Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I love Hamilton. I love it so much that I refused to listen to the soundtrack for months because I knew that I would love it too much and it would be a Problem. And it is. But here’s the thing about me: I’m like the subject of that Onion article “Graduate Student Deconstructs Takeout Menu,” and if I love something, you can bet that I’m going to deconstruct it. Even if I don’t want to. And Hamilton is no exception to that.

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Cast of Hamilton. Left to right: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Christopher
Jackson (George Washington), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler Church),
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), and Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating and contradictory piece of theater. It takes a foundational American myth starring white men, and re-centers it on people of color while, at the same time, unquestioningly perpetuating that same myth while erasing women and slaves from the narrative. And that is powerful, because Hamilton, by virtue of its immense popularity and growing cultural status, is a space of memory construction.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Memory is an entity constructed by screenwriters, directors, journalists, the executives who control broadcast media, museum professionals, the politicians who set history curricula, the corporate bodies who decide what will be on standardized tests, novelists, Texas school boards, tv writers, and yes, playwrights and composers. History is the discipline which—through the science of reading, understanding, and questioning sources and the mastery of one or more historical fields—seeks to determine what happened, why it happened, how various groups interacted with the thing that happened, how the thing impacted groups, etc.

The institutions and individuals with the power to shape memory have very little interest in actual history; actual history is too complicated and too damning to fit neatly into a desirable, marketable narrative. And the characters of Hamilton, funnily enough, seem to be all too aware of that reality.

Aaron Burr laments that he will be remembered as a villain (there is an entire genre of sci-fi/historical fiction featuring Burr doing stuff like raising Aztec deities, stealing the Constitution from parallel worlds, and I think there’s something involving Napoleon and aliens but I refuse to research that one further without a drink in hand); Alexander Hamilton frets over his legacy; George Washington understands that he is at the mercy of memory; and one of Eliza’s recurring musical themes is centered on the concept of narrative.

In “That Would be Enough,” Eliza sings “oh let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write someday;” in “Burn” she sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Perhaps my favorite part is Eliza’s finale solo in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She sings “I put myself back in the narrative/…I interview every soldier who fought by your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings/…I rely on Angelica/While she’s alive/We tell your story/…I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument/…I speak out against slavery.” In all of these songs, and especially the finale solo, she is singing about her determination to exert her own agency over how she is remembered.

That solo (begins at :41), while it does, of course, have a strong narrative purpose, speaks to the long history of female labor performed to commemorate the actions and careers of American men. Whether it be raising funds for monuments, providing medical care to soldiers, starting historical societies, protesting for the rights of the men in their lives, or taking oral histories, American women have long been instrumental shaping American collective memory; the irony is that their labor is left out of that memory. In Eliza’s solo, this labor is re-centered.

This history of forgotten female labor isn’t the only larger historiographic reality Hamilton speaks to.

In Writing History in the Global Era, historian Lynn Hunt writes:

Historians have only recently discovered globalization. Their neglect of the topic hardly makes them unique, however, as interest in globalization, as shown by the increasing use of the word in titles of books, dates only to the 1990s. It hardly appears at all in titles before the late 1980s, but a sharp increase occurs during the 1990s and continues into the 2000s.

Before globalization became a force in historians’ interpretation of early American history, it was much more the trend to portray the New Nation as an isolated country hanging off the eastern coast of the New World.

Indeed, Hunt continues:

Historians of the early United States…always drew attention to the links between American and British history, but now they also link the United States to the Caribbean islands with their slave economies and to the role of the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who also colonized parts of the North American mainland.

Hamilton takes place in a highly globalized world, reflecting both the twenty-first century international environment and contemporary historiographic trends. From the very beginning, we see the links between the North American colonies and the Caribbean colonies as Hamilton travels from St. Croix to New York. Angelica makes regular trips between London and New York. Lafayette jumps on a ship to France in the middle of the Revolution to acquire guns and ships—and other sundry supplies—and makes a quick return.

Further, despite the prohibitive cost and availability of tickets, Hamilton is hosting New York City Public School classes, which are using Hamilton as an educational tool. The New York City Public Schools are 39.6% Hispanic, 31.6% black, and 14% Asian*. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, nearly half of all New York City Public School students speak a language other than English at home; while this figure does not necessarily imply that nearly half of all NYCPS students are immigrants, it does imply that they come from families which arrived in the United States within the last one or two generations.

