Writing about history, politics, and climate

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Bronze Belt Buckle

A bronze plaque from the late Zhou or early Han Dynasty China (3rd-4th century BCE). Plaques like this were often used as belt decorations by nomadic people who lived to the north of China; the style made its way into China itself over time.


Map of Japan (”IAPAM”) and Korea (”CONRAI”) by the Portuguese cartographer Fernão Vaz Dourado in 1568. The first Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in 1543; they mostly sold Chinese goods to Japanese customers, because the Japanese authorities had banned Chinese traders.

Turn-of-the-century Algiers

Postcard from around 1900 showing the Boulevard de la République and the Consular Palace in Algiers. The city was French territory from 1830 until Algerian independence in 1962.

Odoacer Jousts

A medieval illustration (ca. 1181) showing the death of Odoacer, the Germanic king who deposed the last Western Roman emperor in 476. Though this illustration shows the Ostrogothic leader Theodoric killing him in a joust, Odoacer’s death was much more mundane; Theodoric just stabbed him.

Ike and Honore

Dwight Eisenhower and French General Honore Giraud salute flags in Algeria, 1943. Giraud was captured by Germans during both World Wars and escaped twice from captivity. He commanded the French troops after Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa.

Was the 1889 “Russian Flu” a COVID Doppelganger?

Was the 1889 “Russian Flu” a COVID Doppelganger?

And could a long-ago pandemic help us predict COVID’s course?

Prince “Eddy” the year before his death (Wikimedia Commons)

Prince Albert Victor — Prince Eddy to his family — was the dashing young grandson of Queen Victoria. He was only 28 years old in 1892, and he was second in line to the British throne. He’d just become engaged, and celebrated the new year with a shooting party in the countryside. He was the picture of youthful, noble vigor. Fourteen days after the shooting party, he was gasping for his last deaths as he died of pneumonia.

Eddy’s death was just one of many caused by the “Russian Flu,” which first appeared in 1889 and then swept across the planet, coming back in seasonal waves of infection over the next few years. The disease caused high fevers and terrible lung inflammation. Some of the infected complained that they could no longer taste or smell; in some cases, the disease affected many of their body’s systems, not just the lungs. Many patients suffered long-term symptoms, with the disease making it difficult for them to resume normal life for months, or even years. Weirdly, the disease killed the old much more than the young — children, usually the demographic most vulnerable to disease, seemed unaffected by it.

Sound familiar?

There might be a reason for that. The “Russian Flu” may not have been a flu at all. Some researchers are guessing that it may have been a coronavirus similar to the one that has caused so much suffering over the last two years, and that the fate of the 1889 pandemic might offer some clues to our future.

To be clear, the theory that the Russian Flu was a coronavirus is unproven, and we will likely never really know what caused the disease. The 1889 outbreak occupied a curious place in the history of the human relationship with disease. Medical science and communications technology were advanced enough that this pandemic was the first to be tracked in something like real time around the world.

We know when and where the pandemic started (Siberia, May 1889) and its path from there (across eastern Europe, into North America by January 1890, hitting remote New Zealand by May 1890). Doctors also understood the basics of disease transmission by this point; most no longer thought that illness came from “foul air.” We understand that the pandemic killed as many as a million people on a planet of 1.5 billion.

But we will never be able to definitively identify or analyze the pathogen that caused the pandemic. This is because the people who lived through it didn’t know what would help future scientists. After all, researchers only realized that there must be a category of life called “viruses” in 1892. Nobody saw a virus until the 1930s, when the electron microscope was invented. We don’t have any samples of the pathogen; nobody thought to keep them.

But it’s hard to ignore the parallels between our coronavirus outbreak and the events of 1889. First, the 1889 virus seems — just like our current foe — to have been deadly, but not so deadly that society united in order to defeat it. Many of the people who died had other medical problems that made them vulnerable to pneumonia, so it was hard to say what had killed them. Official death tolls varied. Many dismissed the disease and went on with their business. The New York Evening World concluded, “It is not deadly, not even necessarily dangerous, but it will afford a grand opportunity for the dealers to work off their surplus of bandanas.”

In other accounts, the disease sounds pretty terrible. Doctors, who saw the worst of the disease firsthand, understandably took it more seriously than some journalists. One British doctor described his patients’ symptoms, and it sounds rough:

The invasion is sudden; …with acute pains in the back … often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, … weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms are observed… eyes are injected; sneezing and sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis, and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. …There is often tenderness of the spleen. The temperature is high at the onset (100° F. in mild cases to 105° F in severe cases).’

There’s more than just similarity in symptoms to suggest that the 1889 pandemic was a coronavirus. Well before COVID-19 came on the scene, Belgian researchers used genetic analysis to suggest that coronavirus OC43, which now causes some percentage of our routine common colds, diverged from bovine coronaviruses around 1890.

