Our winds swung right around from the sultry Southlands to the chilled waters of the Gulf of Maine the morning of July 13, and the change was remarkable. After a steamy summer night when fog formed with temperatures above 70° ( 21° C), a night when one turns their pillow to find the cool side, dawn broke with heavy showers and a few rolls of distant thunder, and then winds turned east and a dark and murky drizzle fell, with temperatures sinking to 57° (14°C) at noon. Meanwhile, not all that far south of us, people still sweltered, with high humidity and temperatures touching 90° (32° C) in New York City. The difference shows up as a rather boring-looking front on the weather map.
Then today (July 24) it happened again. The wind blew in off the Gulf of Maine, and temperatures never got above 55° (13°C). A front again bisected the map, keeping the hot and humid air south. I dressed the kids at my childcare in rain-gear and took them blueberry-picking down an old deserted road in the wet woods, partly because once they get picking they stay busy and leave me like a shepherd watching his sheep graze, free to sniff the far-away ocean and dream of sailing….and ponder the sailor’s lore I’ve listened to over the years.
The innocuous-looking fronts just south of New Hampshire in the above maps can make a huge difference, and it was brought home to me by a friend who travels north and south. When I confessed shame about the pathetic corn I was growing in my garden, he told me lots of the better and more professional local farmers also had corn that was only knee high, while not all that far to the south it was already head high. (I will admit a few local farmers, growing mutant corn, utilizing black plastic, and practicing what seems to be a sort of witchcraft, actually sold their first ears July 15.)
This might not mean much to people who live indoors and think corn grows in supermarkets, but it is a very big deal to the heartland of America. A certain utopia is contained in the lyrics:
“I’m goin’ t’live where the green grass grows,
Watch my corn pop up in rows…”
Now, before I discuss what it is like when your corn fails to “pop up in rows”, (and the cultural change this creates in the idea of utopia), perhaps people should listen to a song from a more kindly, southern landscape, where life can be easier (if allowed).
Of course, anyone who has had anything to do with a farm knows corn doesn’t just “pop up in rows.” Even a fat, modern agribusinessmen, riding about in the air-conditioned cab of his enormous tractor listening to Tim McGraw on stereo, knows an enormous amount of work goes into the prelude to the days he can “sit back and watch the corn grow”. For smaller toy-farmers like myself the work is even harder, (though perhaps we need to scrutinize Wall Street “futures” less, and dicker less with machinery and chemistry. ) However all who have invested so hugely in the planting know it is truly a joyous moment when one can “watch their corn pop up in rows.”
A brilliant boyhood friend (who flunked fourth grade because he was interested in studying the classics), once told me the gods were always attempting to teach humans a lesson, and then standing back amazed because rather than weeping and wailing humans had a habit of finding something to sing about. My ten-year-old buddy stated that when Zeus attempted to punish Sisyphus by giving him the job of rolling a rock up a slippery slope, only to see the rock escape just before the job was completed, and roll back down to the bottom again, Zeus expected Sisyphus to experience the agony of frustration, but instead Sisyphus learned to derive great joy in watching the rock bound down the slope, (resulting in the origins of rock-and-roll). In like manner, a great American poet stated the Grinch was baffled when he attempted to steal Christmas, and the Whos responded by singing.
Of course Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who hardly agree about anything, tend to all agree Dr. Suess is not an authorized prophet, and we should instead refer to the story of Adam and Eve. I say it’s the same story. The Serpent is the Grinch; The Garden of Eden is the Stolen Christmas; And Adam and Eve are the “Whos” who, rather than weeping and wailing, produce music through all their following fiascoes, which somehow so touches the Creator’s heart that he can never quite rub them, (or their prodigy), out, (though maybe they have at times earned exile,) and instead the Creator can’t but help love us rascals, and, in the end, pours compassion on the undeserving. (The Scriptures may be tedious at times, but make for interesting reading, though I confess I prefer the succinctness of Dr. Suess.)
I’ll bet you never knew watching “corn pop in rows” was such an esoteric subject, but that is probably because you have the misfortune of being doomed to spend too much time indoors. But also I bet you want to play hooky and run away from responsibility at times, especially in July. You want to “get back to nature”. I warn you, a lot of work is involved. You need to “get your back into your living.”
As lovely as the idea of an agricultural utopia is, where you may have to grunt and sweat but in the end you “reap what you sow”, one also needs to admit the existence of an alternative universe, where you sow but do not “reap what you sow”, and don’t get to see your “corn pop up in rows.”
