Monday, August 26, 2019

1325 – Mansa Musa’s Pilgrimage by Sea

Musa I, the tenth Mansa of the Mali Empire, continued the Muslim traditions of his predecessors: professing faith, praying five times daily, donating to charity, and fasting. None of the previous emperors had met the fifth pillar by personally traveling the Hajj to Mecca. Musa vowed to be the first, and he certainly had the resources needed to do it.

Musa is often referred to as the richest man in history. The Malian Empire had grown wealthy from the trade routes of the southern Sahara and the vast gold fields of western Africa. It expanded rapidly through warfare as well as exporting its law and culture to nearby regions, using taxes on trade and the natural resources of salt, copper, and especially gold to finance expansion and effective administration. All gold nuggets in the empire belonged to the mansa, building a tremendous treasury as the people collected nuggets to trade for gold dust or coins that may be used as currency, effectively allowing anyone to journey to the gold fields for work.

A pilgrimage to Mecca would be a difficult one of 4,000 miles across blistering deserts, but Musa became inspired to avoid them altogether. During his studies of the Q’uran, Musa read, “Hast thou not seen how the ships glide on the sea by Allah's grace, that He may show you of His wonders? Lo! therein indeed are portents for every steadfast, grateful” (31:31). Musa could only imagine the sights of God to be seen while at sea, since after all “Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth, and causeth water to descend from the sky, thereby producing fruits as food for you, and maketh the ships to be of service unto you, that they may run upon the sea at His command, and hath made of service unto you the rivers” (14:32). Musa informed his advisors of his decision, who began to work on a plan to meet their majesty’s wishes.

The journey north to the Mediterranean and then across it would indeed be much quicker than traveling by land. However, it would bring the king unnervingly close to violent Christian nations. Even if the planned fleet stayed close to the northern coast of Africa with its many Muslim harbors, its treasures would be an enormous target for the Iberian kingdoms fighting their Reconquista wars, the Italian city-states with their powerful navies, and the long-time rivals of the caliphs, the Byzantines.

It was suggested, then, that the king should travel south. Scholars had known for thousands of years that the entire world was encircled by a great river Ocean. In fact, Musa’s predecessor had sent two fleets of hundreds of ships to sail west to find Ocean’s edge and never returned. Rather than sailing west, the king could simply travel around Africa and up the Red Sea to make landfall near Mecca. The problem was, much of that corner of the map had not been filled in. On the west coast, ancient mariners had journeyed to dense forests where roamed men completely covered in hair. On the east coast, Arabic traders had long been in contact with Swahili cities. No one knew what lay between the two, however.

Musa built shipyards and dispatched advance ships to map the coast and make contact with locals to establish ports for fresh water and supplies. His efforts made Mali a new center of naval activity, drawing experienced sailors and shipbuilders from all over the Mediterranean and beyond with promises of exorbitant pay. In 1324, Musa himself set out in a fleet of hundreds of ships, stopping at the prepared places along the journey to tour Allah’s wonders and bless the people there. Along with markets in the west, Musa established mosques and universities, which became centers of local learning. Musa toured the enormous stone city of Great Zimbabwe as a guest of the king, who himself controlled the local gold trade and had much more interest in Musa’s gifts of salt than gold, becoming a rich new market for Musa’s merchants. The route took the mansa through numerous other great cities of the African east coast, where he left behind imams to teach on his return journey after completing the Hajj.

The ports established by Mansa Musa proved to be a great boon to the already-rich empire’s growth. Mali came to dominate the vast stretch of Africa from the Senegal River to the Niger with numerous colonies southward and their influence via trade route even further. Adopting the science and religion of Arabia, Africa became known as the Muslim Continent and a center of the world economy, although hit notoriously hard by the bubonic plague.


