, there are no more native speakers of either the Klamath or Modoc dialects.

 

4.     Osage

Osage is a Siouan language spoken by the Osage people of Oklahoma. Siouan languages are located primarily in the Great Plains, Ohio, and Mississippi Valleys. The Osage Nation developed in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys around 700 BC and migrated west of the Mississippi after the 17thcentury because of ongoing battles with the Iroquois, who were invading the Ohio Valley from New York and Pennsylvania in search for new hunting grounds. “Osage” is a loose French version of the tribe’s name that roughly translates to “warlike.” At the height of their power in the early 19thcentury, the Osage was the dominant power in the region and feared by neighboring tribes. The missionary Isaac McCoy described the Osage as an “uncommonly fierce, courageous, warlike nation.” Though not officially declared extinct, as of 2009, approximately 15-20 elders claimed Osage as their second language. In early 2015, Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear announced he would render Osage language immersion and revitalization a priority.

 

5.     Eyak

Historically spoken by the Eyak people, indigenous to south-central Alaska. Eyak is one of twenty-one official languages in the state of Alaska. The rapid spread of English and restraint of indigenous languages contributed to the decline of Eyak. The last full-blooded Eyak and native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008 and with her, the Eyak language. In June of 2010, an astounding revival effort was made when the Anchorage Daily News published an article about Guillaume Leduey, a French college student who taught himself Eyak from the age of 12 through the use of print and audio instructional materials received from the Alaska Native Language Center. He is now classified as a fluent speaker, translator, and instructor of Eyak.

 

What do you think of the extinction of these languages? Let us know below. 

References

“Klamath Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klamath_language.

“Osage.” Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, www.endangeredalphabets.net/alphabets/osage/.

Revolvy, LLC. “‘Klamath Language’ on Revolvy.com.” Revolvy, www.revolvy.com/topic/Klamath%20language.

Revolvy, LLC. “‘Unami Language’ on Revolvy.com.” Revolvy, www.revolvy.com/page/Unami-language.

“Serrano Language.” Serrano Language - Howling Pixel, howlingpixel.com/i-en/Serrano_language.

“Serrano Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serrano_language.

“Unami Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unami_language.