Author Archives: Brian Bixby

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.

History as game: Kingmaker

With everyone stuck inside, my partner and I decided to haul out the boardgames last night. And we settled on Kingmaker. Haven’t heard of it? Well, let me tell you a story or two that ties the game into history.

Contemporary depiction of Henry IV

Back in the 15th century, the kingdom of England had two different branches of the Plantagenet dynasty contending for the throne: the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. Back in 1399, the Lancastrian leader, Henry of Bolingbroke, had deposed King Richard II, and taken the throne for himself as Henry IV. But the House of Lancaster was not the senior branch of the Plantagenet family, even after Richard II was eliminated. By the middle of the 15th century, the senior line was headed up by Richard, Duke of York. And the Lancastrian king by that time was Henry VI, whose reign began in 1422, and who was incompetent, making him a ripe target for being overthrown.

An ambitious nobleman, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, decided to back Richard of York in asserting the Yorkist claim to the throne. Other nobles lined up on one side or another. And the result was 30 years of warfare, from 1455 to 1485, as Lancastrians and Yorkists fought each other for the throne and for their own private ends. This spawned four Shakespeare plays, incidentally, the three parts of Henry VI, and the play Richard III.

The game board

A good historical wargame not only allows you to “play” at a war, it gives you insights into what made the war develop the way it did. So a game ultimately needs a historical theory about the war, if it’s at all serious about presenting history.

Kingmaker‘s theory is that the war was really about conflict among the nobles. In its interpretation, the members of the two royal families were really little more than pawns in the hands of ambitious nobles.

So you play the leader of a noble faction. Your military and political forces are comprised of nobles who strive to attract other nobles to their faction, while accumulating titles and government offices that give them additional power. You need a royal claimant to ultimately claim power, but they are puppets in the hands of factions.

The Kingmaker himself, who was as much a schemer as warrior

Is this a realistic view of the Wars of the Roses? It’s oversimplified. Yes, the Kingmaker himself, the Earl of Warwick, did help lead the Yorkists to victory in the early 1460s, and then temporarily toppled them in 1470-71. One cannot doubt that having powerful nobles behind them did strongly affect the fortunes of the Lancastrian and Yorkist claimants. Yet it doesn’t take into account the personalities of the royal claimants. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Edward IV recovering from his disastrous loss of the throne in 1470 to retake it in 1471. And many other factors that shaped the war are taken as given, or not part of the game’s design. That fortified places were often easily conquered is taken as a given, while the distribution of population across England does not factor into the game at all, though it was a significant part of the war’s history.

Still, it’s a fun game. You can learn a bit of English geography and history from it. And it can be played by 2 to 12 people (or even more) in one evening.

Kingmaker was originally devised by Andrew McNeil back in 1974. That British edition is the one I have. The game was sold to Avalon Hill, which revised it and put out a new edition in 1975. But the game’s been out of print for several years, which is a pity. There was an MS-DOS version of the game at one point. I don’t recommend it, as I found some flaws in it, including fleets that disappeared off the map! Let us hope someone brings this game back soon!

I changed and made some landmarks in my life

The fall when I was 32 years old, I was getting tired of my job. I hadn’t taken a good vacation in years, and hadn’t even managed a week off that summer. The company I worked for was beginning its slow slide into being absorbed by another company. It was time for a change.

So I changed. I went and saw a travel agent, a first for me. I talked with her about going someplace warm in the wintertime, a first for me by myself. (I’d helped my parents set up in Florida a few years previously.) I’d leave the United States, something I’d never done before, except to visit Canada (which, apologies to all Canadians, I didn’t think of as TRAVEL) and a business trip to Germany.

My travel agent gave me brochures for all sorts of places, mostly in the Caribbean, but a few in the Antipodes. I saw all those wonderful beaches in Queensland, and that settled it: I was going to spend 21 days on a beach in Queensland. What could be more relaxing?

Then reality set in. 21 days on a beach in Queensland? More like one day on a beach in Queensland, 20 days recovering from the sun poisoning. I’d had sun poisoning before. I was not tempted to try it again. So I gave up on that idea. And I noticed that all those Australia brochures had one or two suggested trips to New Zealand . . . which was not so tropical. And so New Zealand it was.

