12 February 2022: Interregnum

Apologies to everyone for the long interval between blogs.

Over the last six months, AJ and I moved from Johannesburg, South Africa to Vientiane, Laos, travelling via Australia to catch up with family and friends. Because of the Covid 19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, quarantines and interrupted international travel, this has been a long, long process.

As well, I’ve been planning on working on a major piece on human evolution for some time, something I’ve slowly – and somewhat painstakingly – put together over the last 10 months. The piece is based on a book a friend, palaeoanthropologist Colin Groves, and I were writing together. From the short few chapters we managed to write before his death in 2017, from memories of our many weekly conversations, and from subsequent conversations with his wife Phyll and colleague Debbie Argue, that piece is now all but done. Although nowhere near as comprehensive as the book would have been, it’s still far too long to be viewed in one go, and will appear on this blog over the next few weeks in six sections.

Pha That Luang, Vientiane. Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

Almost as a counterpoint to thinking about human evolution – dealing with relatively deep time – I’ve also been thinking about more recent human history, something spurred on by the pandemic, as well as crises in the Ukraine and the West’s fumbling, erratic handling of the inevitable rise of China. In the process, I came across this short piece I wrote for a workshop two years ago, arguing that the Napoleonic War (or perhaps more accurately, wars) were an essential ingredient in the making of the modern world.

So here it is, the first in what I hope is a much more regular series of blogs.

Napoleon and the modern world

I know … boring Euro-centric, male-centric, and military-centric history. Not really history at all, at least not as its understood these days. But still, the effects of this long conflict did two things that helped establish the world we now live in. First, it saw the creation of the most dominant modern European states. Second, it led to the rabid drive to colonise and exploit Africa.

The so-called First World War – the Great War of 1914-18 – was no such thing. The first true world war was the Seven Years War and occurred in the 1750s . It was fought in Europe, the Mediterranean littoral, west Africa, North America, southern Asia and the Philippines. The Napoleonic War was more of the same – the Second World War, if you like – but with extra countries thrown in and fought on a much more massive scale: bigger armies, bigger battles, greater civilian casualties and dislocation, and huge fleets of giant wooden ships sailing across all seven seas.

Artist: Paul Delaroche. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

One thing you have to say for the Europeans, when they throw a party they make sure everyone’s invited, whether they want to join in or not.

The Napoleonic War involved military, economic and social mobilisation on a scale never seen before. Just two examples: between 1805 and 1813, Napoleon conscripted over 2,000,000 soldiers, and by the end of the war British national debt reached 200% of GDP.

Of course, Napoleon was a megalomaniac, but he also introduced dramatic reforms or consolidated reforms brought in by the French Revolution. Just three examples: the legal system, the Civil Code, influenced similar codes throughout Europe; the metric system is now used almost universally; and state-sponsored voyages of scientific discovery.

The Napoleonic War entangled the US in its first international conflicts: first against the French themselves (their previous ally during the American Revolution), and then, in 1812, against the British (their previous opponent during the American Revolution).

Prussia’s success resisting the French during the war cemented its position as the leading German-speaking country – a process begun 50 years before under Frederick the Great – leading to the creation of the German state itself under the direction of the Prussian Bismarck.

It’s hard to measure to the last centimetre or the last centime or the last degree Celsius the effect all of this had on the rest of the world. But when we talk about nation states, modern economies, science, art, culture and yes, even history, we are dealing with many ideas that had their origin or first great flowering during the Napoleonic era. When the wars were finally done, the continent of Europe – exhausted and battered and Napoleon sent to his last exile on St Helena – experienced nearly a century of peace, something that had never happened before. Instead European states competed with each other overseas, most dramatically in the race to colonise Africa during the 1800s.

The raw materials of the modern world can be found in early European colonialism and 18th century industrialisation, but for all its benefits we enjoy and all its crosses we bear, it was forged during the Napoleonic War.

10 January 2019: A tale of unrequited love

dsc01509 (2)

Southern masked weaver in our back yard, Johannesburg

What follows is a tragedy. Admittedly, a minor tragedy in the scheme of things, but one that played out in front of AJ, our daughter and myself at our home in Johannesburg just after Christmas. It involves a hardworking bird called a southern masked weaver and its failed attempt to win a mate.

