If the military of one country rounds up the citizens of another country, forces civilians into labour, uses punitive measures, intimidation of relatives and terrorism against those who resist, it is called a rogue state, a monstrous regime, but when the same state does it against it’s own civilians, it’s called conscription.
For any human being the desire to live one’s life without taking the life of another would seem not only to be an admirable desire but a basic human right. Between the 1965-75 the government of the United States tried to take this right away from many of its citizens. However totally unexpectedly in one of the great civil disobediences, organised at grass roots level, in the barrack rooms, boot camps, stockades, military towns, West Point itself and even on the battlefields of the Vietnam. GI’s fought back and won, this is their story…
From modern movies anyone with even the most basic knowledge of the Vietnam War will know that there was some dissent amongst the ranks of the masses of conscripted GI’s. In these movies the anti-war ranks of the army are usually portrayed as hippies, peaceniks, druggies and drop-outs, drafted reluctantly into the army while clean cut volunteers from good families get on with the job.
In reality it is from neither of these places that the GI revolt began but somewhere even more unlikely, the most elitist of all US military units, the Green Berets.
For both the left and the right this has strong political ends. The right being able to distinguish between the professional military and a few hippy conscript troublemakers and the left wishing to see the rebellion of the people not the elite forces who were lackeys of the oppressive the state they oppose.
But contrary to the political agendas of both, the GI Revolt began long before any conscripts had been deployed in Vietnam and surprisingly amongst the ranks of the Green Berets. In 1964 these professional oppressors were deployed in Vietnam to perform a duel purpose, of enacting a Hearts an Minds policy and advising the South Vietnamese Military.
However for many Green Berets the hypocrisy of the policy began to become apparent. Green Berets were given basic medical training and deployed in villages giving crude medical treatment, while there the USAF was carpet bombing the villages. The deployed Green Berets equipped to treat minor fungal infections in a few children instead were being given the shattered bodies of dozens from bombing raids.
Meanwhile other Green Berets deployed as advisors with the South Vietnamese Army were encountering different problems. Decorated Green Beret Donald Duncan who later sat on a War Crime Tribunal described many incidents when American lead patrols arrested people who may or may not have been VC sympathisers who were routinely handed over the South Vietnamese interrogators who used extreme and brutal methods of torture on them. Duncan who initially supported the war explains how this contravened everything he was brought up to believe in. In 1966 he quit the Green Berets to become one of the most outspoken opponent of the war.
Howard Levy a Green Beret doctor also took a stand, refusing to train any more people because he considered what he was doing immoral. The Levy case demonstrated how widespread and early the revolt began in the professional army. In 1967 he was court marshalled and spent 3 years in prison. What was remarkable about his case was each day he attended the court marshal he was cheered by hundreds of GI’s on the base who regarded him a hero.
The stand of the Green Berets hadn’t gone unnoticed and it was as early as 1966 when the first mass refusals by soldiers to go to war occurred. The first such case to come to public attention was the Fort Hood 3 who publicly refused to go. The Fort Hood 3 chose to publicise their case nationally, whereas many other chose a different method, the Underground Railway. This was movement set up the smuggle deserting GI’s and draft dodgers overseas, mostly Canada and Sweden.
The US military’s reaction to these early signs of revolt was to try and stamp it out by ever increasingly draconian sentencing. The Fort Hood 3 were court marshalled and received 5 year gaol sentences. A Lieutenant Henry Hal received a 2 year sentence for merely carrying placard at a demo and 2 Marines received 6-10 year sentence for organising a meeting to discuss whether it was right for black people to fight in Vietnam.
Government figure estimate 560,000 people committed draft law offences during the Vietnam War. And a total number of 1,500,000 GI’s went AWOL. Over a 100,000 people went into exile to avoid the draft.
In 1968 the Vietnamese launched the TET offensive, for many of the half a million US soldier deployed in Vietnam this came as an awakening. The ease in which the Vietcong and NVA moved across the country and the widespread support they found in the south, brought home the total failure of the Hearts and Minds policy and the lies of their own leaders that they were there to protect the south Vietnamese who clearly saw them as an occupying enemy.
Most deserters headed for the sanctuary of Canada, but a few moved to the hippie communities of California. The Nine for Peace were a small group who called the press and publicised their resistance. They sought sanctuary in a church and chained themselves to the ministers.
Many deserters were sent to the military’s stockades, however this was becoming a major problem for the military as they quickly became overcrowded, some having as many as 3 times their capacity staying there.
In the most audacious act so far, soldiers in San Fransisco began planning the first open GI anti-war demonstration. One of the problems facing them was how to publicise it without getting arrested. Susan Schnall a military nurse and came up with a solution. In Vietnam the USAF was dropping leaflets in North Vietnam encouraging the people to defect. She proposed hiring private plains and flying over military bases dropping similar leaflets on the GI’s. Her flight was successful and thousands of GI’s learned of the protest, however the military were to get their revenge on her. She wore her uniform on the demo and was later court marshalled for making a political statement while in uniform.
In the wake of the arrests following the demo and the further overcrowding of the stockades tensions rose. At Presidio Stockade a prisoner was shot for refusing work detail. Quickly a protest over this started in the prison. Several GI’s organised a sit down protest at role call. They were read the riot act by the army and then put on trial for treason facing the death sentence. The military’s continued over reaction to the protests had further and further been isolating them from the public, but it was the Presidio 27, proved the final nail as the scandal went countrywide.
With the rising in popularity of the revolt across America a series of ant-war coffee houses began to appear. The coffee houses fulfilled a multiple roles. Acting as places free from the military where GI’s could unwind, chill out and avoid any talk of the military and war they also acted as nexuses for GI’s opposed to the war to meet and exchange ideas without repression on there ideas by the military
One of the ideas to emerge from the increased organisation of the revolt was the underground newspapers than started to circulate at military bases. Baring names such as The Last Harass, Fun Travel and Adventure, Four Year Bummer and Fatigue Press. The newspapers mocked the officers and military establishment as well as told first hand stories of veterans real experiences in Vietnam.
The military as soon as it realised what was going on banned them but it was a futile effort and the phenomena exploded until almost every military base in and outside the country had one. Draconian methods were used to stamp them out. GI’s suspected of involvement had drugs planted on them and were arrested.
In 1968 in one of the most notorious events in the protest against the war occurred where police attacked demonstrators at the Democratic Party Conference in Chicago. Deployed in the area were soldiers from Fort Hood who were originally intended for the job. However days before the troops deployment a midnight protest had broken out amongst the soldiers who objected to being used against fellow soldiers at the demo. A battalion of MP’s had to be sent in to break up the protest and imprison the ringleaders. Even then the military chose to handpick the men they sent to Chicago leaving out suspected peaceniks. Despite this when hostilities broke out at the demo between protestors and police the troops were never sent in, the army were now unsure which side the GI’s were on.
In 1968 the soldiers of Charlie Co 11th Brigade cold bloodedly murdered 500 innocent villages mostly women and children in the village of My Lai. The US military managed to cover it up for a year before it was exposed by the press. When the army finally had to answer for it, they swept it under the carpet calling it an “isolated incident”.
In reaction a groups calling themselves Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a public enquiry into the conduct of the US army in Vietnam. The enquiry exposed that far from an isolated instance testimony after testimony by veterans showed that My Lai was just one of a multitude of similar event, but when much deeper as GI after GI confirm. The orders they had been given were the same ones as had created My Lai.
The next move of the GI Revolt was on the militaries most sacred day, Armed Forces Day. The GI’s organised an alternative parade, Armed Farces Day. Steadily each year the parade gained moment until by 70-71 it was attracting thousands.
Increasingly a new phenomena grew throughout the army known as ‘fragging’. Where soldiers in a unit would kill NCO’s or officers who they considered would get them killed. The most popular method was a fragmentation grenade. Effectively the most competent leaders the army were being killed and the most timid and incompetent left alive
Colonel Robert Heini made the statement “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam, is in a state approaching collapse. With individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug ridden, dispirited, where they are not mutinous”.
In 1971 a company from the 1st Cavalry Division was deployed protecting two US artillery batteries on the border. Two North Vietnamese Regiments were moving in on the batteries. The commander of the Cavalry troops ordered them to venture out and organise a night ambush on the advancing NVA. The GI’s refused the order but went a stage further when they sent a petition to the press announcing they were refusing to fight. The petition stated they would rather face court martial than fight and in the event of mass prosecution their only defence would be public opinion
By now the heavy handed responses of the military was being replaced by a broad sweep under the carpet. The company was quickly redeployed from the front line and no further action taken. Instead another unit was ordered in to replace them. However the new unit hearing what had happened to their predecessors immediately refused to fight too, and within weeks the whole US army was refusing to fight.
Effectively the US army had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Nixon’s hand was forced, he had to make the pledge American ground troops would no-longer engage in offensive actions. All American units were withdrawn from the frontline, fighting the war was left entirely in the hands of the South Vietnamese. The war was now simply a matter for the politicians to hide the state of the army and spin doctor the history books to play down the GI revolt.
The GI Revolt proved to be one of they great civil movement of American history, and demonstrated it impossible in an open society to conduct an unjust war with a conscripted army, a lesson well learnt in for Iraq.
References and Links
Sir, No, Sir: The GI Revolt – BBC
With the wealth of writing about Meso-America being on Aztecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Maya and Olmecs, other equally great Meso-American peoples have not made it to the popular mind. This article looks at other equally great but lesser known civiliasations that rose an flourished.
Teotihuacan 200 BC – 800 AD
Teotihuacan was Mexico’s greatest indigenous civilisation. Founded about 200 BC in the valley that bares it’s name, a strategically important access point between major Puebla and Mexico valleys, the huge metropolis dominated Mexican life for half a millennium. Reaching it’s zenith in the 5th and 6th centuries, its influence towered over both the Maya and Zapotec alike. Teotihuacan is most remembered in the modern mind for the legacy it left Mexico, not just Mexico’s, but some of man’s greatest achievements to this day, the Pyramids of the Sun, Moon and Quetzalcoatl. But, it also left Mexico one of it’s greatest mysteries, as to the civilisation’s demise around 800 AD.
Unlike most civilisations in Meso-America, Teotihuacan was not just a city state. Extending far beyond the valley of Teotihuacan, a Metropolitan Area of citizens inhabiting a number of cities and rural lands covered the Central Plateau, as well as much of Hidalgo to the north. Teotihuacan is considered nowadays by archaeologists to have been a true nation state. The state had, over the centuries, picked up many colonies, conquered outside cities and placed strong military garrisons around the country. But, it would be wrong to call Teotihuacan (as it often is) an empire. Unlike many past and contemporary cultures and most later ones, there are few traces of a cult of the warrior existing within the city. Teotihuacan, instead, was a trading superpower, it dominated Mexico as a manufacturing giant and industrial base of factories and industry. A whole district of the city was an industrial park of workshops. Teotihuacan’s goods were exported all over Meso-America, the styles of it’s art and architecture have imitations in almost every city.
How the city of Teotihuacan was able to forge a nation in a world that managed nothing beyond aristocratic empires, city states and the odd kingdom before is a testimony to its real greatness. Of the thousands of artistic finds in the city, sculptures, murals, paintings, many in private apartments, the theme of Teotihuacan art is almost entirely religious and incredibly upbeat, though just before the end it took on a dour and sinister turn.
Most Meso-American cities were simply religious centres of temples and palaces for the aristocracy with the mass populous living in mud huts and wooden shacks on the surrounding farmlands. In this sense, Teotihuacan was a true metropolis, the citizens living in modern apartment blocks in the city centre. The quality of the peasant dwellings indicates the distribution of the wealth was much more even than other cultures. Modern archaeologists are tending towards the view Teotihuacan was a religious state welded together by a powerful common religious devotion. A parallel could be drawn between Teotihuacan and Angor, a city of similar size in an unfeasible jungle location forged upon the common devotion to a god king.
Why Teotihuacan fell is still a hotly debated mystery, but most of it’s 200,000 inhabitants abandoned the city leaving it to the jungle. No one common cause for this exodus seems to exist. Over population beyond the resources is a popular solution, loss of faith is another. Teotihuacan art also took on a military edge in it’s final death throws, so military historians look to either barbarians or civil war for answers. Much of the city shows signs of destruction, statues of deities defaced, and structures burned to the ground. It is known the exodus from the city was gradual, so it’s been suggested a period of decline and mass depopulation. Also, the city lost domination of its outer provinces quite a while before its fall, whether the signs of destruction in the city were caused by an outside invader preying on the dying city or done by the priests symbolising the gods abandoning them is, perhaps, something we will never know. Ice records show no major climatic change occurred in Mexico at that time, though there may have been a prolonged drought.
Angor too suffered collapse, abandonment and loss to the jungle. Like Teotihuacan, overpopulation, conquest by neighbour and overexertion of resources have been blamed for its demise. But with Angor, thanks to Chinese writings by merchants in the city, it is known, shortly before it fell, that the city was suffering terrible resource problems caused by its jungle location, repeated incursions from barbaric Thais, and the monarch of the city converted to Buddhism from Hinduism and lost his godhood.
