Category Archives: review

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 And what made it more telling, ironically, was that the story van Loon told was already forty years out of date.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.


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.

Review: Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015)

mary beard spqrOh, no, ancient Roman history! Dead white males talking about dead white males! The sort of thing you expect from desiccated old prep school teachers and moldy dons from Oxford and Cambridge. Well, sit back in your reading chairs, because you’re actually going to enjoy this book.

First off, as of this writing, Mary Beard is neither dead nor male. She is a Cambridge professor, but after you finish reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), you won’t hold it against her. Because this is a readable history, an engaging history, one suitable for a general audience. And yet at the same time it is not shallow. Moreover, readers will even learn something about how historians do their work, and why it can be exciting.

How does Prof. Beard do it? All the chapters are anchored in concrete examples. These serve as Beard’s launching pad for addressing her selected topics in each period of Roman history. For example, take Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (d. 280 BCE[i]). If you look him up in Wikipedia, you will find a horribly dry account of his military career, which will bore your pants off even if you do understand the historical context of Rome’s Italian wars. In contrast, Beard uses his sarcophagus to discuss the values of Roman men in Barbatus’ era, the development of Roman political and military power in the early centuries of the Republic, and the social conflicts of the same era, before launching into a discussion of Roman law, anchored by a different example. And she does this so smoothly you don’t realize the range of what you’ve just learned in a few pages.

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor. (Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor.
(Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

As you can gather from that description, Beard’s is not just a dry political or military history of Rome, like the one I read in high school.[ii] She’s concentrating on what she thinks are the important developments, whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. So she has extended discussions about what the legendary stories of Rome’s founding meant to later Romans, the mechanisms by which Roman power spread, and how the common people lived, while skipping over such details as the specifics of every war or the reigns of every emperor, if they don’t contribute to her analysis in any significant way. Readers will come away with an understanding of how Rome was able to conquer and incorporate peoples, first in Italy and then around the Mediterranean, without getting bogged down in the details of the Third Samnite War or the reign of the Emperor Vitellius (who isn’t even mentioned by name).

Along the way, Beard is frank in explaining how historical evidence leads her to certain conclusions, and on the limitations of historical research. She persuasively argues, based on archaeological evidence and comparative historical analysis, that early Rome simply wasn’t large or sophisticated enough to have the elaborate government depicted by later Roman historians such as Livy. And she admits that historians have inadequate means to assess how Christianity spread in any detail, while at the same time arguing that the structure of the Empire did indeed facilitate that spread.

Frankly, reading Beard’s book was a joy. Her writing is smooth, so much that this will be the fastest 500+ page history book you’ll ever read. Beard communicates her enthusiasm both for the subject matter and the nature of historical research quite well. It’s hard to hit a balance between being scholarly and popular in a history book, particularly one on more remote periods, but Beard has done it with SPQR.

[i] For dates, Beard uses the “common era” convention, so dates are given as BCE, Before the Common Era, and CE, during the Common Era. These are identical to dates using the convention of the Christian Era, B.C. and A.D., respectively.

[ii] No, I don’t recall the title or author. It was not an assigned reading, but a book I picked out of the library on my own to read. Yes, I was a history nerd even then.