In the United States the prime example of this sort of meteorological injustice was the Dust Bowl. How then the farmers must have turned their eyes to heaven, and asked God, “Why?” The lack of an answer must have been troubling, but people never stopped singing. Woody Guthrie even sang of how the preacher took the money from the collection tray and fled town, in “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You.” Four million Americans became homeless and had to hit the road, but never stopped singing. Nor did they completely lose their optimism and faith.
Besides the people who lost everything in the Dust Bowl there were some farmers who were so tough, hardassed, (and financially smart), that they kept their farms despite a decade of abysmal weather. Then they experienced an amazing bonanza when rains finally returned, for not only did the corn “pop up in rows”, but they were highly paid for their corn, because World War Two was starting and men were needed for battle and making munitions, and few were left to farm. Farmers went from driving rattling junkers, even ancient Model T’s, to driving brand new Cadillacs.
One old Kansas farmer I befriended confessed he didn’t really know how to handle the sudden wealth. What use is a Cadillac to a farmer? He said when the fields were frozen and there wasn’t much snow he and other farmers used to drink too much and roar about the flat, frozen fields in their Cadillacs at amazing speeds, sometimes towing children behind in the hoods of the old car they’d formerly driven.
Success can be a baffling experience to those who have learned to subsist without it. The old Kansas Farmer I befriended in some ways despised success, and after his children were raised (and were very successful, he’d proudly state), he horrified everyone by giving his wife all he had and hitting the road as a heavy-drinking hobo, which is how I came to know him.
I must say he was an exceptionally wily hobo. I witnessed his meteoric rise to a state where he again drove a Cadillac, but then he again simply couldn’t stand it, and again plunged to the level of a the curb.
How did he rise? Some kindly person dragged him into a center that sought to rehabilitate drunks, and he was so familiar with the routine that he not only went sober, but was running the place within six months. However there was something so false, so fake, and so phony about the pretense of such sobriety that he was eventually again seen driving his Cadillac in places Cadillac should not be driven. This is usually described as “falling off the wagon”, but in this fellow’s case it likely should be called “falling off the Cadillac.”
The fellow should have been old enough to know better. He was no strapping youth, and his tough and wiry old body simply couldn’t handle the abuse that young men subject themselves to. Drinking made his stomach bleed. I knew something was wrong, when I met him back in the gutter, so I dragged him up to the local hospital. The doctor informed me if I hadn’t done so, the fellow would have died a few hours later. This does not make me a hero. (The doctor is the hero.) Instead it makes me mystified, because I knew the fellow didn’t want to survive and be a success and drive a Cadillac. So then, what did he want? What was he seeking?
In some strange way he wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to the Dust Bowl, and the battle to make a desert bloom. I only knew him three years, but that was long enough to see every April made him crazy. He was filled with a frenzied craving to plant. It didn’t matter that the landscape was a desert; he’d berate the Navajo for not plowing the sand, for he knew how to eek out a crop from a Dust Bowl. That was his home, and he felt like a stranger when forced to live in the lap of luxury.
He did go home, back to Kansas, but he wrote me wonderful letters. His sister took him in. She was a retired nun. ( Before this I didn’t know the Vows involved pensions.) He likely tested her patience, for his letters described yet another episode of falling off the wagon and his stomach again bleeding and his life again being saved in the nick of time. I thought to myself, “even back in Kansas, he craves another home, back in the Dust Bowl.” After a couple more letters the correspondence ceased forever. (I hope he finally found the home he yearned for, in his politically incorrect fashion).
In conclusion, this experience taught me that “home” is not always a place where corn “pops up in rows”, but can also be a pace where it fails to do so.
I happen to live at the northern boundary of where Indians were able to grow corn. (Modern hybrids can ripen in 65 days, but the original corn took 100-120 days.) I also live at the southern boundary of where sugar maples thrive. This boundary shifted to the north, during the Medieval Warm Period, and then sank to the south, during the Little Ice Age, and has since moved back a little north, during the current Modern Climate Optimum.