In reality, Mansa Musa traveled by land, following the established trade routes across the North African deserts. When his party arrived in Egypt, he was so generous with his gold (80 camels of his baggage train were each dedicated to carrying 300 pounds), that it devastated the Egyptian economy with hyperinflation. It is said that, returning through Egypt, that Musa was apologetic and purchased back much of the gold with goods to reestablish its value. Mali and other African empires would later be eclipsed by European colonialism.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

75 BC - Julius Caesar Slain by Pirates

Chaos in Rome during Sulla’s attempts to become dictator-for-life spread chaos throughout the Mediterranean world. Many Romans were driven abroad to wait out the power struggle while armies of defeated veterans sought mercenary work in a depressed economy. The lack of central authority in the wide sea caused pirates to prey on the sea lanes in hopes of seizing valuable cargo to resell or even a Roman citizen for ransom.

Such was the case of young Gaius Julius Caesar. Following his father’s death in 85 BC, sixteen-year-old Julius became the head of the family. Caesar soon gained a lofty position as the high priest of Jupiter under the administration of Marius, but when Sulla gained power, he fled Rome to join the army fighting rebel nations to the east. Upon Sulla’s death, Caesar returned to Rome and worked to restore his family’s fortunes through law. He was headed toward Rhodes to study oratory when Cilician pirates captured his ship.

Caesar proved to be a snobby prisoner. When they suggested they could get 20 talents (roughly $1 million in 2019) for the head of such an old family, Caesar laughed at them and demanded they ask for 50 talents. He virtually took command of the bandits, giving suggestions on how to conduct themselves and reassigning rations with better food. Finally he began telling the pirates that, as soon as they let him go, he would return with an army to kill them and take back the gold. One pirate had grown weary of the young Roman’s boasts and, in a misguided spurt of anger that cost the crew piles of gold, hit him across the skull with a wooden baton. Caesar died during the resulting seizure.

Rome was horrified when they heard the news. The Caesars fell on especially hard times and would never gain much prominence in the republic, though their friends kept the family afloat. The murdered ambitious young heir became a common trope in Roman satyr plays and Mediterranean literature in the centuries to come. At the time, the death of Caesar caused public outcry for safety at sea. Following his triumphant return to Rome from the Mithridatic wars, Pompey the Great launched a campaign that destroyed over 800 ships and eliminated pirate strongholds along the Asian coast.

With the sea safe again, the Roman economy surged. Pompey served as an effective leader after the troubled times, working to moderate political enemies and reform government corruption. He dealt effectively with rivals, such as Marcus Licinius Crassus, the famous richest man in all of Rome. Crassus, too, had an impressive list of successes with victories in the Servile Wars against Spartacus, although it was nothing compared to Pompey’s. He had spent most of his lifetime accumulating wealth with shrewd schemes such as buying up buildings ruined by fire, repairing them with his army of slaves, and reselling them at tremendous profit. He even sped up the rate of success by founding his own fire brigade and running with them to buildings on fire; there, he would offer to buy the building while still on fire and then send his men to put it out before any more damage was done. If owners did not sell, Crassus and his firemen would watch cheering as the building burnt to the ground.

Not wanting to deal with Crassus’s scheming in Rome, Pompey orchestrated him being dispatched as governor of Syria. Crassus used Roman military might in new money-making schemes, such as looting the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem. The seemingly boundless wealth of the Parthians lay to the east, but Crassus doubted that he had the forces to take such an empire since it had taken three wars to settle Mithridates in Asia Minor. Instead, he focused on trade. During his interviews with merchants and ambassadors, he learned that much of Parthia’s wealth was actually derived as middle-men in the trade with India and, even farther east, China with its mysterious shining fabric silk.

Working with Roman-ally king Artavazdes II of Armenia, Crassus became determined to cut the Parthians out of their trade on the “Silk Road.” Starting from Damascus, Crassus built a literal road through Armenia with ports on the Caspian Sea to lead to a new route north of the Parthian border. Crassus invested much of his own fortune in the quasi-military action, which was easily recouped once merchants eagerly began taking his route, cheaper despite the tolls and much faster thanks to Roman engineering. In Bactria, Crassus’s agents met with agents of the court of the Han, who were already working to establish trade relations westward after the efforts of Emperor Wu decades before. The Chinese were eager to trade for horses of the stronger western stock, and Crassus was happy to supply them for a profit.

