Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pompeii: The Living City

I just finished reading Pompeii: The Living City. It was written by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence. The book is excellent and I enjoyed it very much.

If you think of Pompeii, the image is usually that of the doomed city with people dead or dying. Or, the image of the plaster casts of dead people as the city is excavated in modern times comes to mind. However, the city had a long history. And as the title suggests, the city was vibrant and full of life.

This book covers the last twenty five years of the life of the city. The narrative goes back and forth from fictional accounts of people's lives with the factual details on city life. Politics (both locally and in Rome) are covered and the Emperor Nero features prominently in the text. The great earthquake of 63 and the impact it had on Pompeii is covered as is the final days of the city when it was destroyed in 79.

A Publishers Weekly review was kind to the book. It noted, "The thriving ancient port city of Pompeii was memorably destroyed and its 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants killed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Archeologists have dug parts of the city out of the rubble, reconstructing its layout and life. Drawing on this evidence and on ancient writings on Pompeii, British popular historians Butterworth and Laurence splendidly recreate the bustling life of this Roman town, as well as the eruption. They tell of Umbricius Scaurus, one of the city's most respected businessmen, who grew wealthy manufacturing the culinary staple garum, a fermented fish sauce. We also read fictionalized accounts of other lives, such as Simulus, a smallholder happy to be farming a plot of rich soil, and Receptus, a slave whose new master made his life miserable. The authors vividly recreate the horrors of the earthquake in A.D. 62 that destroyed much of the town and the terrors of the volcanic eruption. They recount the heroic efforts of one woman to claw her way out of the rubble of the Villa of the Mysteries only to be killed by a new eruption. This is a first-rate and compelling history of an ancient city."

This is a good book and I certainly visualize Pompeii differently now. It is easy to read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you like ancient history, you may want to give this book a read.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Howland Island - Small Island, Big History

Howland Island is a small uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to the United States. It is currently part of the United States Pacific Island Wildlife Refuges Complex. It is about about three times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC. It is 1,830 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu, about half way between Hawaii and Australia.

The island is rather unexciting. It consists pf scattered vegetation consisting of grasses, prostrate vines, and low growing shrubs. It is primarily a nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds, and marine wildlife. It has scant rainfall, constant wind, and burning sun.

Despite all of this, Howland Island actually has a rather exciting history. It was discovered in the 19th century and was heavily mined for guano. In the 1930s. an attempt was made to colonize the island with American settlers from Hawaii. However, the Japanese bombed the colony in 1941 and the civilian population was evacuated. American troops were stationed on the island until the end of World War Two.

Probably the most historic event was that Howland Island was Amelia Earhart's final destination. In 1937, Earhart and Fred Noonan attempted to fly around the world. They left Lae, New Guinea on June 29 for Howland Island but never arrived. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was at Howland Island assigned to guide Earhart to the island once she arrived in the vicinity. Earhart and Noonan never arrived.

A day beacon at Howland Island was Earhart Light in her honor. It was partially destroyed during World War II in the Japanese attacks, but was later rebuilt. It is reportedly not in good shape today after years of neglect.

Earhart Light and the crumbling remains of the buildings from the failed colony can still be found on Howland Island. Historians though will have trouble visiting the island. There is no airfield at the island anymore and the remoteness of the island makes it hard to visit by ship. Public visits to Howland Island is by special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only and is generally restricted to scientists and educators. However, if you decide to trespass illegally, you probably will not get caught as the Wildlife Services only visits the island once a year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Collapse of Easter Island

I was recently reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. It is an excellent book and I found it thought provoking. A chapter of the book focused on Easter Island and how the Polynesian settlers there via civil war and resource exploitation wrecked the ecosystem of the island.

I also have been following the recent campaign by the government of Chile to get Easter Island to be declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. How wonderful are the Moai (giant statues) that are all over the island? A recent show I was watching on the History Channel referenced Easter Island as proof of alien interventions in the past of humanity. However, I give the alien hypothesis no credibility. Humans built the monuments on Easter Island and they also destroyed the environment as well. The paradise of Easter Island was ruined by good old human nature.

However, my recent exposures to Easter Island have made me curious about the collapse of Easter Island. As such, I have sought out a few good Web resources on the topic. Here are some I found useful:

History of Easter Island - "At the time of Roggeveens discovery the island probably contained from 2000 to 3000 inhabitants of Polynesian race but it appears that there were as many as 10,000 to15,000 of them in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The civilization of Easter Island had degenerated drastically during the 100 years before the arrival of the Dutch, owing to the overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of the extremely isolated island with its limited natural resources."