Teotihuacan’s fate, though, wasn’t unique in Meso-America. Just a century later, a similar fate would befall the Maya cities and Monte Alban. For a while, after its fall, an estimated 30,000 people still lived in ruins, some former city residents, some primitives from outside. The later rulers of Mexico, the Toltecs, capital city, Tollan, only had a population of 30,000 at its peak.
Xochicalco 250-900 AD
Another contemporary dinosaur flourishing alongside Teotihuacan, Xochicalco was to outlive its trading partner by just a century. A highly spread out site positioned upon a fortified hilltop, the city shows great influence from all parts of Meso-America. Boasting architecture in Mayan, Teotihuacan, El Tajin and Mixtec styles, it truly was the crossroads of the New World. Known as the mysterious city because, despite being one of the most flourishing civilisations in Mexico for nearly a millennium, it left hardly any inscriptions to bare testimony to former glories.
The Aztecs had a legend of Tamoanchan, the gathering place, where the survivors of Teotihuacan assembled and there undertook to like apostles to spread to the four corners of the known world to keep alive the teaching of the great civilisation before one day returning to refound the great city. Recent archaeological finds tantalisingly suggest Tamoanchan may have been Xochicalco.
Xochicalco is located very close to Teotihuacan and, in many military history books on Meso-America, is blamed for the downfall of Teotihuacan, finding it hard to believe there was not fighting between the two rivals so close together, theorising Teotihuacan must have conquered Xochicalco, and, in turn, Xochicalco destroyed Teotihuacan in a war of independence.
Contrarily to this, the Xochicalco site itself, devoid of water like so many Meso-American cities, seems just to have been a ceremonial centre for the priest/nobility supported by cultivation of the lowlands around. The population fluctuating between 10-20,000 hardly gives it a great base for conquering the 1.4 million inhabitants of the Teotihuacan Metropolitan Area.
Cholula 100 BC – 1519 AD
If Teotihuacan had a natural successor it was Cholula. Located in the rich Puebla Valley, Teotihuacan’s closest major neighbour, the exact relationship between the two cities is unknown. Whether Cholula was the second city of the state or independent neighbour with tributaries of its own remains unclear.
The region around the city was first settled around 1500 BC and the site itself about 400 BC. In about 100 BC, two villages unified to form the bases for the city, which was to survive until 1519 AD, earning it the description as the ‘eternal city’. The great pyramid is larger even than the Pyramid of the Sun or the Great Pyramid at Giza and one of the largest man made structures on Earth. Cholula flourished as a contemporary and partner of Teotihuacan and briefly became the centre of Mexican civilisation after its fall, but quickly went into decline. Whether its decline was a co-symptom of Teotihuacan or for different reasons is unknown. However, it was to survive its decline, was reinvigorated by the settlement of the Olmec-Xicallancas in the valley around the 9th century AD, and was to become a main thorn in the side in its time for both the Toltec and Aztec Empires. Briefly conquered by the Toltecs in 1168 AD, it sowed the seeds of demise for the Toltecs Empire and, with the aid of other cities in the valley, it successfully expelled the invaders and, subsequently, restored itself to its former glory with its conversion to the cult of Quetzacoatl brought to it by its Toltec conquerors.
Cholula, in its final phase, became a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It fought a bloody war with the Aztecs and resisted conquest until 1519, when, in a ploy, it invited Cortez into the city, planning to deceive and ambush him. Unfortunately, Cortez got wind of the plan and massacred the inhabitants, vowing to destroy each of the 365 temples and replace them with churches. Fortunately, he never fully fulfilled his promise.
El Tajin 100 AD – 1200 AD
Capital of the vast Totonac lands, El Tajin can really be described as the first successor empire of Teotihuacan. The Totonacs grew in stature from around the 7th century AD as Teotihuacan’s hegemony started to wane. They peaked between the 9th and 13th Century AD, when they rivaled and outlasted the Toltec Empire before their final downfall. The date of their demise occurring so temptingly close to the rise of the Xolotl-Chichimec empire in that area as to theorise more than a coincidence.
Totonac culture impresses even among the best Meso-American cultures. The Pyramid of Niches is arguably the finest crafted in Mexico. Built between 600 and 900 AD, the site boasts a wealth of astronomical references, including the pyramid itself which has 365 niches. The city was obsessed by the Meso-American ballgame, and its ball courts, possibly the most magnificent of all, depict human sacrifice the forfeit of the losers of the game. The style and sacrifice to be copied in both Tollan and its protégée, Chichen Itza.
The city claims several firsts in Mexico, among them the terrible skull racks that decorate the city, a tradition that was to carry both to Tollan and Tenochtitlan and alarm the most hardened Conquistador.
The similarities between Totonac and Toltec culture have not gone unnoticed. El Tajin pre-dates Tollan, but also existed contemporary to it. Similarities of both the architecture built at a later date in Tollan and in Chichen Itza after the Toltec conquest, and the adoption of so many Totonac customs such as the cult of death, has lead to many theories of how the two civilisations interacted. Some historians have suggested EL Tajin was the original home of the Nonoalcas, who migrated to the Valley of Mexico and amalgamated with the Toltecs. Conquest of El Tajin by the Toltecs and adoption of their civilisation is another proposal. This would be highly unlikely due to Toltec resource limitations, though, even more unlikely, they did conquer Chichen Itza. The most reasonable solution is close links, trade and cultural influence between the two vast successor empires.
A criticism of El Tajin could be that it was the first really nasty civilisation in Meso-America, soon to be followed by the Toltecs, and the harbinger of the bloody militaristic turn the country was to decline in subsequent years.
The Olmeca Xicallancas
The Olmeca Xicallancas moved into the lush Puebla Valley from the east around the 9th century. The valley was sparsely populated and seems to have been vacated by the Mixtec migration to Oaxaca. The Olmeca Xicallancas, who don’t seem to have been that numerous, never constructed new cities, but moved into established ones including Cacaxtla, Tlaxcalla and Cholula. Their cities are believed to have functioned as a federation, constantly clashing with the neighbouring Toltec Empire and, effectively, stopping its eastward expansion.
The Olmeca Xicallancas were overran by the Chichimecs migration of the twelfth century. Many fled the valley in response to the invasion, but others, like the Toltecs in the Valley of Mexico, probably amalgamated with the more numerous Chichimecs and formed the bases of their civilisation.
An indigenous Mexican coastal people based in Hidalgo, Veracruz, and San Luis Potosi. Often regarded as a separate Mayan people, due to close links between their languages, they seem to have been a culture slightly apart from the rest of Mexico. Despite the fact they built cities, pyramids and created elaborate artwork, they scandalised conservative Mexico with their embracement of the principles of permanent naturism.
Calling themselves the Teenek, the Huaxtecs were regarded by any decent clean living Mexican to be the scourge of Meso-America. The Aztecs describe their warriors as ‘a screeching bunch of she-devils’ and many Mexican peoples were said to utter the expression ‘as low as a Huaxtec’. The reason for this was the Huaxtecs religion based around a cult of sexuality and the penis. Mexican culture was prudish by nature, in most cases deliberately not showing genitalia in art. By the time of the Toltecs and Aztecs, this Puritanism had reached a zenith Calvin would have recognised, lewdness in Aztecs society being punishable by death. So fellow Mexicans seem to have taken to Huaxtec culture, as Cromwell would taken to a Spartan religious festival.
The Huaxtecs emerged as a major people shortly after the fall of Teotihuacan and enjoyed great era of civilisation and military success during Toltec times, eventually being responsible for the destruction of Tollan. They, however, became the whipping boys of the Aztecs in several campaigns causing many of their peoples to flee north to the USA and reduced those that stayed to a client kingdom.
Nomadic skin clad tribes living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the northern deserts occupy a unique place in Mexican history. Charged with the destruction of just about everything that’s good in Mexico, Teotihuacan, Toltec Empire, El Tajin, Xochicalco and later becoming the Aztecs, in few accounts of Mexican history they don’t play a major role. The Chichimecs, vast in numbers and ferocious in nature, like the barbaric tribes of the Steppes ever drawn to Rome, were ever poised at any time to sweep down and destroy any culture that displayed weakness of spirit.
This evocative image of Chichimecs in much artwork and literature has been at the centre of many accounts of Mexican history. But, just how barbaric the Chichimecs really were is still questionable, many of the romanticisms simply not adding up. Meso-Americans being prone to championing the noble savage just as much as their European cousins. Though, however unbarbaric they do eventually turn out to be, the Chichimecs still were an ever present hazard to any Mexican civilisation that existed. While much of their later villainy is true, what role they played in earlier history is still debatable. One of the earliest incursions attributed to the Chichimecs was around the time of Teotihuacan’s demise. Military historians often forward the fact that mountain top cities such as Xochicalco survived, whereas the lowland Teotihuacan died, to surmise a case for a military destruction of Teotihuacan overrun by Chichimecs, though little evidence for this exists.
Chichimecs-Nahuas were among the founding co-partners of the aggressive Toltec Empire. Consisting of both civilisation and militarism in equal measures, to many it seems almost innate that the famed ferocity of the Chichimecs was the catalyst of Toltec belocracity.
It was as the sun set on the Toltec era that the Chichimecs made their most dramatic entry into the history books and earnt their reputation as the Meso-American Huns. In the great Chichimec migration of the 12th and 13th centuries, they overrun almost the whole of the Central Plateau. The image of the screaming barbarian horde at the gates of Tollan imprinted into the native psyche for generations.
It‘s here the Chichimec barbarity really comes into question. Evidence certainly shows they were no longer wearing skins and displayed many of the trappings of civilisation, both in dress and mannerism. The unruly mass of savages don’t seem to have been totally destructive either. In their conquest of the region they not only destroyed cities but built them, amalgamated with other peoples and entered many existing cities by intermarriage and integration. Their legacy of creation and building stands the test of time, filling Mexico with a higher concentration of metropolis’ than had ever existed. Testimony to this is the wonder in which the Spaniards stared at the Lake Texcoco city complex in1519.
The final phase of the Chichimec saga is as the Aztecs. The Chichimecs, more so than any people in the past, took to the ardour of empire building. For several centuries the empires of individual tribes were built, warred upon and fell to dust until, eventually, an almost complete unification was achieved under a single powerful empire that was to stretch its wings far and wide across the whole of Mexico, the Aztec Empire.
The heritage the Chichimecs left Mexico is enormous. The mighty Aztec Empire, the death cult of sacrifice, the breathtaking architecture of their cities, but, most of all, the cult of the warrior. No matter how civilised they became, the Chichimecs were, at heart, warriors. Their legacy was not the high civilisation of Teotihuacan, nor the wisdom of the Maya, it was a dark violent era that their ascension plunged Mexico into.
The mighty Teotihuacan lay dying. According to native legend, at Tamonchan a last gathering of survivors of Teotihuacan met before they divided and set off around Mexico in search of sanctuary. Legend tells further of one small group of devotees who sought refuge in the far north-west of Mexico, a great desert then home to the warlike Chichimec tribes. The Teotihuacans found sanctuary among them, the primitive nomads welcoming them and in turn benefiting from the trappings of civilisation the Teotihuacans brought with them, such as agriculture and advanced weaponry. Life in the desert was harsh, the soil arid and the Teotihuacans, yearned for the green and the fruitful soils to the south they had abandoned. So sometime in the 9th century AD the Teotihuacans joined by many Chichimecs, left their hunter-gatherer kin and migrated south in search of richer climes. There voyage ended at the hill of Xicotitlan, atop which sat the Otomi village of Mamemhi and beside flowed the rich river Tula. The Teotihuacan-Chichimecs quickly overcame the Otomis there founded a city.
The fertileness of the region, however, was not lost on other Meso-American peoples and to their surprise, as the Teotihuacan-Chichimecs encountered another nation entering the region with the same intentions as them. The people were the Nonoalcas from Tabasco in the south of Mexico, just to the north of Maya lands and culturally close to them. The Nonoalcas, highly civilised, had too amalgamated with ex-residents of Teotihuacan and like the Chichimecs been persuaded by the Teotihuacans from their homelands. They had resided for sometime in Huaxteca but now moved into Hidalgo. The common link of Teotihuacan bloodlines the two peoples carried was strong enough and rather than war over their new found home they decided to join together. The Nonoalcas brought advanced building techniques and the God Quetzalcoatl to the city.
And so the city of Tollan was born, boasting the name ‘place of reeds’ to tell all of its wealth. The dwellers of the city became known as Tenoch, people of Tollan, which was bastardised by the Spanish into Toltecs. Thus the legendary Toltecs were born fusing the ferocity of the Chichimec barbarians, the philosophy of Teotihuacan and the science and culture of the south and the local heritage of the Otomis.
