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When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler. It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness. They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them). It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less. Where did he learn that? It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.
Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography). Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614. It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain. Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618. The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).
Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner. Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet. But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise. The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead. Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters. Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.
As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags. Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations. Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).
Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil. He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels. He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags. Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community. Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place. They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands. By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home. During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags). Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.
Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!
Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass. It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Arda, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.
Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made. In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts. Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral). The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back. A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America). This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war. The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.
During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident. Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).
To celebrate the winter solstice, Ferrebeekeeper presented a gallery of winter monarchs—icy kings, queens, and princesses who symbolically represent the frozen majesty of winter. However European history contains a real “winter king” Frederick V (1596 – 1632), a Calvinist intellectual and mystic who was famous for building the Hortus Palatinus, one of the most renowned of Baroque gardens. Frederick V was not called “the winter king” because he personified the savage nature of winter. He received the nickname from enemies who derisively predicted that he would only be king of Bohemia for a single winter–and his enemies were entirely right. The short life of Frederick V was a series of missteps, blunders, catastrophes, and regrets. Today he is principally remembered for starting the Thirty Years War—Europe’s most destructive conflict until the age of Napoleon (or maybe until World War I).
Frederick V was born as heir to the Electoral Palatinate, a powerful feudal territory whose lord was one of the hereditary electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor. His father, Count Palatinate Frederick IV, died young from “extravagant living” (Frederick IV was an alcoholic who left control of his lands to a regent while he sat in the palace and drank). Thus, when Frederick V was 14 he became one of Germany’s most powerful lords—although shadows were already gathering around him. The Golden Bull of 1356 which determined important constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman Empire stipulated that “Frederick’s closest male relative would serve as his guardian and as regent of Electoral Palatinate until Frederick reached the age of majority.” The tangled ancestry of German nobility is evident in Frederick’s crest–so chaotically garish that it would even make Nascar proud—but it was determined that (Catholic) Count Palatine of Neuburg was his closest relative. Frederick V’s family was traditionally Calvinist and so this solution was not acceptable. The ensuing dispute eventually resulted in an early majority for young Ferdinand V (who became his own master at the age of 17) but it ensured a toxic legacy among the religiously divided Electors.
Frederick V also was married at the age of 16 to Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James I) at the royal chapel at the Palace of Whitehall. In 1614, when he was 18, Frederick attended a meeting of the Protestant Union (a group of powerful German Lords who championed the Protestant cause). During the meeting, Frederick became ill with a fever. Although he had displayed some initial promise as a ruler, after the illness Frederick’s character changed. He became depressed and listless and left many critical decisions to his chancellor, Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (the same minister who had ruled on behalf of Frederick IV). It was against such a background that the crown of Bohemia was thrust upon him.
Bohemia was an elective monarchy which chose its own king, but, despite this high title, said king answered to the Holy Roman Emperor. In fact since 1555 the Holy Roman Emperor had always also been the King of Bohemia, but thanks to religious controversy and schism sweeping Europe, Bohemia’s Protestant electors were in no mood to elect and affirm the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. Frederick V, callow, melancholic, and sick, was elected as king of Bohemia in 1619 amidst the turmoil of the Bohemian revolt. Frederick was crowned with the (magical cursed) Crown of Saint Wenceslas in St. Vitus Cathedral on 4 November 1619. At the time Bohemia was not exactly a proper kingdom (having been held for so long by the Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick V soon found he had only very limited ability to raise funds. This became important when Emperor Ferdinand II decided to take the field to contest Bohemia. The Emperor’s army was ably led by Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, who seized Frederick V’s ancestral lands in the Central Palatinate before marching on Prague. On 8 November 1620, Frederick V’s army was destroyed in the Battle of White Mountain. Bohemia was lost, its people were cruelly ground beneath the popish & authoritarian foot of Ferdinand II, and Frederick V was forced into exile–first to Silesia and ultimately to the Hague in Holland.
Since he maintained the pageantry and splendor of a royal court while in the Hague, Frederick V quickly lavished away the huge sums of money which foreign potentates had granted him to pursue his cause. He was unlucky too. On a trip to view the captured Spanish treasure fleet, his boat capsized, which caused his eldest son, Frederick Henry of the Palatinate to drown (which also drowned hopes for a marriage between Frederick Henry and a Spanish princess). Frederick V alienated and refused Gustavus Adolphus, the one sovereign who could have regained his throne and lands for him (although Gustavus would also have demanded that Frederick V become a subject). Frederick died in1632, of a “pestilential fever”. His internal organs were buried in Oppenheim, but his preserved body was slated for final burial elsewhere. Unfortunately, while in transit Frederick V’s dead body somehow got caught up in the Spanish assault on Frankenthal and vanished. His final resting place is unknown (although we do know where his internal organs are interred).
Frederick’s life was ruined by reaching for a crown which should never have been his (and which, at the time, actually conferred little royal dignity or authority anyway). Yet this troubling legacy of ruination resulted in an end he would probably never have foreseen. Frederick V had married the daughter of James I of England. England had its own religious sectarian problems which were ended by Parliament when it signed the Act of Settlement in 1701. The document settled the English secession for once and all on an obscure Protestant heir—Frederick’s youngest daughter Sophia, Electress of Hanover. Sophia, a patroness of art, philosophy, music, and culture, died in 1714, just before Queen Anne of England passed away, but her son George inherited the crown that would have been hers. All subsequent monarchs of Great Britain were (and are) direct descendants of the unlucky Winter King.
Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name. As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire. A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”). When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences. The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India. This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).
The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce). The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris. Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.
Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now. But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future. I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.
Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland. Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises. The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles. It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth). Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone. The arils are gelatinous and sweet.
Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time. This means that some specimens are ancient and huge. The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769. According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy. This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth. The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England. The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old. According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that. It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t. The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth. It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.
As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant. This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves). According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm. Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character. Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.
The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew. A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood. This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”
Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value. The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’ (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s. Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews. It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function). In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.
A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope. It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.