If it’s true that the 1889 pandemic was caused by a zoonotic coronavirus, its path may offer some insight into where we’re headed. The Russian Flu wreaked havoc
around the world for years and caused a lot of deaths. But eventually, it mutated, or perhaps human immune systems adapted to it. Now, it’s possible that a version of the virus that killed a million people in the late nineteenth century just causes runny noses and sneezes.

Most experts expect COVID to become endemic, and many expect that it will cause less severe disease as more of us get immunity and the virus continues to evolve. It’s possible — though by no means certain — that decades from now, the virus that causes COVID is responsible for the sniffles and little else, and that the devastation it caused is a distant memory, just like the 1889 pandemic.

Sleep Tonight for Pep Tomorrow

A message from the Alberta, Canada Department of Public Health and Canadian Tuberculosis Association, circa 1959. 

Sugar Cane in Antigua

Enslaved people cut sugar cane on Antigua, 1823. The island was a British colony from 1631-1981; sugar was its main export until the abolition of slavery. Sugar plantations in the Americas enslaved at least 10 million African people. The value of the sugar sold by the plantations amounted to as much as a third of some European countries’ economies.

Caves of Hercules

Inside the “Caves of Hercules” in Morocco. The caves get their name from the legend that Hercules slept in the cave before performing one of his labors. The cave was inhabited as early as 6000 BCE; local Berber people cut millstones from the walls, giving them their unique patterns.

The Short, Strange Saga of American Colonies in Cuba

The Short, Strange Saga of American Colonies in Cuba

Or: what happens when a bunch of Minnesota Swedes move to the tropics?

An American “pineapple patch” in La Gloria, Cuba, circa 1900 (public domain)

When Americans think about Cuban immigration, they generally imagine people coming from Cuba to settle in the United States. But there have been several periods where the flow of people has gone in a different direction. In one now-forgotten episode, thousands of Americans bought up land and moved to Cuba, often recreating small midwestern towns in the Caribbean.

The United States has, of course, had a long history of meddling in Cuban affairs. At various points, Americans flirted with annexing the island as a slave state, invaded it in 1898, retained the Guantanamo military base as American soil, manipulated Cuban politics, launched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, almost started World War III over Soviet missiles, repeatedly tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, and imposed a crippling economic embargo on the island that has outlasted the actual Cold War by three decades.

In the middle of all this, just after the Spanish-American War, thousands of Americans settled in Cuba. They formed over 80 colonies on the island, turning parts of the tropical Caribbean into little outposts of Nebraska or New Hampshire.

Americans got the opportunity to snap up land in Cuba in the early twentieth century largely because of their country’s invasion of the country in 1898. Though the U.S. had ostensibly fought the Spanish-American War to help Cuba become independent from Spain, the war created conditions that made Cuba ripe for American involvement after the fighting was over.

The American invasion had disrupted the Cuban economy, and land records were a mess when the Americans took charge on the island (the U.S. occupied Cuba between 1898 and 1902, and then again between 1906 and 1909). Many landowners had sunk so deep into debt that they were willing to sell their land at any price. Americans surveyed the island and threw out any claims to land that they felt were spurious. American businessmen constructed a new railroad that stretched from east to west on the island, which made newly-available land seem like an excellent investment to Americans, who envisioned growing produce and shipping it back to the States. Many of the Americans who moved there expected that the United States would soon annex Cuba.

The Cuba Railroad Company and other large landowners on the island advertised the idea of living in paradise to Americans. A steamship company that ferried passengers from New York to eastern Cuba promised,

Cuba is an ‘all-the-year-round’ country. There is no unproductive season. There is no snow, no frost, no time when vegetation refuses to grow or to bear fruit, no month when livestock must be housed and cared for.

It sounded like paradise, and pitches like this attracted tens of thousands of Americans.

The Isle of Pines

Americans especially flooded to the Isle of Pines (now known as Isla de la Juventud), a large island to the south of Havana. The initial treaties at the end of the Spanish-American War left it unclear whether the island would become part of Cuba or end up under American jurisdiction. Opportunistic Americans rushed to occupy the island in order to create facts on the ground.

Within a few years of the war, Americans owned at least 95% of the island. The Americans later lobbied the American government to formally acquire the island, publishing a 1916 pamphlet called “Isle of Pines: American or What?” The pamphlet extolled the island’s

magnificent climate, its modern businesses and financial institutions, schools, churches, &c; its thousands of acres of citrous(sic) fruit, pineapples, and vegetables… And still we must plead for recognition by the United States, our parent Government.