Easter Island's End - "I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn't simply disappear one day-it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation."

The Chilling Tale of Easter Island - "When the last palm was cut down there was no longer the wood to make the heavy canoes needed for long sea voyages or to hunt the porpoises that were an important part of the Islanders diet. With the porpoises gone the people had to turn even more to the seabirds, and then the rats, as a source of food. When they were gone, starvation resulted, the government collapsed and cannibalism appeared. Human bones started to find their way into trash pits."

The Lessons of Easter Island - "What amazed and intrigued the first European visitors was the evidence, amongst all the squalor and barbarism, of a once flourishing and advanced society. Scattered across the island were over 600 massive stone statues, on average over twenty feet high. When anthropologists began to consider the history and culture of Easter Island early in the twentieth century they agreed on one thing. The primitive people living in such poverty-stricken and backward conditions when the Europeans first visited the island could not have been responsible for such a socially advanced and technologically complex task as carving, transporting and erecting the statues."

There are problems with comparing Easter Island and the Earth. The analogy is not quite an exact one. However, there is some truth to it which is why Jared Diamond's coverage of Easter Island is so fascinating and powerful. Is the Easter Island tragedy now happening on a global scale? Regardless, the whole history of Easter Island is well worth researching and reading about.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Labels and the New Version of Blogger

If you are a regular at this blog, you will notice it looks a little different. The design is the same but there are some enhancements visible. Probably the most visible is the presence of labels on most of the blog posts.

What happened? I finally upgraded to the never version of Blogger. I dreaded doing this not knowing what problems would happen but it went smoothly. All I lost was my visitor counter at the bottom of the blog but that was easily restored. Using Blogger and making changes to the template and to the layout is much easier now.

And I love the ability to finally be able to add labels to posts! This will make it easy for visitors to find other posts on the same topic at this blog. So, I spent most of the weekend putting labels on most of the 900 posts I have created here since 2003. (A few posts were blog maintenance related or had other generic topics which deserved no label.) After a weekend of reviewing posts, I am done. I may change some labels and add more but I am mostly there.

It definitely showed me my interests and biases in history blogging. Here are my top labels:

American History (106)
Europe (85)
Ancient History (69)
Africa (66)
American Presidents (64)
Asia (63)
Roman History (52)
Teaching History (40)

I tend to gravitate to these areas. I will try to broaden out some more so that those areas lower on my label list get better coverage. This is the World History Blog so I do aim to spread my posts out over all areas of the world and to multiple time periods. If any one has any suggestions on how I can improve the label system on this blog, feel free to comment. A full list of my labels is visible on the lower left column of the blog.

Monday, December 04, 2006

History of Grenada

History of Grenada. This is a brief history of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada. It most recently made headlines in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan decided an American invasion was in order.

The Encyclop√¶dia Britannica notes, "Byname Isle of Spice, island of the West Indies. It is the southernmost of the Lesser Antilles, lying in the eastern Caribbean Sea about 100 miles (160 kilometres) north of the coast of Venezuela. Oval in shape, the island is approximately 21 miles (34 kilometres) long and 12 miles wide, with an area of 120 square miles (311 square kilometres). The southern Grenadines—the largest of which is Carriacou, about 20 miles north-northeast, with an area of 13 square miles—are a dependency."

From the site:

Before the arrival of Europeans, Grenada was inhabited by Carib Indians who had driven the more peaceful Arawaks from the island. Columbus landed on Grenada in 1498 during his third voyage to the new world. He named the island "Concepcion." The origin of the name "Grenada" is obscure, but it is likely that Spanish sailors renamed the island for the city of Granada. By the beginning of the 18th century, the name "Grenada," or "la Grenade" in French, was in common use.

Partly because of the Caribs, Grenada remained uncolonized for more than 100 years after its discovery; early English efforts to settle the island were unsuccessful. In 1650, a French company founded by Cardinal Richelieu purchased Grenada from the English and established a small settlement. After several skirmishes with the Caribs, the French brought in reinforcements from Martinique and defeated the Caribs the last of whom leaped into the sea rather than surrender.

The island remained under French control until its capture by the British in 1762, during the Seven Years' War. Grenada was formally ceded to Great Britain in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. Although the French regained control in 1779, the island was restored to Britain in 1783 by the Treaty of Versailles. Although Britain was hard pressed to overcome a pro-French revolt in 1795 Grenada remained British for the remainder of the colonial period.