China’s Communist Movement


Perry, Elizabeth. “Rebels Meet Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Huai-pei” pp. 208-247 in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (1980)


In chapter six’s opening paragraph, Elizabeth Perry poses a series of questions concerning the relationship between battle-hardened peasants and the Chinese communist movement in the early twentieth century. She introduces her work by asking how these groups would relate: would they join forces or stand at odds with one another? Would peasants, who were so accustomed to fighting for their local interests, support or impede the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reform the country on a national level? It appears, as she introduces us to a multitude of peasant organizations, that Perry believes it depends on the interests of each group. Reactions will vary by organization because there are too many complexities of circumstance.

For instance, the CCP was most interested in gaining the help of the Red Spears society, which had millions of armed supporters and could thus have a heavy impact on the revolution. Although the CCP disliked the religious practices and other aspects of the Red Spears, they were willing to ignore those for the sake of the greater communist good. However, the Red Spears were totally loyal to their rich landlords of Honan (who sought to maintain their power and wealth), which sat at odds with the communist call for peasants to overthrow corrupt landlords. Potential for an alliance disintegrated over this issue, and even led to violence between the two groups.

So the communist party focused instead on the Bare Eggs society. Unlike the Red Spears, the Bare Eggs were what Perry calls a “predatory” organization, one made up of poor, unemployed members who suffer under that status quo. The Red Spears and others were “defensive” organizations, opposing redistribution of wealth. Therefore, Perry concludes, the CCP had much greater success with predatory groups. Indeed, the Bare Eggs sent hundreds of troops to join the Red Army.

Other barriers to CCP efforts included the Divine Strike Corps, which became a communist enemy because of suggested land reforms. The two sides also differed on their attitudes toward bandits. The communists wanted any allies they could get to battle the invading Japanese (though overall the bandits mostly posed a barrier to CCP success in the region), but the Divine Strike Corps opposed all bandits and aimed to punish and destroy them. Communist efforts at reorganizing bandits therefore displeased both the Divine Strike Corps and the bandits themselves.

The CCP did have some success when they realized that defensive (or “protector”) groups were more receptive to communist ideas. Groups like the Big Swords joined their side. However, Perry concludes by saying old forms of peasant violence were the greatest obstacle to communist success. They were able to have limited success with protective groups and great success with predatory ones. Essentially it was the preexisting interests of each group that determined if they would help the CCP, whether those be political, social or economic reasons, or something as simple as security.

I find it interesting that such a complex web of alliances, so to speak, developed. With warlords, landlords, communists, nationalists, bandits, the Japanese, protective societies, predatory societies and individuals all fighting and scrambling for support, if one allies with another group he is sure to inadvertently make a few new enemies.

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China’s 1911 Revolution


Dutt, Vidya Prakash. “The First Week of Revolution” p. 383-416 in China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913 (1968)


In chapter 9 of China in Revolution, Vidya Prakash Dutt describes the events of the Wuchang Uprising, which kick-started the Revolution of 1911. The author’s thesis is that the New Army was instrumental in the success of the rebellion; without army membership the effort would have certainly failed. Dutt’s purpose is to illuminate the steps taken that led to the army playing a major role in the conflict, and to reveal how that fact makes this rebellion distinct and remarkably successful. The chapter introduces rebels leaders, from the initial organizer Huang Hsing to the reluctant leader Li Yuan-hung, and chronicles the formation of groups that organized the movement, such as the Literary Institute. It also mentions multiple failed rebellions that preceded the one in Wuchang.

The author then describes the beginning and the end of the violence in Wuchang, when the republican forces wrestle control away from Qing soldiers. The differences Dutt found between this conflict and previous ones from China’s history are startling. Secret societies did not play a large role, power in Wuhan was given to an assembly made up of constitutionalists without republican leanings, and the army began crushing the Manchu city by city, until even the capital fell. It fascinating to note that low ranking soldiers, not their commanders, instigated the revolution. Dutt’s sources, according to the footnotes, include multiple autobiographies of participants and other documents provided by the victors, but also many biographies and secondary works written in the 1940s by various scholars. Based on the evidence provided and the excellent, straightforward writing, the author makes a convincing case.