The Toltecs were by no means alone in the region. After the great exodus of Teotihuacan much of the former Metropolitan Area, north of Texcoco had been settled by the nomadic Otomis, who integrated with those who refused the flight and stayed. The Otomi had established several cities and the great population centre of Otumba on the northern shores of the lake. The south of the lake was too not without powerful rivals. The Culhuas had created a tight kingdom centre around their capital of Culhuacan.
The Toltec settlement and integration period ended around 950 AD and their imperial phase began. How big the empire grew is still hotly debated by archaeologists and historians. The tantalising finds of Toltecs wares in far flung corners of Mexico coupled with native traditions lead some military historians rather romantically to believe it to be Mexico’s third great empire on a par with Teotihuacan and the Aztecs. Opposing them a realist camp claim it only came to dominate an area smaller than the Teotihuacan states inner Metropolitan Area. The city of Tollan at most 30-60,000 people at its peak and a similar number living on the surrounding rural lands.
Evidence suggests that like the Aztecs and Tlaxcallans later the Toltecs formed a traditional Meso-American triple alliance with Otumba and Culhuacan. With each possessing roughly half the population of Tollan, the Toltecs could swell their numbers, but along with several more smaller Otomi and Toltec tributary cities established, the total number of both city and rural Toltecs still falls short of the 200,000 living in the city of Teotihuacan let alone the estimated 1.2 million of the Metropolitan Area or the 8 – 15 Million of the Aztec Empire. Hardly a recipe for Mexico’s mightiest empire.
The Toltec Empire was it has been suggested a trading empire lacking the military strength for sizeable conquest and occupation. It mostly avoided conflict with areas with powerful civilisations and instead expanded into sparsely populated regions. The Empire was also a tributary empire. In other words, little more than a gangster protection racket, extorting protection money from the weaker cities within its turf by intimidation. No permanent garrisons were left and conquest kept in line only by threat of violent reprisals should their tribute falter. When a tributary empire is strong this can be a powerful incentive but if it’s iron grip weakens tributaries can quickly melt away.
The Toltec empire was at its zenith towards the end of the 10th century, stretching far north of the Valley of Mexico, coming into contact with Chichimec lands in the northwest and Huaxtec territory in the northeast. Supposed also to have conquered substantial lands in the west but it’s southern gains were more limited. In the east the empire hit the brick wall of the Cholula centred Puebla Valley, as did the Aztecs later.
The fame of the empire in disproportion to its size has endured in western minds for two of the great anomalies of history, the invasion of some Maya cities in the Yucatan and the fabled North American expedition. Though many still question if either of these really happened. If they did they support the arguments for the greater Toltec empire. The crux of the argument is the Toltec style architecture found in Chichen Itza shortly before its substantial conquest of Maya land suggesting a conquest and military invigoration of the city. Though Toltec style architecture has been found too in El Tajin pre-dating it in Tollan and nobody is suggesting a Totonac conquest of Tollan.
When the archaeological site of Tula was finally confirmed to be Tollan in the twentieth century, archaeologists were disappointed by what they found. The crudeness of the artwork, both in technique and subject, portraying crude militaristic scenes, compared the rich metaphor of both Teotihuacan and Mayan art. A comparison between Toltec buildings in Tollan and buildings in Maya cities such as Chichen Itza built in the Toltec style, shows the Maya were able to build the architecture of their conquerors to a much higher quality. The Aztecs recorded Toltec law and social customs. The philosophy of the empire seems to have been a stoic one, similar to Sparta and Rome. Toltec society was also a prudish one, adultery was against the law and sex a taboo subject. Little sexuality is found within Mexican art, with a few exceptions, in fact on most nude statues the genitalia is deliberately left off. Governmentally the cities were ruled by a monarch and an aristocracy. Impenetrable barriers existed in crossing the classes.
The Fall of Tollan
It’s not in the short lifetime of the Toltec Empire its greatness really occurred. Tollan was only to become Rome long after it burned. Tollan fell around 1168 AD and like a dozen great cities before should have passed into anonymity. But it was its final epic catastrophe that thrust it into the forefront of the Mexican psyche for an age to come. The strength of this can be demonstrated in the fact that for centuries, contrary to Indian denials, historians believed Teotihuacan had been Tollan, so great the legend of Tollan in the Meso-American mind that no other city fitted the bill.
Legendary Tollan’s fall was one of decadence, flame and conquest, today the burn marks give visitors glimpses of its sacking. But what weakened the empire and prompted the sad demise?
The Quetzalcoatl Myth
Indian tales tell that around 1125 AD about the 175th year of the empire when already the empire had lost most of its western expanses, a division at the highest level emerged within the capital. The cultural differences between the Toltec-Chichimecs and the Nonoalcas were substantial and at least one section of the Nonoalcals population even after all this time had failed to integrate, they had become a culturally estranged ethnic minority and no-longer wanted to stay within the city.
For a solution it was to the Toltecs main rivals they looked, the independent city states of the neighbouring Puebla Valley. The Puebla Valley, naturally defensible and richer even in resources than the Valley of Mexico was the location a several independent city states. Like the Toltec’s Valley, it had been part of the Teotihuacan Metropolitan Area and was now populated by a new invader. The Olmeca-Xicallancas had migrated there around the same time the Toltecs had moved into the Valley of Mexico, but had not become an empire, more a collection a independent city states. The Puebla Valley also contained the ‘eternal’ city of Cholula. At that time Cholula was at a low in its yoyo history. It was decided that the unhappy Toltec-Nonoalcas would depart Tollan and seize Cholula. This would give them a new home as befits them and remove as an adversary the only city in the whole central highlands of Mexico to rival Tollan’s glory not a Toltec tributary.
Initially the plan went well and the Toltec-Nonoalcas successfully stormed the city and took much Cholulan territory. But the Cholulans didn’t lie down, instead retreated deep into their provinces, organised popular resistance aided by the other cities of the valley now fearing Toltec conquest too. After six years of withering guerrilla warfare the Cholulans made considerable gains and finally drove the Toltec-Nonoalcas out of the city. It was now the Toltec-Nonoalcas who were reduced to guerrilla war from the provinces they still controlled.
Reeling from the humiliation, now Tollan and the empire intervened, a mighty host was marched from the great city to the aid of the Toltec-Nonoalcas. But Cholula the yoyo city had now been sparked into resurgence and joined by the forces of the other cities the great Toltec Imperial Army suffered a crushing defeat. A defeat so cataclysmic it shook the empire to its foundations.
Now Mexican history enters a phase that almost mirrors the events of Vortigen and the history of dark age Britain. The defeated Toltecs, their tributary empire balancing on a razor’s edge. desperately sent north to their kindred Chichimecs for mercenaries to fight for them. With tales of the riches of the south and the successes of the Toltecs-Chichimecs, the northern barbarians were impressed, too impressed. Instead of coming to save the Toltec-Nonoalcas, they overran the whole Puebla Valley and incurred so much into the Valley of Mexico itself they destabilised the empire itself. How badly they damaged the empire is illustrated by the case of one tribe of Chichimecs under a chief named Mixcoatl who conquered the city of Culhuacan, the empire suffering the indignity of losing its 2nd city.
However it was the conquest of Culhuacan that brought the Toltecs their brightest hope. The Toltec numbers were extremely depleted but taking on new blood had never been a problem for them. Mixcoatl was allowed to keep control of Culhuacan and given a Toltec princess Chimalman as his wife. From their marriage a son, Ce-Acatl, was born but tragedy strikes and she dies from childbirth and shortly after Mixcoatl was murdered by a jealous brother, any military threat to Tollan dying with him. Mixcoatl death proved only a delay though, and in 1150 AD the army marched out from Culhuacan lead by the now grown up Ce Acatl. Tollan easily succumbed to Ce Acatl and he was crowned king. At his coronation Ce Acatl was given the title Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, Topiltzin meaning prince and Quetzalcoatl after the God of Teotihuacan and the title of several prior Toltec kings, including the founder of the empire (the commonness of this title causing endless confusion in historical accounts). If his father was the Alaric of the Toltecs, Topiltzin was the Justinian. By now the empire was crumbling before the overwhelming hordes of Chichimecs, Topiltzin immediately went to work restoring the former glory of the empire. Legends talk of him as a Homeric hero who fought at the centre of troops in battle. It seems with the fall of any great state a moral collapse accompanies it. The years of lavish had taken its toll upon Tollan and its ruler found themselves in a terrible state of decadence and apathy. Prostitution, corruption and superstition were rife and the strict social order breaking down. Topiltzin lead by imposing the strictest code of behaviour upon himself as an example to all. Topiltzin full of hope and youthful vigour brought hope back to Tollan.
A list of conquests of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl that survived the Spanish book burning suggests that he not only saved the empire from the Chichimecs but expanded it far beyond its former frontiers. Most famous or surreal of all is his Mayan expedition, 1500 kilometres to the South. Conquering several Maya cities including the greatest prize of all, Chichen Itza. Whatever possessed an Empire 2-300 kilometres at its widest point, surrounded by enemies and dozens of other civilisations unconquered to send its army on a march so far away remains one of the great mysteries of history.
The final demise of the Toltecs came in 1168 or 1175 AD when like with its earlier troubles, internal divisions mixed with external events. The Chichimecs threat had not been destroyed, more tempered by a powerful Toltec king, but they now sat within the empire and many more at the borders in an uneasy ceasefire waiting to pounce as soon as Topiltzin’s hand weakened. The Chichimecs though were not the only Northerners, in the Northeast resided the equally numerous and dangerous Huaxtecs, who at the time of the empire greatest division played their hand.
As the Huaxtecs spilt across the borders of the empire, Topiltzin was to fall victim to an act of treachery by one of the princes of Tollan. Huemac who came from an old noble family that could trace it lines back to a Nonoalcas king and was possibly the rightful heir to the throne of Tollan Topiltzin had usurped, was said to have sent a sorcerer before Topiltzin who tricked him through a magic mirror into believing he was ill. To cure him the sorcerer then gave him a potion, a sacred alcoholic beverage called ’Pulque’ that caused drunkenness, a crime punishable by death for a noble in Toltec society, and Topiltzin innocently drank it. Shortly again a second similar incident too provoked by Huemac involving a women of ill-repute befell Topiltzin.
So weakened was he in the eyes of his people after these scandals he found himself unable even to assemble an army to oppose the Huaxtec invasion. Instead he resorted to Dane geld and tried to buy them off. Far from discouraging the Huaxtecs, they saw it as a sign of weakness and three Huaxtecs kingdoms encouraged by Topiltzin weakness formed a confederation and marched on Tollan itself. Under this threat Tollan had to act, even if it was under a disgraced king. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl march out of the city at the head of the flower of its warriors, undefeated in 25 years and veterans of a hundred victorious battles under his leadership, organised into two great armies. But now Topiltzin was looking old, he seemed to trust nobody, be wary of his generals, his image of purity and self denial had faded in the eyes of his men. None the less for three years a see-saw struggle raged before the walls of Tollan. Until the whole campaign rested upon a single final battle. For one last time Topiltzin put on his armours, drew his sword and joined the front rank of his infantry. But it wasn’t enough, he could sense the fear in his troops before the whooping barbarians, and could already feel the line begin to buckle before the barbarians closed. The battle turned into rout and rout into a massacre, but Topiltzin and loyal guard were able to hack their way back to Tollan.
As Topiltzin stood before his council of princes it became clear his position was untenable, while he was victorious the nobles of the city would tolerate him, but now he had lost he was just a usurper son of a Chichimec barbarian who dared to think himself a Toltec. There was only one option left for Topiltzin, exile. So in the year Reed-One Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and a band of a few followers still loyal to him, marched out of the city and headed east. Legend has it to the coast where they sailed into the horizon with Topiltzin vowing to one day to return and reclaim his empire again. Where he really went nobody knows, but one legend has it he sailed north to the United States and reigned over the native Indians there. This theory has gained some credence over recent years with discoveries of a Mexican incursion into New Mexico about the same time, Anasazi, a city built far in advance of American Indian culture flourished. With Mexican style architecture, evidence of both human sacrifice and cannibalism abundant in the city. Both Mexican customs, quite alien to North American Indians a Mexican incursions has been surmised.
After Topiltzin’s departure Huemac was made king of Tollan, but his reign was a short lived one. Not long after, Tollan was stormed by the Huaxtecs, the inhabitants put to the sword, sacrificed or enslaved. For miles and miles around Tollan fires could be seen jutting above the treetops, pillars of smoke brought early night, the sky turned blood red and Toltecs, Chichimecs and other nations stood in wonder as the centre of the world burned.
Tollan burned but unlike Teotihuacan, Monte Alban or Tikal before, its memory didn’t fade to dust. Instead the legend of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl grew and grew, like the legend of the Once and Future King. By the time of the Aztecs the legend of Quetzalcoatl was at its height. The Aztecs were Chichimecs, who integrated with the surviving Toltec-Chichimecs of the Valley of Mexico. They settled at the centre of former Toltec lands and built their empire on top of the Toltec one. The Aztecs were Toltecs too, the blood was thinner, but they were still Toltecs and they were aware the Toltecs were in turn Chichimecs who migrated from the same northern desert as them.
