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Not Your Father’s World History Part 8:
“Jamestown settlers... ran amok.”

11 November 2005

Sultan Suleyman
Süleyman the Magnificent

Curious Article No. 17:

The Ottoman Empire enjoyed the height of its power in the early 1500s under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent who ruled from Constantinople’s legendary Topkapi Palace. He held sway over two million square miles (5.5 million square km) from the Persian Gulf west to Morocco and from Nubia to the Caucasus. Normally in those days all of a sultan’s male heirs were equally eligible to succeed him and had to have one another garroted with silk bowstrings until only one remained. But as Sultan Selim I’s only son, Süleyman had been spared this colorful mayhem.

As Sultan he welcomed Christians and Jews alike into his realm, a world-class showcase of architecture and learning, and flouted tradition further by elevating a Slavic girl named Rokselana above his other 300-odd concubines and making her his principal wife. With Süleyman's death in 1566 the Empire began its decline but lasted until 1922. Ayse Rabia Nami, great granddaughter of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1876-1909), auctioned off many of her dynasty’s personal belongings such as diaries, brocaded clothing, photographs and palace furnishings in March of 2005.

Although Portuguese navigators had been poking around Australia since at least the mid 1500s, in March 1606 Willem Janszoon and Jan Lodewijkszoon van Rosingeyn recorded the first official discovery of the continent as far as Europe was concerned by making landfall at Cape York Peninsula and charting its western coast. Four months later Spaniard Luis Torres crept through Torres strait, the treacherous reef-infested shallows between Cape York and New Guinea.

Amongst those reefs lie about 140 small plots of land which for millennia had been inhabited by aboriginals called Torres Islanders who, like the Maori, are of Polynesian stock. Until about 13,000 years ago the strait had been a land bridge. Rising sea levels combined with one or more catastrophic tsunamis (judging by Australian Aboriginal legend) submerged it under thirty or so feet (10 meters) of water. Ever since that time there had been maritime trade in dried sea cucumber alternating with conflict between the New Guineans, Torres Islanders and northern Australian Aborigines. The latter tell us that the Bugis, who nowadays dominate the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and later the Makassans from the same area, also took part. So to human beings, at least, Australia has never really been isolated.

The first barrels of cured tobacco reached England from Virginia in 1614, spawning the establishment of some 7000 smoke shops in and around London — about one for every thirty residents. By this time virtually the whole of the Old World had fallen into tobacco’s grip. England’s King James I found this trend quite alarming and wrote a frequently quoted polemic against it, but ultimately threw in the towel because the stuff was so darn profitable.

Alexis I
No-Smoking Tsar
Alexis I
For smokers, Pope Urban VIII threatened excommunication; China’s Emperor Chongzhen and Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, beheading; and Russia’s Tsar Alexis I, whipping and banishment to Siberia. Tobacco belongs to the nightshade family, as does tomato, potato, eggplant, chili pepper, mandrake, belladonna and jimson weed. All of these contain nicotine and other alkaloids. Belladonna was popular in Italy and Spain among fashionable women wishing make their pupils dilate, which they thought made them more alluring; and jimson weed got its name from Jamestown where settlers tried to make a food of it and ran amok with hallucinations. Both are very dangerous.

Each year tobacco kills about five million people, or almost three times as many as warfare and its concomitant atrocities. Everybody knows about the gooey tar, of which a typical cigarette smoker annually inhales a quart or so. But far more insidiously the smoke also delivers ultrafine radioactive dust, especially from American tobaccos whose growers use apatite fertilizer. This dust consists of radium and its decay products lead-210 and polonium-210, all gravely injurious and believed responsible for most of the cancers. South Korean men record among the world’s highest smoking rates at about 75%; Saudi Arabian women are the most abstemious at virtually zero. Fred and Barney smoked Winstons on the air during the first few seasons of the Flintstones cartoon series. Many or most of our tonier young female celebrities puff away, even at this late date, presumably to stay svelte.

The sun did something weird between 1645 and 1715. Ever since Galileo announced his discovery of sunspots in 1613 his supporters had been keeping tabs on them. But by the mid 1600s the spots had all but disappeared. Simultaneously, Europe and North America suffered unusually cold winters. The Thames and New York Harbor regularly froze over, crops failed, and sea ice stymied fishing around Iceland and Scandinavia. Many starved.

We now call this period the Maunder Minimum. Recent studies have shown that the sun actually expanded slightly during that time while its rotation slowed (to maintain the same angular momentum). According to what astrophysicists understand by studying other fluctuating stars, a larger and slower sun should be a slightly cooler one and indeed other clues indicate that it dimmed by 0.4 percent. If you do the math, that’s a shortfall of some one and a half quintillion (trillion U.K.) kilowatts. It appears to be a continuing, very ancient pattern: typically about 70 years of dimming followed by 250 years or so of brightening. The Maunder, though, was especially severe.

But a little good did come of it. Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is history’s most celebrated luthier or stringed instrument maker. Musicians judge his creations, mostly violins, to be the finest ever of their kind in the world. But those he made between 1700 and 1720 were the best of the best. Among these are the Emiliani and the Lord Dunn-Raven, both currently owned by Anne-Sophie Mutter; and the Soil, owned by Itzhak Perlman. Several factors contribute to this sonic superiority, but a crucial one relates to the finer spacing of tree rings due to the Maunder Minimum's shorter growing seasons. This created a denser, stiffer, harder, and ultimately more resonant instrument.

Next: Japanese revisionism and Russians, belatedly, on the move »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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