Weaver birds, as their name suggests, weave intricate nests. They are a family of birds mostly native to sub-Saharan Africa, with some species living in tropical Asia.

According to Weaver Watch, one of their number, the red-billed weaver or red-billed quelea, ‘ …is one of the most abundant bird species in the world and its post-breeding population has been estimated to be 1.5 billion birds, leading to its nickname “Africa’s feathered locust”’. Since it readily eats crops, this makes the red-billed quelea a serious threat to subsistence farmers.dsc01471 (2)

Most weaves, however, are harmless. They are beautiful birds, small and compact, and during mating season (September to January) the males are brightly coloured, brilliant architects and hardworking builders.

Since arriving in South Africa six months ago, AJ and I have admired weavers and the intricate nests they make, and were planning to build a feeder and bird bath to attract to them to our home. Then to our surprise, on Boxing Day, AJ and daughter (visiting from Australia over Christmas) noticed a southern masked weaver starting a nest hanging from a branch about halfway up the jacaranda in our backyard.

In fact, by the time we noticed its existence the nest had already been started: the first central ring of long fronds had been weaved together, and an inner lining of fern (or possibly jacaranda) leaves laced in to help make the nest more comfortable.

As we watched over the next two days, the weaver worked virtually non-stop on building the new home. Its skill, agility and determination were remarkable, and the product of its labour a thing of beauty. I wouldn’t be surprised if our distant ancestors learned to weave from watching these little birds at work.dsc01478 (2)When the male has finished building the nest, a female flies in to assess its suitability. While the male of the species is a brilliant architect and hardworking builder, the female is a severe critic and, occasionally, expert demolisher. If she doesn’t like the nest, she will often tear it to pieces; the male will then start again, or choose another location to build a completely new one.

Three days after first noticing the nest in our jacaranda, we left home for most of the day. When we returned, the nest was gone, its ruins laying on the lawn below the tree. At the time AJ theorised it was a young male, new at the game, and a female had let it know in no uncertain terms that its efforts weren’t good enough. But then we remembered that there had been a brief but violent storm while we were out, and it seems likely this was what brought down the nest.dsc01537 (2)

Sadly, we didn’t end up with a happy couple residing in our backyard and raising a new brood of southern masked weavers. On the plus side, male weavers usually build a series of nests; we can only hope our male successfully found at least one female willing to put up with his efforts and share with him a clutch of eggs.

06 November 2014: Dragonflies

Sp. unknown (pos. Neurothemis fulvia?). Photo: Simon Brown

Sp. unknown (pos. Neurothemis fulvia?).
Photo: Simon Brown

Small blog on dragonflies. Just because.

And because they are incredibly beautiful. And because they are incredibly ancient, among the first flying insects. Extinct proto-dragonflies, sometimes called griffenflies, could have up to 70cm wingspans. They lived from the late Carboniferous to the late Permian.

Dragonflies are also the fastest insects, and can fly backwards, which is pretty cool.

Also I’ve got this photo I took in Phuket. Not quite a griffenfly, but pretty nonetheless.

05 November 2014: Alim Khan

Emir of Bukhara c1910Meet Emir Said Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the last emir of Bukhara. He looks rather splendid in his elaborate coat with its startling blue silk cloth with embroidered flowers and leaves. Then there’s the gold belt and, one suspects, quite functional sword. Above it all, however, rests the serene and confident visage of Alim Khan himself. He led an extraordinary life, and was the last direct descendant of Genghis Khan to rule a nation.

I say “was” because this extraordinarily clear and colourful portrait we have of him was taken in 1911, when Alim Khan was around 30 years old. He had just taken over the reins of power following the death of his father the year before.

The photograph was taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. With the support of Tsar Nicholas II, he spent six years travelling around the Russian Empire to document its people, its geography and its cultures.

The US Library of Congress has a wonderful collection of Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs. The latest were taken just after the start of WWI, and only two years before the revolution which ultimately deposed Alim Khan from his throne.

Alim Khan died in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1944. His old emirate now lies within the borders of Uzbekistan, once part of the Soviet Union and now an independent republic.