For the Aztecs, the Toltec Empire came to dominate their psyche, becoming both their Eden and Jerusalem. ‘Toltec’ became the Aztec word for ‘civilised’. Everything that was great and good in the world was referred to as ‘Toltec’. Aztec chroniclers wrote that every deed the Toltecs did was greater than that of the Aztecs. When the Aztecs conquered a city they believed the Toltecs conquered it before and because the Toltecs conquered it before, the Aztecs being Toltecs, it was not just their right to conquer it, but their duty. As the Aztecs believed no-matter how large their grew the Toltec’s had been larger. A viscous circle of conquest was created. But however much they conquered one fact always haunted the back of the psyche, the empire wasn’t theirs, the Aztec emperor was just a steward minding for Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl what was his rightful empire until he returned.
The Oaxaca Valley is located along the Pacific coast in the southwest corner of Mexico. Shaped like a ‘T’, it has an average altitude of 1,500 meters and varies greatly in climate. During the Meso-American period, the valley remained a region apart from the rest of Mexico in many ways. Its highlands made it impenetrable to invaders and lack of resources, only 9% arable land, meant it could never support a large enough population for its inhabitants to expand outwardly. The people of the valley were spread over a wide area in small isolated villages, keeping cultural integrity to a greater extent than the rest of Mexico. Even today, no less than sixteen (16) separate indigenous groups survive, speaking 14 languages and 90 dialects, indicating that more native people survived in the valley than in any other part of Mexico.
Oaxaca was first inhabited in prehistory by hunter gatherers making their way down from the north. Around 1500 B.C.E., these hunters began the first agricultural and communal living. The first distinct culture to inhabit Oaxaca was the Chatino in the southwest of Oaxaca, who were to have a long history. Arriving from an undisclosed ‘distant land‘, they were highly militarist people who fought hard against both the Zapotec and Mixtec, and managed to resist all Zapotec attempts at conquest, before finally succumbing to Mixtec invasion. The Chatino called themselves Kitse Cha’tnio, which, evocatively, means “Work of the Words”.
Around 1150 – 800 B.C.E, Oaxaca fell under a strong influence from the Olmec. Though the valley was never conquered by them, it was migrated to and strong trade and cultural ties emerged. It was during the Olmec trade period that the population of Oaxaca began to boom and distinct signs of civilization appeared, with elites and social structures emerging among indigenous people. This was highly desirable for the Olmec as their civilization, at that period, was chronically short of other advanced people to trade with. They were always on the lookout for people advanced enough to extract and process raw materials from in exchange for Olmec goods.
The Olmec trade period came to an end, around 800 B.C.E., as more sophisticated cultures emerged along the gulf area. It became more practical for civilizations of the valley to trade with the local people, rather than ship goods huge distances to the Olmec. Around 500 B.C.E., Monte Alban rose along with larger population centres. Carvings show that intermittent warfare occurred between the people living in the valley, with the Zapotec emerging dominant, though far from all-conquering by 200 B.C.E.
The Zapotec, the Cloud People, were the first major native culture of Oaxaca. They were also the second illustrious civilization to emerge in Meso-America, after the Olmec. The Zapotec were knowledgeable in both complex Mayan mathematics and are believed to be the first Meso-Americans to develop writing. Their cities show evidence that, in their long history, they freely traded with and took a lot of cultural influence from other cultures. Goods from the Olmecs, Teotihuacan and the Toltecs have especially been found across the region and influences of their architecture are also very evident.
Their first capital, Monte Alban ( 500 B.C. – 900 A.D.), was built atop three hills, at the crux of the inverted Y shape that forms the valley, giving it a tremendous strategic advantage. At its height, between 0 – 500 A.D., the population of the city rose to over 30,000 inhabitants. However, the city had no source of water, which meant it was probably only an aristocratic and religious centre surviving from tributes of the estates below. In fact, water was a sparse commodity in the entire Oaxaca valley, giving any invaders terrible logistic problems, and a distinct advantage to the controlling Zapotec. This may possibly explain their longevity.
The Zapotec were unlike other Mexicans, believing they were the original inhabitants of the country born from rocks, trees, and jaguars. Other people prided themselves on fabulous, biblical, Israelites-style migration myths. The Zapotec religion was partly animistic, where people worshiped their ancestors and indulged in an occasional human sacrifice.
Zapotec civilization went into decline shortly after Teotihuacan. Around 900 A.D., they abandoned Monte Alban and moved to their religious center of Mitla, 40 km away, only to abandon same. The troubles of the Zapotec seemed to have roused a Mixtec migration into their lands. Over the next three centuries, the Zapotec were to lose more and more of their lands, until, eventually, surviving Zapotec were faced with a choice of staying in Oaxaca under Mixtec rule, or migrating. The independence-minded Zapotec overspilled into their neighbour’s territory where they seized the city of Tehuantepec from the Zoquean and Huavean, and made it their new capital.
Before the Mixtec’s prolonged conquest of the Zapotec was complete, both people fell under the gaze of the Aztec Empire, who coveted the valley’s rich gold and obsidian mines. As a preliminary to invasion, the Aztec closed both Mixtec and Zapotec trade routes, outside of Oaxaca. The Zapotec and Mixtec called a halt to hostilities between them and braced themselves for an inevitable invasion. When the great invasion eventually did come, in 1498 A.D., the Zapotec, almost 3,000 years into their civilization, chose that time to find their greatest chief, Cocijoeza. Knowing the Aztec would come across Mixtec lands first, he promised aid to the Mixtec. Trying to ensure that the Mixtec didn’t sue for a separate peace, when hostilities began, he made peace with the Aztec and left them to fight a wearying war with the Mixtec. After several years, a weakened Aztec army finally achieved victory. Cocijoeza immediately betrayed the Aztec by attacking and defeating them. The Zapotec had ensured their survival from two larger and hungrier predators, playing them off against one another. Similarly, the Zapotec survived the Spanish conquest by allying with the Spanish in 1521 A.D., and aiding their conquest of the Mixtec Federation.
As Zapotec power waned after the fall of Teotihuacan, for the first time in its history, the secure Oaxaca Valley was open to invasion by a major people. The Mixtec people that overcame Zapotec power spanned in a wide area of ancient Mexico. From the Puebla Valley and Guerrera, they spread into Oaxaca, some time in the 9th century, eventually to reach the Pacific coast. The Spanish often noted that they found the Mixtec to be the most alien of all Mexicans, Mixtec women dyed their skins yellow and the men often painted their bodies black. The Mixtec were famous for their medicinal skills and had some of the most advanced knowledge of astronomy, history and geography in the Americas. They also enjoyed the reputation of being the finest goldsmiths around.
More Mixtec writings survived than any other native people. Mixtec Codecides date back to 692 A.D., but mention nothing of their previous origins. Studies into the Mixtec language have tried to rectify this omission and close linguistic ties have been discovered with the tongue of the Olmec-Huixtotin, the ancient salt harvesters of the Veracruz area.
The Mixtec realm in many ways resembled a Mexican Holy Roman Empire with a few princes of common bloodline in competition by inter-marriage and war. Several times in Mixtec history, a prince would achieve great power, but none would ever become supreme. The princes were separated into different noble ranks, similar to the European baron, earl, duke by purity of blood, and could only increase their rank by marriage into a higher family. One method of achieving this was by war and by keeping their society in an almost permanent state of blood feud, which is not dissimilar to the European dynastic wars.
The Mixtec war differed from Aztec war greatly. The Mixtec didn’t fight to gain sacrifices, but rather to slay their enemies as quickly as possible. A defeated prince and his male heirs were killed and his female heirs were married within the victor’s family, with lineage being passable by the female line. A powerful Mixtec prince could be judged by the number of wives he had taken from his slain cousin’s harem.
The Mixtec war was a civilized affair. The mountainous terrain of Oaxaca meant cities were powerful fortresses and virtually impregnable. Battles back then were prearranged on neutral ground and a date and time was set. The women and children of warring nations were taken to places of safety, usually impenetrable mountains tops. The dynastic wars, like medieval wars in Europe, were fought mostly between nobles, only ten percent of the peasants were eligible for military service.
To balance the system and to try and stop disputes from becoming too common or bloody, a powerful priesthood existed. At the head were three pope-like oracular priests, who was each dressed as a different god from their pantheon which seemed to represent the embodiment of the deities on earth. These oracles were often charged to judge internal disputes between princes, and possessed their own armies to enforce their judgment.
Each princedom itself was a hereditary monarchy based on primogeniture. Below the monarch was a regimented noble caste who served as governor and seemed to have the monopoly on trade. Below them, a multi-tiered priesthood whose job was as keeper of the sacred astronomical, mathematical and historical knowledge, and also to understand the writing of the ancestors and interpret them. Next came the serfs who were artisans and farmers, but possessed no power in the pyramidal society. Slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder, being those who had committed crimes of accumulated debt. Apart from the highest level of nobility, the social division between women didn’t appear to be so strong as with men, as women were more restricted to the role of wives and mothers.
As the Mixtec advanced south they came into contact with the aged Zapotec civilization. They rebuilt many of their cities, including the Zapotec holy city of Mitla, which they made their holy own city, and the long abandoned Monte Alban, which they restored as a burial ground. In a long and sporadic war that saw the two divided people intermarrying and often allying within internal disputes among their own people, the Mixtec gradually wrestled control of the Oaxaca valley from the Zapotec. The war was eventually brought to a halt when both people fell prey to the Aztec. In a notably bloody war, the Mixtec Federation eventually succumbed to the might of the Sun People, but their vast distance from Tenochtitlan ensured that they never fully fell under Aztec control.
Finally, the Mixtec gold working skills didn’t go unnoticed by the Spanish and another bitter war ensued. They fought the Spanish to a standstill, but were eventually defeated by the Zapotec when they allied with the Spanish.
Another civilization to rival that of the Mixtec was the Cuicateco. Unfortunately, little is known of the Cuicateco due to the destruction of their codex and maps by the Spanish. They are thought to have been refugees from the Toltec Empire when it was overrun by barbarians in the 11th century. They settled in the northwest of the valley and were conquered by the Mixtec when they migrated. However, the Cuicateco managed to free themselves from Mixtec rule by allying with the Aztec when they arrived and aiding them in their war with the Mixtec.
The Cuicateco were not the only Toltecs to move to Oaxaca seeking refuge amongst their civilized former trading partners as the north was overrun by barbarians. One group of Toltec migrants were the Mazatecos, possibly the Nonoalca-Chichimecas from Tollan itself, calling themselves, Shuta Enima, People of Custom.
During the Post-Classic 900 C.E. to the conquest, the relative safety and civilization of the Oaxaca valley, compared to the turmoil of the rest of Meso-America, saw it attracting an increasing number of migrants. By land and sea, large numbers of tribal groups began moving into the valley from the south. These people were highly diverse in both language, culture and numbers. The most well known of these is probably the Mixe, who are often considered the third forgotten major power in the valley. Occupying the northeastern corner, they were too isolated to come under any major threat from the Mixtec or Zapotec, with whom they had a long term rivalry. The Mixe believed themselves to have originated in Peru. They had migrated in 1294 in search of their god, Condoy, who resided on the sacred mountain of Zempaltepelt, the hill of twenty gods in the Oaxaca highlands. The Mixe allied themselves with the Zapotec to resist the Aztec invasion. Due to their mountainous terrain, they were never subdued by the Spanish. They allied with both the Zapotec and the Zoave to fight the Spanish in 1522-23. In 1570.  Mr. Spores records, “rampaged through the Sierra Zapoteca, burning and looting Zapotec communities and threatening to annihilate the Spaniards in [the presidio of] Villa Alta.” The Spaniards, however, in alliance with 2,000 Mixtec from Cuilapa and Aztec living in Analco, were able to contain the rebellion. Following this defeat, the Mixes “elected to retreat to the remoteness of their mountain villages rather than risk inevitable destruction. There they remained throughout the colonial period, and it is there that they may be found today.” In fact, Antonio Gay stated that the Spaniards “never emerged victorious over the Mixes.”
Another major people to enter the valley were the Chontales, who possibly migrated from Nicaragua. After being forced from their homelands by invaders, they founded a small kingdom, in 1347, in the centre of the valley, and immediately came into conflict with the Zapotec, who eventually defeated them. Two more migrating people were the Amuzgos, who called themselves Tzjon Non, which means People of the Textiles. They fell to an invasion by Moctezuma Illhuicamia in 1457, but rebelled in 1494 and 1504-7. The Huave arrived in the valley by sea from the distant south, and finally settled on the Tehuantepec Coast, which was already occupied by the Mixe and with whom they enjoyed a peaceful co-existence. They flourished and carved out a small empire along the Paicific coast known by the Spanish as Jalapa del Marques, but fell victim to an Aztec invasion by Moctezuma I and were forced to pay tribute. Taking advantage after their defeat of the Aztec, the Zapotec expelled them from their territory and forced them into a small corner of the Tehuantepec Coast, where they remain today.