If you are a hobo like I am, (despite my trappings of responsibility and fatherhood), then you tend to ramble about in the woods every chance you get, and see all sorts of fascinating nooks where southern species crept north during the Medieval Warm Period, but were not driven south during the Little Ice Age. In a few select places, (usually colonized southern exposures), southern species still cling to this day. It always gives me pause to see a micro-ecology that has no reason to be living so far north, when I am tramping through the woods. I feel like I’m back in my boyhood on Cape Cod, when I suddenly walk midst sassafras, cat brier, and cedar. In like manner, I feel I’m abruptly in Canada when I tramp on and, not all that far away, on a north facing slope, see there are no deciduous trees whatsoever, and I tread a needle-paved path through spruce and firs.
The ebb and flow of climate especially effects sugar maples. They are hurt by midwinter thaws, for the sap starts to rise too early, and a subsequent deep-freeze cracks the sapwood and allows fungus to invade. Therefore, though they can thrive as far south as Georgia, it is only in the highest parts of Georgia, where thaw is rare during the winter.
Without human intervention Sugar Maples would have moved slowly south during the chill of the dark age before the Medieval Warm period, and then been killed off, and then crept south again during the Little Ice Age. However human intervention occurred. Rather than creeping south the Sugar Maples charged south. Puritans, understanding the commercial value of a tree that produced sugar, transplanted sugar maples south, and, because it was the Little Ice Age, the transplants thrived. They were common on roadsides and in plantations right down to Cape Cod, but not in the woods, because man hadn’t transplanted them in the woods.
How can I make this determination? Back then there were no peer-reviewed studies by government funded geeks, counting the sugar maples by the roads and the sugar maples in the woods. Therefore I confess my conclusions are not exactly scientific, and are based on the old writings of people who lived back then and who were, without intending to look like scientists, simply observers, who liked sharing their observations with friends in letters.
One observer was Henry Thoreau. (He reminds me of myself because he thinks he is witty when he is not.) As I grew up I walked the same woods Henry Thoreau walked, and could compare what he saw with what I saw, because he took such copious notes that, judging from his writing, he must of been the sort of person who drinks too much coffee, talks your ear off, and is what the young call TMI. (Too much information.) I like his writing all the same, feeling he is a brother, for like me he too was a sort of hobo inclined towards scientific observation. Just as my notes now express surprise at sassafras, cat-brier, and ceder in New Hampshire woods, he once bothered note a sugar maple in Massachusetts woods.
This demonstrates how my detective brain works. I ask myself, “Why does Thoreau mention, as an aside, a sugar maple, and not all the other trees? Such maples were not uncommon by streets. Why mention a specimen in woods full of other wonderful trees?” The answer (to me) must be that the sugar maple stood out, for it was unusual. Not that Thoreau says it was unusual. He merely mentions it in passing.
I need to clearly state that leaping to this sort of conclusion is frowned upon, by strict historians. However I confess it is how my mind works. And I am about to embark upon a “history” which likely will make proper historians cringe. It is based not only upon reading-between-the-lines of writing you can actually read, but also upon conversations you never heard. Just as I once got to know a Kansas farmer you can never know, I have heard first-hand testimony from old-timers in New England about a past which Historians cannot prove. But they didn’t interview the people I interviewed.
For example, when I was a small boy a very old lady came by our house once a week, and ran the sewing machine (which Dad bought for Mother, but which Mother was too sophisticated to ever use). This lady had spent her entire life sewing, and was stone deaf due to running sewing machines in thundering factories. I first met her when we first moved in, when I was two, and I was still too young to know boys are suppose to think old ladies are boring. In fact I found the woman fascinating, and as soon as she arrived I rushed to sit at her side and watch her sew. She could pick up a sock with a hole in it, do this thing called “darn”, and the hole shrank and vanished with amazing rapidity. She could also talk in an amazing way with gestures and with mouthed, unspoken words, as if we were two workers on a factory floor where the machinery was so loud speech was impossible. I was so young I was quick to learn this lip-reading language. We talked, among other things, of when she was a girl, in the 1870’s. I doubt what I absorbed about the 1870’s is allowable as “data”, in the eyes of college historians. Their loss, and my gain.
As I grew older I grew more wary of grown-ups, but still liked to eavesdrop on their conversations, (as long as I was not asked to step forward and perform). I lurked beneath coffee tables and under the grand piano as my parents, who were fairly young back then, nodded politely while drinking stuff called “sherry” with people who had silver hair. These old people occasionally told of what they had heard from even older people back when they themselves were young. Vistas opened up backwards into time, and my fertile mind carefully nourished all the lore I overheard.
One subject that always fascinated me, because it seemed to fascinate my elders, was the tale of what preceded the Puritans in Boston and the Pilgrims in Plymouth.
My detective brain has seized upon scant evidence, regarding not trees, but how people could feed themselves. People will not gather corn if the corn will not grow, and people will not tap maple trees where the sugar maples will not grow. Therefore the people of Massachusetts might differ from the people of New Hampshire, before anyone bothered write a map and draw lines on it. People to the south might be sugar-scorners, while people to the north might be farmer-scorners. Such a situation is fairly typical among humans, and I see no harm in it as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. People tend to be loyal to the home team, and scorn the visitors.
Long before Europeans arrived a cultural divide already existed among New England’s native Algonquins, with Hunter-gatherer clans to the north, and farmers to the south. Because the farmers could store a surplus of corn, I postulate they had some leisure and were the “elite” of that time, while the hunter-gathers lived a more hand-to-mouth existence, with little leisure, to the north. The more northern people were the Abernaki and Micmac, while the Greatest of the southern “elite” were the Massachusetts.
Most of what we know about the pre-Pilgrim Indians comes from French and Dutch traders, though English and Basque cod-fishermen also stopped on off-shore islands to dry and salt their catches. Much more was known than was written, for, after all, traders have “trade-secrets”, and fishermen were illiterate. Much I heard and share with you would be called “hearsay” in a modern court of law.
The Massachusetts tribe seemed to live in the lap of luxury. Apparently they had a high-protein diet, for the men were six feet tall and the women five-ten, (as European Pilgrim men averaged around five-five and the women five-two). Spring involved the most work, with corn to plant. The rivers were so choked with fish, (Salmon, Shad, Herring, Sturgeon, and even five-pound, sea-going Brook Trout), that fish was used for fertilizer in cornfields. (An English word for one species of herring, “menhaden”, actually meant “Fertilizer”, in Algonquin.)
So important was the run of fish in the spring that it was against Massachusetts law to bring any feud to the side of a river when the fish were running. (Even Hatfield and McCoy, and Montague and Capulet, had to be friends by the rivers.) A faint echo of this Native American law persisted even in my boyhood, when no one was suppose to object to total strangers trespassing to fish on their land, and also certain islands in Maine rivers belonged to Indians who lived far away.
Once summer weather arrived entire villages migrated to feast and party by the ocean, leaving only a few, and the dogs, to guard and tend to the cornfields in the sweltering inlands. Apparently on the beaches there were footraces and other sorts of athletic competition, and much singing and dancing. The piles of clam-shells the celebrations left on the shores were so huge it was worthwhile to mine them, in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Dutch traders sailing along the coast around 1600 stated there were as many campfires on the beaches during summer nights as there were stars in the summer sky.
But all was not well with this society of Algonquin elite. A different society, called the Iroquois, was causing such trouble to the west that the Algonquin basically retreated east from Vermont, and also increasing numbers of English, French, Dutch and Basque fishermen needed to be dealt with, to the northeast. Lastly, the hunter-gatherer members of the Algonquin tribe to the north felt some reason to behave disgruntled.
It is here the lore gets fascinating, for, if it is true that “United We Stand Divided We Fall”, then division among the Algonquin people might prove a fatal flaw. However the division between the Algonquin seemed to have some significant and mysterious roots.
The roots reach back to the 1400’s, when the Medieval Warm Period was ending by fits and starts. This was effecting people who traded with the Massachusetts elite, and these traders are basically a mystery.
We know that trade did occur all across North America before Europeans arrived because Minnesota copper is found far from Minnesota, and Caribbean sea shells are found far from the Caribbean. We have no idea what people did this trading. We do have an idea of the major footpaths they followed for thousands of miles, and know they likely were not members of a stay-at-home tribe. They may have been a people apart, like the Tinkers and Gypsies in Europe. Your guess is as good as mine.
The lore I heard as a boy suggested that the traders, in the northeast at least, tended to be a people who had Viking roots. The sagas of the Vikings tends to suggest Greenlanders did trade in a verifiable manner east to Europe, but trade can be a brutal and selfish business, and the trade to the east became impractical. The Hanseatic League, combined with other factors (increased sea-ice; elephant ivory displacing walrus ivory; Greenland homespun fabric losing desirability; lack of interest on the part of Scandinavian Royalty and Papist Officials), simply made sailing east unprofitable. However the west remained open, and we know Vikings did sail at least to “Markland” for timber, but why should they have stopped there? (And why, with Europe so uncaring towards them, should they have shared “trade secrets” with Europe?)
One odd thing about Viking Greenland is that, judging from the graves that were so rudely exhumed, there were twice as many men as woman. This unnatural imbalance suggests it was a port where many traders passed through, with their homes, (and women), somewhere else. As trade to Europe ceased, Greenland may have been increasingly the-end-of-the-line for North American traders, perhaps persisting for a time because it was a place where Norse could be Norse, but not all that desirable as a home. Increasingly the traders turned to the south, and likely interbred with non-Norse peoples.
To the south, the Massachusetts Tribe had a name for sea-faring people to the north. The Massachusetts called such people the “Tarrantine”, and did not seem to feel they were fellow Algonquin. (The first Puritans called them “Red Vikings”, and did not seem to feel they were fellow Caucasians.) Just for the sake of argument, let us pretend that, in the mid 1400’s, they were Greenland Vikings, increasingly assimilating into coastal clans of the Micmac tribe. Hypothetically fewer and fewer would have had blue eyes and blond hair, but Greenlanders were stunted compared to even Europeans, and likely Tarrantine were not as tall as the Massachusetts, or even the inland Micmac.
It would have been nice if the Tarrantine left some artifacts laying about. A single kernel of corn in the dirt archaeologists so painstakingly sift in Greenland would make headlines, but I have only ever read of a single grape seed being found up there. Likewise, I have only read of a single silver Viking penny found in a heap of clam-shells further south. Not that this surprises me. I have lived with poor people who are careful to consume every grain of rice on their plates, and recall the tools in tool-sheds during my boyhood, (back before tools had cords and batteries), contained many Great Depression items that were so worn by sharpening after sharpening that they had become ridiculous: Axes down to the nub; scythes slender to the snapping point. Lastly, salt water is unforgiving to old iron, as any who have walked an old waterfront know.
One metal that lasts (and isn’t precious) is copper, but Native Americans had their own sources in the Great Lakes, and copper implements were one of the first trade-items brought over in the early 1500’s by the French. Also, with copper so versatile, early settlers had no respect for an ancient pot with a hole in it, and would hammer it into a more modern object. (I have heard tales of interesting copper objects plowed up in fields that were recycled with a swiftness that would make a modern archaeologist moan).
Tarrantine pottery would have been helpful, but the northern peoples were prone to use wooden barrels and woven baskets. (Pieces of barrels have been found as far north as Ellesmere Island.) Most of what existed in the 1400’s rusted and rotted, and the further south you go the faster this rot occurred. Consequently (besides a single silver penny) there is no solid evidence Greenlanders ever traded to the south (as of yet).
Because of this lack of evidence archaeologists tend to be prigs when it comes to surmising where men might have sailed. I would suggest their lack of imagination demonstrates they’ve lived too long in libraries, or were never young, or never sailed, and perhaps all three, because they will not believe anything is possible until they have some crumb of dirt that proves it, but I will refrain from suggesting such rude things about archaeologist, even though some archaeologists sniff down their uplifted noses at me when I speak of the Tarrantine, and suggest ruder things back at me about “my type”.
I find it is wiser to ply archaeologists with liquor. There is another side to such people you’d never imagine was there when they are sober and insufferably stuffy. After a certain number of beers you discover a wild and dreamy side that knows amazing amounts of unproven lore, and hungers to be the one who finds proof of ancient sailor’s daring deeds. (For me the proof is in what modern sailors dare.) Such hungry archaeologists keep coming up with new ways of sifting the past, and may someday be able to test your colonial pewter and tell you whether the 1% copper in it came from France or Minnesota or…..somewhere else.
As it is we only have lore, and the known fact several thousand people living in Greenland faded from the sight of history. Of these thousands some may have simply moved back to Iceland. Some may have been taken by pirates to be sold as slaves to Arabs, (who apparently had over a million white slaves,) (and this may have been an improvement for Greenlanders, who might have found being a slave in the balmy breezes of the Mediterranean a piece of cake, compared a serf’s life in Greenland.) Some might have continued to trade as they always traded, but moved south to become the Tarrantine. This actually makes most sense to me, for people tend to stick to the lives they are most used to and are best at, and the old-school sailors were capable of deeds that seem impossible to the untrained. (Back before GPS I rode with a Maine lobster-man through pea-soup fog, from the mainland to the harbor of Mohegan Island, and, with only a compass to guide him, the lobster buoys outside of Mohegan Harbor appeared through the fog within seconds of when he said they should.)
Now travel back to such a fog in the year 1335. Into my vision appears a Tarrantine ship heading north, during one of the final warm summers of the Medieval Warm Period, with perhaps a load of lumber to trade in treeless Greenland, for perhaps polar bear fur, (or perhaps iron from a meteorite disgorged by glaciers…who knows?).
The south winds make that summer’s air “unprecedented” in its warmth, but foggy. The weather-wise sailors are well aware it is a good summer to sail north, with less sea-ice than usual. Besides the greed of trade, they are eager for adventure, and also to hear if there is any news from Europe in Greenland. Then, despite being far from land, they hear strange noises in the fog ahead…not whales. A vast dark shape looms up in the fog. Then they see the dark bulk of a huge sailing ship, bigger than any ship they ever dreamed could exist, heading south. It passes, with foreign faces looking down at them, as amazed to see them as they are, looking up.
This ship wound up as the Somerville Hulk, a spongy mass of rotting wood across the Charles River Basin from Boston Neck, and mentioned in a few early documents as a curiosity. It was a curiosity because decaying hulks, ruined by ship-worms, were common enough in European ports, but not across the Atlantic. It was also curious because it was twice the size of any English ship. Therefore most concluded it must be Spanish. The problem (for me at least) is that Spain also had no ships so large. The only ships so large existed in China.
In the early 1400’s a major change was afflicting the Chinese Navy. One emperor thought it was a good thing for China to expand its influence, and demand “tribute” from other lands for its wisdom, and amazing Chinese “treasure fleets” explored (and asked tribute from) coasts far from China.
However a following emperor deemed it nonspiritual to demand “tribute” from others, and in the process turned China away from outreach and in towards isolationism. He deemed exploration and the Chinese navy instantaneously obsolete, but confusion was added to his decree, because he only ruled for one year. In the interim before following rulers perpetuated the anti-navy policy, the genius admiral of the Chinese Navy, “Zheng He”, sailed his seventh and final treasure fleet, during the years 1430-1434 .
The Chinese Navy was likely aware its glory-days were over, and they had passed from being the emperor’s favorites to being frowned upon. China was moving towards xenophobia, and I don’t blame them one bit. In many ways they were the most civilized people on earth, and everyone else was barbarians. It was a fascinating time, which I will now butcher by attempting to put into a nutshell.
The Medieval Warm Period was both good and bad for civilization. It was good because it made people wealthy and able to be generous. It was bad because uncivilized people to the north also prospered. In Europe Viking’s abruptly raided south, and in China Mongols swept over the Great Wall and took over the entire country. It took the Chinese a long time to boot the foreigners out. Then they were faced with a choice. Either they could attempt outreach, and make the rest of the world as civil as they were, or they could say to hell with everyone else, and try to build a new Great Wall. The treasure fleets of Zheng He represent the peak of outreach, when an African giraffe strolled the streets of China’s capital, and the Chinese fleet conquered Ceylon (Sri-Lanka).
There were two problems with this outreach. First, it was against the intrinsically poetic and peaceful roots of Chinese culture. (Buddhists are not suppose to lead fleets that conquer Ceylon.) Second, it ran smack dab into Islam. Arab fleets also wanted to control the Indian Ocean.
Unlike Buddhism, (and Christianity), Islam is able to embrace war, and to make (temporary) alliances with spiritually deplorable characters. Just as modern Islam calls itself “The religion of Peace” on one hand, while working with Stalinist murders on the other, back towards the end of the Medieval Warm Period Islam produced Tamerlane, who felt he was God’s Instrument, and killed (it is estimated) 5% of the world’s population (17 million people.) He hated other religions, and what he did to the Hindus of Delhi was horrific, (basically the genocide of an entire, large city. He slaughtered 100,000 captives before the battle even began.)
Tamerlane’s dream was to be the next Genghis Khan, and to combine the power of Mongols with the power of Mohammed. He had an especial hate towards China, which had thrown the Mongols out, and an especial hate towards a religion (called heretical by the west and the Pope) which combined the pacifism of Christianity with the pacifism of Buddhism, and was called “Nestorian.” Widespread before Tamerlane, it was nearly wiped out as he ruled. Though Tamerlane himself died attempting to invade China, Muslim mobs in China killed the last Nestorian bishop in the mid 1400’s. The Chinese response was apparently revulsion, and the xenophobic desire to boot all foreigners out. Islam was largely shown the door, and then the door slammed shut. The idea China could reach out, and civilize barbarians, faded away with Zheng He’s last treasure fleet.
However few sailors really are willing to give up on the sea. Even Zheng He himself did attempt to be an obedient land lubber, and built an amazing “porcelain tower” during his exile ashore, but in the end sea-fever took him on a seventh voyage, and he apparently died during the final voyage and was buried at sea.
What I suggest is that at least one of his ships, with their admiral dead and the news from home suggesting only shame and dishonor would await them upon their return, chose not to return.
In case you state there is no record of Chinese junks in the Atlantic, here is a record, prepared in Italy in 1450, of a Chinese junk by Gibraltar in 1420:
One odd coincidence is that in 1420, just when the above map shows a Chinese junk beside Portugal, Henry the Navigator became extremely interested finding a route south around the bottom of Africa to India (and China). Before this time Portuguese sailors felt the world ended not all that far south. After this time the Portuguese technologically advanced their ships to sail where they couldn’t sail before, (with the lanteen sail), and developed new routes for shipping that made camels crossing the Sahara obsolete, and made shipping spices through the Ottoman and Venetian Empires overly expensive, and made the Portuguese fabulously wealthy.
It might seem a bit of a stretch to take this one detail of an old map, and suggest Henry the Navigator was advised by China about a route under the bottom of Africa. It is an even more amazing stretch to suggest China knew about the Northwest Passage, (which would have been a Northeast Passage to them), and to mention there is even a theory that the junk in the above map could have come to Portugal not via the Cape of Good Hope, but via Baffin Bay.
It would seem that all we need to do, to check the veracity of such wild surmising, is read the history books of China itself. One then gets a shock. Hand in hand with the power swing from China’s outreach-party to China’s isolationist-party there occurred an amazing attempt to erase any trace that the former party even existed. China largely “disappeared” the very existence of Zheng He, and the invention of the biggest ships the world had ever seen, and the extraordinary, praiseworthy exploits of the Chinese Navy.
To erase all history of the Chinese Navy’s amazing ships and amazing deeds seems in some ways more amazing than the navy itself, but in my time I have seen revisionist historians utterly change history, from what I was taught as a boy, to that which my grandchildren are taught. I have watched the history of the Medieval Warm Period be largely “erased”, and witnessed constant “adjustments” of temperature records. These are not the healthy revisions that occur naturally in science, with new discoveries, wherein new data fills in blank places where knowledge was lacking. These are revisions where data exists, but knowledge is blotted out.
History tends to repeat itself, and show us that the benefits of good behavior can become a liability. Good behavior makes people rich, but then rich people forget good behavior. Then bad behavior becomes their downfall. One way this downfall manifests is in the blotting out of knowledge. Due to some, weird twisting of sanity, ignorance is seen as preferable. In Truth, ignorance leads to bad engineering, and collapse, (which often is unforeseen, for if you have blotted out history you cannot foresee history’s repetition).
In some ways the elite prefer to be blind, and much of their education involves how to not-be-straight-forward, (which they call “diplomacy.”) It is an education like that of a girl who goes to charm school and learns to smile brilliantly, but can’t cook a turnip or change a diaper, and instead looks down her nose at skilled women. In the world of men the elite tend to rewrite the lessons of the past, disappearing important lessons, but, despite their efforts, lore remembers.
Zheng He was not forgotten, in the taverns where sailors tell their wonderful tales. Some elite call such tales “tall tales”, but it is only because they prefer midgets. They miss the giants, and, though they deem themselves high society, they dwell in a basement. A few own yachts, but don’t dare sail the storms the “tall tales” talk about. They fail to understand the thrill of adventure involves letting go of security. The elite think security is a good thing, (especially financial security). Basically they are cowards. They dread risk, though risks are what someone once had to take to make the money the elite now cling to. Their wealth makes them poor. There is a world of fresh air and freedom real sailors know about that the elite are missing, in their xenophobic shrinking. Upon hearing of the adventures of sailing men their immediate response is, “It cannot have happened.”
In some cases I can understand their doubt. Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the waves, and I can understand sophist’s doubt that a man could walk on water. But they also act as if other deeds are tantamount to walking on water, even when they are somewhat everyday, for men who dare to be great.
Most adventures go unrecorded. You only hear about them in taverns. Many sailors can’t write, (even if they aren’t officially illiterate), but they can tell a good tale. True, much of their talk is full of exaggeration and absurdity, and at times lacks the moral discretion that rules outside of taverns. Much talk is rude and TMI, involving subjects such as how to remove the bras of the buxom, (which I suppose qualifies as an adventure), but this indiscretion walks hand in hand with honesty. Amidst all the blear and bluntness and occasional brawling, one is far more likely to hear about the existence Zheng-He in a tavern of sailors than amidst the tippling of the elite, who, even when soused, know that mentioning Zheng-he is taboo. In conclusion, there is a world of difference between those who crave adventure and those who crave security.
I myself prefer adventure, for it seems more honest.
Perhaps I was too protected and coddled when young, for when I became a teenager my greatest desire was to hit the road. Security was insipid; it was like stagnant water that leaves a fish gasping, for it holds no oxygen. Despite the fact I was basically timid, so incredibly dull was safety and financial security that, (at times against my better judgement), I was propelled into the world of adventure and risk. I think the word for this is, “Life.”
Perhaps I have had some second thoughts, now that I’m getting old, and have no pension, and at times feel like the grasshopper in the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. There are very real material reasons why the elite chose the basements they chose. So be it. I would not have known the fresh air and thrilling breezes of adventure if I had worshiped security, nor would I have knowledge of sailor’s lore, such as the tale of Zheng-he, and many other topics known in sea-side taverns but avoided by the politically correct, if I too was “correct”.
Don’t get me wrong. Much B.S. is spoken in taverns, much that is hyperbole or even intentionally bullshit: Trickery to test you and to see if you are a chump. It is a landscape full of reefs to reconnoiter, and it is important to fact-check, and to “trust but verify”, but in the end such taverns are more honest than many hallways filled with jostling politicians. If you want to learn of a modern-day Zheng-he who the modern-day politically-correct are attempting to erase from the picture, (the same way Stalin photo-shopped purged politicians from public pictures), then go to a sea-side tavern, and not a college filled with politically appointed bowers and scrapers. It is in the tavern you will meet the breath of fresh air that invigorates lore, and makes it mighty.
It is just such lore that speaks of the huge Somerville hulk. I am merely a voice passing the information on. But I don’t stop there. I also delight in imagining what the effect of such lore might be, if it were true.
For example, suppose a renegade ship from China did appear in Boston Harbor in 1435. What effect would this have on the Massachusetts tribe, when this enormous Chinese junk arrived and decided to stay? Likely, 200 years before Harvard, it was as intellectually influential. Perhaps for many years the junk was maintained, and sailed from place to place, and Indians visited it to learn of ideas from far away.
Even after it was beached on the Somerville flats it might have been inhabited. Then, after its inhabitants moved on to better homes, it would have slowly decayed, with the gunnels finally falling, but the keel remaining as a landmark even when the wood was rotted brown as peat and as soft as cork. By the time it was first noted by a few passing Europeans only a trace remained. But might a trace of the exotic also have remained in the culture of the Massachusetts tribe?
How ironic it is that the location of the Somerville Hulk is now likely beneath a lane of a highway called Memorial Drive, near a Harvard College that seemingly hates the exotic individuality of distinct cultures, and wants all students from all parts of the earth to come and learn to enact a bland sameness, a sort of U.N.-sponsored McCulturalism. Some Internationalist ideas currently espoused by Harvard amount to a denial of the sharp distinctions that make cultures as unique as fingerprints. To deny such sharp distinctions is to deny each culture’s history. (Not much different from Chinese authorities wanting to deny Zheng He existed.) The idea seems to be that such denial will prevent wars, but it also attempts to crush the individuality of cultures, (and of the individual), and also crushes unique talents, and this never goes over well with the people being crushed.
In any case, I have presented my case, which is: The Tarrantine. to the north, had a Norse sea-faring influence as the Massachusetts, to the south, had a Chinese sea-faring influence. I am well aware this presentation likely has veins bulging in the faces of historians and archaeologists, but I am simply being honest about the lore handed down to me.
(To be continued. Part Two will describe the tragic demise of the elite Massachusetts tribe, and other amazing lore learned from sailors in taverns, all of which occurred before the Pilgrims landed, and long before Harvard College was founded.)