Crassus became incalculably wealthy and in fact never returned to Rome, living as a virtual god in the east. Silk poured into Roman culture along with other Chinese items like noodles, which proved to store better than bread for traveling legions. Romans exported valuable metals and bondservants, bolstering the Chinese noble class. Crassus left behind a tradition of Roman expansion by trade, such as the trade fleet that journeyed south around Parthia by sea following the conquest of Egypt by Mark Antony and the clearing of silt from the Ptolemaic canals.

Along with the economic trade came the exchange of ideas. Chinese gods joined the Roman pantheon while arches and aqueducts fashioned with concrete were built across China. Confucianism became very popular among Roman intellectuals, who found its practice matched Stoic ideals well. Many Daoists adopted a form of the Socratic method, furthering their experiments in alchemy and medicine. Perhaps the most widely known adaptation is the magnetic compass, a Chinese divining mechanism that sailors in the cloudy north found to be a useful tool for navigation.


In reality, Caesar was well liked by his pirate captors, who thought he told great jokes. They were apparently surprised when he followed through on his promise to catch and execute them. Caesar rose to power with the conquest of Gaul, forming a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. Seeking military honors to match those of Caesar and Pompey, Crassus died in a misguided campaign against Parthia that would begin two and a half centuries of conflict and interrupt the flow of goods from the east.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Guest Post: Indo-Aryan Migration into Africa by Allen McDonnell

This post originally appeared on Today in Alternate History.

4,000 YBP, a branch of the Euro-Aryan migration travels southwest from the Fertile Crescent along the Mediterranean coast of Levant and floods into Egypt. At first, the new settlers are welcome, but before long they grow in influence. By 3500 YBP the migrants have spread onward into Upper Egypt further up the Nile river valley, and by 3,000 YBP, the migrants have spread into southern Sudan and the mountains of Ethiopia having followed the river valleys up into the highlands of east Africa. Because of their aggressive pattern and booming population, the Afro-Aryan migration reaches and conquers the region around Lake Victoria a century ahead of the Bantu attempts to migrate into the same very fertile territory. The Bantu are turned away and move on to occupy the Congo River drainage. The barley and wheat brought by the Afro-Aryans from their fully occupied Egyptian lands do very well in the fertile central African uplands, sometimes called the African Great Lakes region.

In the Persian Gulf and further southeast into the northern Indian subcontinent, their success is slower as the native population density is already significant by this time in history. The Afro-Aryan branch, once it penetrates south of Upper Egypt, comes into a lightly settled fertile territory inhabited almost exclusively by hunter-gatherer cultures. The agricultural population advantage allows the new Afro-Aryans to swiftly expand and occupy this 'vacant upland' in less than two centuries, first conquering and then genetically replacing the San and Pygmy populations that had existed here for millennia. Those who practice herding lifestyles soon occupy the vast strip of the Sahel prairies between the Sahara Desert and the tropical forests extending their reach all the way from the Atlantic Ocean coast across to the Indian Ocean coast.

Over the course of centuries, the settlers who invaded the uplands adapted to their environment in competition with the Bantu peoples who dominated in the West African lowlands of the Congo basin and the Atlantic coast. Both cultures competed to the point where their technology and combat capabilities let them maintain a low-level conflict on their borders without either side having enough advantage to evict or successfully conquer the other.