Making the trip, my first vacation overseas, was one landmark. The second? I was going on a five-day hike. I’d never even hiked with a backpack. But I was going to do it. The third? I didn’t want to be bothered bringing shaving equipment on the hike. The less I carried, the better. So I decided to grow a beard. Never mind everyone told me I’d look terrible. I was going to do it anyhow.

So here I am, sitting on Quintin’s Rock, at the top of Mackinnon Pass in the Southern Alps, 3000 feet above the ground underneath my feet. It was cold, and the wind was blowing from behind me. No one else in our group of 40 hikers sat on the rock that day. I was tough. I was up for the challenge. I was . . . terrified. I’m afraid of heights, especially when I don’t feel securely grounded and balanced. With the wind behind me, I was NOT secure. But I HAD to do this. You see, besides all the other landmarks, it was my birthday. I was turning 33.

It’s summer, can’t you tell?

The beard, incidentally, looked wonderful. I’ve kept it ever since. Shaved it off twice, looked in the mirror both times, and decided I had to grow it back immediately! It may be mostly gray now, but without it . . . well, you’d think there was a village somewhere missing its idiot.

History can be personal, too

Yesterday, we agreed to sell my parents’ house. Over the next few weeks, we’ll dispose of the furniture, dishes and cutlery, books and VHS video tapes, and other sundries that remain. Soon, all that will be left of my parents are their names, photographs, and a few possessions each of us children took away.

In many ways, that house was their lives. It was the third house they owned together, and was meant to be their last residence. Some of the furnishings had been with them as long as I can remember. There are bowls in that house from which I ate breakfast cereal as a child. And almost every square foot of the house was ornamented with knickknacks they had picked up in their lives: souvenir spoons, reproduction art work, even a collection of delicate china cups. If anyone ever drank out of those cups, the occasion escapes me, but my mother valued them and always had them on display in each house that was her home.

They’d moved to that house, a “mobile home” (although it wasn’t mobile, really), to secure a financially stable retirement. Which they did: so long as they lived there, their expenses were less than their income. They were able to live out their retirement without constant financial worries, without dipping into capital except to buy a car every so often.

They expected to die in that house. Having been generally healthy most of their lives, they hoped to remain that way until their death. Fate was not that kind to them. My father spent the last few months of his life in a nursing home, afflicted with various ills that made even eating difficult. My mother fell and seriously injured her back, and so had to spend her last two years in an assisted living facility.

The rocking couch was such a favorite of my mother’s that she took it with her to the assisted living facility

During those last two years, I would visit her every week. And, if she were feeling up to it, we drove up to that house, and she spent a few hours sitting in her living room. As far as she was concerned, that was still her home, and rarely did a week go by that she didn’t suggest that she ought to move back there. What could I tell her? That she had physical problems that required the help of another person often enough, that her cognitive skills had declined to the point that we couldn’t trust her to take her medication? That it would be a disaster? So I temporized, and put her off, and let her hope. I still wonder if that was the right thing to do.

When she first moved to the assisted living facility, I remember walking through the house. With the detachment of a professional historian, I marveled at how fascinating it would be to simply preserve the house as is, leave this way for a few centuries, to let future historians delve into its contents, to give them the physical household of a working class couple circa 2000. However, even then I realized that much would be a mystery to those historians. Without my parents alive and living there, so much of the personal content would be meaningless. What would they make of the stuffed kiwi bird toy sitting on the top kitchen shelf? No way could they guess how that came to be there.

I have only a few more times to walk through it now. Those will be the last I see of many old familiar possessions. Some I’ve not seen in years, hidden away in cupboards. Some I saw every time I visited. Some bring back memories; some don’t. It doesn’t matter. We have no room for them, so they must go. The new owner will get a house stripped of its furnishings, of its memories. He can build new ones, if he wants.

