Jonesing for a good Jamestown podcast?

Podcasts have never interested me much. I often find them easy to tune out and rarely feel like I have time to listen to one. Yes, I could listen to a podcast as I am walking around the neighborhood or making my way to work but that just seems so isolating. If there is a single piece of technology that communicates a complete lack of interest in interacting with other humans more than headphones, I have yet to come across it. Nonetheless, headphones are practically a necessity for anyone who works in an office setting and considering all the time I spend in front of my computer these days, I slip on the headphones almost every day now. In the interest of trying new things, I figured I would listen to a podcast rather than some random song on Spotify and visited my favorite new sites to find an interesting podcast. In the process, I found a great history podcast about Jamestown on the Curbed website.

Truth be told, I would not have figured Curbed would be a good place to find a Jamestown podcast. After all, Curbed is a news organization dedicated to mainly writing stories about mass transit, urban policy, and zoning restrictions, none of which seem terribly related to a failed colony in early 17th century Virginia. Nonetheless, the content creators did not seem too put off by this–much to my surprise, they actually had a pretty good raison d’etre for the episode–and I think listeners will find a lot to enjoy in the Jamestown podcast.

Prior to listening to the Jamestown podcast, I did already know some information about Jamestown. I learned about in elementary school (Blood on the River), I learned about in high school (AP US history), and I learned about in college (introduction to early American cultural history). As a result, a decent amount of the information discussed in the podcast was familiar to me already. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the podcast a great deal anyway.

Part of this deals with the narrator. I don’t remember her name being mentioned but whoever she is, she did a great job of making the piece interesting. Some narrators try just a bit too hard (cough cough, citylab) but I think the Jamestown narrator did a good job of threading the needle. Certain tidbits of information, such as the cannibalizing of the dead bodies, could have come across as needlessly macabre on an ordinary podcast but the narrator made this one of the funniest moments in the podcast. That may seem really odd but I challenge anyone to listen to her hypothetical about being cold and being hungry and then having to deal with someone licking blood off your face without finding at least some amusement in it.

Lest I give the impression the Jamestown podcast is all giggles and laughs, I should note it does deal with a number of serious topics, prejudice for example, and I would not suggest it to anyone looking for something “light” to listen to. All the same, I highly recommend the podcast to anyone interested in indigenous history, European history, or colonial history. The podcast has some great information related to the key figures in the Jamestown colony, as well as some of the lesser-known ones, and I think almost anyone who listens to it will come away better educated. And if y’all are anything like me, I suspect a great many of the people who listen to the Jamestown podcast will go on to listen to many more of the history podcasts in the Utopia collection. 

The Second Empress

For whatever reason, I have not been able to find that much historical fiction that deals with Napoleon. To remedy this, I recently read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran and enjoyed it immensely. Napoleon is known to posterity for his immense skills as a general, his dedication to restructuring European political systems, but The Second Empress takes a much narrower approach by focusing on Napoleon as a husband. To be fair, writing about Napoleon’s love life does not provide the most complete portrayal of him and readers who want a gripping, blow by blow account of the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Trafalgar should probably look elsewhere. Having said that, Moran does an excellent job of providing insight into Napoleon’s court and makes great use of first-person perspective to do this.

Whereas most authors who write in first-person tend to stick to one character, Moran opts instead to give us the POV of three different characters that are all written in first-person. Something like this could be very confusing, even if no chapter contains more than one POV and the order of the POVs does not change, but Moran rises to challenge with grace by giving each character a distinct voice. Maria Lucia, the Archduchess of Austria, loves painting and fine art and when we are in her POV, Moran often makes reference to the famous artists of the era or a specific painting technique that only a learned painter would know. In doing so, Moran reminds readers of the specific interests of Maria Lucia and makes her POV distinct from the other characters who do not think about how the sky looks as if it were painted in watercolor and oil.

Additionally, including multiple POVs allows Moran to explore a diversity of perspectives and develop more empathy for the characters that populate Napoleon’s court. While Moran does not try to condone Napoleon’s wars of conquest, Pauline Bonaparte’s chapters provide useful insight into Napoleon’s upbringing to help us understand his grievances and his motivations. Moreover, Paul Moreau’s POV helps us understand the human cost of Napoleon’s ambition. Paul hails from Haiti, a country that has been devastated by the French invasion, but his relationship with Pauline ensures he has a place in Napoleon’s inner circle. While Paul’s advice for Napoleon is often ignored, now and then Napoleon gently remonstrates Paul for his “obsession” with freeing his countrymen, Napoleon respects his intellect and takes him into his confidence on multiple occasions. Sometimes, this means Paul is roped into discussions about wedding decorations but on other occasions, it means Paul is roped into discussions about the feasibility of a military campaign against Russia. 