Hamilton openly and passionately addresses xenophobia, and the positive impact of immigrants on the United States (“Immigrants, we get the job done”)—indeed, one of Hamilton’s defining traits in the eyes of his supporters and adversaries is his status as an immigrant—and features non-white actors in every role (except for that of King George III). Thus, Hamilton allows students to see themselves as the protagonists of a story they are typically tacked to the margins of, if included at all. Seeing themselves and reflected in this foundational story allows these students to become much more engaged in learning about this vital period of American History.

And indeed, the show’s stars have discussed the importance of this representation.

Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) said to New Yorker reporter Rebecca Mead that “It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”

Christopher Jackson (George Washington), said in the same piece that “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to. By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage.”

Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) said to Playbill writer Olivia Clement that “the best I’ve heard [at the stage door] is a lot of young Asian-American women coming up to me and saying thank you for representing Asian-American women.”

However, even as Hamilton reflects contemporary historiographic trends, illuminates female commemorative labor, and re-centers those typically left out of the narrative, it ironically excludes the groups Americans work the hardest to forget: enslaved men and women.

Now, Hamilton doesn’t ignore the issue; it arises in multiple songs, and many characters speak of their desire to abolish slavery—especially John Laurens and Eliza in her finale solo. But there are two central persons whose lives and experiences are largely erased within Miranda’s narrative: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave; and Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s slave.

In the Act 2 opener “What’d I Miss,” Thomas Jefferson has Sally Hemmings open a letter from George Washington (whose own status as a slave owner is barely alluded to), and sings “Sally dear be a lamb and open this.” Sally then performs a cheerfully choreographed spin and opens it.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as portrayed in Hamilton. Gif courtesy of http://wholivesdiestellsyourstory.tumblr.com,

There is no mention—despite the fact that Hamilton calls Jefferson out on his status as slave-owner in “Cabinet Battle #1″—of the fact she is his slave, and no mention of that fact that Jefferson, as we can now understand in our present historical context, was her rapist.

Meanwhile, the spy work Hercules Mulligan so epically raps about (beginning at 1:49 below) in “Yorktown” (”A tailor spyin on the British government/I take their measurements, information then I smuggle it/To my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m runnin with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin it”) could not have been accomplished without the unpaid, dangerous labor performed by his slave, known to us only as Cato.

Cato acted as a courier for Mulligan’s spy work, smuggling intelligence through British territory. When the British took New York City in 1778, British Provost Marshal William Cunningham suspected Mulligan of spy activities. He arrested and interrogated Cato, who refused to divulge any information. In 1779, Cato delivered intelligence to Alexander Hamilton, alerting him of the British plan to kidnap or kill George Washington. And that is really all we know about Cato**.

Also excluded from the narrative are the wives of some of the central characters, with the exception, of course, of Eliza. John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette were all married when the action begins in 1776, yet their wives are never even alluded to.

John Laurens married Martha Manning in 1776. Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of a Royal Navy Admiral, in 1773. This union allowed him access to British officers, from whom he gathered valuable intelligence. The Marquis de Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francois in 1774.

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Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. Image courtesy of Christie’s, by an unknown artist in the French School.

She supported his quest for the spread of liberty. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, he took command of the army at Metz. He was accused of treason upon his return to Paris, and fled to the Dutch Republic. On the way, the Prussians intercepted and arrested him. Adrienne, fresh from imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, traveled to Vienna to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to obtain permission to join her husband in prison. He allowed it, and they were released in 1797.

I understand that Hamilton is a work of historical fiction and, as such, must take creative liberty with fact in order to craft a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Further, I understand that it is a problem to assume that a production which re-centers people of color within a foundational narrative shaped by white supremacy is obligated to discuss slavery. However, historical fiction is a powerful vehicle of memory construction, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda did, indeed, set out to confront that memory, then I cannot ignore the exclusions detailed above.

Historical fiction allows complex human beings to be shaped into the protagonist or antagonist of ahistorical narrative; allows creators to construct historical figures into characters with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one; it puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure or their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

And I have all of these concerns about Hamilton; specifically, about how it contributes to what I refer to as the “cult of the Founding Fathers.” Americans hold these eighteenth century men…well it’s beyond a pedestal, some politicians and legal authorities base their decisions—decisions which directly affect the lives, health, and freedom of millions of people–on what those eighteenth century guys may have thought.