The Isle of Pines eventually housed at least 2,000 American residents, a number at least equal to the number of pinieros, the island’s Cuban inhabitants. These settlers established English-speaking schools, towns, and newspapers.

These settlers were disappointed when the United States finally ratified the Hay-Quesada Treaty in 1925, which gave the island back to Cuba. Though the treaty had been negotiated in 1903, pressure from the Isle of Pines’ American residents slowed the Senate’s ratification processes, as settlers made pleas like this 1924 letter:

American settlers have been subject to an unlawful, most humiliating and unbearable de facto Cuban Government for over 20 years. Many have lost faith and left; some died in despair, and a great majority are holding on to their property in the firm belief and faith that our Government will live up to its representations that the ‘Isle of Pines is United States Territory.’

After the treaty’s ratification, the number of American settlers on the Isle of Pines declined to a few hundred. Some settlers left because they weren’t as economically successful as they had expected; large hurricanes in 1917 and 1926 hastened their economic problems. Others left because they didn’t want to live under a Cuban government. The Isle of
Pines subsequently became best known for housing Cuba’s most notorious prison.

The Midwest in Cuba

Americans didn’t just flock to the disputed territory of the Isle of Pines. As many as 44,000 Americans emigrated to Cuba between 1903 and 1919. Many came and went quickly, but between 10,000 and 20,000 Americans seem to have put down roots on the island. Many of these Americans formed colonies where they could speak English and maintain a version of American culture.

The biggest of the American settlements, La Gloria, a town of 1,000 residents, was built on a lie. Just after the Spanish-American War, the Cuba Land and Steamship Company advertised and sold plots in a neatly-laid-out town called La Gloria. When settlers got to the island, they found nothing of the sort; their “town” was a mangrove swamp. Many of them simply turned around and went home, but enough stayed to create a real town, surrounded by sugarcane and citrus farms in La Gloria. La Gloria eventually became a thriving small town.

A group of Swedish-Americans from Minnesota fled the cold climate of the upper midwest to establish the town of Bayate in southeastern Cuba. The Swedish Land and Colonization Company advertised cheap trips ($45!) to Cuba, hoping to convince Minnesotans to establish permanent residence on the island. Many of the Swedish-American settlers were people who had become dissatisfied with life in the upper midwest, which they had discovered to their horror was even more unpleasant than the frigid nation they had emigrated from.

Another of the colonies, Omaja (pronounced like the city in Nebraska, get it?), involved similarly big dreams that didn’t come true. Chicago’s Cuba Land, Loan, and Title Guarantee Company bought and deforested 12,000 acres, starting in 1903. They hoped to get 1,400 families to live in the town — in homes modeled on those in the midwest — with many others occupying small farms and large citrus plantations around it.

Omaja never quite reached the heights that its founders dreamed of, but it did house over 250 Americans by 1915 or so. It eventually had a number of churches, stores, a barbershop, a school, and social clubs for the American men and women. The surrounding plantations were more successful, becoming major producers of grapefruits and oranges.

The decline and fall of American Cuba

The American colonies in Cuba were briefly successful, but almost all of them were in steep decline by the end of the 1920s. Several factors caused the American colonies to decline in the years after World War I.

As we saw on the Isle of Pines, a number of hurricanes devastated American farms. La Gloria, for example, was home a thousand Americans until a 1932 hurricane destroyed much of the area, causing many of the Americans to return back to the states.

American tariffs, along with periodic bans of Cuban fruit because of invasive fruit flies, squeezed the American farmers in Cuba. Many of those who had dreamed of easy riches farming tropical plants in paradise, had to return to America disappointed and broke.

The American colonies also got caught up in the political turmoil of early twentieth-century Cuba. When a political faction called the Liberals rose up to oppose an election they had deemed fraudulent in 1917, they clashed with government troops. One of their major battles happened in Omaja. Several plantations were burned, and the railroad that serviced the area was damaged, meaning that farmers couldn’t export their fruit for a year. Liberal soldiers also attacked La Gloria as part of the same conflict. An earlier episode of civil unrest, this one along racial lines, led to the death of one of the Swedish-American settlers in 1912. Investment from the U.S. dried up because the area was deemed “unsafe,” and many of the Minnesotans went back home.

The American colonies in Cuba became a strange footnote in American history, forgotten by most Americans. But in Cuba, people remembered. The fact that Americans had snapped up large parts of the island and tried to turn them into little outposts of Nebraska or Minnesota fit into a long narrative of Americans exploiting Cuba with little regard for the Cuban people’s rights. Cuban anger toward American meddling built for decades until Fidel Castro’s revolution severed the ties once and for all in 1959.

Now, of course, few Americans can visit Cuba. The two nations, so close geographically, have been separated by history. I hope there’s a time soon when Americans can again visit Cuba — without exploiting it.

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