Many minor people lived in the valley throughout its history. Spending much of their time making up the conquered territories of the Zapotec and Mixtec empires, they are often omitted from accounts. The Triquis, a people who moved into the heart of Mixtec territory and lived under both Mixtec and Zapotec dominance, managed to maintain cultural and linguistic independence. The Popoloca, a general Aztec term meaning ’barbarian’ referring to all people who don’t speak Náhuatl, are spread throughout the valley in small groups, calling themselves Homshuk, which means God of Corn. The Tacuates called their territory “Land of the Serpents” and speak a Mixtec dialect. The Zoque, also called the Aiyuuk, fell under Zapotec dominance and may have been a Mayan people, who had enough cultural similarities to suggest a common origin with the Mixe. The Chocho, who were annexed into the Mixtec heartland, called themselves the Runixa Ngiigua or “Those Who Speak”. and were partially liberated from Mixtec rule by the Aztec, whom they became a tributary of. The Ixcateco were the smallest and poorest of the tribes. Living in the arid town of Santa Maria de Ixcatlán, they escaped interest from anyone until becoming an Aztec tributary. The Chinantaecos, living in the lush northern border of Veracruz, became a numerous minor power in their own right. Their success attracted the attention of their neighbors and they fought back a series of invasions by the Mixtec and Zapotec only to fall to Moctezuma I.
Following the Spanish conquest, a series of 19 epidemics hit the valley, including, smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cacomistle. It is estimated that between 1520 and 1650, the population dropped from one and a half million people to a hundred and fifty thousand.
Nigel Davies – The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico
John Pohl – Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec
John P. Schmal – Oaxaca: A Land of Diversity
Ross Hassig – War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica
 John P. Schmal – Oaxaca: A Land of Diversity
Seems this blog is having a bit of a MacBeth fest. After having done the play, I thought I better check out the real dude.
At the dawn of the 11th century Scotland was a declining nation, and one that really shouldn’t have survived at all. Divided within into highland and lowland, then again into Mormaer (Earldoms) each with little in common except mutual hatred and treachery towards one another. To the north Caithness, Shetland and Orkney were in the hands of the Norsemen, ever building strength to both raid and snatch more Scottish soil. To the south the powerful Northumbria, the traditional foe with it’s greedy eyes ever transfixed on the lowlands. In the west the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde was still independent and in somewhat of a renaissance, stretching as far south Cumbria and a jagged thorn. Overseas Cnut was building his Scandinavian Empire intent to add the Scottish crown to his own.
Scotland hung together by a thread, the Mormaer in principle owed fealty to the king, who could call upon them to defend Scotland from foreigners. Amongst the Mormaer one stood out in power, the northerly province of Moray, much larger than it is now, stretching from west coast to east and encompassing almost the entire of the Grampian mountains. The power of Moray rivalled that of the king himself, technically the Mormaer of Moray was still a vassal of the king, though, Irish chroniclers always referred to the Mormaer of Moray as King of Moray, reflecting the fact the Mormaer of Moray were virtually independent monarchs of the highlands.
The Kingship of Scotland was always a bloody business, more a matter of plots and assassination that rightful succession. in the 11th century, never was this so true. So precarious was the position of Scotland, that a single weak link and the nation would succumb to the wolves that surrounded it. Just as Edward I’s empire collapsed fell apart in the hands of Edward II or Henry V’s conquest were left in the hands of the infant Henry VI. One weak ruler and Scotland would be overrun. Scotland avoided this by not practicing primogeniture, but instead a system known as Tanistry.
Scottish lords named a ‘Tanaise’ as heir, the Tanaise was an adult selected from among the lords larger family group Tanaise would be an adult proven in battle and the most capable of ruling. Based. His extended included; brothers, nephews, uncles, sons, stepsons, cousins ect. The extended family or a lord during the height of his reign would be in a constant brutal struggle to prove the fittest to be Tanaise.
When the noble in question died, the Tanaise would become lord and often slaughter his entire extended family to secure his position. More often than not a relative not named Tanaise would get in first, murdering both the lord and his Tanaise and proving even more ruthless and canny, a fit to rule. When the new Mormaer of king came to power he then immediately had to find an extended family to begin the struggle to succeed him. Family ties were given a low priority in this, and adoption, by marrying widows with sons, was just a legitimate as blood relative, extended family grouping in which one would undoubtedly excel in brutality and treachery. Scotland owed it’s existence to Mr Darwin.
This was the world Macbeth was born into, around 1005, the son of Findlaech Mac Ruaridh, Mormaer (Earl) of Moray. Little is known about his ancestry but he was possibly the grandson of Malcolm II, the king of Scotland, through his mother.
When Macbeth was around 15 his father was murdered by his cousin who became Mormaer and began the slaughter of the family. One of the advantages of Tanistry unlike primogeniture is children are spared, but Macbeth at 15 was old enough to be considered a threat and disposed of. The young seems to have had his head screwed on and managed to flee south to the sanctuary of the court of King Malcolm II. The young Macbeth resided in Malcolm’s court for at least a decade finding both favour and high office which suggests he was quite capable. In 1031 he is mentioned as one of the emissaries sent by Malcolm to Cnut, delivering Malcolm’s submission after Cnut’s invasion of Scotland, along with two other Scottish kings.
A year later Macbeth torch was so strong he was able to raise an army an march on Moray to avenge his father’s murder and become Mormaer. Arriving with a band of men he caught the current Mormaer (his cousin Gillacomgain, his father‘s assassin) by surprise, Gillacomgain took refuge in one of his strongholds which Macbeth surrounded, subsequently the stronghold was set fire and Gillacomgain and fifty of his men burnt to death.
Macbeth was now Mormaer of Moray the second most powerful man in Scotland, he had served the king well for over a decade and had proven a canny and ruthless politician as well as a capable commander. He probably considered himself to be a good candidate to be name Tanaise by Malcolm. However Malcolm was about to drop a bombshell on both Macbeth and Scotland.
In 1034 Malcolm II died. On his deathbed he abolished Tanistry and adopted European primogeniture at the legitimate method of succession for Scotland. Malcolm named his young unproven grandson Duncan as heir, his own son being ineligible having joined an order of monks.
This would have been all well and good if Duncan had proven a good king. Shortly after becoming king, obviously aware of the doubts upon his shoulders, Duncan made the bold move of going on the offensive against his enemies. The Saga or Orkneyinga tells the story of a massive Scottish attempt to regain the islands from the Norse and their calamitous defeat at the final battle.
Duncan after the defeat must have felt his position weakened. In 1039 he decided to try again. His objective was to strike a blow at his main foe, the Northumbrians. This time he lead his forces personally, laying siege to Durham. However the siege quickly deteriorated into a shambles as the city held out, the besieging Scots ran out of supplies and retreated chaos
“Dunecan, king of the Scots, advanced with a countless multitude of troops, and laid siege to Durham, and made strenuous but ineffective efforts to carry it. For a large proportion of his cavalry was slain by the besieged, and he was put to a disorderly flight, in which he lost all his foot-soldiers, whose heads were collected in the market-place and hung up upon posts. Not long afterwards the same king, upon his return to Scotland, was murdered by his own countrymen.”
Historia Ecclesiae Dunelmensis
Scotland had been humiliated twice and the wolves that circled licking their lips. The fact that Macbeth’s coup never became a civil war suggests it was orchestrated with the consent of the other Mormaer. Evidence for this can be seen in that after Macbeth seized power there was no massacre of his extended family or assassinations of his rivals. The Mormaer probably agreed Duncan needed, a return to the old ways was needed and Macbeth the natural Tanaise.
No report of the event that occurred or how Macbeth’s usurping of the throne occurred, though a certain Mr Shakespeare has a rather famous theory.
In 1040 the Annals of Ulster announced,
“Donnchad son of Crinan, king of Alba, was killed by his own people.”
The Annals of Tigernach reported,“Duncan was killed at an immature age”
The Chronicle of Melrose states,
“By Macbeth, the son of Finleg (Findlaech), he was struck down; The mortally wounded king died in Elgin (in Moray)”
Marianus Scotus wrote
“Duncan, the king of Scotland, was killed in the autumn by his earl, Macbeth, Findlaech’s son”
The fact that Duncan died in Moray suggests that Duncan took the initiative again and marched north to attack Macbeth. He was mortally wounded at the battle of Bothgafnane taken to the Blacksmiths hut and died of his wounds there.
With Duncan dead, Macbeth was now Tanaise King of Scotland. However the hereditary heir was Duncan’s son Malcolm ‘Canmore’, who proclaimed himself king. Testimony of how the Scots recognised Macbeth not Canmore is the lack of support his claim gain. Canmore and his brother Donald tried to gain support for their cause against Macbeth but fail and after two years were forced in exile overseas, Donald to Ireland and Canmore to Northumbria.
The first serious challenge to Macbeth’s throne came in 1045 when Duncan’s father, Crinan, who as Abbot of Dunkeld, a position that commanded substantial resources, organised what was described as a sizable rebellion, which left 180 of his men dead. Why Macbeth left Crinan in such a strong position when he had usurped his son is a mystery. Was Crinan one of the lords that supported Macbeth coup in Scotland’s darkest hour? Was Macbeth still ruling independently enough from the other Mormaer to be allowed to dispose of him? Or was Macbeth showing a fatal weakness by not brutal deposing of his enemies, something he notably didn’t do to many others who would be aparty to his downfall.
After the failure of Crinan’s rebellion the middle years of Macbeth’s rule seems to have been one of stability and prosperity. In 1052 showed great statesmanship when Edward the Confessor expelled all Normans from England Macbeth granted them refuge and lands, many of them loyally served him to the end.
The Prophecy of Berchan gives a clear description of Macbeth and his rule,
“The ruddy faced king… will possess Scotland.
The strong one was fair, yellow-haired and tall.
Brimful of food was Scotland, east and west,
During the reign of the ruddy, brave king”
Strong, brave and ruddy (red) faced (perhaps with rage) if this is added to tall, fair and with long blond hair, a picture of huge terrifying warrior emerges, the kind of man to forge a country in a violent age.
The line, Brimful of food, suggests what facts seem to support, Scotland was a stable and prosperous land for a time. So stable that in 1049 felt secure enough to leave Scotland and go on a pilgrimage to Rome. Leaving your country was a big deal for any medieval king, but for Macbeth, with a pretender Malcolm Canmore exiled in Scotland’s main rival Northumbria, this was a blod move of a confident man.
Macbeth arrived in Rome in Easter 1050 where he visited the poor areas of the city and scattered so much silver in the streets it was written of by monks in Hamburg. Why he went on pilgrimage he was less clear. As a Norman ally was he seeking more favour from the pope against England? Was it to try and get the pope to legitimise his rule over Malcolm Canmore? Or maybe he just was genuinely pious.
Towards the end of Macbeth’s reign discontent emerged in Scotland. The reasons are unknown, but for the first time Malcolm Canmore found support for his cause in Scotland and he was to return to haunt Macbeth.
Earl Siward of Northumbria hadn’t harboured Canmore for all these years out of kindness, but as a card to play in the prolonged struggle between the two realms, in 1034 he decided to play it.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records,
“This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, both with a ship-force and with a landforce, and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king Macbeth, and slew all who were the chief men in the land, and led thence much booty, such as no man before had obtained. But his son Osbarn, and his sister’s son Siward, and some of his housecarls, and also of the king’s, were there slain, on the day of the Seven Sleepers”
According to the chronicle, Siward and Canmore rode at the head of a large army into Scotland and defeated Macbeth, however it’s not this straight forward. Amongst the Northumbrian army were a lot of the personal troops of Edward the Confessor, which suggests it was an English not Northumbrian orchestrated invasion, perhaps in response to Macbeth’s harbouring of Normans.
By standards of the day the invading force was huge. The Northumbrian Chronicles paint a vivid picture, a large Northumbrian fleet lead by Canmore captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels including horse. They marched out to the plains of Gowire past the capital Scone and Edinburgh, probably pillaging in an attempt to force Macbeth to face them. Macbeth presumably having to ride the country to muster forces to fight such a huge invasion. The campaign was recorded as being costly to men on both side and culminated in one of the most massive battles seen to date in Scotland, the Battle of Seven Sleepers (Dunsinane). The Northumbrian Chronicle tells little of the battle but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians and were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans wiped out.
The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned to with their booty back to London and Northumbria leaving him with only his own forces.
Canmore now devoid of English support lacked the power to venture into the highlands and confront Macbeth. Meanwhile Macbeth still Mormaer of Moray, the most powerful Mormaer in Scotland retreated to the security of his highland kingdom where he mounted a guerrilla war against Canmore raiding south. For three years Macbeth carried out his war leading ambitious raids deep into the lowlands and retreating north assured the lowlanders could never follow, he was to prove wrong. 1057 Malcolm Canmore manage to lead a force to Macbeth surpise across the Grampian mountains and ambush the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. Macbeth was slain in the battle.
