Author Archives: John Robson

Planter une croix pour la France

Should we cheer? It’s hard to be sure. On July 24, in 1534, Jacques Cartier stuck a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed it for France.

On the one hand, yay Canada. On the other hand, boo European imperialism on unceded native land. But yay Quebec and the French fact. Except that sticky business about the cross, still oddly belted out in our national anthem in the name of political correctness (you know, the bit where “ton bras sait porter l’épée,/ Il sait porter la croix” that rushes in where “all our sons” no longer dare tread). So on the whole it’s a date we no longer celebrate, preferring instead to ignore it and hope everyone else does too. I do not think we should.

For one thing, I am among those who regard the settlement of the Anglosphere nations of North America and the South Pacific as a powerful blessing for mankind even while deploring the dispossession and demographic catastrophe that struck the original inhabitants. Without Britain I do not believe the world would have self-government, and without Britain’s former colonies I do not believe it would have survived the 20th century.

Liberty is a great thing for everyone of every race. We cannot undo the past but we can now extend its benefits to everyone in Canada without regard for race. Especially as I do not subscribe to the politically correct idea that before Europeans showed up, the inhabitants of the Americas were peaceful, tolerant or ecologically sensitive. They were like people pretty much everywhere for better or worse and there’s a good deal of “worse” involved.

The territories they inhabited when the Europeans showed up had not been in the continuous possession of any particular group for very long, and had not been acquired by peaceful negotiation, purchase or right of first possession. They had been seized in chronic low-intensity warfare. I find it absurd that many people argue that the land should be put in the hands of the descendants of those who happened to hold it when Europeans first arrived and made records of the situation, without the slightest interest in who had been dispossessed of it a few decades earlier.

For all that, I cannot contemplate the disruption and disaster, including the most important catastrophe caused by diseases passed on unwittingly, without profound grief. Europeans were bound to cross the Atlantic with an enormous, overwhelming advantage in technology and organization for reasons that (as Jared Diamond analyzes in Guns, Germs and Steel) date back to the end of the last glaciation and were driven by geography and ecology rather than any inherent difference between the inhabitants of different continents. And when they did, the diseases which had bred first in extensively farmed fields and then in crowded cities were bound to devastate those still living in far more scattered communities or as hunter-gatherers. And yet it is a tragedy.

Would you, then, have the continents remain forever separate? I have elsewhere suggested that without the “Little Ice Age” that destroyed Norse settlements in an arc from Scandinavia to the northern British Isles to Iceland and Greenland, the process might have been slower and less catastrophic. But if it had to happen, far better even for the locals that the free people of the British Isles should have been the dominant element than to be conquered even by the Spanish or Germans, to say nothing of various other possible colonizers.

As for the French, their empire failed in large measure because it was bureaucratic and unfree. I do not regret the existence of Quebec, but unlike Jean Chrétien I would not have wanted to wake Montcalm in time for him to win the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Nor do I believe that if he had, the far greater dynamism of British North America would not have prevailed.

So knowing the downside I do still salute Cartier’s courage and enterprise. Yet I also celebrate a Canada with a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom despite now needing some rather urgent repairs.

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Wish I’d said that – July 24, 2016

“Red in tooth and claw, we come at last to a fierce and painful city, to the bloody, unobliging reciprocity in which life lives by death, but still insists that death is robbery. But more, We come home…”

Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb

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Chios: Obscure yet important

This is the anniversary of the naval Battle of Chios in which the Knights Hospitaller laid a serious beating on the Beylik of Aydin on July 23, 1319. Which might sound like the kind of dustup only the mothers of people who were there would care about. But it’s an interesting lineup of combatants.

Not the Beylik of Aydin, one of many low-rent half-pirate border subsidiaries of the Seljuq Turks as they gradually wore down Byzantium. Rather, the Knights Hospitaller or, more properly, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a once-mighty outfit headquartered in Jerusalem, Rhodes and later Malta (in the Maltese Falcon they are conflated with the Knights Templar who they had by then absorbed).

The Knights went into something of a decline with the Reformation though a number of groups claim descent from them including the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta which is now headquartered in Rome and is widely still considered a sovereign entity. But I digress. Sort of.