When the Portuguese explored the West African coast south of the Sahara Desert, they discovered that the Afro-Aryans held the coast south of the Sahara Desert, itself held by the North African Berber peoples. Then as they rounded the bulge of Africa they came to the lands occupied by the Bantu peoples that extended through the tropical lowland forest belts all the way south through Angola. When they got as far south as the southern Sahel, however, the situation reversed again with the Afro-Aryans occupying the tropical grasslands that encompassed most of the southern end of Africa. This variegated pattern of occupation and nearly continuous border-conflict between the different peoples created what the Europeans of the sixteenth century took as a massive opportunity. Spain and Portugal had claimed vast areas in the Americas, but neither had the population density to be strong everywhere at once, which in turn led to massive labor shortages. The solution seemed simple enough: by supplying first one side and then the other with arquebuses in different ports of call, they created local power imbalances that encouraged the different factions to raid their enemies. Those raids in turn led to captives who were easily purchased and transported as slave labor to the New World.

Slavery as a cultural practice had been part of nearly every human civilization from before recorded history even began, and nobody thought twice about the implications. The sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands and the mines in the mountains of South America needed laborers, and cheap slaves from Africa filled the bill perfectly. The fact that the Afro-Aryans strongly resembled Indo-Aryans because their ancestors had been living in a tropical environment for thousands of years meant the only distinction those slaves had over European-Aryans was effectively their skin tone and hair color.

In North America, occupation by Europeans France and Great Britain, with small colonies from the Netherlands and Sweden as well, was very tentative at first. Spain and Portugal had both grown rich and to an extent powerful from the wealth brought in by their colonies providing spices, precious metals and gemstones. The French version of this extractive colonization was to concentrate most of their efforts on the Fur Trade in the territory of North America under their sway. The Dutch, British and Swedes, while they were happy to seek precious metals and export furs, had other focuses, namely agricultural products like spices, especially vanilla, chocolate and allspice all of which were native to the Americas. They also grew sugar cane where they could as the profits from sugar as a spice-export were extremely high. Tobacco, while not a spice or a food, was very valuable agricultural export as the nicotine in its leaves caused a mild addiction to its users. Most of these crops were themselves very labor intensive, and once the idea of importing slave labor was accepted by the colonists in North America, a steady stream of imports began.

Rightly or wrongly, by 1750 the belief had developed in the now entirely British areas of the continent of North America that Afro-Aryan slaves were better suited to the climate of the continent while Afro-Bantu slaves were better suited to the tropical Caribbean islands where most of the spices were grown. As a consequence the variegated pattern of populations from Africa was sorted out in a similar stripe set in North America. In Central and South America, the Spanish and Portuguese had no particular preference as the life expectancy of slaves tended to be very short so whatever cheap slaves they could get they purchased. This is not to say no Afro-Bantu slaves were imported in the north, a great many were working out to roughly 20 percent of the total of enslaved persons.

Because the enslaved population included mixed race First Peoples, Afro-Aryans, Afro-Bantu, and European ancestry the concept of genetic rather than social superiority did not become the common definition. Indeed because First People/European and Afro-Aryan/European mixed-descent children came about frequently in early colonial conditions when the female European population was very limited it was realized that the grandchildren of such relations could (6/8 European) "pass for white". At the same time it was considered that for an Afro-Bantu mixed race person would only "pass for white" if 7/8 European ancestry. Of course, any sort of crossing genetic lines vastly complicated things. Add in that men with power over enslaved women, whether they were free or a privileged slave with a supervisory role would frequently take advantage of females they considered attractive resulting in pregnancies and such neat genealogies became purely hypothetical. Further complicating matters in the antebellum South around New Orleans, a large number of indentured European labor was also imported, particularly from Germany which was undergoing frequent political upheaval in the post Napoleonic war period.

After six generations of slavery with the constant genetic influx from supervisory males into the population, the average African American of the 1850's was not in any sense 'pure African blood'. In fact, a growing percentage of the enslaved population was approaching the 'pass for white ' skin tone and by any objective standard they were lighter in skin tone than that hypothetical blond Norwegian working in the tropical sun.