Macbeth 1005-1057 (King 1040-57)
It is always said, with the death of Macbeth died Tanistry in Scotland, as Malcolm Canmore and his descendants ruled in primogeniture from then on. However in a great twist of irony it was perhaps Macbeth himself who ended it when his own stepson became his successor, ‘Lulach the foolish,’ never crowned, Lulach survived his father by only seven months before Canmore invaded Moray again and slew him. Whereas Canmore himself was succeeded by his brother (briefly) before his son. Macbeth may not have been the last Tanaise monarch of Scotland, but he was the last Highlander.
Macbeth, Man and Myth – Nick Aitchison
In Search of British Heroes – Tony Robinson
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Tigernach
Chronicle of Melrose
Prophecy of Berchan – Marianus Scotus
The literary encyclopaedia
Dot to doomsday – http://www.stephen.j.murray.btinternet.co.uk
Having just seen the play I thought I’d write a quick piece about it. It didn’t work out that way as I read lots of other reviews and not only did they seem to think the opposite of me they seemed to focus on Lady MacBeth feminist icon. So I digressed a little into attacking this view, for part of the review at least before slaughter the play itself.
“A recipe for happiness: a goal, an ‘A’ a ‘B’ and a straight line.”
In researching this article I noticed there has been an awful lot written about Mrs Macbeth, somewhat disproportionately I think to her importance as a character outside or even inside the play. Part of this is because she is female and a lot of the reviewers are female and partly because her character is written by the playwright obscurely enough for her to be somewhat of an enigma.
Sadly modern academia is about the production of new material not the production of material of worth. Fresh works are workman-likely written as part of job requirements and or of requirement for passing higher degrees. These have to have original content, even if there’s nothing new of worth to say on the subject. They all work along similar lines. Invent a wacky theory, give it a catchy name, bring in lots of popularist theories of the day (post modernism, cosmic string theory) and voila “Was Lady Macbeth an Alien?” is ready to hit obscure academic journal (along with 200 hundred others that week alone).
Finding someone who’s actually wrote something sober and sensible, rather than flying off on a wild tangent about the lady in question has proved very difficult indeed. If I hear the words “anti-mother”, “the biological Lady Macbeth”, “menstrual cycle” and “empowered woman” one more time I will found a terror groups called, the Pulp Fiction Liberation Front and campaign to burn plays not by Jeffrey Archer.
A Grandiose Mrs Macbeth
Mrs Macbeth in the plot has a pretty straightforward role, she encourages her husband to kill Duncan when he has doubts. Mr Macbeth is a fearsome warrior but she describes him as “too full of the milk of human kindness”. This is an interesting remark. If she had said he was “too honourable” it would be very normal and but from a plot perspective, no character flaw in Mr Macbeth.
But with too “kind” the question arises, is this something Shakespeare deliberately did making her uniquely see it as question of “kindness” not “honour” or is it just a product of the age Shakespeare was conditioned by and him not realising it?
Mrs Macbeth sees hubby as “too kind” to kill Duncan so takes it upon herself to be his backbone. She uses a number of methods ranging from nagging to witchcraft, however as she does so begins to have serious moral troubles about what she is doing. These troubles she keeps from her husband. For some reason A Picture of Dorian Grey springs to mind as she diminishes while he gets stronger, with Mrs Macbeth as the painting.
It’s not rocket science Shakespeare is writing. Women does something bad, then is wracked by moral guilt, this and a million other plays, movies, drama and soap operas.
So perhaps it’s the way she does it that is of more interest than what she does. A lot of feminist writers have written an awful lot of words on Mrs Macbeth, they see her as an “empowered woman” and very many other coined terms. Another great feminist writer never wrote any words about the lady however it’s his comments to which I would like to turn.
Nietzsche once condemned, “Happiness for a man is, I will. Happiness for a woman is, He will.”
It is worth pointing out at no point in the play does Mrs Macbeth express her own desires for herself. She has no life of her own or role in life and no ambitions for herself, this feminist icon seems to be living her whole life vicariously through a man. She is in fact a rather impotent character and somewhat pathetic creature. Maybe her desire to kill Duncan is just her scream against the world. Bitter and twisted old harridan is probably not most popular analysis one could come up with but worth thinking about.
Mrs Macbeth’s role in the play peters out as the play advances and her importance dwindles, showing she was a flawed vehicle for the writers ideas. Shakespeare seem to have written a too one dimensional and insignificant character to last the whole play.
Her role seems to be best summarised by a Daffy Duck cartoon. In many Daffy Duck cartoons when he is faced by a moral dilemma two small ducks appear one on either shoulder, one a devil the other and angel, they then badger him in each ear, in variably Daffy takes the little devil’s advice and comes a cropper. Lady Macbeth is the little devil duck sitting on Daffy Macbeth’s left shoulder urging him to take the immoral action and come a cropper. I quite convinced Shakespeare would have made an excellent Hanna and Barbera scriptwriter.
A less Grandiose Mrs Macbeth
There could however be another take upon Mrs Macbeth when one disposes of the rest of the play. She looks somewhat lost within it, but once the chaff is picked away, she may be the only substance left.
When viewed as high art, Macbeth seems a withered old tale and its allegory is a complete anachronism. Written in an age where the unshaking puritan belief of divine providence was coming to the historical fore, throw in a few select cuts of the Cassandra Complex, a few chunks of old fashioned fate, some of James I’s love of witches and bake for two hours. To the modern mind which doesn’t believe in pre-determined destiny the whole free will vs determinism debate, allegorically Macbeth is irrelevant, it would be no less sensible seeing a play asking if pigs can or can’t fly.
In comparison to other Shakespeare plays such as King Lear with its proto-postmodern take on ideological conditioning, still at the forefront of philosophy today, Macbeth is an old donkey that needs taking to the glue factory. However Macbeth is much more famous than King Lear, it is worth for a moment considering why? Perhaps it’s in its popularity not allegory Macbeth finds its relevance. What’s behind its popularity?
Dated allegory vs modern one, is one way of looking at it in comparison to King Lear, however another is that allegory vs no allegory, but strong characterisation and powerful drama instead. It’s perhaps here why Macbeth triumphs over King Lear, in the soap opera-age audiences really don’t want to see a play that mimics a Booker Prize novel, bland writing, dull characters, tedious plot development, snooty author and the whole kit caboodle simply for the sake of getting across an allegory, when the writer could have saved the readers all the monotony of reading his book by simply writing a 1,500 words philosophy essay instead**.
A Macbeth theatre like a Romeo and Juliet one is one of excitement, offering the punter something better than a Booker experience, it gives the audience a 20th century soap opera and a thinking free zone. Who’d seriously want to sit through an art movie when you can see a Bollywood film, a wedding, a song and dance routine, a knife fight and an elephant ride guaranteed in each and every one. Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet when viewed as pulp fiction are truly cutting edge, superbitches, sword fights, battles, unrequited love, family feuds, treachery, passion, murder and gossip, it’s like Holly Oaks meets Dynasty.
Mrs Macbeth then comes into her own a soap opera queen, as this she is at the centre of the play, it’s Joan Collins that drew the viewers. We know what Mr Macbeth is and we know what he will do, however actresses playing such an obscurely written character with 500 years of ideas have such poetic licence they can do something unique each time. What does this make Mrs Macbeth’s motivation and character, well something like the ending to a John Fowles novel, the viewer can choose by which version they go to see.
Like all good soap operas Macbeth centres around a husband and wife combo, as usual a strong wife and doubtful husband. They are rowing, having sexual problems, they are minor players in the boardroom but on the make surrounded by seemingly straight and honest people at their level and less competent people above them. They already enjoy a glitzy lifestyle, this is clearly a Dynasty or Dallas rather than Eastenders, the audience is invited into world he dreams about entering but is unfamiliar to him. With Eastenders the writers with their audience so familiar with a subject material they can get away with little creativity. Shakespeare on the other hand is taking the viewer into a world beyond them has great poetic licence with the truth.
Mrs Macbeth is very much a fantasy figure, seen through a window into an idealised version of a world the 16th century play viewer has no access to but dreamed of visiting. She is very much what this paying punter would have wanted to see, having heard tales of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Mary of Guise.
Mrs Macbeth then is an interesting character, but perhaps one that was more peripheral than interesting when the play was written who has become more interesting as intertextualality from subsequent centuries of philosophy and soap opera gave the view new perceptions of her.
**It is a well known fact the art of writing has long been perfected by Terry Pratchett, so lesser writers such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky Joyce are always going to look flawed beside him, and Salmon Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee should really just hang up their word processors now.
Sacrifices to Venus
Miss B____rn. of No. 18 Old Compton Street, Soho;
This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianofort, sings, dances, and is mistress of every Maneuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds.
A scandalous tale of eroticism and vice throughout Georgian England delving into the slums of London, its gambling dens, whorehouses, aristocratic parlours, debtors prisons, seedy porn shops, boudoirs and lowlife taverns.
It was in these very back streets brimming of bawds and harlots that an outrageous publication emerged, that would resonate down the ages in both licentiousness & salaciousness. Harris’s Lists was first published in 1857 by the most unlikely of authors, a young middle class rural poet. The list which revealed the intimacies & habits of the women of ill repute in the Covent Garden area was more than just a directory of whores, in full poetic prose it paid homage to the ‘sacrifices to Venus’, who graced its pages & provided a menu to the sexual theme park that was Georgian London for any gentleman with the inclination, libido and money.
Harris’s List instantly became a best seller, over a quarter of a million copies in its thirty eight year run, making one of the best read publications of its era. What made Harris’s List so remarkable was its author in the early years: Sam Derrick. More than just an adult directory Derrick set about his bold endeavour with both love & vigour to give a stunning window to Georgian London.
While the prose of Derrick may have been poetic, it was nothing but scrupulous in its honesty. The lists show the depth of Derrick’s knowledge & admiration of his subject, as he celebrates each women and their profession and then goes on to individually give us a picture of their lives, personal tales and personalities. Derrick provides us with both an insight into who the whores really were and the hand society dealt them.
Harris’s Lists also show much about the professions itself. The rungs of the profession any girl may be placed on, from kept mistresses of aristocrats to street whores, from part time shop girls to upmarket brothel harlots and even lists middleclass nymphomaniacs who took gentlemen callers for free. The lists themselves served many purposes, they were desirable for any money minded female to get on and Derrick remained astonishingly scrupulous in the face of numerous offers of bribes, seeing his task to help rather than exploit the women he advertised. Derrick was also brutally honest about the girls themselves naming venereal disease carriers and purse snatchers. Finally they provide a vivid insight into the debauchery and sexual fetishes of the age. There’s very little that even the most widely stocked adult DVD shop today would look unfamiliar to a reader of the list.
Convent Garden Ladies tells the story of Harris’s list through three figures who’s lives the lists were to leave an indelible impression.
Sam Derrick was a Dublin born draper’s apprentice. Winning a national prize for poetry in his youth he abandoned his family and inheritance to make it in the literary lights of London. There though the small town boy failed to impress. Despite being both charming and witty, his literary talents were not recognised. Derrick led the ambiguity of through his social charm gradually weaning his way onto the social calendar of the aristocracy and at the same time falling into dreadful poverty, eventually sleeping on the street and living off handouts and freebies from the working girls whom he shared a mutual plight with.
Derrick turned to the only place a failed writer could turn, the notorious Grub Street. Living above a road of sleazy bookshops they became house writer/slaves to unscrupulous hack publishers. Writing whatever they were told to write from puff reviews, exposé to pornography they slaved all hours for little more than board and a meal.
Derrick like all abhorred his plight but even worse lived beyond his means, finally ending when one day the debt collectors caught up with him and he found himself in debtors prison. With no money and no way out, this was usually the end for such people as Derrick. However Derrick managed to remarkably extricate himself. The creation & publication of Harris’s Lists for the first time saw him with a steady income and he managed to pay off his creditors.
As anonymous writer of the capital’s most notorious publication he had a means to continue courting the patron he desired. In his later life Derrick’s carousing of the wealthy and charming of wealthy ladies paid off, when he was voted ‘King of Bath’ the city’s master of ceremonies in the country’s top holiday resort for the rich. There the most notorious pimp in London caroused with the virginal daughters of the society class as their fathers who were the main users of the list kept his secret until his death.
Charlotte Hayes was the daughter of a prostitute raised in a brothel. Having the kind of insider knowledge her mother had, she was determined Charlotte would have a head start over other girls. Charlotte was blessed with looks and would become one of the most famous beauties of her age. Her mother new there was only one role for her, the top rung of prostitution, a concubine, the kept mistress of a wealthy man.