Hamilton doesn’t question the mythic aura surrounding these guys. It humanizes them, sure, and it certainly does something very powerful in casting them as men of color (as discussed above), but it doesn’t question the fundamentals of the mythos surrounding them, or the impact of that mythos on contemporary American politics and political rhetoric.

In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore. In this book, Chernow describes how Hamilton wrote a poem about his dead-end life as an impoverished orphan in St. Croix. The poem caught the attention of some very wealthy people who helped Alexander to get ahead in life and leave for New York.

In this part of Alexander Hamilton’s life, Lin-Manuel Miranda saw the ethos of hip-hop.“To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are,” said Miranda to Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, “I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.“

In April 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to perform in a series of live performances centered on the “American Experience.” He performed the song telling the story of a young, orphaned, illegitimate boy who built himself up from nothing through sheer intelligence, writing skill, and determination.

That song is now the opening number of Hamilton.

The “American Experience” Miranda saw in the story of Alexander Hamilton was that of the American Dream. The American Dream is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history behind it. That idea is built on the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and functions as an unquestioned ideology used to silence and shame those who cannot—for any number of reasons I can’t tackle within the confines of this post—access the middle class lifestyle promised by that fantasy of meritocracy.

It is powerful that Miranda expressed the American Dream through a musical genre which is frequently marginalized, appropriated, and held to a content-driven double standard via actors who are part of the populations historically excluded from accessing that dream. However, Hamilton uncritically elevates the myth of the American Dream just as it does that of the Founding Fathers; it doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dream, it just skews the audience’s perception of who embodies that dream

Hamilton presents a vision of America which has no interest in overhauling the narrative, but is instead concerned with creating a space within that narrative where everyone, not just those who look like King George III, can succeed. It’s only a shame that Miranda couldn’t open that narrative up just a tiny bit further.

*These figures courtesy of the Hunter College School of Education.
**In 1785, Mulligan became one of the founding members of the New York Manumission Society. Thus, we can assume that he recognized Cato’s humanity and freed him from slavery, but even that is just a guess.

King Richard III’s re-interment carries pomp and grandeur of state funeral

archaeologicalnews:

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It was not a funeral, the Dean of Leicester, David Monteith, reminded the congregation of his cathedral, which had been transformed into a grove of foliage and white roses – and the reminder about Richard III was very much needed.

Every pew was filled with guests in military uniforms, black or navy suits, academic gowns, decorations and honours, chains of office, silver white boar badges, white rose brooches and fabulous hats.

The guests included the Duke of Gloucester, Sophie Countess of Wessex, and the Duke of Norfolk, whose responsibilities include royal funerals. The music included a fanfare and new setting of the national anthem by the master of the Queen’s music, Judith Weir. Read more.

This is a fascinating demonstration of the power of memory and the place of a collective past within British national identity.

I’ll say more later as I’m technically at work right now, but look at this symbolism, look at this display; look at how painstakingly this ceremony constructs a continuum between the present Britain and the legendary (so to speak) past.

Noor Inayat Khan: Sufi Princess and SOE Agent

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Noor Inayat Khan in her SOE uniform. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Perhaps it was the color of her skin, her past work as a children’s book writer, or her calm, gentle demeanor nature which inclined Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel to doubt Noor Inayat Khan’s (1914-1944) potential as an SOE agent. However, the resistance networks she single-handedly maintained and the German agents charged with her arrest would beg to differ.

The SOE was formed by British Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on July 22, 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe, and to provide aid to local resistance movements in occupied countries. SOE agents—coming from all walks of life, and having gone through a rigorous training process which included instruction on how to kill with your bare hands, how to derail trains, how to escape from handcuffs, and how to parachute—took Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” to heart. They quickly set about destroying bridges needed for German supply lines, bombing the water plant needed to support the German atomic bomb program, and sending supply trains in the wrong direction.

Noor Inayat Khan’s path to the SOE began in Moscow. There, she was born on the first day of 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. Her father, Hazrat Khan, was a musician, a teacher of Sufi Islam, founder of the Sufi Order of the West (now the Sufi Order International), and a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Her mother, Ameena Begum (born Ora Baker), was an American woman who met Hazrat during his travels in the US. The family settled outside of Paris in 1920, where her father taught classes, held a summer school, and gave lectures. Hazrat Khan died in 1927, when Noor was thirteen years old.

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Khan posing with her mother. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

As a young adult, Khan studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and music at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies she wrote poetry, children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 she published a children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales.