I find it ironic that the Manchu almost bring about their own destruction. They send many students, such as Wu Lu-chen, to Japan for military education, where the students are exposed to radical, revolutionary ideas. The desire to survive in a modernizing, industrializing world will eventually come back to haunt the Qing leaders. I find that to be quite humorous.

I was struck by the fact that the rebels aimed to turn over power to those who were not even revolutionaries. To me, that is unheard of and somewhat counterintuitive. I understand that they needed a well-known leader, someone who could turn public opinion in favor of the rebels, but still. Li Yuan-hung was so hesitant and uncooperative; I am surprised the army continued pushing him into the leadership role for as long as they did. His conversion from a puppet to the actual leader of the Hupeh Military Government is equally fascinating, and something I would like to study further. Dutt does not go into much detail on how he changes his mind and begins working for the republican cause. To me this seems like a missing piece of the puzzle in Dutt’s narrative.

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China’s Self-Strengthening Movement


Debary, Theodore and Lutrano, Richard. “Moderate Reform and the Self-strengthening Movement” p. 233-249 in Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the 20th Century (2000)


In chapter 30 of Debary and Lutrano’s work, the authors offer several excerpts from primary sources to introduce the debate over whether China should embrace Western learning and modernization. Arguments for the self-strengthening movement come from officials who witnessed the Taiping Rebellion first-hand or leaders of provisional armies that brought the revolution down, such as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. These men saw the weakness of the Qing state during that rebellion, other revolts, and throughout two Opium wars; it was logical they would feel the need for reforms to bring China back to glory. Opposition arose from orthodox Confucians in the Qing court like Grand Secretary Woren, who argued that learning Western ideas of mathematics and astronomy would corrupt the Chinese people and would fail to strengthen the state. Though the courts knew as well as the generals how badly European powers could outgun them, they were more hesitant to modernize because Western education might replace traditional studies.

However, it seems to me that Woren, in his “Principle Versus Practicality” opposition to the self-strengthening movement, omitted that Westernizing threatens the power of men of the courts like him more than it might threaten traditional Confucian learning. Woren’s arguments come across as muddled, incoherent, and unconvincing. He begins by claiming mathematics itself is a noble subject, but turns around and says two sentences later that if Westerners teach it to the Chinese, the damage will be great. Is not math the same no matter who teaches it? He claims that there is no way mathematics can strengthen a nation during a period of weakness.

He then immediately and inexplicably jumps to Christianity and declares that his people are ignorant if they believe in Christ. His argument is weak and disjointed, which stands in stark contrast to the logic and reasonable tone of Feng Guifen, who suggests making Confucianism the foundation and building upon it using the example of foreign powers. Does Woren honestly believe that mathematics cannot benefit China? Does he bring up Christianity just to use a hated group to prompt sympathy from his audience? He is trying to link Christians with the self-strengtheners, make them one enemy, when they are not. Perhaps the subtext of Woren’s speech is that Woren sees Western teachings a threat to his power, as leader of the Confucian court. Perhaps, like a sorcerer might do, a Westerner could just as easily disrupt the government’s mandate to rule. Woren claims that nontraditional teachings will prompt the Chinese to ally with foreigners, barbarians. Woren might fear that what begins in education, a slow seeping-in of the West’s influence, might just spread upwards and infect administration and government. So he stands against reform. Those with power will usually try to maintain the status quo.

What struck me as especially odd about Woren’s opposition is when he claims that Christianity has fooled half the people. If I recall correctly, Christianity did not see conversion in such numbers in China. Is Woren simply exaggerating for effect, or is he misinformed?

Overall, an intriguing read. I have a bit of background knowledge on the industrialization of Britain, the rest of Europe, Russia, and the United States. I was aware that China began to fall behind in the nineteenth century, and I had been very curious as to why. This battle over whether or not modernization meant turning against Confucian teachings and traditions provides the answer.