Charlotte was schooled at one of the capital’s better schools and learnt the refinement and graces that would be expected of her in higher circles. When she entered the profession in the 1840’s the sophisticated beauty became an instant hit with the wealthy pleasure seekers of the age, as likely to be taken to the races or a private box in the theatre as to bed. Charlotte had no problem finding wealthy men to put her up in an apartment and keep her in servant and silk. Whilst cynically looking out for a better keeper and abandoning the previous at the drop of a hat.
Charlotte eventually achieved the top of her profession as the concubine of the Robert Tracy, the wastrel son and heir Judge Robert Tracy who had died leaving him his vast fortune to squander on gaming, drinking and whoring. Tracy was also one of the wealthy men who had fallen for Sam Derrick’s charms. Soon Charlotte and Sam began to conduct an affair behind Tracy’s back. However it was Tracy who would have the last laugh, dying and leaving Charlotte nothing in his will. Not a penny to pay for the bulging credit accounts for her silk dresses and lavish wares.
Soon the bailiffs were chasing Charlotte and Sam Derrick who had set up home together and both were to wind up in Debtor’s Prison. Sam was to extricate himself with the publication of Harris’s Lists but Charlotte was to languish there for almost four years until pardoned. Four years in harsh prison and turning the age of thirty hadn’t left Charlotte the most attractive candidate to become a concubine and Charlotte had no desire to become a common whore. So she decided as a madam her future would lie, and not just any madam but of the most expensive and exclusive brothel in London.
Charlotte knew of Parisian Salons and how they differed from London brothels and that was where the future lay. Very quickly Charlotte was owning and running the two most exclusive Salon’s in London. Not in and out brothels but clubs where men socialised, gamed, ate and drank downstairs while nude girls frolicked and entertained for hours before men retired upstairs and were finally billed, not just for the girl but everything they consumed. Charlotte filled the brothel with the most beautiful girls, kept lists of the members particular tastes and preferred activities. She schooled her girls in eloquence and dancing, fitted them out with the finest silks.
On the proceeds of the Salons, Charlotte was able to buy a country estate, a stable of the finest breeding horses. However quickly others cottoned onto her money spinning idea and soon the whole road her Salons occupied became a row of such Salons in competition with one another. With the money drying up at one point Charlotte found herself almost bankrupt but was bailed out by Sam Derrick her ex-lover whom she hadn’t seen for over a decade. The king of Bath had died, as usual living far beyond his means, leaving a trail of debt, but had left his one valuable item to her, the annual proceeds of Harris’s Lists. In a final twist Charlotte was to have a single, child, a daughter, whom she sent to convent school in France.
Jack Harris, Pimp General of England, was the man the lists bore the name of. Jack born in the theatre and vice district of London, Covent Garden. He was the son a well to do middle class country family who came to the city to pursue his father’s political ambitions. His father was a fearless politician and critic but was ruined by a libel suit from one he criticised and died leaving his family penniless in prison.
Jack now the provider embarked on a life of crime, trying both confidence tricking and card sharping, however he quickly found his talents lay in a more amorous criminality. Jack found work as a waiter in more downmarket tavern. Located in a heart of Covent Garden it was more an establishment for dangerous liaisons than ale. The job of a waiter in the 18th century not only involved serving drinks to customers but introductions to willing ladies.
In the days before widespread communications the standard way for a gentlemen who didn’t want to risk a street walker to learn of a prostitute was through a waiter/pimp. Waiter/Pimp’s kept lists of all classes of whores in the local areas, their rates and specialities. For a small fee the waiter/pimp would make the introduction. Waiter/Pimps reputations were made by the variety and quality of whore’s on their lists. Quickly Jack’s lists became second to none.
Waiter/Pimps jealously guarded their lists from rivals and continually sought out new recruits, and it was in the success of this they made their reputation. Jack’s genius lay in his superior ability to procure girls, build a reputation for having a stable of size and quality.
Jack’s girls ranged greatly, he a particular reputation for having the finest Irish girls around. Regularly he would go on recruiting troops to Dublin where he would offer local whores the opportunity of working in London. Being as Irish whores were rarely paid and often beaten by their pimps, most leapt at the chance. Another method he used was less benevolent. Where he would trick a girl into a private room with an offer of a job or marriage and there have her ravaged. Once spoilt the girl was offered a job with him. Few refused, unable to return to decent society.
Pimping was a very lucrative business, every aspect of it was designed to screw money from both the punter and harlot. Jack would parade a line of girls before his client one at a time. For each view the unlucky mark paid. Jack would start his parade ugliest girl first so he would amass a considerable some of money before even the choice was made. Then he would introduce a host of surcharges, often made up on the spot. His girls faired no better and he charged them for the room & for the rent of their fine dresses.
It was in Jack’s tavern the Shakspear where he met Sam Derrick an impoverished poet, popular amongst his girls and often sponging off them. Here Derrick became familiar with the mystique of pimp’s lists & the idea for Harris’s Lists was born. Though they bore his name, Harris’s Lists, were not in fact Pimp General Jack Harris’s List actual list, the publication Harris’s Lists were entirely the work of Derrick. But it was the genius of putting the Pimp General’s name on them that sold them. Derrick gave Jack a one off payment for the use of his name on the lists. At the time Jack probably thought he had a good deal. However the success of the lists that bore his name was to ruin him.
Already the most notorious pimp in the country, Jack Harris was to become the symbol of vice in Britain. When politicians ranted in Parliament about vice, it was Jack’s they cited as an example. When newspapers did expose it was Jack they named. All this attention initially brought Jack both wealth & fame but came back to haunt him when an anti vice movement gained popular support opening the capitals first Magdalene Home usefully lobbying the government for a clampdown.
Jack bore the brunt of the clampdown being jailed for 3 years. It was while languishing in Jail being visited weekly by hack journalist wanting another fill of his pimp anecdotes to print in the Sunday scandal sheets that he realised the Pimp General must die. Upon his release changed his name to John Harrison & ran the tavern next to Drury Lane theatre. Being a haven for harlots servicing theatregoers he returned to his trade as pimp/waiter. Jack was to marry and have a son whom he brought up to be a successful pimp/waiter in his own tavern too.
Harris’s Lists may have destroyed the Pimp General but that was not going to stop him from having his own go. Regretting accepting a one off payment rather than royalties for the publication that bore his name, Jack had a go at creating a rival publication. Ironically the real Harris’s List published by Jack Harris himself were everything that the Sam Derrick lists were not. A simple cold list of whores. The publication failed to sell & Jack quickly abandoned it.
The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold is published by Tempus and highly recommended
This is a summary of David Attrenborough’s recent series of BBC Radio 4 programs, Scars of Evolution, I have supplemented in places.
Humans differ from other primates in many ways; we have no hair, we have body fat, we can walk upright, we have speech; strange for a land mammal, we can’t run but can swim, most importantly, different from many non-marine mammals is that we have large brains.
Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is the theory that humans early in their evolution, perhaps during the Homo Erectus phase, lived on the shores beside water, beachcombing for shellfish, swimming, diving the seabed and fishing. Living beside water for 10,000s perhaps 100,000s of years is what caused us to evolve in a very different way to inland primates.
Prior to the 1920’s where humanity first evolved remained uncertain and the discoveries of Peking Man and Java Man made Asia the favourite so it was there most work was concentrated. However in 1924 Professor Raymond Dart uncovered a child’s skull that would become known as the Taung Child. The skull was much older than anything found before and switched the focus of human evolution from Peking and Java firmly to Africa.
The Taung Child was found on the South African Savannah and was eventually accepted to be the earliest link between apes and early hominids. The discovery of what was previously believed to be a forest dweller on the Savannah and showing early signs of bipedalism opened the way for the first great explanation of human evolution.
Dart launched a hypothesis of human evolution: Savannah Theory.
Savannah Theory argued the forests of South Africa began to shrink and the primate ancestors of man ventured out onto the hot, flat, African Savannah. There they were forced to stand bipedally to avoid predators and hunt, freeing their hands to develop into intricate tool manufacturing devices and growing a brain to plan even more complex hunting strategy and weapon designs.
By the 1960’s a theory thought up by Dart was accepted as orthodoxy became the theory taught in all schools worldwide, so strong was it that it became scientific heresy to oppose it.
What became known of as Savannah Hypothesis was written on and expanded by many authors, the most famous Desmond Morris in the Naked Ape. Where human ancestors struck out from the forest and threw themselves into competition with the ground birds. Pressure to increase their hunting capabilities caused them to become faster runners, walk upright so their hands became free to hold weapons and tools, their brains grew making brighter quicker decision makers. “A hunting Ape, a killer ape”.
In the wake of wwii and the midst of the Vietnam War a Killer Ape Theory found a ready audience, explaining man’s murderous instincts, war and attributing an urge to do violence a fundamental part of his evolutionary psyche. It was a very macho theory, the male apes went out hunting for red meat whilst the females stayed home doing little but tend for the young and being thrown the odd scrap off the table when the hunters had finished eating.
A simplistic but bloody account, throughout the 80’s and 90’s it became apparent Savannah theory was over simplified.
Work on the Taung area where the skull was found, showed hundreds of thousands of years ago it wasn’t as dry as it is now and probably wasn’t Savannah after all.
Also no other species in evolutionary history has voluntarily changed it’s environment, evolution doesn’t work like that, so how could man’s ancestors voluntarily venture onto the Savannah.
And finally the simple ill-suitedness which man is to life on a Savannah. If man had evolved on a Savannah we would be much more adapted than we are.
Over many years these and many more niggling little objections had built up. However in 1995 a bombshell struck the theory. Professor Philip Tobias a former student of Dart had spent decades in the chalk beds where Dart found the Taung Child trying to fill in the gaps in theory was beginning to have doubts about Dart’s theory along with many other leading Paleo-Anthropologists.
In 1995 Tobias declared at a large conference “The Savannah Hypothesis is no more” after it emerged in sites in south and east Africa that some early hominids dwelling in forest became bipedal without ever venturing onto a savannah. Effectively this eliminated Savannah as a cause of bipedalism effectively destroying the whole Savannah Theory of evolution.
As the Savannah hypothesis became discredited Palaeontologists began to look around for another theory to explain the early evolution of man without much luck. It was also remembered there was already one that had been around for more than 30 years that had been conveniently sidelined while Savannah Theory reigned unchallenged. The theory often named Aquatic Ape Theory.
In a late 60’s an award winning Welsh playwright and journalist Elaine Morgan read Desmond Morris’s Naked Ape. She noted the theory put all evolution in terms of what was advantageous for the male. And many things disadvantageous to the females, who were left simply sitting around all day doing nothing begging scraps of meat from the male. She regarded female role in the theory was both preposterous and no species could evolve on these terms of it being advantageous to a single sex and disadvantageous for the other.
Morgan also noted a single passage in Morris’ Naked Ape which stated an alternative theory that before the Ape had emerged on the Savannah it had spent sometime as an Aquatic Ape living beside water. This theory had been put forward by an Oxford Marine Biologist Sir Alistair Hardy in The New Scientist in 1960. He had originally thought of the theory in the 1930′s but had been warned against publishing because he would destroy his career through heresy.
Hardy had become interested in the peculiar layer of fat tightly bonded to the skin, that humans have but other primates don’t. Such layers of fat are only found in water mammals. So Hardy thought man might have been more aquatic in the past. In his article he went on to suggest a shore based environment might also explain man becoming bipedal too.
A branch of primates was forced from the forest by competition moved to the sea shore to search for food, shell fish and urchins in the shallow waters of the coast. Initially paddling in shallow waters gradually he evolved the ability to venture into deeper waters, standing on the bottom with his head out the water and the water supporting his weight he learnt to become bipedal in the water.
Elaine Morgan sought permission from Alistair Hardy to write a book on his theory and in 1972 she published, The Descent of Women, and what would become known as Aquatic Ape Theory.
Immediately the book cause a storm amongst the paleontological world. She was branded a crank and amongst her leading hecklers at lectures were Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams.
In Aquatic Ape Hypothesis man was far from a killer ape and women’s role far from that of a passive breeder. Both males and females, instead, jointly harvested the sea, walking along the shoreline gathering shellfish. Society was not one of alpha males and hierachies of violence and domination but an effort of communal gathering.
However Aquatic Ape Theory was much more than this, it provided something Savannah Theory never could, a comprehensive explanation for all of the characteristics that distinguish us from the other apes. Bipedal, hairlessness, layer fat below the skin, big brain, language skills, large noses but weak sense of smell, ability to sweat, swimming diving, fat babies.
The maxim of Savannah Theory that humans developed large brains because of hunting competition with other predators on the savannahs of Africa has no parallels. Every other species that ventured onto the Savannahs reduced its brain size.
Professor Michael Crawford of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition in London, in a study into to why there are different sizes of brains in different animals established that the brains of all Savannah animals had shrunk as they grew larger bodies. He also found that in order for a brain to grow it needs a supply of Omega 3, especially VHA and Iodine and the only place to find these nutrient through a marine food chain.