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Khan in her family’s home in France with her sitar. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

Khan was deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, which centered on three tenets: that there is truth in every religion, that humanity is one and must rise above the distinctions created to divide it, and that the East and the West must be united for humanity to become one. These teachings of tolerance and understanding very much informed the course of her life after the outbreak of the Second World War.

She trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as her children’s book was being published. However, her service with this organization was short lived as she fled to England with her family just before the French surrender to Germany in November, 1940. They settled in London. Shortly after their arrival, Khan, eager to do her part to bring an end to Nazi tyranny, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was around this time that she began to use the name Nora Baker.

She spent nearly three years training with the WAAF as a wireless operator. Impressed by her technical skill and her fluent French, the SOE recruited Khan into their France division—overseen by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—in late 1942. During her three months of training, her team, obviously willfully ignorant of her background and abilities, described her as clumsy, fearful of weapons, “not over-burdened with brains,” unstable, and temperamental. However, Buckmaster regarded these comments as the nonsense that they were and allowed her to complete her training.

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Khan’s passport photo. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

With her fluent French and her skill as an operator, Khan was perfect for a post in Occupied France. On June 17, 1943, Khan, officially the first female wireless operator to be sent into France to aid the Resistance, landed and reported to her post in Paris.

She worked with the Prosper network (technically called the Physician network, but popularly known as Prosper after the codename of its organizer, Major Francis Suttill), the largest network in Northern France. The Prosper network communicated with England to organize the placement and arrival of SOE agents, locally recruited agents, and aid to the French Resistance. The network was of such importance that Berlin regarded it as the heart of a secret army posing the utmost danger to the security of the Third Reich.

However, only one week after her arrival, the precariousness of the life of a covert agent in Occupied France became uncomfortably clear. The local branch of the Gestapo arrested Suttill, and over the next three months hundreds of agents—including wireless operators and resistance personnel alike—supported by the Prosper network would be put under arrest.

After the initial arrests, Khan was the only wireless operator left in Paris, making her post the most dangerous one in all of Northern France. The SOE offered to repatriate her to Britain, but she refused to leave her comrades without communication channels. Over the next three months, Noor single-handedly maintained the network which supported resistance activities across Occupied France.

The Prosper network’s last remaining link to London, Khan quickly became the most wanted British agent in Paris. The Gestapo, though they had her full description, knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine.” Under constant pursuit by wireless detection vans, Khan could only transmit for twenty minutes at a time. Even so, she transmitted regularly from the first week of July through to the second week of October.

However in the beginning of that month, either an SOE double agent or a French woman betrayed her to the Nazis. On October 13, 1943, Khan was arrested, and held in the Paris headquarters of the SD. She fought so fiercely upon her arrest that the SD agents were afraid of her. She lied consistently to her interrogators while in custody, though they did uncover copies of her signals, allowing them to impersonate her in wireless communications with London. In addition to her fierce fighting and consistent lies, Khan made two escape attempts during her two month interrogation. One was successful, however, she was quickly recaptured.

After she refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, the SD classified her as “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”), a designation given only to those prisoners deemed as posing a threat to the security of the Third Reich. She was secretly shipped to Germany by night. Considered a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement during her time in Pforzheim. She continued to refuse to give away any information during this stage of her imprisonment.

On September 11, 1944 the Gestapo transferred her to Dachau. Two days later, an SS officer executed her by a shot to the head.

Her last word was “Liberté.”

Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest gallantry award for British civilians, as well as for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honors would not normally be granted—in Britain, and the Croix de Guerre—a military decoration honoring those who fought with the Allies against the Axis forces during World War II—in France. On November 8, 2012, HRH Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan located in the Gordon Square Gardens in London. In 2014, Khan was featured in Britain’s “Remarkable Lives” stamp series.

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HRH Princess Anne standing with Khan’s memorial bust. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

While the British and the French honor Khan’s memory and claim her as one of their own, we must remember that this was a woman who believed passionately in a doctrine stressing the unity of humanity, the need for humanity to rise above artificial divisions, and the need to unite the East with the West. It is far more likely that, rather than fighting for any nation, Khan was fighting against oppression, against disunity, against artificial boundaries, and for her love of humanity.

And let’s be real if she was a dude she’d have a blockbuster action film starring the male equivalent of Freida Pinto out by now.

Historical Fiction, Historical Memory

For me, the Tudors were characters before they were historical figures.

