Serendipity: London 1665 Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague in London

As bad as the coronavirus is. it is nothing compared to the Bubonic plague. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published a superb work of reportage about the 1665 Bubonic plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year. At the actual time of the plague, Defoe was only five years old; so it is actually a carefully researched work of fiction.

It was known to us all that abundance of poor despairing creatures who had the distemper upon them, and were grown stupid or melancholy by their misery, as many were, wandered away into the fields and Woods, and into secret uncouth places almost anywhere, to creep into a bush or hedge and die.

The inhabitants of the villages adjacent would, in pity, carry them food and set it at a distance, that they might fetch it, if they were able; and sometimes they were not able, and the next time they went they should find the poor wretches lie dead and the food untouched. The number of these miserable objects were many, and I know so many that perished thus, and so exactly where, that I believe I could go to the very place and dig their bones up still; for the country people would go and dig a hole at a distance from them, and then with long poles, and hooks at the end of them, drag the bodies into these pits, and then throw the earth in from as far as they could cast it, to cover them, taking notice how the wind blew, and so coming on that side which the seamen call to windward, that the scent of the bodies might blow from them; and thus great numbers went out of the world who were never known, or any account of them taken, as well within the bills of mortality as without.

This, indeed, I had in the main only from the relation of others, for I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of their cases, for whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away; yet I believe the account is exactly true.

Smoking Was Considered a Way to Avoid the Plague

As this puts me upon mentioning my walking the streets and fields, I cannot omit taking notice what a desolate place the city was at that time. The great street I lived in (which is known to be one of the broadest of all the streets of London, I mean of the suburbs as well as the liberties) all the side where the butchers lived, especially without the bars, was more like a green field than a paved street, and the people generally went in the middle with the horses and carts. It is true that the farthest end towards Whitechappel Church was not all paved, but even the part that was paved was full of grass also; but this need not seem strange, since the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used but to carry sick people to the pest-house, and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians to such places as they thought fit to venture to visit; for really coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last, and sick, infected people were, as I have said, ordinarily carried in them to the pest-houses, and sometimes people expired in them as they went along.

 

 

The Old World and the New

Columbus’s Landing on San Salvador in 1492

Because of my extensive travels in Latin America, I have become interested in the subject of how the discovery of the New World impacted on Europe. Due to the circumstances of my Coronavirus related social distancing, I have been reading up a storm. One thin book I noticed in my history collection was J. H. Elliott’s The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

The discovery of America was such a big event with so many aspects to it that Europeans had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. Even though so much of the economy of Spain and the rest of Europe was affected by the flood of gold and silver brought to Seville by the treasure fleets, and even though so many new foods and social habits (smoking) spread across the continent, Europeans were somewhat nonplussed for the first couple of centuries after the conquest.

Elliott quotes 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to summarize the effect:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne speculated on the Brazilian natives through the eyes of the Greek philosophers:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Sometimes, I still think that Europeans still are trying to wrap their heads around the New World.

 

The Gifts of Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885)

The growth of Los Angeles was by no means a sure thing. In the mid-1830s, Richard Henry Dana described the area when the ship he was on landed near San Pedro for a cargo of animal hides. The description comes from Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water. As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, at it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt. When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking-apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging-place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it. They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and fríjoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo.

Even then, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was the center of the hide trade, but it lay more than a day’s journey from the port of San Pedro. Dana adds:

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,— the largest town in California,— and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.

 

Phineas Banning’s House in Wilmington

Fortunately for Southern California, there was a recent settler from Wilmington, Delaware, named Phineas Banning who ran a stage line and had definite ideas for turning Los Angeles in a port city. His house in Wilmington, California, was during the 1860s right up against a gigantic marsh. Banning decided to have the marsh filled in and a breakwater constructed off San Pedro so that vessels can load and unload at San Pedro in relative safety. In addition, he arranged for the railroad to come down to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Ironically, it was a transportation accident that snuffed out the life of the transportation genius who made L.A. into a major city: He was run over by a horse and carriage in the street and died soon after of the injuries sustained in the accident.

Today, Banning’s house is a fascinating museum of life in 19th century Southern California. Martine and I visited it on Saturday for the first time in several years.

War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

Visiting L.A. History

The Ranch House at Rancho Los Alamitos

Over the last year or so, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old adobes that were associated with the Spanish and Mexican land grants into which the arable land of Los Angeles had been subdivided. These have included:

  • Centinela Adobe in Westchester
  • Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum in Rancho Dominguez
  • Leonis Adobe Museum in Calabasas
  • Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino
  • Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier
  • Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens in Long Beach
  • Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site in Long Beach

Of these, the most spectacular have been the Leonis Adobe and Rancho Los Alamitos, both of which have substantially larger budgets and more well-developed exhibits than the others.

When one has visited a number of these adobes, a pictures emerges of an agrarian life of herding sheep and cattle and of a few widely-separated ranches, mostly far from the Pueblo of Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (a.k.a. downtown Los Angeles), which was founded in 1781. In the years that followed, the map of Southern California was broken into large land grants:

Spanish Land Grants in the San Gabriel Valley

Small wonder that there are so many Spanish place names in L.A.! The land that was not part of a Spanish or Mexican land grant was either a town site, mountains, or desert.

Rancho Los Alamitos, which Martine and I visited today was surrounded by lush gardens of carefully chosen trees, flowers, and succulents.On the grounds is a deep artesian well that helped the land stay productive for agriculture for well over a century and a half.

Part of the Los Alamitos Gardens

It is also by far the most liveable of the adobes we have visited. For one thing, the original 19th century adobe structure was substantially added to. Unlike most adobes which are sparsely furnished with miscellaneous items that were never meant to coexist in the same room, at Los Alamitos we have the original furniture, library, kitchen appliances, including some pieces actually crafted by carpenter John Bixby, one of the original inhabitants.

Rancho Los Alamitos is a place of beauty which we will visit again.

 

 

Curse Tablets

The Ancients Had Some Interesting Practices

According to a Dutch scholar named H. S. Versnel, the ancient Greeks had a practice involving the creation of “curse tablets.” In Memphis in the fourth century BC, the following curse was left etched into a tablet at the Temple of Oserapis:

O Lord Oserapis and you gods who sit enthroned together with Oserapis, to you I direct a prayer, I, Artemisia … against the father of my daughter, who robbed her of her death gifts (?) and of her coffin … Exactly in the way that he did injustice to me and my children, in that way Oserapis and the gods should bring it about that he be not buried by his children and that he himself not be able to bury his parents. As long as my accusation against him lies here, may he perish miserably, on land or sea….

Now these curse tablets were typically made of lead with the curse scratched onto their surface. Although I cannot wish death to the man I most ardently hate (whose visage is caricatured below) there are certain things I can say without bringing the Secret Service to my doorstep.

The Object of My Own Curse Tablet

May his bucket of chicken contain gristle that rots his fundament. May his fingers that would fly over his cellphone in a Twitter fury come out as utterly incomprehensible covfefe—at all times. May his followers discard their red MAGA hats out of shame, and may he be buried with a large streamer of toilet paper adhering to his shoes. May his real estate investments come to naught and his billions all turn out to have been illusory. May he be laughingly turned down by women he does not regard as beautiful and forget what his original urge was all about.

 

 

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.