And my parents’ last household will be gone. In a lot of ways, it’s like saying goodbye to them all over again. Silly. These are just things they owned, not the family members I loved. And yet, and yet, I can stand in any room and bring back memories of them. For a few more days. And then never again.

Learning history from the master: Hendrik van Loon (1882-1944)

I’m a historian. Even historians had to learn their history from somewhere. And I learned mine from Henrik van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which I read in its 1926 edition.

My copy of van Loon’s Story was given to me by my father. He noted the assassination and death of two notable European politicians while he was reading it in 1934. So the book came down to me with some personal history, right from the start.

I read it when I was eight. Van Loon showed me that there was indeed a story to history, a narrative I could read about and understand. Moreover, in his later chapters, he told me that reading was not enough. I had to learn to question what I read, to explore what was significant, to understand the great forces of history that shaped not just the past, but the present and future.

Van Loon illustrated his history with hand-drawn pictures! You have NO idea how much that mattered to me at age eight!

It was an awe-inspiring concept, particularly for an eight-year-old. And what made it more telling, ironically, was that the story van Loon told was already forty years out of date. He was mostly concerned with the 1870-1926 era of European history. I was reading his book forty years later, on another continent in a country that, while it acknowledged its European roots, had its own issues and concerns.

In its own day, The Story of Mankind was a famous best seller, a winner of awards. It inspired a great many other books with similar titles. Why, just as I started as a philosophy major in college, I would read WIll and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (originally published in 1926).

Today, van Loon’s work is almost unreadable. It’s really a history of Western Civilization, as understood a century ago, with all the baggage that entails. Looking for a global history, or one which questions issues of gender, or . . . well, any development in history and culture post-1926? It’s not here.

Still, because, even within that framework, van Loon not only taught me history, but taught me to question history, his book was critical in my development as a historian. So, on the anniversary of his death, I offer him a salute.

The 215th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison, decided February 24, 1803. Maybe you dimly recall this Supreme Court decision from high school history classes. Maybe you know it’s important. But why is it important, and how did it come about?

Federalist John Adams was so annoyed with Jefferson succeeding him that he left town rather than attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

For those who think of the Founding Fathers as high-minded individuals, it may be a bit of a shock to realize they could act from clearly partisan motives. The Federalists had been defeated by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party in the election of 1800. Wanting to assure continued Federalist control of the judiciary, the Federalists passed a new law to create many new judicial positions, and proceeded to fill them with their allies.

However, not all the commissions had been handed out to the new judges when the Democratic-Republicans took over. And the new Jefferson Administration refused to give the commissions to the judges in question, which meant they could not serve as judges.

Don’t recognize him? It’s William Marbury. I wouldn’t have known him, either.

William Marbury was one such disappointed individual. To get his commission, he sued James Madison, who as Secretary of State was responsible for issuing the commission, demanding it be issued to him.

Now, the justices on the Supreme Court were all Federalist appointees. If they ruled in favor of Marbury, Jefferson could claim they were part of a partisan Federalist plot against the people. If against, well, the Federalists would at least have been deprived of a judgeship. Jefferson must have felt he couldn’t lose either way.

He was in for a surprise. The Court decided 4-0 against Marbury. But in his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the reason Marbury’s case failed was because he sued under an unconstitutional law, and that it was the right and duty of the Supreme Court to judge the constitutionality of laws under the provisions of United States Constitution. This became known as the doctrine of judicial review, and is a fundamental component of the Supreme Court’s role to this day.

Chief Justice John Marshall, and don’t mess with my opinions, sir!

Jefferson was dismayed. True, Madison wouldn’t have to release all those Federalist judicial commissions. But this decision made it clear that Federalist judges would use their power as a check on Democratic-Republicans. And from a nobler, less partisan perspective, Jefferson feared such a powerful judiciary would become a group of unchecked oligarchs.

The Supreme Court hasn’t been the only body to claim the right to determine the constitutionality of laws. Presidents from Washington to the present have done so. The states did so from the era of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (1798-99) until the Civil War . . . and not seriously since. Nor has the Supreme Court’s ability to enforce its judgments been unchallenged. But the doctrine of judicial review has survived.