There was the young Elizabeth, a victim of her father’s neglect, haunted by the knowledge of her mother’s execution at the hands of her father, taunted by her sister’s cruel remarks about her mother, a victim of her sister’s paranoia and the Seymours’ ambition. There was older Elizabeth, torn between her love for her country and the pressure to marry, besieged by the Spanish, both betrayed by and cruel executioner of her cousin Mary Stuart.

There was Anne Boleyn, the victim of her family’s ambition, of Henry’s desire for a son, the ambitious woman who destroyed Catherine of Aragon’s life and marriage, who bullied a young Mary Tudor and stole away her father. There was Jane Grey, a lone intellectual, the victim of her parents’ ambition, thrust onto a throne she didn’t want, a throne she would die for. And there was Mary Stuart, queen of a throne she barely knew, victim of an education she never received, ambitious plotter for the throne of her cousin, and victim of Elizabeth’s paranoia.

As I grew up, I began to understand that these people were actual historical figures, not characters with whom you could choose a side. But still, there was always a part of me which “sided” with Elizabeth and Anne, because they were the first characters I met in this sub-genre of historical fiction, and the first characters I became attached to (perhaps as a result of a childish form of nascent feminism). I met their fictional constructions before I was old enough or knowledgeable enough to confront their historical realities, and even when I was old enough, it was hard to shake off my attachment to their fictional counterparts.

But now, looking back, the way I related to these “characters” was so similar to how I related to the characters in Harry Potter (I started reading HP and Tudor fiction at around the same age). However, Harry, Ron, Hermione et al, for all their depth, were (are) fictional. Elizabeth and the rest weren’t, aren’t. The Tudors were real, complex, multi-faceted people whose actions had consequences on others, and who had a real effect on the course of history. Elizabeth wasn’t an unlikely hero. She was a brilliant queen who defeated the Spanish, shed more blood than her sister, began the English colonization of North America, embraced a form of religious toleration, and possibly refused to marry as a result of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of that “ambitious character” Thomas Seymour. And so forth down the line.

Now I must ask: is this dangerous? Is it dangerous to allow the persons of historical figures to be constructed through fiction? Is it dangerous to take a complex human being and construct them into the protagonist or antagonist of an ahistorical narrative? Is it dangerous to mold someone acting within a different moral/ethical context into our own conception of what constitutes right and wrong? Is it dangerous to construct a character with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one?

As a person who has (and still does) read a LOT of historical fiction (and not just about the Tudors) in her day, who has thought quite seriously about writing historical fiction, and who appreciates the genre as a means by which to get people interested in history, these are uncomfortable questions for me to ask. But the truth of the matter is that historical fiction puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure and their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.

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“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).

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Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

Fun With Historical Linguistics!

I’m sure all native speakers of English who have learned/attempted to learn a second language in the classroom (this excludes you lucky people who are native speakers of more than one language) have at some point thought to themselves “What is up with these gendered nouns? And why doesn’t English have them?” Now, in my fourth attempt to learn a new language (French kind of stuck, Spanish and Hebrew not so much), I finally decided to look it up.

Old English, a Germanic language, had a gendered grammatical structure. The transition from a gendered to a neutral grammatical structure began in the north of England as a result of repeated Danish, Norse, and Saxon invasions of/migration to that region. With speakers of multiple languages living in close proximity to each other, the dominant tongue of Old English and the new languages of the invaders/migrants began to evolve into a language accessible to speakers in all of the language groups. In these situations, the more complex elements of spoken language fall to the wayside, and, in this case, it was the gendered grammatical structure of Old English which gradually fell into disuse. By the eleventh century, spoke Old English was approaching a gender neutral noun structure.

But then this little thing called the Norman Invasion happened.

Any speaker of modern English who has encountered the French language can surely see the impact of Norman French (specifically Old Norman) on the language. In fact, if you look at English words, you will find many sets of synonyms in which one term is derived from French and the other from German. (And as a side note, because the Normans were the ruling class, even today the words in the set which are derived from French have more prestige than those derived from German. For example: mansion v. house.)

Norman French was spoken by the ruling classes and eventually developed into an English-influenced language called Anglo-Norman. However, this language never eclipsed English. While the ruling classes held cultural capital, they were a minority in the British mainland and were often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. This distance gave them no choice but to learn the spoken language of the people. Thus, while Norman French certainly had a gendered grammatical structure, the status of its speakers as a ruling minority negated the impact that grammatical structure had on the English language.