Owing to Paul’s lack of mention in the afterword or the historical note, it is very likely that Paul is an invented character, perhaps based on a real historical figure or perhaps included just to offer a different angle, but no reader should take this to mean that Moran cut corners when it came to research. To be fair, one can be forgiven for assuming that Moran invented certain details, like Pauline owning serving bowls modeled on her breasts, but as far as I know, this seems to be based on documented fact. Perhaps the best proof of Moran’s dedication to research comes from her familiarity with the primary sources. Many of the chapters are preceded by quotes from private letters and contemporary memoirs that are relevant as well as insightful. In addition to this, Moran provides a list of the biographies she considered “indispensable” so readers who doubt her research are free to check her sources. All in all, I think Moran has written a compelling novel that will appeal to anyone interested in Napoleonic France and while it does not provide much information regarding military matters, I think readers will find much to enjoy in the book anyway.

A Review of Harald Johnson’s 1609

New York has always been one of my favorite states to visit and I picked up 1609 because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the history of the place. There’s no shortage of historical fiction set in New York but I think the vast majority is set in the 19th or 20th century and I really appreciate that Harold Johnson tried a different tack by setting his story firmly in the early 17th century. Moreover, the story is told largely from the perspective of Amerindian characters which appealed to me on a narrative level as well as a historical level.

The protagonist of the story is Dancing Fish and we learn that early on that he is no stranger to tragedy. He loses his parents when he is just a child and constantly grapples with the guilt that comes with being a lone survivor. Nonetheless, he is fortunate to be accepted by the Manahate people and cares deeply about the well-being of his adopted family.

Consequently, the arrival of Captain Hudson and his crew, on an island now known as Manhattan, piques Dancing Fish’s interest. Captain Hudson and his men speak languages none of the Manahate have ever heard of and travel in ships unlike any they have ever seen. Determined to learn more about these strange people, Dancing Fish agrees to accompany them on a journey upriver.

After all, doing so will help him learn more about the inland nations and learn more about the people who have just recently arrived in his home. What he learns distresses him greatly and he quickly realizes that Hudson and his ilk have sinister designs for his homeland. Convinced nothing can be gained by staying with Hudson, Dancing Fish abandons ship after seriously injuring one of Hudson’s crew members.

In the process, he suffers a pretty serious injury himself but I think what I found most memorable about this scene was the interaction between Hudson and Dancing Fish. Hudson is confounded that Dancing Fish would want to abandon his company and entices him to return by telling him “our world is the future.” Hudson’s appeal falls on deaf ears and Dancing Fish responds by letting him know “I see only how you look to our land, to our animals, even to us. We are only for your using. This is not the way to be brothers in peace.”

In some respects, the characters talk past each other during this exchange and I think that’s part of what makes this scene powerful. Neither character can deny the charges made, Dancing Fish understands the Manahate are too few in number to successfully oppose the Dutch East India company and Hudson understands that he is more invader than savior, but neither want to admit this truth. Ultimately, they both seem to realize that dialogue is futile so long as their world views cannot be reconciled and relations between the Manahate and the Dutch East India company become irreparably strained. 

Owing to the emotional stakes of this scene, I imagine it is one that most readers will remember long after they finish the book. Having said that, I think there are some scenes that readers will remember for the wrong reason. The scene where Willow and High Limb first become intimate did not sit right with me, it made little sense from a character standpoint and validates a really awful way of thinking, and I wish the scene had been nixed since it has little importance to the larger story. For that matter, I do also wish 1609 had been a bit longer and I am glad the omnibus version combines the sequels because I think some of the sequels were too short to stand on their own. In any case, I enjoyed 1609 quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of European colonization of the Northeast or Amerindian history.

Take a chance on the new Chancellorsville novel

Ralph Peters is one of my favorite historical fiction authors still writing today. While I disagree with many of his political positions and think he has a bit too much sympathy for the Confederates, I have a great deal of respect for his writing abilities and his research process. I have read all of his Civil War novels, except for Hell or Richmond, and I think Darkness at Chancellorsville will probably be remembered as his best work. 