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China’s Soulstealers


Kuhn, Philip. “The Roots of Sorcery Fear” p. 94-118 in Kuhn’s “Soulstealers – The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768”


In chapter five of his book, Philip Kuhn aims to examine the fears that existed in ancient China that preceded the panic of 1768. He describes the chapter as an exploration of Chinese sorcery in connection with the soulstealing crisis. Kuhn’s thesis is that two distinct fears existed that ensured chaos would stem from both the upper classes and lower classes of society simultaneously. The first fear, experienced by the common man, was that evil sorcerers would steal one’s soul. A natural event such as trauma could also sever the fragile bond between body and soul, but it was the terror of the supernatural that would be the spark for the great panic. The second fear, held by the imperial elites, was that sorcerers would disrupt the bond between the elites and the heavenly powers, weakening or destroying their mandate to rule. Like the popular fears, natural events could also bring about such things, but were not the primary concern.

Kuhn’s argument seeks to explain the coming crisis. These fears are the roots of the crazed witch-hunt and mass lynching in 1768. According to him, there is yet no detailed study of Chinese sorcery, so Kuhn is truly blazing his own trail in this book, rather than arguing against other scholars or building on previous research. Indeed, the reader will note no reference to other modern scholars within this text. Kuhn builds a convincing case from the ground up, detailing Chinese beliefs in the biodynamic powers of sorcerers, rituals of soul-calling, the use of charms and amulets to save one’s soul, and preexisting suspicions that builders, beggars, the clergy, and strangers in general were involved in black magic. He then dives into how these beliefs formed the two structures of fear than drove people to paranoia. He uses direct quotes from Dutch sinologue J. J. M. de Groot, Henri DorÈ, and writings of Chinese charms and counter-charms from the period. The exhaustive evidence presented powerfully supports Kuhn’s argument.

I had some knowledge of Chinese beliefs on the severability of body and soul, as it has been a basis for their religious beliefs involving honoring and worshiping ancestors for centuries. I found the stories at the beginning of the chapter most interesting; they served as an excellent hook and introduction to the topic. He also weaved those stories into his work here and there, making connections I had not considered. I was very interested in the body-soul connection to the well-known belief of yin and yang.

I was most surprised by the concept of involuntary soul-loss. That was unexpected. The idea that a sudden fright could make one’s soul break from its body was fascinating. Heavenly spirits and vengeful ghosts, along with the results of soul-loss (illness, sleeplessness, madness, death, etc.) were also aspects of this topic that captured my attention. The concept of involuntary soul-loss was not the main fear that led to the panic of 1768, but its belief was just as strong as the idea that evil men would steal one’s soul. It served to support and exacerbate the approaching chaos.

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The Division of the Ottoman Empire

On May 16, 1916, French and British diplomats put the finishing touches on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up the terminated Ottoman state into territorial zones controlled by the British, French, and Russians.

Negotiators George Picot of France and Sir Mark Sykes of Britain drafted the original document from November 1915 to February 1916, but Sir Edward Grey of Britain and M. Paul Cambon of France hammered out the portion that detailed the fate of the Arabs and their place in the British and French empires. The British aimed to carve up Arabian land that could bridge its European and Asian territories, allowing easy transportation from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and thus the crown jewel of the empire, India. The British further desired a French buffer zone between themselves and Russia, and wanted Palestine controlled by international forces to prevent a French takeover. France wanted a land bridge to Persia and the Mosul oil fields, as well as control of the Mediterranean coast and southern Turkey.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement reflected the British and French policy of partition adopted during World War I aiming to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. While they previously wished to maintain the “sick man of Europe” to recover debts, the war provided an opportunity to gain strategic advantages and vast amounts of territory and resources. The Agreement also exemplified the British policy of making assurances concerning Arabs it never intended to keep. It hints at preparing Arabia for one independent state, an empty promise already made by the British government to the Sharif of Mecca as justification for the ensuing land grab; the Anglo-French section begins by declaring: “France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and uphold an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States.”

Of course, the rest of the document made it plain the aim was actually to increase European imperialism in the region, as the powers outlined their right to “establish direct or indirect administration or control as they may desire” in their zones. Rights were given in the form of “priority of enterprises” such as commerce and shipping, control over ports, management of water, restrictions on railroad construction, freedom of troop transportation and goods movement, management of tariffs and custom barriers, control of weapons, and a ban on granting any other imperialist nation power in the Middle East. In the weak guise of fulfilling Arab hopes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement declared the heart of the Ottoman Empire belonged to France and Britain. The Arabs were outraged when the document was leaked by the Russians.