This move to the neutral gender truly took hold in the thirteenth century as speakers of Middle English, while still technically retaining grammatical gender, began to use the neutral “the” or “thee” as a pronoun.

By the fourteenth century, London English had shifted almost entirely to the neutral gender. Because this grammatical alteration began in the North, linguistically conservative areas, such as Kent and the Midlands, retained gender until as late as the 1340’s. However, by the 1400’s, English was a mostly gender neutral language.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.

The Mitfords

From left to right: Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), Diana Mitford (1910-2003), Unity Mitford (1914-1948), and Pamela Mitford (1907-1994); photo taken in 1935.

Deborah Mitford (1920-present); photo taken in 1940.

A few years ago, I learned that JK Rowling probably modeled the characters Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy, and Andromeda Tonks after three sisters from an aristocratic British family with fascist sympathies: Unity Mitford, Diana Mitford, and Jessica Mitford. The family was described by a contemporary as “nature’s fascists.”

Unity Mitford, the likely inspiration for Bellatrix, was in love with Hitler (who often used her to make Eva Braun jealous), and attempted to kill herself via a gunshot to the head when Britain declared war on Germany. However, she did not die until 1948.

Diana Mitford, the likely inspiration for Narcissa, married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, and left him in 1932 for Oswald Mosley–the head of the British Fascist Party. She and Mosley were married in 1936. Diana remained an unrelenting Fascist and anti-Semite until her death in 2003. Interestingly, Diana and Oswald spent most of their post-war life in a wealthy community outside of Paris, and their neighbors were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute

Jessica Mitford, the likely inspiration for Andromeda and lone Communist of her family, ran away from home in her teens to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She married her Communist second cousin, Esmond Romilly, at the age of 19; Unity once informed Jessica in a letter that, while she would not hesitate to kill Jessica’s Communist husband for the sake of Nazism, she hoped they could still be friends. Jessica and Esmond moved to America in 1939. He died two years later on his way back from a bombing raid over Germany. In 1943, Jessica married Jewish Hungarian civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. She spent the rest of her life as a writer, investigative journalist, and activist. She died in 1996.

Jessica during the Willie McGee campaign

In 2002 JK Rowling stated that “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics–she she was a self-taught socialist–throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.”

As for the three other Mitford sisters–Nancy, Deborah, and Pamela–Nancy was a prolific writer, close friend of Evelyn Waugh, and the first to cash in on (so to speak) the public fascination with her family. Deborah, the only living Mitford sister, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and has written a dozen non-fiction works. Pamela was, perhaps, the most low-key of the sisters; she married and divorced millionaire scientist Derek Jackson, and spent the later years of her life with Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi.

Though I only really focused on Jessica, Unity, and Diana and their politics, Pamela was purported to be a massive anti-Semite, and it is likely that the same can be said for Deborah (who once dined with Hitler along with Unity and their mother). There was also a Mitford brother, Thomas, who died in 1945 while stationed in Burma.

The six sisters kept in constant contact via letters, with the exception of Jessica and Diana, whose political views caused a permanent rift between them. They all had nicknames for each other, and Unity’s was “Bobo.” This created situations in which she would conclude letters to her sisters with lines like “All my best love to the boys! Heil Hitler, Love, Bobo.”

Boudicca: Rebel Queen of the Iceni

Deep beneath London is a layer of reddish-brown ash, with burnt piece of Roman pottery strewn about. Archaeologists call this “Boudicca’s Layer.”

This statue of Boudicca currently stands outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was commissioned by Prince Albert, and was completed in 1905.

She was queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in the early first century CE. Her husband Prasutagus ruled the tribe independently of Rome who, in turn, viewed him as an ally and left him alone. When he died he left the tribal land to Boudicca and their two daughters. However, the Romans—hostile to the idea of cooperating with a female ruler—chose to disregard his wishes and seized the land for themselves.

They raped Boudicca and her daughters to demonstrate their lack of power. In 60 CE, Boudicca retaliated. She rallied thousands, some estimates put the figure at 100,000, of Britons and sacked three Roman cities: Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (St. Albans). The ashes from her fire can still be seen in London.

Here’s a map to give you an idea of where all of this took place:

Once she had satisfied herself, she committed suicide with her two daughters to avoid being captured and further humiliated by the Romans.

Her actions persuaded Nero to install a more conciliatory governor in Britain, and her story was preserved in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.