This is a testable theory, the theory argues marine nutrients in the human diet are essential to growth of the human brain, then a change of diet away from these nutrients would surely be detrimental to it.
According to the World Health Organisation report in 2004, Iodine deficiency among inland populations effects around 740 million people worldwide. EG: 60% of school children in Korea are Iodine deficient and 60% of children in Indonesia have thyroid gland goitre but in fishing villages not a single one.
Another important ingredient to brain growth is the body fat only found on man and marine mammals. A Chimp’s brain is almost as big as a human baby’s brain at birth. However a human baby has a 10 fold increase in fat in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy making 30% of the baby’s total weight brain and body fat. Baby Chimps and Gorillas have no body fat at all. The human brain trebles in size from birth to the age 10, Chimps brains don’t. Human body fat provides the fuel for the growth of the human brain.
Of all man’s ancestors, Home Erectus, experienced the largest singe brain growth. Most Homo Erectus finds have been found along coastal areas and Erectus is accepted by mainstream archaeology to be a shore dweller.
There are 3 kinds of breathing pattern in mammals, voluntary, involuntary and both.
Involuntary breathing is how humans breath most of the time, it requires no thought to do and is done unconsciously. Voluntary breathing is when thoughts takes over from the unconscious process. Voluntary breathing is used when we hold our breath, play a wind instrument or practice deep breathing exercises.
All primates and land mammals are involuntary breathers only. None have the capability to hold their breath.
Sea mammals such as dolphins and whales are conscious breathers which is why only half their brains can ever go to sleep at one time, otherwise they forget to breath and drown
A small third groups exist which can both consciously and unconsciously breath, these are amphibious mammals, such as seals and otters, who can hold their breath, dive underwater for food and return to the shore revert back to unconscious breathing. Humans are the only primates with this capacity.
Breath control then goes a stage further. During human speech conscious is needed, people in a conversation freely switch back and forth between conscious and unconscious breathing, many of the noises needing conscious breath control to make. This breath control then may be what allows us to develop speech while other primates, having the intelligence for communication have failed to do so.
Amongst native people’s living in coastal regions it was traditional for women to go into the sea to give birth. This only ceased when the missionaries thought it wrong and made them stop.
One of the main fears about babies being born under water is that they will drown, but they don’t, this is because of what’s called the diving reflex. The human diving reflex, that if water is on the face, the throat closes off, is strongest in new born babies. Babies are very at home in the water and amongst coastal people swimming is so natural it is common for children to learn to swim and dive under water before they can walk.
Professor Peter Wheeler, Dean of Science at Liverpool St John Moore’s University is the leading opponent of the Aquatic Ape theory. He believes giving birth in water cannot be an evolutionary adaptation because “Human babies lose heat very easy”. However in Russia it is quite common for women to give birth in the Black Sea at 19-20 degree temperatures.
One more thing about human birth little studied is, Vernix Caseosa, Latin for ‘cheesy varnish’ and the name of the white fatty/greasy coating on the skin of a human baby when it is born. One theory is that it protects the baby’s skin while it is submerged in amniotic fluid. If so surely all mammal babies would have it, but they don’t, not even any other primates, in fact the only other mammal that has it is seals. Harbour seals are born on land but enter the water 30 minutes or so after birth, have a coating of Vernix Caseosa, though somewhat thinner than human babies. Grey seals who enter several hours after birth are born with an even thinner coat and hooded seals that don’t enter the water for over a day have an almost undetectable coating.
Aquatic ape Hypothesis is far from proven, but at the moment enjoys the luxury of being the only theory of human evolution in existence at present. most of the scientific research being done in the area is on Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and its days as a crank theory in the distant past. A new generation of ethno-paleontologists exist and the killer ape a lot more cuddly than before.
Lord of the Rings was not long ago voted in the BBC poll as the nation’s favourite book. It also topped similar polls in other countries. Being a popular book and a good book are not necessarily the same thing. Lord of the Rings seems to have traversed that ravine and moved from being a popular book to being a good one. But is this reputation deserved or simply a result of its unprecedented popularity alone?
Lord of the Rings has many ingredients to make it popular, a straightforward and non-twisting plotline of good vs. evil, characters who have straightforward goals with little inner conflict or doubts. It is set within a simplistic world of distinct ethnic groups with all members of sharing common values, each group seemingly lacking much dissent or significant number of alternate thinkers within their ranks. The world is one of clear social structure and class stereotype. The races themselves hark back to longstanding and familiar romantic fairy tales to all from childhood stories. The book, though Tolkien denied it, does borrow heavily from previous works of literature that have certain qualities which have made them endure such in time such as the The Nibelungenlied, The Odyssey, King Arthur and Beowulf. Lords of the Rings from its inception has adopted a winning popularist formula.
Tolkien stated the book was not an allegory for anything, but this hasn’t stopped many people over the years claiming it is. Lord of the Rings has been interpreted by people of various political persuasions to be an Anti-Nuclear discourse, The Ring, a weapon that’s too powerful to wield and corrupting the owner as a metaphor for the bomb. The ecologically minded have seen the book as a warning against the evils of industrial society, with the Shire as the green and pleasant land and Mordor the dark satanic mills. Many have seen the racial elements in the book, some romantically and some politically. Tolkien was a Christian and Lord of the Rings a pagan world of magic. Lord of the Rings has been interpreted as a Christian work, something Tolkien always denied. However the values of the book are Christian and Frodo a very Christian figure harking back to the days when the knight was put to the hazard and had to remain true. Christian values such as good, evil, loyalty, fellowship and faith are the predominant themes of the work. Gandalf is even resurrected from the dead to walk amongst his flock once again. Rather than it being a Christian allegory it is not Christian book but a book that demonstrates it was being written by a Christian, well within his comfort zone.
The plot is very straightforward, the forces of good who serendipitously happen upon the main armament of the enemy, have to destroy it. However the destruction lies at the end of a long and difficult journey. Lord of the Rings in this aspect is more about the journey than the plot, so resembles the Odyssey. While there are a few twists and turns in the plot, such as Boromir’s corruption and the splitting up of the fellowship. Tolkien’s decision to make it journey orientated allows his characters to visit lots of alien races and societies and us to see his fertile imagination. This does seem to be Tolkien’s ultimate motive in writing the book, rather than develop characters or plotline, it is a vehicle to show us the races and civilisations he’d created and even sometimes their literature and languages.
The major characters weigh out at different levels of development. With most of the characters despite knowing them for three books we find out very little about them. They don’t tell us their inner turmoil, their emotions, prejudices, vices or most importantly individual their own slightly different takes of any situation, surely they have them? Legolas and Gimli, are little more than extraneous caricatures included only to show the wider context of the world, but contribute little to the main narrative. Aragorn is a most problematic character, his journey from ranger of the north to King of Gondor is the greatest inner journey any character in the story has to make, but it simply doesn’t happen. Aragon is never challenged by Tolkien, his plight never explored, he is rather a dull figure who maintains a rather distant air.
The four Hobbits are Tolkien’s real vehicle for the story. Merry and Pippin are designed in many ways to embody the Shire and the innocent care free world Frodo has left. Taking Merry and Pippin along allows Tolkien to take the Shire with him. Instead of flashbacks, or telling the story of what going on in the Shire parallel to the main plot, Merry and Pippin in their antics and thoughts serve as a constant reminder to the reader of Frodo’s motive. They also allow the Frodo character to be of single purpose. Frodo’s journey is fraught with so much anguish, you would imagine him and his views changing, but he pursues his original intent to the end and holds on to his same rural beliefs. The reader however doesn’t question this because whenever an event that may make the reader think Frodo should question his priorities happens, Tolkien can reintroduce Merry and Pippins and firm the base values back in the mind of the reader
The most complex character in the book is Gollum. For a large part the evil characters are left even less developed than the good ones. Sauron is the figure most in need of development is neglected for the whole book. The evil at the centre of the world seems almost lame in his absence from the book. His proxy the Witch King makes mostly unsatisfying appearances that sell the reader short, being little more than a phantom. Gollum on the other hand we see from his earliest origins, his finding of the ring and murder of his friend, through to his recovery of the ring and death. Gollum shows a capacity to react to circumstance and ability to change no other character exhibits. Tolkien shows us what he is genuinely thinking. He is the only character that doubts his viewpoint and changes it. The Sméagol-Gollum dialogue the strongest written part of the book, though the Gollum character owes a lot to Caliban. Even Tolkien noted this himself when he said, “On the whole Sam is behaving well, and living up to repute. He treats Gollum rather like Ariel to Caliban.” But the similarity goes much deeper than even Tolkien admitted, both characters seem to represent unrestrained desire and lament for something they once had but no-longer hold.
The most troublesome character in the book is Samwise Gamgee. Edmund Wilson in The Nation in 1956 summed up the problem. “For the most part such characterisations Dr. Tolkien has been able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman, Samwise, his doglike servant, who talks lower class and respectful, and who never deserts his master.” Sam certainly does have all the qualities of a dog, he’s loyal, devoted, faithful, always wags his tail when he sees his master and is obedient to a fault. He even gets jealous of Gollum when his master seems to find a new pet. It’s actually much more bad than Edmund Wilson ever thought. Sam is more than a dog, he accepts unquestioningly the viewpoint of his ‘betters’ and accepts they know what’s best for him. Worse of all is he is given no opinions of his own. The other members of the fellowship are making a seemingly doomed choice to fight Sauron out of personal virtue, Sam is simply there to follow Frodo, Tolkien doesn’t allow the lower classes the ability to be noble.
Edmund Wilson is not Tolkien’s only detractor. Michael Moorcock in his essay Epic Pooh accuses Tolkien of infantilism. Lord of the Rings ends happily ever after, Robin hood didn’t he points out. Lord of the Rings is in the tradition of Arthur, Siegfried and Beowulf, but there is no tragedy, none of the characters make the final sacrifice or in Tolkien’s mind, are ever in any real danger. Boromir dies but only after he ceases to be true of heart. In this way it really is a children’s book and is pure escapism.
This infantilism can definitely be seen in other parts of the book, in The Return of the King Aragorn returns as the rightful king of Gondor. A romantic notion but Aragorn’s ancestor Isaldur vacated the throne 2,000 years before. Tolkien paints a picture of an unquestioned right through bloodline. How the people of Gondor would feel about this preposterous notion isn’t explored. This notion is a fairy tale notion, aimed something for a child’s mind, not adults. Perhaps the reason Tolkien was using increasing more farfetched plotlines can be explain with a simple statistical survey of the three books. In the first book Fellowship of the Ring, we get to see the locations of the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Moria and encounter Elrond, Arwen, Tom Bombadil, the Black Riders, the Barrow-Wight, the Squid Monster and the Balrog. In the Two Towers we visit Rohan, Lothlorien, Fangorn and Isenguard, meet Galadriel and Treebeard. In Return of the King we visit Mordor and Minus Tirith and meet Shelob. The steady reduction in both locations and characters in each subsequent book and the filling of the pages with characters chasing around barren lands without a lot happening, betrays a writer fast running out of ideas.
The book builds up to a grand finale in Gondor, which seems to take its plot from history. The name Gondor itself shows remarkable similarity to Gandor. Gondor counted amongst its enemies, swarthy skinned men from the deserts of the south who worship evil. Gandor fell to the armies of the ‘Mad Mullah’ who for twenty years had lead an Islamic fundamentalist revolt in Sudan and the Emperor of Ethiopia was slain defending the city. Tolkien was in many ways retelling this major historical event of his youth.
The book ultimately ends with one of the great endings in fiction, possibly no other book has ever matched this magnitude of anti-climax. As the book draws to a close, the reader is expecting a grand final confrontation between Sauron and Frodo, is expecting the mighty sorcerer to perhaps offer Frodo a dilemma of joining him to rule the world, or at the very least we get to meet him and he fights Frodo and Sam. But no Sauron never materialises, remains an absent landlord to his empire and Frodo and Gollum and Sam are left to alone to finish the book in a squabble rather than a crescendo. If it was all going to be this easy, one wonders what all the fuss was about at the start of the book.
At the start I asked the question was Lord of the Rings more akin to literature of pulp fiction. The answer is no, it’s more similar to Cinderella or the Wizard of Oz. Tolkien can’t really be criticised for writing a poor book because he never set out to write one in the first place. He is setting a rather pedantic tale and some shallow characters in a highly rich and fantastic world. To develop histories and societies of a magnitude as he does shows he a great scholar, dreamer and collator of lore. That the context of the story is so rich it can mask the fact he’s no spinner of tales to all but the harshest critic shows he’s an immensely talented collator and dreamer. A lot of writers plan a book and it feels planned as they adhere to a well tested formulated structure. Tolkien seems to have written his dream with no attempt to contrive anything or any idea of formulating the book to set rules and deserves respect for this at least. I just wish he could have realised all this and then he could have done it in 200 pages leaving the longwinded erroneous booky stuff out altogether as he does in the Silmarrillion.