This was not a formal treaty, but rather a policy statement: a simple clarification of France and Britain’s goals and an arrangement that could satisfy both while keeping the other in check. Sir Mark Sykes was not even an official diplomat (he was a Member of Parliament), and while the negotiators had the backing of their respective governments, national leaders did not sign it. Its intended secrecy and the later embarrassment over its exposure suggests it was never meant to be anything more than a quiet, unofficial plan between two untrusting allies.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement changed the face of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire disappeared, replaced by European-controlled spheres of influence. Britain gained territory in the modern regions of Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and benefited more from their acquisitions than did the French. France occupied Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey. Palestine was placed under international rule.

The spheres of influence were later the basis for the mandate system, wherein a foreign nation developed (occupied) another until self-government was possible (yet in practice never granted). The development of the mandate system in the early 1920s would lead to the creation of the Middle East’s modern-day national borders, most determined without much consideration of the religious and ethnic animosities that would be suddenly thrown into a country together. However, the fight for Arabian independence would be long and hard, as foreign occupation would continue for decades after the borders were drawn.

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Griffin’s Book Recommendations


Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould

Punished by Rewards: The Problem with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn

The Bomb, Howard Zinn

Terrorism and War, Howard Zinn

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, Jonathon Kozol

The Historic Unfulfilled Promise, Howard Zinn

Give Me Liberty!, Eric Foner

Who Owns History?, Eric Foner

The Future of History, Howard Zinn

Liberty Defined, Ron Paul

The Revolution, Ron Paul

A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang

What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated? And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, Alfie Kohn

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Ronald Takaki

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, Howard Zinn

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell

Teaching What Really Happened, James Loewen

The Slave Community, John Blassingame

Black Boy, Richard Wright

Sundown Towns, James Loewen

The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad

Communism and the Negro, Max Shachtman

Savage Inequalities, Jonathon Kozol

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky

How Marxism Works, Chris Harman

The Seventeen Solutions, Ralph Nader

Declarations of Independence, Howard Zinn

Socialism: Past and Future, Michael Harrington

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky

Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World, Noam Chomsky

What We Say Goes, Noam Chomsky

A People’s History of Poverty in America, Stephen Pimpare

A People’s History of the World, Chris Harman

9-11, Noam Chomsky

Economics of the Madhouse, Chris Harman

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature, Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault

God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens

The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart Ehrman

The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins

The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant

Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, Tim Wise

Occupy the Economy, Richard Wolff

Wage-Labour and Capital, Karl Marx

Value, Price, and Profit, Karl Marx

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Agrarian Justice, Thomas Paine

Anarchism, Daniel Guerin

Race Matters, Cornel West

All About Adam and Eve: How We Came to Believe in Gods, Demons, Miracles, and Magical Rites, Robert J. Gillooly

Why I am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell

The Case for Socialism, Alan Maass

Why Not Socialism?, G. A. Cohen

Essential Works of Socialism, Irving Howe (editor)

The “S” Word: A Brief History of an American Tradition…Socialism, John Nichols

The Evidence for Evolution, Alan Rogers

Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright

Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, Goldin, Smith, & Smith

The Common Good, Noam Chomsky

Edutopia, Winston Apple

The Godless Constitution, Kramnick and Moore

Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn

Questioning the Millennium, Stephen Jay Gould

Social Studies for Secondary Schools, Alan Singer

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

The End of Faith, Sam Harris

Hopes and Prospects, Noam Chomsky

The Politics of History, Howard Zinn

Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Bertrand Russell

Godless, Dan Barker

On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy

Malcolm X Speaks, Malcolm X

What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank

Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois

Looking Backward, 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy

Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

Dear White America, Tim Wise

Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky

Guild Socialism, G.D.H. Cole

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Because We Say So, Noam Chomsky

Democracy Matters, Cornel West

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau

How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell

Free Will, Sam Harris

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens

The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris

Arguably, Christopher Hitchens

On Prejudice, Daniela Gioseffi

Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky

God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, Dan Barker

Mad in America, Robert Whitaker

The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, Arundhati Roy and John Cusack