Like all of his Civil War novels, Darkness at Chancellorsville is a multiple protagonist novel that explores the conflict from the perspective of Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. Some of these characters are featured in his other novels—Meade, Sickles, and Lee for example—but some characters—like Jackson, Howard, and Schultz—have never appeared in Peters’ work. For the most part, the characters are engaging and lively and I can’t think of any character POV that I found disagreeable. Lest anybody accuse me of fanboy adulation, I should note I’m not a fan of all the characters included in the Battle Hymn Cycle. Neither Cobb nor Grant’s formerly enslaved aide brought much to the table, just my opinion though, and I probably would not have liked Darkness at Chancellorsville as much had these characters been included.

In terms of newcomers, Schurz’ character stuck with me the most. Peters’ has a penchant for including the POVs of fiery abolitionists in his novels and Schurz definitely fits the mold. Nonetheless, I think Schurz’ character was, in many respects, an improvement on many of those other characters. Some of this deals with Schurz’ backstory. A German revolutionary, Schurz saw firsthand how the 1848 revolutions of Europe failed and understands that kind sentiments are not enough to change the world. Whereas others might give in to bitterness and regret, Schurz resolves to fight on and travels to the United States to aid the abolitionist cause. Backstory aside, I think Schurz’ POV stands out because Peters’ does such a great job of capturing his frustration. Schurz and many of his fellow officers suspect that the Confederates are attempting a flank and bring warning to their superiors. His superiors refuse to take heed of his advice, or any advice coming from the “German quarter,” and Schurz is essentially forbidden from making proper preparations. Ultimately, Schurz’ warning proves correct and Jackson’s flanking maneuver almost destroys the Union army. 

When it comes to recurring characters, Sickles’ POV packed the most punch for me. I think almost anyone who has read Cain at Gettysburg, or just knows a decent amount about the Gettysburg battle, would not be inclined to extend Sickles a great of respect and I was surprised by Peters’ portrayal of Sickles. While it wasn’t positive per se, I think Peters makes it clear that Sickles did acquit himself relatively well in the Battle of Chancellorsville and gave good insight into Sickles’ thinking. Hooker made a serious error by ordering Sickles’ to abandon the high ground, essentially ceding the best artillery position to the Confederate forces without a fight, and Sickles’ contempt toward Hooker’s decision is very easy to understand.

The information goes a long way towards explaining Sickles’ actions in the Battle of Gettysburg and makes his tragic decision to disobey Meade’s order much more understandable. I doubt any agent or editor encouraged Peters to include Sickles’ POV in Darkness at Chancellorsville but I am glad he did as I think it will encourage readers to take a more holistic view of historical figures. To judge Sherman solely by his worst performance in battle, say Shiloh, would be unfair and the same holds true for Sickles. Sickles was by no means a battlefield genius but it’s very likely he understood that Hooker’s decision to cede Hazel Grove was a serious tactical error.

Unfortunately for the Union, it was just one of Hooker’s many tactical blunders. If we are to judge Hooker solely by this one battle, his command of the Army of the Potomac was an absolute disaster. Like McClellan, Hooker deserves a great deal of credit for reorganizing the army and improving morale. He had a great deal of talent for logistics but when it came to fighting, Hooker and McClellan both proved far too timid. Worse yet, Hooker was extremely rigid when it came to battle strategy. This made for a terrible combination as Hooker proved unwilling to go on the offense when Lee was vulnerable and discouraged his subordinates from adequately preparing for flanking attacks. As a result, the Union played a poor offense and a poor defense in the battle. Fortunately, the Union army was not completely destroyed in the Battle of Chancellorsville and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command a short time later, allowing the far-more competent Meade to face off against Lee in Gettysburg.

Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg gives more insight into this battle but for readers who are mainly interested in learning about the Battle of Chancellorsville, I would highly recommend Darkness at Chancellorsville. It is an excellent read and extremely informative, and I highly recommend it Civil War buffs as well as historical fiction enthusiasts. 

Seven Reasons to Read Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

I majored in history at George Washington University and had to read a number of history texts for my studies. Some of them were incredibly dry, like Death Valley dry, and rather forgettable but some of those texts hold an honored place on my bookshelf to this day. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest was definitely the latter.