The point is that Western civilization, with its extraordinary capacity for decentralization that does not lapse into anarchy but instead generates a flexible, resilient extended order, was marked by various such groups. They were not sovereign states per se, were often nominally subordinate to sovereign states while retaining much freedom of action, frequently claimed a particular territorial base without being tied to it, and were devoted to nobler causes than mere plunder even if their conduct did not always match their aspirations. Indeed the Knights Templar were at one point a mighty financial rather than military outfit, naturally attracting the attention of secular rulers and a Pope very interested in bagging their cash.

So no, the Battle of Chios wasn’t big news in the grand scheme of things. It only involved a few dozen ships and the outcome, and several subsequent victories, only slowed the advance of the Aydinids, though they were decisively walloped by 1351. And the Ottomans obviously continued to advance, capturing Constantinople in 1453. But then they were stopped, at Lepanto and other places, by coalitions of the same decentralized yet effective sort in which the West specializes.

In that sense battles like Chios do matter despite their obscurity.

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Wish I’d said that – July 22, 2016

“Believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that your life and temperament have some object on the earth. Believe that you have something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. Believe that it is possible, even if you are the enemy of the human race, to be the friend of God.”

G.K. Chesterton in “The Philosophy of Browning” in Robert Browning, quoted in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 10 #7 (June-July 2007)

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Stop and smell the horsepower

Jules-Albert, Count de Dion finished first in a steam powered De Dion tractor towing une Calèche, but was not eligible for the prize. Among the passengers are the Count de Dion, Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt-Rothschild, and writer Émile Driant (Wikipedia)

Are we there yet? Despite being profoundly skeptical about the overall impact of modernity, I struggle to resist the recurrent thought that if only my gadgets were a little bit better many of life’s kinks would be smoothed out. For instance my computer takes rather a while to render complex video files… which is an outrage until I reflect that two computers ago it couldn’t render them at all. Honestly there’s some serious horsepower under the hood these days.

So to speak. And literally. I don’t even know what horsepower my car has but it’s certainly a lot more than King John ever had hooked up to his wagon or carriage or whatever he rode in. Or Julius Caesar. It’s very probably more than the total number of horses King John owned including the ones he stole. (I Googled and it’s well over 200 hp. I don’t know how many horses John stole in his life but I was thinking of at one time.)

That 200+ figure is also a lot higher than the winning car in the first ever car race in France, held on July 22, 1894 between Paris and Rouen. We’re now so used to idiots street racing that it’s hard to remember that it was once a novelty and there weren’t “streets” in our sense.

Nevertheless various intrepid souls undertook, indeed had to get through a qualifying round to undertake, the 126 km contest. In fact 102 people paid the modest 10 franc entrance fee, of whom fully 78 didn’t show up for the July 18 qualifier thus missing a chance to be immortalized in their “gravity-nine” powered vehicle, quadricycle or other hopeful monster.

In the end 21 cars roared across the starting line and 17 the finish line of what was possibly the first car race ever, though the organizers insisted it was a contest not a race. Indeed, first to finish (successfully) was le Comte de Dion but his steam car was disqualified because it needed a stoker and the contest was, reasonably, intended to showcase cars that were easy and economical to drive. Oh, and not unreasonably dangerous. And the steam car with a stoker just wasn’t easy enough.

With the Comte disposed of, the winner of the race was Albert Lemaître, whose gasoline-powered Peugot boasted a mighty 3 horsepower engine. And the organisers were mighty pleased, awarding it and the 3rd-place finisher, also a Peugot, a half-share in the top prize for the car coming closest to the ideal, while the 4th and 5th place finishers designed my MM. Panhard et Levassor got the other half.

Nowadays we’d be powerfully offended by a lawnmower with less than a 3 horsepower engine. And we curse and bang the steering wheel as we sit in traffic in our air-conditioned behemoth cars with no stoker in sight. But if they were just a bit more powerful, the roads a bit wider and more capacious, the… the…

I still want a more powerful computer, though. Not a whole lot, you understand. Maybe an i7. Another gigahertz or so. A bit more RAM. We’re nearly there. I think.

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