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett

Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne

Global Discontents, Noam Chomsky

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff

Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky

The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

A Short History of Progress, Richard Wright

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Inside Animal Hearts and Minds, Belinda Recio

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Frans de Waal

The Four Horsemen, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett

Outgrowing God, Richard Dawkins (for young people)

The History of the World, J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad

Truth Has a Power of Its Own, Howard Zinn and Ray Suarez

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens

Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett

Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Is This the End of the Liberal International Order?, Fareed Zakaria v. Niall Ferguson

Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Hitchens vs. Blair, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair

Original Zinn, Howard Zinn

This Idea is Brilliant, John Brockman (editor)

Language and Politics, Noam Chomsky

Making Sense, Sam Harris

Love in the Time of Victoria, Françoise Barret-Ducrocq

The Inner Life of Animals, Peter Wohlleben

A History of the American People, Paul Johnson (review)

Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman

The History of Philosophy, A.C. Grayling

Thinking About History, Sarah Maza

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt (review)

On the Future, Martin Rees

Rationality, Steven Pinker


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KC’s Cathay Williams Said She Was a Man to Join the Army

Cathay Williams became William Cathay
And no one was to know
The secret of her identity
As a soldier she did grow.

So wrote Linda Kirkpatrick in her 1999 poem “Cathay Williams,” about the first black woman (that historians know of) to enlist in the U.S. Army — in the guise of a man.

Williams was born a slave in Independence, Missouri, in 1842. A grown woman enslaved in Jefferson City at the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, she was taken by a Union regiment and put to work, like many other slaves “freed” by the Army. She told the St. Louis Daily Times in January 1876:

[When] United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock…

Williams traveled through Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Iowa, and other places, serving as a cook and laundress. The war ended in 1865, but Williams was not done with the military.

Female soldiers being unlawful, she disguised herself as a male (she was tall, at five foot nine) and enlisted in St. Louis. She called herself “William Cathay” (at times spelled “Cathey”). An Army surgeon, whose job seemingly did not entail a thorough physical examination, declared her fit for duty. She joined the 38th U.S. Infantry, a black regiment (“Buffalo Soldiers”), on November 15, 1866. She remembered:

Only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.

What followed is believed to be an uneventful two years in the military. Williams marched from Missouri to Kansas to New Mexico, but likely did not see combat. She was hospitalized five times for various medical problems — joint pain, nerve pain, severe itching — but somehow was not discovered immediately. According to her, some ailments were faked:

I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees.

Then a doctor had the surprise of his life: “The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge.”

That was at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. Interestingly, neither her commander nor the surgeon mentioned anything about her gender in the discharge papers. The commander said Williams “has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.” The surgeon said Williams was of “…a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable to do military duty… This condition dates prior to enlistment.”

Whether these men were too embarrassed to admit a woman had pulled the wool over their eyes is a matter of speculation (though her “condition” dating “prior to enlistment” seems a wonderfully humorous comment on her gender; otherwise, one might ask just how a surgeon at a New Mexico fort knew her “feeble habit” dated prior to enlistment in St. Louis, where a surgeon declared her fit for duty).

In any case, Williams faced immediate harassment: “The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me.”

She served as an army cook in New Mexico for a time, then spent the rest of her days in Colorado and St. Louis. She was hospitalized again, and applied for a disability pension based on her military service. Her application was rejected. She died in 1892.

A monument for Williams can be found in Leavenworth, Kansas.

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Inconvenient Truths About the First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States (and Canada), a day to reflect on and be thankful for all we have, while delighting in childhood dramas of the First Thanksgiving, a feast shared by Pilgrims from the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth Rock and American Natives in the fall of 1621.

But how accurate is our collective memory of this event? How much is mythology and how much is fact, meaning the best conclusion based on historical evidence? And are we forgetting details that might make the holiday much more meaningful, a chance to celebrate both Indian culture and generosity?

Let’s consider some awkward truths about the First Thanksgiving. Much of this information can be found in Lies My Teacher Told Me, by historian James Loewen, which I encourage everyone to read.


There was no such thing as “Plymouth Rock” and no such thing as a “Pilgrim”

At least not by the diction of the time, anyway. The term “Pilgrim” was actually not in common usage until the 1870s. It is used today to describe the English Separatists, who broke from the Church of England. (These were not, bear in mind, the Puritans, who desired no such break from the Church.) The Mayflower had 102 passengers onboard, but only about 35 were Separatists. The rest were ordinary settlers seeking wealth and land in the New World, devoid of religious motivation for their travels.

The “Plymouth Rock” part of the story, that is, the exact spot where the Mayflower passengers supposedly disembarked, originated over a century after the event. Further, they made landfall at Cape Cod a month before going on to what would become the Plymouth area.


Natives saved the Plymouth colonists from starvation, despite horrific white-Indian relations…and still may not have been invited to the First Thanksgiving

In the winter of 1620, half the Plymouth colonists died of disease and starvation. They knew nothing of how to survive in this strange new world. One the other hand, Native American tribes developed half the crops on the globe today, according to Loewen.

Only the intervention of Natives like Hobomok and Squanto saved them. Squanto was enslaved by English invaders in 1614 and had somehow escaped from Spain and made it back to his Patuxet village, to find everyone dead of disease and war. Whites enslaved him, yet he took pity on the Plymouth colonists. William Bradford called him “a special instrument sent of God.”

The Plymouth colonists were grave-diggers. They ransacked Massachusett, Narragansett, and Nauset graves, taking anything of value. To the Natives, this was desecration. The colonists were also thieves, stealing Indian corn, beans, and other crops from the Wampanoags and others.

Nearby, the Europeans had already gone to war with Indian tribes, such as in 1585 when Richard Grenville’s forces destroyed an entire Indian village in present-day Virginia after one Indian stole a silver cup, or in 1611, when Jamestown attacked the Powhatan Indians for refusing to return English settlers who had joined the Powhatan tribe to avoid starvation; the English destroyed a village, slaughtered about 15 Indians, stabbed the queen of the tribe to death, threw children into the river and began “shoteing owtt their Braynes in the water” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).

Despite this, the Wampanoags befriended the Plymouth colonists. Though admittedly, according to Loewen, this was in part because the Wampanoags had been decimated by the plague and desired allies to survive.

In the fall of 1621, the colonists celebrated their first successful corn harvest, and may have invited their saviors and allies, the Wampanoags, to feast with them for three days. (They did not celebrate annually, though they did have a similar feast in 1623.)

However, some historians doubt the Natives were invited. Tobias Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, says his ancestors heard celebratory gunfire during the colonists’ feast, and marched to investigate, concerned their fragile peace treaty with the whites was on the verge of collapse. Vanderhoop says only when they arrived were they invited to join… and it was a “tense” meal.  

About 50 years later, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony waged war on the Wampanoags to seize their lands, and the Wampanoags were all but destroyed.


Was the First Thanksgiving actually in Florida?

Native Americans had a long history of celebrating the autumnal harvest before Europeans invaded their shores, and “both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.”

But even before the November 1621 feast of the Wampanoags and the Mayflower settlers, there was Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and crew, the Spanish who landed in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, held a mass to thank God for their safe voyage, and feasted with the local Timucua.

There is also some evidence of a “thanksgiving to God” at Baffin Island, Canada between Englishmen and Natives in 1578.

The English celebrated a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God” on December 4, 1619, without any Natives, when 38 British settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred on the James River. The Spanish may have similarly celebrated by themselves at San Elizario on the Rio Grande, in present-day Texas, in 1598.

In any case, days of thanksgiving became common practice in the New England colonies.

The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.

The Continental Congress set aside a few days a year during the American Revolution for thanksgiving, George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, Sarah Josepha Hale (creator of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) campaigned from the 1820s to the 1860s for a national holiday, and Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day in 1863, the most dire year of the Civil War, “when the Union needed all the patriotism such an observance might muster.”

Not until the 1890s did the feast of the Plymouth settlers and Wampanoags become part of the modern American tradition.


English settlers were most thankful for the plague

Native American peoples, their immune systems unprepared for European diseases, died by the millions. Smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, and so on, began wiping out entire tribes as soon as the invaders arrived in the Americans in the late 15th century. 90% of the original Indians in New England died from disease.

