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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 16, 2023

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Drawing Connections between Distant Events

One of the things I find most exciting about history is when I can find some underemphasized connection between seemingly unrelated things happening in far flung places. Here’s a few examples, widely ranging in how specific/general they are:

1: The Battle of the Shimonoseki Straits:

During the late Tokugawa Shogunate the rogue Chōshū clan started opening fire on western ships. This was after we had declared Japan officially open, so the US promptly sent a warship to battle the Chōshū and ultimately beat them into submission. What makes this interesting? It happened on July 16th, 1863, almost immediately after the Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, meaning that Lincoln didn’t learn of two pivotal victories that July but rather three. The scope of the Civil War was simply so huge that we entirely forget America was even both fighting and winning against foreign powers at the exact same time.

2: Spanish Silver in Beijing:

A lot of people know the story of how Spain mined so much gold and silver in Mexico and Peru that it caused them to deal with inflation, and played a role in their repeated bankruptcies in the sixteenth century.

Less talked about is the impact of the Potosí mines on China. After setting up their colony in the Philippines, the Spanish started buying up Chinese goods in exchange for their limitless supply of Bolivian silver, which soon flooded into China and came to replace their own paper currency. This created a critical dependency on problems happening on the other side of the world; during the 30 years war Spain halted the distribution of silver so they could ensure they had enough to wage the war. China, which continued to buy imports with silver, rapidly found its money base dwindle, as well as their ability to pay the military to keep order. Unfortunately, at the same time they got hit with droughts, famines, and various other calamities. How serious was the fallout?

taxes and foreign trade were paid in silver. In ten years the peasants who constituted the largest tax base for the country became four times poorer than before.

There were peasant uprisings. Li Zicheng raided Beijing, the last Ming Emperor hanged himself in the Beihai Park and the Manchu were called in to support the Ming and crack down on the rebels. They did put down the rebels, but didn’t relinquish the power and established themselves as the new Qing empire.

3: Stalin’s Two Fronts:

Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 in a secret agreement with the Soviet Union, but the USSR itself didn’t invade until September 17th. Why the wait? The USSR was fighting a totally different war over with Japan. The Soviet military leadership was in disarray and Stalin made the remarkable choice of replacing the commander with a little known peasant officer named Georgy Zhukov whose career had shot up mostly as a result of the purges taking out other officers. Zhukov ended up being a military genuis and turned the conflict around at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. A ceasefire was settled on the 16th and the USSR invaded Poland the very next day. Stalin was obsessed with avoiding a two front war and the question remains, if they hadn’t won such a commanding upset in Khalkin Gol, can we be certain the USSR would have proceeded with the invasion in Poland?

On the other side, the ceasefire meant that the North Strike faction in the Japanese military finally lost out to the Spread South faction, who pushed for Japan to rapidly proceed into Southeast Asia, where conflict inevitably waited with British Malaya and American Philippines.

4: Ghana, Sumatra, and Salem:

Back in the day the Dutch controlled part of Ghana and was allied with the Ashanti Empire, while the British controlled another part of the country and was allied with the Fante Confederacy. Eventually, in a well meaning effort to standardize custom duties and create space between the two countries forts so as to avoid conflict, the Dutch and English swapped some land around. Suddenly the Dutch found themselves controlling land with Fante, who did not like being their subjects, or having to deal with the Ashanti, who had been their enemy forever. With conflict flaring up, what previously had been one of the most productive colonies in the Dutch Empire suddenly became a huge pain, leading to the Dutch ceding it to the English only a few years later.

This skirmish between two tribes of under a million people each led to a treaty with ripples from West Africa to Indonesia all the way to North America. In Ghana it led to three more Anglo-Ashanti Wars, finally resulting in the full English conquest of the Gold Coast, which would remain under British control until 1957, with Ghanian troops fighting for the British Empire in places as far flung as Ethiopia and Myanmar.

On the other side of the world, in exchange for taking the rest of the Gold Coast, England recognized the Netherlands’ full conquest of Sumatra in Indonesia, which led to a brutal three decade war of conquest, and finalized Dutch control over the entire Indonesian archipelago, which did not become independent until 1949. This particular conquest also had further repercussions for the global spice trade because Aceh was the world’s largest supplier of pepper.

In fact, there had been a multi-million dollar pepper trade between Aceh and, of all places, Salem, Massachusetts. This was such a relevant market that Andrew Jackson sent gunships not once but twice to Aceh to take vengeance on pirates raiding the pepper traders. With the Dutch asserting full control over the industry and continuously raising trade barriers, the experience of being at the whims of European trade restrictions in overseas markets helped build towards American policy makers’ promotion of the Open Door Policy and even overseas colonization.

If there are any other interesting connections across distance or time, share them here! I’m an avid collector.

If there are any other interesting connections across distance or time, share them here! I’m an avid collector.

Is it safe to assume you're already familiar with James Burke's documentaries and books? They're mostly focused on causal webs with technological rather than military or political roots, but it's all definitely got this same flavor.

I'm actually not at all, anything you recommend by him?

Wow, I'm glad I checked, then! "Connections" or "Circles" are exemplary books, and "Connections" (again) or "The Day the Universe Changed" for TV documentaries. Looks like YouTube has a few of the first Connections episodes.

Thanks a ton, I'll definitely check these out.

Battle of Khalkhin Gol. A ceasefire was settled on the 16th and the USSR invaded Poland the very next day

ooooo, I was unaware of that!

nice find.

Glad to hear it, I almost didn't include that one because I wasn't sure if it was already well known.

The battle is well-known here, but the relationship between three tank-men and the invasion that led to four tank-men and a dog is downplayed in Russia for obvious reasons.

I'll be honest, I think I lack the context to know what you mean. The latter is a Polish show?

Edit: nvm I think I've basically figured it out.

Anyone who starts really getting into WW2 will eventually learn of Khalkin Gol. Zhukov's presence helps since he's everyone's first USSR general they learn about. But for the average person it's still obscured by several orders of magnitude. And even for the amateur enthusiast it's not exactly a clear "next operation after d-day, north africa, & stalingrad" type battle to learn about.