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Let’s talk briefly about this crazy Chinese prom dress fiasco.  What happened is that a (wasp-y) Utah high school senior found an elegant red silk cheongsam, also known as a qipao in a thrift store.  The form-fitting curves of the high-necked Chinese dress suited her and she put some pictures of herself on social media—only to be derided by a priggish young man of Chinese American heritage who wrote:

My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress…I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the shameful treatment of early (or contemporary!) East Asian immigrants, the excesses of American consumerism, all sorts of colonial ideologies…these are all subject to meaningful and broad-ranging ethical criticism. However, a brief look at the history of the cheongsam quickly illustrates the problems of “cultural appropriation” politics.

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The cheongsam was originally a baggy robe-type dress worn by women of the Manchu.  The Manchu were northern horselords who made up a mighty branch of the Tungusic peoples.  During the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty (as ignorant, incompetent emperors and their crooked enablers drove the empire to ruin, famine, and civil war), the Manchus poured out of the north and conquered all of China.  Han people wore the cheongsam to ingratiate themselves with their red-tasseled Manchu overlords…but over time the dress became much less conservative and began to hug the form.  In the 1920s, with influence from Western flapper fashions, it evolved into a stylish and often tight-fitting dress (with high leg slits) for socialites and upper-class women…and for demi-mondaines, before it entered the broader culture of East Asia and South East Asia. Should we decry the colonialism of Manchu war lords? Do we need to call out the puritanical sexism of the original dress which was meant to cover women up…or the sexism of the later dress which was meant to show off women’s bodies?  Ultimately the Han appropriated the dress from their Manchu conquerors (and then conquered Manchuria which is now the northern part of the people’s Republic of China).  Should this Utah teenager have taken all of this in to consideration and worn a high-waisted Empire gown (oh wait that reflects the excesses of the Napoleonic era and should only be worn by French people) or a satin tunic gown (shades of ancient Greece) or an elegant pleated fancy dress with mameluke sleeves (nooooo! Orientalism!)?

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Every style of outfit has wound down from ancient antecedents which have mixed together over the millennia.  Culture is not a tiny stagnant tarn—it is like the water cycle of Earth. Great rivers mingle and wind down to the common oceans only to be swept by the clouds back to the uplands and return again and again.

It should be obvious now that I really dislike the entire concept of “cultural appropriation” as a smear directed at people who admire or utilize elements of many different culture (this makes sense: I write an eclectic generalist blog and paint flounders from all of the world’s oceans).  Am I supposed to only write about or paint middle aged Anglo-Saxon type men? What would you say about an artist like that (assuming you went deep into the alt-right to find such a freak)? I can hardly imagine a more racist or sexist thing!

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China Trade (Wayne Ferrebee, Oil on panel)

It may (maybe) be that cultural appropriation is an appropriate charge to level at mean-spirited or willfully ignorant use of imagery and ideas. Things like the black-faced minstrel tradition or (goodness help us) “Little Brown Samba” or super-sexualized harem pictures from les artistes pompiers spring to mind.  But even these are more complicated than they seem at first.

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Mermaid Appropriation?

Does that mean everyone has to know every part of the history of every image, decoration, literary concept, garment, religious symbol, allusion?  Such a world sounds ideal to me, but I think it might be an impossible (it seems like the culture critic in this case did not think out all of the historical ramifications of Chinese fashion history).

The world is more global than ever before and the prom-dress kerfluffle has made it all the way to social media in actual China.  People there are confused.  They see the dress as a compliment to the Middle Kingdom.  American teenagers are wearing traditional Chinese outfits to their formal dances. It reflects the prestige and rising strength of China.  It is (gasp) a compliment!

Maybe inner-city rappers angry about suburban white kids trying out their dope beats and mad rhymes shouldn’t be so angry.  When people want to copy your style it doesn’t always mean they want to monetize your music or enslave your ancient kingdom state or belittle your ancestors.  People might admire you! You might be winning!  Just please don’t write anything like little brown Samba.  I’m afraid that to stay atop the ever-changing terrain of the humanities you may have to at least look some things up and maybe please use your brain.

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Iggy Azalea has stolen the Tokyo Olympic Mascot’s look! or is it the other way?

In the arts and humanities ideas exist on an (ever changing) gradient.  Talking about this and thinking about people with different backgrounds and perspectives—learning their histories– is the point.  But the shifts in this gradient come from politics which is a treacherous realm. Come to think of it, maybe the critic of the prom dress was trying to use the internet to claim the mantle of victimhood and aggrandize himself in the process.  Well done. Mr. Lam, on appropriating the culture of the United States of America!

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Is that a Frenchwoman in Roman garb?

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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

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The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

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Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

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Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

New York City from Bus Window (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

New York City from Bus Window (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

This weekend I took a trip up to Kingston, an old colonial town up the Hudson River.  I was visiting to see a friend’s art gallery, One Mile Gallery, (which you should check out when you are in the region–but more on that in later posts).  I took the bus a hundred miles up the river and jumped out, prepared to walk through a few blocks of quaint historical district–but the actual walk was more like a five mile hike through fields and ravines, past old stockades and cement factories (and strip malls).  Additionally I unknowingly visited on the day when the townsfolk reenacted the 1777 burning of their town by King George’s redcoats!  The whole trip had a very spooky autumn feel and I highly recommend Kingston (although if you visit you should maybe plan better than me and not run through the forests at night as the first snows arrive).