While this is well-known, less known is how it delighted New England settlers. Today religious Americans give thanks for God for all they have on Thanksgiving; the prayers of our forefathers were far more disturbing.

William Bradford, a founder of the Plymouth colony, wrote, “It pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial…” He described the Indians with small pox:

[T]hey fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on. When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold. And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep.

John Winthrop, governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony that came after the Plymouth colony, called the Native American epidemic “miraculous,” writing, “But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox… God hath thereby cleared our title to this place…”

Speaking of a land dispute in 1631, Puritan minister Increase Mather said, “God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians. Whole towns of them were swept away, in some of them not so much as one Soul escaping Destruction.”  

This view laid a firm foundation for the enduring American belief that the formation and success of the United States was God’s will, no matter how many other people were killed or cultures destroyed in the process.

Meanwhile, Native Americans have held a National Day of Mourning on the final Thursday of November since 1970.

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What the Guy Fawkes Mask and Confederate Flag Have in Common

The appropriation of symbols is interesting indeed.

Today being the fifth of November, much attention will be paid to the Guy Fawkes mask, popularized in the U.S., like the “Remember, Remember” rhyme, by the 2006 film V for Vendetta, in which a vigilante wearing the mask battles to overthrow a fascist dictatorship in Britain in a dystopian future.

The vigilante is the protagonist, murderous toward his enemies but compassionate toward his friends, with enough humanity to allow the British Parliament building time to empty before he blows it up.        

Since the film, the Fawkes mask has become a symbol of anti-government resistance, used by the hacker group Anonymous, which publicizes State secrets, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which opposes how corporations and the wealthy control the State, and popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Asia.

Of course, there exists a serious disconnect between the modern use of this symbol and the historical person on whom it is based, as I will explain. The dichotomy reminds me, actually, of the appropriation of the Confederate flag and the embarrassingly anhistorical justification of its use.

It’s an interesting comparison because on the one hand we have a symbol that might be associated with the most radical of leftists, and on the other a symbol usually associated with the far right.

After a young white racist tried to spark a “race war” by massacring nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, fierce debate over the Confederate flag (which the shooter displayed in his personal life) shook the U.S. It led to the removal of many Confederate flags from government buildings in the traditional South.  

The debate over the flag was fierce. True, flying the Confederate flag doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, but it is a racist symbol regardless. These things are in no way mutually exclusive.

Many whites who fly it likely do carry conscious anti-black prejudice (nearly all whites have subconscious biases), but surely not all, in the same way many whites who use “nigger” are racist, but not necessarily all of them (Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, by Randall Kennedy, explores this).

So we have non-racists who fly the flag, actual racists who fly the flag, and progressives who despise the flag.

Regarding the first of these, American whites (and even blacks) who display the Confederate flag say liberals who hate the flag (and actual racists who love it) are misrepresenting it, that it really represents “heritage, not hate.”

This is somewhat vague. By heritage, I suppose this means all Southern culture, tradition, and history besides slavery, insurrection, Jim Crow laws, white terrorism, lynching, etc. In reality, it’s only these non-racists who fly the flag that misrepresent it (appropriate it), in a “positive” way: ignoring its white supremacist origins. They are sugarcoating, whitewashing it.

It is well-known that the symbol originated as a battle flag for traitorous states that sought to preserve black slavery, and was popularized by a white terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, after the war. According to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s

…foundations are laid…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…   

The creator of the flag (which originally had the stars and bars in the corner, the rest white) was quoted in the Daily Morning News on April 23, 1863 as saying:

As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

It’s nonsense to claim progressives or actual bigots misrepresent its true meaning. It has evolved to mean something else, something benign, for some whites, which absolves them of blatant racism but also threatens to breed historical amnesia.

The Guy Fawkes mask is a similar story.

Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist who, along with co-conspirators, tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Unlike the hero of V for Vendetta, he did not seek to destroy an empty building. He and his companions wanted to assassinate King James I, a Protestant, no matter how many innocent people died beside him. The plot was uncovered in time and Fawkes was executed.

It was an act of religious and political terrorism, as Fawkes opposed decades of persecution of Catholics by the British royal family, a small act in an era of unspeakable religious violence, both within European nations and between them.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others broke from the Roman Catholic Church to create a more “pure” Christianity. Northern Europe became dominated by Protestant states (like Britain), Southern Europe by Catholic states. Central Europe (primarily Germany) plunged into violence that lasted more than a century. Torture was widely used. It all then culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated Europe and killed some 8 million people.

Perhaps one will justify Fawkes’ actions as being acceptable because of State oppression of Catholics (predictably, a justification more likely if the one making it is Catholic). Yet I wonder if one would say the same of a Sunni terrorist attempting to assassinate an oppressive Shiite ruler in a Middle East nation, an attempt that would massacre innocent bystanders. Would one not be quick to call that terrorism?

The Fawkes mask is a symbol of the violence bred by religion–both State violence against a minority religious group, and group violence against the State out of revenge. It symbolizes violence as the answer to religious conflict.

I support the actions of the groups mentioned above that today wear the Fawkes mask. Yet like the Confederate flag, their symbol should be buried. Why would decent human beings hold a flag created to represent the superiority of the white race, or wear a mask of a religious terrorist willing to kill innocent people to get to one enemy?

Put bluntly, it’s because they do not study history.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

If you won’t give me one,

I’ll take two,

The better for me,

And the worse for you.

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,

A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,

A pint of beer to wash it down,

And a jolly good fire to burn him.

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!

Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

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Christopher Columbus’ Genocide

A handful of American cities in the U.S. have abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Apparently some think it makes more sense to celebrate the history and culture of Native Americans than the mass murderer who launched the campaign that nearly exterminated them.

As documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, when Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 and was greeted by Arawak Indians with food and gifts, he wrote in his journal, “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…they would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And so the Atlantic slave trade began. Columbus, noticing the gold ornaments the Arawaks wore on their ears, took several aboard his ships as prisoners to extract information from them.

After all, Columbus’ mission was not one of simple exploration and discovery. His mission was to find gold and spices in Asia. In return, Spain promised him governorship over all the lands he discovered, the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and 10% of all profits from the loot.

Columbus, moving from the Bahamas to what is now Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, sent several dozen Indians as slaves back to Spain in February 1494. In 1495, he rounded up 1,600 Indians in Haiti, selected the 550 “best males and females,” and sent them to Spain as slaves; two hundred died during the voyage. The remainder of the 1,600 back in the New World were handed out as slaves to his men.

Columbus, like the European invaders of the Americas that followed him, justified his atrocities with religious platitudes, saying, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Indians were also rounded up and put to work on New World plantations called encomiendas. The death toll was catastrophic, and many women were raped.

After an Indian woman “treated me with her finger nails” because “she did not want it,” one Spaniard said, “I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams…” The woman then complied like she had “been brought up in a school of harlots.”

Columbus gave sex slaves to his men, saying girls “from nine to ten are now in high demand.”  

As it became clear that gold was in very limited supply on these Caribbean Islands (quite the opposite of what Columbus told the king and queen of Spain), Columbus grew more brutal.

All Arawaks over fourteen were ordered to collect a specific amount of gold every three months. Those that did not (and most could not) had their hands cut off, and left to bleed to death. Indians who fled were hunted down with dogs, who devoured them alive.

Dogs were also used when the invaders participated in monteria infernal: hunting Indians for sport.

Indians tried to mount a defense against Columbus, but were wiped out. They had no iron, no guns, no horses. Prisoners taken by the Spanish were hanged or burned to death.

A Spanish priest, Bartolemè de las Casas, wrote that Columbus’ men “thought nothing of knifing Indians by the tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” He saw two soldiers decapitate two Indian boys “for fun.”

He wrote, “They attacked towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women…cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse.”

Many Arawaks committed suicide with cassava poisoning, and parents killed their babies to keep them away from Columbus. The invaders “took infants from their mothers’ breasts…pitching them headfirst against the crags or…threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter.”

After two years on Haiti, half of the estimated 250,000 original inhabitants were dead. By 1515, there were about 50,000 left. By 1550, 500. By 1650, they had been exterminated completely for a long time.

Las Casas estimated that by 1508, “over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?”

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