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Not Your Father’s World History Part 11:
“One of the most unfit men I know”

8 December 2005

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams (1843)
First President to Wear Long Pants and to Be Photographed

Curious Article No. 20:

The world’s population reached a billion, approximately, in 1820. That same year also saw the first sighting of the Antarctic mainland by either Estonian/Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen, British naval captain Edward Bransfield, or American sealer Nathaniel Palmer (take your pick). Mariners had by that time located several islands beyond 55°S or so but pack ice and bad weather often discouraged further progress. That particular year, though, seems to have been a watershed. In the typical pattern for the remainder of the century an explorer would discover this or that island down there and then hunters would make a beeline for it and wipe out its marine mammals. A more unusual discovery was that of Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano at 77.5°S, by Sir James Clark Ross in 1841. An Air New Zealand flight crashed into it in 1979.

Since the 1990s we’ve known of several dozen Antarctic lakes that lie about two and a half miles (4 km) under the snow. At about a third of an inch of snow annually that’s a half million year burial. Among the largest is Lake Vostok at about the size of North Carolina and as deep as 2,600 feet (800 m). It’s not clear how these lakes stay liquid, but as a consequence biologists anticipate finding exotic life in them. The environment is pitch black, so some of it may be bioluminescent. As of this writing a team headed by Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol (U.K.) University has acquired permission to drill into one of these bodies, Lake Ellsworth. The trick will be to avoid contaminating its water with outside organisms. Also, that water is highly oxygenated — fifty times as much as a normal lake — and may shoot up like a geyser when the boring breaks through.

Though his portrait has graced its currency and postage stamps since the 1860s, it’s no secret that Andrew Jackson was one of the most enthusiastically bigoted presidents the U.S. ever had. Upon election he owned a hundred slaves, but unlike all six of his predecessors harbored no qualms over it. Though by this time he had become fabulously rich from all that cheap labor, he was likely the least educated of the presidents and the only one among them as far as I know who believed the earth was flat. His favorite pastimes were drinking, poker, and cock fighting. He was a brawler and had once killed a man in a duel. In 1824 Thomas Jefferson said, “I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know for such a place.” When Harvard awarded Jackson an honorary degree in 1833, genuine Harvard graduate John Quincy Adams of Amistad fame described him in no uncertain terms as a barbarian.

Jackson pushed aggressive anti-Indian legislations through Congress, most notorious among them the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This ultimately (under his successor Martin Van Buren) involved evicting the Cherokees at gunpoint from their ancestral lands in the eastern states and marching them 800 miles west into Oklahoma. Accommodations left much to be desired. Fully a quarter of them, about 4000, fell dead along the way from exhaustion, starvation, disease, or exposure. From Jackson’s State of the Union speech of 1831 you’d get the impression that such operations were no big deal: “At the last session I had the happiness to announce that the Chickasaws and Choctaws had accepted the generous offer of the Government and agreed to remove beyond the Mississippi River, by which the whole of the State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama will be freed from Indian occupancy and opened to a civilized population.” Christian philanthropist and longtime Jackson foe Jeremiah Evarts lobbied tirelessly for the Indians’ rights. But Georgia (at least) tied his hands by passing a law declaring its Indian settlements off limits to white people. Especially Everts.

A plague now known as the Third Pandemic broke out in China’s Yunnan province in 1854. Over the next fifty years it spread worldwide though most of its deaths, a good 12 million, occurred in China and India. Many cite either 1896 or 1910 as its last year, but the World Health Organization stretches this to 1959 when its annual morbidity fell below 200. This one had two distinct infection modes. The first and most wide-ranging was bubonic plague (lymph nodes) carried by infected fleas and their rat hosts through ship transport. The second and more alarming was pneumonic (lungs), transmitted by coughs and sneezes, droplets from which can hang in the air for three hours.

This time the technology was more equal to the task. In Hong Kong Swiss physician Alexandre Yersin identified the bacteria, subsequently named after him as Yersinia pestis, and correctly described how it was transmitted. Shibasaburo Kitasato also identified it, independently, and so history credits them both. Yersin was nothing if not devoted: “I regard medicine as a priesthood... To require money in exchange for providing care to a patient amounts to demanding from him his money or his life.”

Richard Burton
Richard Burton
“Don’t make me look ugly, there’s a good fellow.”
Although Arab traders had mapped Africa’s Lake Victoria as far back as the twelfth century, the quarrelsome British duo of John Hanning Speke and Richard Francis Burton seeking the source of the Nile discovered it as far as Europe was concerned in 1858. Locals had known the lake as Ukerewe. In 1875 Welsh/American journalist Henry Morton Stanley circumnavigated it and observed Rippon Falls on its northern end, removing any further doubt that the lake was indeed the Nile’s main source. Although they didn’t know it, these explorers were revisiting the land of their ancestors from between 7,500 and 10,000 generations back.

What may have been recorded history’s most spectacular comet skimmed within 264,000 miles (425,000 km) of the sun on September 17th, 1882. It shown that day as an appendage of the solar disc, quite comparable in brightness. Thereafter it broke into several pieces and glowed brilliantly for several weeks in the morning sky.

Krakatau lies in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, 875 miles (1400 km) west of Tambora. Its eruption in 1883 was in some ways Tambora revisited but we have much better records. Krakatau’s sonic properties alone were simply beyond belief. Again, though in this case from Timor 1350 miles (2200 km) to the east, sailors took to sea to identify unseen combatants. On August 27th at ten in the morning Krakatau exploded with a sound believed to approximate 310 dB. If we haul out our space shuttle launch unit from Part I, that would be three billion (nine zeros) of them or, put another way, as loud as the U.S. battleship New Jersey’s 16-inch guns — if they fired steadily and if it had 350 million of them. A hundred miles away people shouting against each other’s ears were inaudible. Infrasonic pressure waves buffeted the ground as far off as London and St. Petersburg and reverberations of all kinds circled the globe for a month.

Krakatau ejected only about a fifth of Tambora’s ash volume. But as if to make up for that some 2.7 billion cubic yards of its lava spilled as far as 25 miles (40 km) across open sea before hardening and its tsunamis, felt as far away as Cape Horn, hurled coral blocks weighing as much as 600 tons and swept away between 35,000 and 100,000 people. According to many, Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream depicts the colorful Norwegian sky caused by Krakatau’s aerosols.

Next: Those magnificant men, plus the day the sky opened up »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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