Today, if constitutional issues are involved in a legal case, we expect that the Supreme Court will decide how the Constitution will be read and how it applies to the issues in question. That is why Marbury v. Madison is important.

Now that it is over, a review of the television series Black Sails

Nassau harbor in Black Sails

Since I’m teaching my “Pirates!” course soon, it seemed time to go finish watching the fourth and last season of Black Sails, which only concluded its four year run in 2017. Black Sails pretends to tell the story of the pirates of Nassau in the Bahamas in the Golden Age of piracy, apparently taking place around 1715-20. “Pretends,” sadly, is the operative term, never more so than in the final season. While it has its points, and improves on how pirates have been depicted in movies and on television, it’s best watched as a rousing adventure story. And skip the ending. Please.

The plot of Black Sails revolves around two stories: the British attempt to reimpose their rule in the Bahamas and the pirates’ resistance to that; and the capture of a Spanish treasure galleon and the subsequent fate of the treasure in it. These are both sort of based in history. The British had indeed lost control of the Bahamas during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and sent out Woodes Rogers as governor to reassert their control in 1718. And there was a major Spanish treasure loose in the Caribbean, though it was from a treasure fleet wrecked during a storm off the coast of Florida. I’ve already written a bit about this in my post on “Calico” Jack Rackam, one of the pirates of the era.

Long John Silver in the midst of battle

Neither actual bit of history has the melodrama of plots and counterplots so common to soap operas that have made their way into many “historical” television series. So both bits were altered. The pirates organize against the return of British rule and recruit the maroon and slave communities to help them. The treasure takes on the attributes of the Wagnerian Rhine Gold, everyone wanting it, none ever benefiting from it. And a cast of characters is given conflicting motives and a sufficient number of improbable events to allow them to change sides with amazing rapidity.

I do appreciate that the pirates are a dirtier and less respectable group of people than Hollywood used to make them (e.g. 1935’s Captain Blood). And there are some nice moments in the series that reflect a real sense of history, whether it be careening a ship or the ruthless punishment of slaves to quell a revolt. On the other hand, New Providence feels less like the down-at-the-heels frontier community it was circa 1717, and more like a period theme park for middle class tourists, complete with a bordello that would have looked a bit too wealthy even for Charleston in this era.

Flint’s character does dominate the series

Oh, and did I mention that the fictional pirates of Treasure Island are shoehorned into this thing? This is supposed to be the story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver in the years when they sailed together, long before the events in Treasure Island. Easy to forget this, since it doesn’t matter for most of the series.

Over the run of the series, the plot becomes more focused on Captain Flint’s attempt to use the pirates, maroons, and slaves to overthrow colonial rule. The level of violence rises higher and higher. Major characters get killed. The story suggests that greed and the lust for power consume people in a never-ending struggle the violence of which will destroy them all. The viewer comes to expect Götterdämmerung at the end.

The big winner in the series is Max, former prostitute turned successful businesswoman

The viewer will be disappointed, inevitably so. The destruction of all the leading characters would diverge too far from history, and be a real downer for the audience of the series. The developers of the series were not courageous enough to either depart unmistakably from history or teach their audience an unhappy lesson. So we get contrived happy resolutions for all the surviving downtrodden characters we were supposed to sympathize with. At the end, the fictional version of real-life pirate captain Jack Rackam, depicted in the series as a remarkably weak cross between a bad auto salesman and a nervous publicist, waxes philosophical about how real history doesn’t matter, that the stories that get retold become history. Well, at least now we have the series developers’ philosophy.

Should you watch Black Sails? If you’re the type of person for whom movies and television help you visualize and understand a world much different from your own, this isn’t a bad starting place. But do go read a book afterward, preferably some edition of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724, 1728), or David Cordingly’s nice introduction to the subject, Under the Black Flag (1996). If you want a rip-roaring adventure filled with violence, betrayals, and occasional sex and nudity, then, yes, this is a series to watch. Just don’t watch the final episode. Imagine a conclusion yourself. You can’t do much worse.

Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure