Mergers and acquistions

Geeky idea time – I was reading Hugh Thomson’s The White Rock about his travels in what were the Inca lands in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and in it he makes the comment that the Inca Empire wasn’t really an empire, it was more akin to a series of mergers and acquisitions by a large corporation in which other polities were absorbed by one means or another and their efforts redirected to those of the Inca polity.

This is actually quite a powerful idea. To be ruled implies a degree of consent. If we look at the Roman Empire it grew in part by military power, but also by incorporating the local rulers into the Roman political elite, or to loosely misquote Tacitus, seduce them with dinner parties and porticoes.

So rather than as a set of conquests we can look on it as a set of acquisitions, not necessarily peaceful, but ones that bought consent, because they brought benefits to the acquirees, and hence their tacit consent.

Remember that during the first couple of centuries of the Empire the army was in the main stationed on the frontiers to keep interlopers at bay, rather than to impose order on the conquered populace.

Yes, of course there were insurrections and rebellions, but on the whole the ruled stayed more or less ruled.

The same analysis can be extended to other empires – such as British rule in India, where again the local political elite bought into the fantasy of Imperial rule and the poor got a possibly better, possibly more consistent, administration, meaning that the non Indian forces in India were comparitively few in number.

As I say it’s an interesting idea – not one that justifies empire, but one that perhaps explains why some regimes seem to work, and others turn to nasty repressive failures ….

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Happy midwinter’s day

Yesterday, Saturday, was midwinter’s day here in Canberra.

In times past I used to wish everyone a happy Inca new year on this day, really because I felt we ought to make more of mid winter here in the southern hemisphere.

The last few years tho’ we haven’t been in Canberra for midwinter so this kind of fell into abeyance. However this year we were, and we had a distinctly chilly barbecue in the backyard to celebrate.

2014-06-07 12.20.49

However, while it might have been chilly, it’s been a warm winter so far – hardly any frost or fog, with the result that the nasturtiums are still blooming away – normally they’re over and done by the middle of May – and our winter greens are growing away madly.

So, while it’s midwinter, it doesn’t yet feel like solstice time. However, it’s still good to feel the warmth of the sun and know that every day will be a little longer …

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Henry V

Last night J and I went to the Canberra Theatre to see Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry V, and damn good it was too.

Henry V is a huge sprawling play, with changes of scene, comedic interludes and the rest, and near impossible to stage if one wants to do an orthodox production with scenery, costumes and the like.

Not that this would have bothered the Tudors. Plays were staged with no scenery and a minimum of props and costumes – more or less ‘theatre in the round’ without the round, and allowing the power and drama of the language to create the suspension of disbelief.

In this production Bell Shakespeare return to the original minimalist presentation. They use the conceit of a group of secondary school students trapped in a classroom during the London Blitz.

To pass the time the English master takes them through Henry V – reading and acting out the parts – just like you probably did in English Lit in school – with minimal props – crowns of folded paper, cricket pad to symbolise armour, end so on.

This device allows the schoolmaster to take the part of Chorus the narrator of the original play who explained the changes of scene to audience, and to help move the play along.

And it works brilliantly. The explosions and sirens of the blitz provide the noises off and the background to Agincourt, and the context helps reinforce the message of the futility of war, and even the comic interludes turn tragic.

It’s worth seeing – if you can, do. Details of performances can be found online at Bell Shakespeare’s website.

[An alternative view of the production can be found here]

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Cooma cottage and Yass

Last Sunday was cold, windy and brilliantly clear, so we took ourselves off to look at Cooma cottage, the onetime home of the explorer Hamilton Hume, who, along with Hovell found the route south to Victoria, broadly taking the route followed today by the Hume freeway and the Sydney Melbourne train line.

To confuse everyone, Cooma cottage is no where near Cooma, but is in fact a few k’s outside of the old wool town of Yass.

Cooma cottage is an early farm cottage, with the original core of the building built in a style not that different from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings in England, but of course here, all the handmade bricks were made locally, the woodwork and the fitments all locally made, even down to the hooks in the tack room being locally made out of six inch iron nails.

After Hume, the house had a varied history, being used at one time as a sanitorium for consumption patients, and somehow has survived sort of more or less intact, or at least instact enough for the National Trust to return it to something like how it looked in Hume’s time, with a little formal garden, some mid nineteenth century wallpaper and the like.

It must have been a cold sparse life, with supplies and manufactures from Yass if you were lucky, or perhaps Sydney, and the luxuries of life, books, writing paper and the like, and even basic manufactured goods having to be imported from half a world away.

When we’d finished looking at the house we had an alfresco lunch, soup from a thermos, cheese, oatcakes, fruit, in the picnic area, and a cold and windy affair it was – no wonder the house had had a life as a sanitorium. Bracing was certainly the word for it.

After his exploring days were done Hume made is money farming sheep for wool – shades of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

As did the town of Yass. After lunch we took ourselves into Yass for a decent cup of coffee. Strange to say we had never really stopped in Yass except to go to the loo on the way to Cowra, Forbes or Parkes.

And we’d been missing something – Yass dates fro the 1830’s and still has some good old colonial buildings in terms of banks, a Victorian post office, and some good shop fronts, including a hardware store with a pressed tin front, pressed to look like brickwork.

We did find ourselves a decent cafe in one of the old store fronts, one that still retained the old patterned pressed tin ceilings and nicely painted in a heritage green colour – and it served a pretty decent cup of coffee as well.

Then to avoid the Sunday afternoon winery traffic around Murrambateman we took the long way back, round by Gunning, which still has an old slab pioneer house, not to mention a pub called the ‘Telegraph’ a very nineteenth century name,  and definitely somewhere that would repay a fuller visit, and then back through Gunderoo and back.

All in all a pretty interesting day, and one to be replayed sometime in the future as a photo trip …

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An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan …

Well, that’s certainly a title.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I’ve been doing a lot reading about the British colonial experience in Asia, including the literature of the time. Inevitably this segues into reading about the Great Game, which was essentially a nineteenth century cold war between the British Empire and Imperial Russia in Central Asia.

One of the centres of intrigue was Kashgar in (neutral) Chinese Turkestan – now Xianjiang. Impossibly remote, only visited by the hardiest of travellers, Kashgar hosted both a Russian and a British consulate, plus a small community of other western missionaries.

George Macartney, the first British consul, had arrived with Younghusband’s expedition in 1890 as an interpreter and stayed on as consul, marrying his wife, Catherine, the English lady of the title of this blog post, which is also the title of her memoirs of her time in Kashgar.

George Macartney wrote no autobiography, so we have no real idea of what went on in Kashgar at the time other than what is contained in his reports to the India office.

So, for background to the period, I tracked down a copy of his wife’s memoirs. They’re out of print and not available online through Gutenberg, but there was a paperback edition published by the Asian arm of the OUP in the 1980’s, but through Abebooks I managed to track down a copy at a reasonable price and condition to a second hand bookstore in Seattle.

The book is a charmer – well written and witty in a style reminiscent of Beth Ellis’s An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah, but ever so slightly anodyne, as if Catherine Macartney had taken steps to ensure that nothing too political sneaked into her book, even when discussing the events of the 1911 Chinese Revolution in Kashgar, she concentrates on the here and now narrative, rather than attempting to describe the politics and politicking that must have gone on, especially after a substantial detachment of Russian soldiers was deployed, ostensibly to protect the European population.

That said, its an enjoyable read if you like late Victorian memoirs, and describes the daily life of the consulate, not to mention the joys and perils of travel to and from Kashgar before there were any roads to speak of ….

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A C16 Portuguese Cannon in Darwin?

I’ve written previously about the possible Portuguese landing on the coast of Northern Australia during the age of European discovery.

The initial evidence was fairly circumstantial, but at the same time there were reports that a cannon of possibly Portuguese origin being found. Lead associated with that cannon has now been analyzed, and it looks as if the cannon originates from the Iberian peninsula.
Initially the cannon was thought to be a copy made by Macassan trepang traders, rather than of European manufacture.

Of course, the most conservative theory would be that the Macassan traders acquired the cannon one way or another, and certainly evidence suggesting that it has only been in the water since 1750 or thereabouts, would tend to support the theory that its deposit in waters of Darwin is connected with Macassan rather than Spanish or Portuguese activity.

However I’d guess the jury is still out …

[update 27/05/2014]

As it happens,  my bedtime reading at the moment is Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago, which to my shame I’ve never read. Why I don’t know, it’s well written, literate and quietly amusing.

Last night, by pure coincidence I got to the passage on gun making on Lombok where he describes how gun barrels are bored for flintlock muskets, and more importantly, how the locks of the flintlocks are recycled from older damaged European flintlocks.

From photographs, the Darwin gun looks to be a fairly lightweight small bore weapon, and consequently one which could have been easily copied or made by a local gunsmith. If gunsmiths were in the habit of remaking or recycling components from older damaged guns, this could well explain why lead from the Iberian peninsula has ended up in a Macassan gun

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Viking Mice on Madeira

A group of scientists have recently analysed some mouse remains on Madeira and shown them to come from (a) some time in the tenth century and (b) the mitochondrial DNA of the mice suggests a Scandanavian origin rather than a Portugese or Iberian origin.

This is actually quite neat, as, as far as we know, the Vikings seem not to have got to Galicia or further south along the Luisitanian coast until the mid ninth century. Around the same time they also sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and raided the small Islamic state of Nekor.

I’ve not been able to find online any references to Viking raids on the Atlantc coast of Morocco, but it’s not impossible that some Vikings tried sailing south and found Madeira. The presence of mice does not of course mean that they did much more than overnight there, but nonetheless it’s quite interesting.

One wonders if there are records of a Viking presence in North Africa in as yet untranslated Arabic documents ?

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