Hudson Valley from Bus Window (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Hudson Valley from Bus Window (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Anyway here are four drawings I made on the trip.  The first two were on the busride on the way up.  There is New York City seen rising like a twisted lovely dream above the marshes and suburbs of New Jersey.  Next we see the bucolic Hudson landscape blurring from the bus window.

Kingston (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil on paper)

Kingston (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil on paper)

This is a drawing of the historic cemetery at Kingston.  I took certain liberties since I was rushing through and I drew in the details on the bus.  The green statue guy is George Clinton, the fourth Vice-President of the United States.  Finally on the bus ride home, I became enthralled by the same picturesque Hudson Valley clouds that have beguiled so many artists over the years.  Hopefully you enjoyed the sketches from my little autumn mini-trip.  I’ll get back to real posts tomorrow and we’ll start leading up to next week’s Halloween themed week of horror and dread!

Hudson Valley Sky in Autumn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Hudson Valley Sky in Autumn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Map of Namibia

Map of Namibia

Our imaginary fantasy trip across Africa has taken us to some amazing places as we proceeded west along the map starting out from the micro-continent of Madagascar. Exploring the continent on the internet has really made me want to visit someday! Through photos and descriptive writing we have seen the great lakes of Malawi and Tanzania. We have lingered in the terrifying yet astonishing rainforests of the Congo. We have marveled at the unprecedented ugliness of the flags of Mozambique and Angola (sorry, flagmakers). At last we come to the ancient Namib Desert. Beyond it lie the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean filled with nutrients thrown off from the mighty Antarctic circumpolar current. It is one of the most jarring juxtapositions on Earth—the rich freezing waters of the sea pound against the burning arid dunes.

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As you can tell, I have a fascination with the Namib. If I ever win the lottery or suddenly find a bag of gold or gain a million internet followers [crickets chirping], I will make it my business to go there at once. The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. As the continents dance all around the globe and their landscapes change from forest to ocean to plains to mountains to glaciers, the Namib has somehow stayed a wallflower and kept its dry desert climate. Its climate has been largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, which is why it is home to oddities like the welwitschia and the sandswimming golden mole.

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

Namibia’s human history recedes into the remote mists of prehistory (humankind is after all from Africa). Various groups of people arrived in the desert in waves. The San, Damara, and Namaqua—hunter-gatherers, then herdsmen—arrived. Then the farmers of the great Bantu expansion showed up in the 14th century. Contemporary Namibian history is more tragic—since the desert land was caught between mighty colonial powers of Germany and Great Britain. Great Britain took the most useful natural harbor and Germany took the rest of Namibia—although the native Namaqua and Herero tribes rose against the nascent colonialists. From 1904 to 1907 the Germans wiped out approximately 10,000 Nama 65,000 Hereros in one of the twentieth century’s first genocides. The surviving tribespeople were relegated to concentration camps and unlivable ghettos.

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

When the Germans lost World War I, Namibia passed to de-facto South African control. South Africa administered the territory somewhat informally (and brutally and badly) until a variety of incomprehensible UN mandates, international pressure, and a scrappy (though morally gray) guerilla independence movement forced the apartheid government of South Africa to grant the nation independence in 1990. Contemporary Namibia has abundant natural resources (which are managed with greater fairness than in neighboring states), but it has suffered greatly from the scourge of HIV. Additionally the single political party SWAPO (which evolved from the aforementioned scrappy independence fighters) is run by a somewhat opaque politburo.

 

Flag of Namibia

Flag of Namibia

The flag of Namibia is based on the flag of the national liberation movement. It was chosen by the chairman of the subcommittee for flag creation who reviewed over 800 designs before choosing the current flag. The colors have symbolism not dissimilar to other African national liberation flags. Red represents the people of Namibia and the blood they have shed to make a nation together. White is the color of unification and peace. Green represents farms, agriculture, and ecology. Blue represents the ocean and the life-giving freshwater which is so rare in the desert. The sun represents…well, the sun…the source of all energy and life (although political junkies might speculate that it also is a homage to the sun of the Kuomintang).

The Crown of Ardra (made by an unknown goldsmith, 1664)

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 Ardra, 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.

Michiel de Ruyter (Ferdinand Bol, 1667, oil on canvas)

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).

Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.

Hmm...

Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all).  The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have.  The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money.  Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you).  The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).

Stone Money of Yap

Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value.  The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history.  Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning).  In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling).  On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money.  Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless.  Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.

A living Being--the Egg Cowry (Calpurnus verrucosus)

The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast.  The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar.  They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.

Cowry Shells being used as Money by an Arab Trader ( Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1845, print)

My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money.  Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries.  Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another?  I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history.  I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either.  Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.

Money Cowry Shells (Shells of Monetaria moneta)

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

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