The American Civil War erupted in 1856 when the Republican ticket of President John McLean and Vice President Abraham Lincoln won the nomination and went on to win 151 electoral votes. By following the Lincoln strategy of going after the high population northern states like Pennsylvania and New York and counting on the fact that the New England states would automatically choose an anti-slavery ticket, they won a plurality. The southern Democrats had thrown their support behind the sitting president, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, in hopes that party unity would be enough to defeat the abolitionists but the issue of slavery was looming ever larger in American politics. Abolitionists had been arguing for some time that if a man with three European grandparents was 'white ' in the eyes of the general public that such a man being born into slavery was an affront to decency.

With the outbreak of the war, President McLean instructed the Army to use a 'color test ' which involved comparing the bare forearm of any applicant to a piece of tan colored cloth. Anyone whose skin was the same as the cloth or lighter was registered as a 'white ' soldier and entered the regular ranks. This method was used to test captured slaves from the beginning of the conflict and those slaves who 'passed for white ' were drafted immediately into service, where they served alongside immigrants fresh off the boat from Europe and backwoods farmers from all over the Northern tier of states. This standard was passed into Federal law in 1857, declaring that enslaving any person who passed the 'color test ' was both illegal and immoral and any such persons were already free even if being illegally detained by their purported owners. By carefully choosing the cloth dye used for the test President McLean ensured that half or more of the enslaved population were declared already free as an opening act of the war. As the war grinds on, this allowed the Union forces to capture and draft a constant supply of fresh recruits, avoiding the consequences inherent in drafting large numbers of immigrants and rural Americans. Drafting of former slaves along with arming, training, and treating them like European recruits causes them to be both extremely loyal and fierce on the battle field. By February 1859, the Confederacy is on its last legs with thousands of slaves running away to Union forces even when they know they cannot pass the 'color test '. To deal with this influx, President McLean convinces Congress to pass the Former Slave provision to the Homestead Act, which provides for any former slave to receive 160 acres of western lands provided they live on that land and improve it for seven years time. Accordingly these runaway slaves who do not fit the Army standards to serve in white regiments are sent west as quickly as new land can be surveyed and assigned to get them out of federal custody as refugees that must be cared for.

By September 1859, the Confederacy no longer exists. There are no longer any slaves to work the plantations as the drafted soldiers both think of themselves as white, and returned from service with their caplock rifles as gifts of the government for self-defense. The former slave holders find themselves heavily outnumbered by well-trained and well-armed men whom the Federal government extend voting privileges. The old European ancestry power structure is completely gutted. A number of former slave-holders who were particularly cruel to their enslaved persons find the tables turned when they are lynched or have their homes destroyed by organized gangs of vigilantes. The smarter ones quickly discover the option of fleeing the region to be the safest option and they do so. Those who remain discover that the new majority have quickly passed laws removing the rights of all former illegal slave holders to vote or serve on juries or in elected office. For several years, armed gangs from both groups seek to terrorize the other, but the clear majority of new armed and trained citizens inevitably eliminate their opposing gangs one by one. Many of the new majority legislatures in the former confederacy had followed the Arlington example and confiscated the former slaveholder property for failure to pay special taxes levied against them. The properties had then been broken up into parcels of 160 acres or less and auctioned off to the general public. Even in those cases where the former owners had managed to scrape up enough funds to buy back a portion of their lands most of it went to new owners, both former slaves and immigrants.

Tragically President McLean was assassinated three months after his second inauguration by a Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. In one of the last pieces of legislation signed by President McLean, it is made official law that Baltimore is the legal port of entry for European immigrants. President Lincoln rising from Vice President to lead the country in July 1861 finds himself in the position of welcoming massive numbers of northern Europeans into the USA in Maryland. Before this time the two ports of Baltimore and New York had competed for the immigrant trade, but it was felt by President McLean and supported by Vice President Lincoln that bringing fresh immigrants into the former Confederacy was the best way to erase the scars of the war.

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