There’s quite a bit I like about this book, but what I really enjoy about this book is the engaging prose. Matthew Restall is extremely well-versed on matters related to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, as one would expect for the Director of Latin American studies at Penn State University, but he never comes across as pedantic or self-absorbed in his writing. Rather, he comes across as conversational and earnest and I imagine there are a great many readers who could appreciate this. But putting aside Restall’s talent for wordplay, I think readers will also be able to appreciate the historical argument that undergirds Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

The answer will probably differ from person to person, but I personally believe the reason we study history is to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a great resource in this regard and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about the European colonization of the Americas, a monumental event that reshaped the global balance of power for centuries to come, or anyone interested in learning more about the way that history is remembered to consult this book. My strong suspicion is that readers who give this book a whirl will discover that the version of events they learn in school—whether it’s Cortes being perceived as a god or the idea that the locals were simply passive victims—bears little resemblance to truth.   

I have a very strong interest in the “Spanish conquest,” I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I am writing historical series on the subject, but I think the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The book explores a number of issues related to race, gender, and class that are still very much relevant today and since 2019 is the five hundred year anniversary of Cortes first landing in Mexico, I think the book is especially relevant today. But for anyone not convinced they should check out the book, I would like to offer seven reasons worth considering:

  1. It’s a good read
  2. It’s an informative read
  3. It’s an easy read
  4. It’s a short read
  5. It’s a timely read
  6. Reasons 1-5
  7. Reasons 1-6

If those reasons aren’t good enough, I suppose nothing is. In any case, happy reading everyone!

**This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries**

Benedict Arnold and Contemporary Attitudes Toward Treason

Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous traitors in all of American history. While I doubt there is any sort of polling on the matter, his attempt to hand over control of West Point to the British has inspired countless books and made him, for a time at least, “the most reviled person in American history.” So infamous is his treachery that some of his most important battlefield victories have been almost completely forgotten by the general public. I picked up John Enson Harr’s Dark Eagle because I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of Benedict Arnold as a historical figure and I am glad I did. 

Harr’s story begins long before Arnold turns traitor. To be specific, the story starts June 18, 1776. At this time, the declaration of independence has already been issued but the war is not going well for American forces. The Patriots have just lost a key battle with the British and are being forced to make a humiliating retreat. Brigadier-general Benedict Arnold has been tasked with defending the rear guard and to the surprise of many, he excels in the role. Owing to his many military contributions to the Revolution—the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, the tactical victory at Lake Champlain—Arnold comes to believe he has earned the respect of his countrymen. The men who serve under him certainly respect him—the men he serves under are less keen on him. Washington extends him a great deal of respect but many of the other prominent generals in the Continental Army, such as Schuyler and Gates, are more reserved in their opinion. Members of the Continental Congress are downright hostile toward him and many refuse to honor his many battlefield victories with a promotion. Following a particularly stinging rebuke from the Continental Congress, Arnold decides to resign his commission. Nonetheless, he is unable to just stand by as the British attempt to invade New England and rallies local forces to the defense of Connecticut. The British forces suffer some humiliating losses at his hands, but Arnolds suffers a serious injury that leaves him with a debilitating limp. Despite the injury, Arnold re-enlists and the Continental Congress grudgingly honors his many victories.

As far as Arnold is concerned, it is too late and too little. He has bankrupted himself to help support the Revolution and has nothing to show for it besides an empty title and meaningless accolades. His actions in the Battle of Saratoga proved instrumental in securing victory, a battle that ultimately helped turn the tide of war in the Revolutionary War, but none of that seems to matter to the Continental Congress. Determined to improve his financial situation, Arnold decides to use his position as military governor of Philadelphia to gain much-needed income. That would he use his official position to requisition items for personal profit is not especially unusual and, truth be told, it would have been surprising had he declined to do so. Washington was famous for not taking a salary during the Revolutionary War but that did not stop him from taking advantage of an expense account of epic proportions. 

All the same, some of the more radical members of the Continental Congress considered Arnold’s conduct to be nothing short of shameful and subject him to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation. Had he a thicker skin, or perhaps just more money, Arnold may have simply gritted his teeth and pretended the many slights of the Continental Congress caused him no hurt. Instead, he opted to share his grievances with his wife. In ordinary circumstances, this would not have been all that noteworthy. His wife, however, is no ordinary woman. His wife is Peggy Shippen and she just so happens to know John Andre. Owing to Andre’s position in the British military, Arnold is in a unique position to defect to the British cause.

Convinced that he will never be given his just due if he continues to fight on behalf of the Continental Congress, Arnold turns traitor and agrees to provide Andre information regarding West Point’s defenses. The intelligence, however, never reaches British command as Andre is captured before he can deliver it. Andre is hung and Arnold escapes to British territory. Still very much in possession of his wits, Arnold expects that he will command British forces and is heartbroken to discover that high command wants little to do with him. 

