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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize.   The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors.  To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard).  This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana.  He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!

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The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles.  The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship.  If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success.  On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all.  Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.

But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory.  He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard.  “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said.  The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware.  They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor.  Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him.  By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships.  The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana.  Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.

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Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves.  The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile.  Thus ended his political and military career.   The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world.  But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet.  I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up.  However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.

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The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province.  The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers.  So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain.  Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds.  It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle.   The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years.   There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.

Laoye Miao Temple

Lake Poyang did not always exist.  In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded.  Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China.  Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven.  By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze.  The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses.    The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered  over 850,000 men.

Artist’s Conception of the Battle of Lake Poyang

Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out.  To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line.   Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.

Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate.  Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure.  A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned.   On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.

Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous.  Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents.  Local legend is more inventive.  According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake.  Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent.  The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang.  When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.

Lake Poyang is drying out.

Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself.  The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste.  A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze.  Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers.   If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.

Lake Poyang

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).

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