Ultimately, Arnold gains little by throwing in his lot with the British and continues to be reviled to this day. I think most people who read Dark Eagle will find it difficult to muster a strong antipathy toward Benedict Arnold. I hope that readers who enjoy Dark Eagle will also reflect on why Arnold inspires so much hatred as compared to other traitors. Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson killed far more Americans and did far less for their country while they still served in uniform–why do they have military bases and elementary schools named after them when Arnold does not? To be fair, Lee and Jackson did both serve in the Mexican-American war before turning traitor but even by the most charitable estimation, all they did was help expand American territory. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, helped America gain independence from Great Britain. Moreover, considering Lee and Jackson fought to preserve the institution of slavery, it is especially noteworthy that they are honored with so many monuments. Whether or not readers consider this worthy of contemplation, I think Dark Eagle will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written battle sequences and military politicking.

This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

In early 2019, I visited Mexico with some friends and we visited a number of historic sites with tour groups. Ultimately, I am glad we had guides to show us around and I think we had a richer experience because of it. Having said that, our experience with the tour guides was a poignant reminder of why it can be problematic to rely on just one source for information about historical matters.

Our first tour guide, a man named Gabe, set the bar pretty high when it came to tour guides. Completely bilingual, he was comfortable making jokes in Spanish and English and knew his script cold. It’s possible he was simply regurgitating company talking points and if that was the case, my hat goes off to the tour company for using talking points supported by modern scholarship. Chances are, however, Gabe gave us a speech he had probably written himself, considering all the personal tidbits he incorporated into his tour speech.

Gabe in the lower left corner

Right from the get go, he let us know he was not going to use the term Aztec, explained why he was not going to use the term, and then proceded to let us all know he would be using the term Mexica instead. While I cannot speak for the others in the group, I know that I personally appreciated his decision and his impassioned explanation. Moreover, I was very impressed by his ability to translate Nahua terms and his granular knowledge of artistic displays.

Xochimilco tour
Frida Kahla tour

The tour guide we had in Veracruz was not quite as impressive. Carlos employed far less humor in his presentation and never even used the term Mexica. Compared to Gabe, Carlos’ presentation was a tad dry and left a bit to be desired when it came to historical accuracy. Now just to be clear, Carlos was not a bad tour guide. He was very accommodating and had some great food suggestions—the restaurant, Villa Rica Mocambo if I remember correctly, he dropped us off at the end of the tour was so good we ended up coming back just two days later.

Quiahuiztlan
Picture from La Antigua

The main difference between Gabe and Carlos probably boils down to personal interests. While I cannot know for sure, I am pretty sure Gabe researched Mesoamerican history on his own and I am pretty sure Carlos just used the company script. Unfortunately, the company script probably relied upon outdated sources which ended up hamstringing Carlos’ ability to provide accurate information. By and large, Carlos did not say anything that raised eyebrows amongst other members of the tour group and I think that’s worth noting.

Cempoala

Owing to the research I have had to do for the Tenochtitlan Trilogy and my studies in school, I have learned quite a bit about pre-Hispanic Mexico. I genuinely enjoy reading books by the likes of Restall and Townsend and have a very strong interest in Mesoamerican history. Because of this, it was easy for me to tell that Gabe gave a much more accurate presentation than Carlos and I am inclined to believe that anybody who had Gabe and Carlos as tour guides would probably recognize that Gabe had a better understanding of the Spanish-Mexica war. Nonetheless, Carlos provides tours in Veracruz and Gabe provides tours in CDMX so I can’t imagine there is a great deal of overlap between their customers. Consequently, at least some of the people who were given a tour by Carlos never had any exposure to Gabe. It’s possible that all of Carlos’ tourists went out and read the most recent academic texts on the Spanish-Mexica war but I suspect that’s probably not the case. In any case, tourists who relied primarily on Carlos’ take probably received some bad information.

Unfortunately, bad information is not always easy to recognize. Sometimes a misleading narrative can be well-crafted—Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Shakespeare’s MacBeth are some great examples of this. So whether writing a historical novel or visiting a historic site, it’s worth noting that relying on just one source entails risk. Sometimes that one source can be someone like Gabe and sometimes that one source can be someone like Carlos. To know one way or another, it’s usually best to consult multiple sources and, all told, good sources are like good stories: the more, the merrier.