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The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

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Friday, April 08, 2011

SCANDAL SHEET

I believe that the term “governor” and “corruption” have been synonymous since at least 70 B.C., when Cicero made the legal case against Caius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily. Amongst a host of other allegations, Cicero charged that Verres was stripping the interior of that contented island of everything of value, and forcing the city of Syracuse to build and crew a new ship each year to transport Verres’ plunder back to Rome, where he kept the plunder and sold the ship. Before Cicero had even finished presenting his case, on the advice of his own lawyer, Verres fled Italy with a fair part of his wealth. We know this because years later Mark Anthony had Verres executed, in order to steal what Verres had stolen from Sicily. The murder of corrupt Roman officials by other corrupt Roman officials had, by then, become part of the Roman circle of life.
Fifteen hundred years later the image of the corrupt governor had changed very little, except in nationality. The new prime example was William Crosby, who was English governor of Minorca (the name means “the lesser island”). That strategic little spot of dry land in the Mediterranean Sea was 200 miles off the coast from Barcelona, Spain and 300 miles west of Sardinia. The British Navy had seized the place from the Spanish in 1708, and the Treaty of Utrecht had officially awarded it to England in 1713, but  the Spanish population was far from resigned to British rule. So in 1718 the British government could not afford to look the other way when the first English Governor of the island, William Crosby, seized a shipload of snuff, valued at nine thousand pounds sterling, for non-payment of import duties.
The problem was that Crosby had just mugged a local power broker. His name was Bonaventura Capedvilla, a Portuguese merchant, and it had been his snuff that had been filched by Crosby. Capedvilla contended that he had paid the import duties on the snuff, and when the local authorities began to ask questions, Governor Crosby simply refused to allow them access to government documents. But Capedvilla was wealthy enough and powerful enough to fight back. Besides, Portugal was an English ally in their war against Spain, and the British government really could not afford to offend one of Portugal's richest citizens. So Señor Capedvilla appealed directly to the Privy Counsel in London, and eventually, in 1722, the Council requested a look at the documents.
When Crosby eventually responded, (in 1724) it was immediately clear that the import papers he offered up had been “tampered” with. In other words they had been forged by Crosby. The Privy Council eventually (in 1728) ordered Crosby to pay Capedvilla ten thousand pounds sterling. He did, but it did great damage to his personal bank account. The Council also decided that perhaps it would be better if Crosby were governor of some other island not quite so vital to the security of Great Britain. And that could end up hurting Crosby's bank account even more.
In 1730, as Governor Crosby was packing his bags in preparation to take up his new posting as Governor to the Leeward Islands (off the north coast of Venezuela), he received word that John Montgomerie, the royal Governor of New York and New Jersey in America, had just dropped dead of a stroke. Immediately William Crosby made his way to London, to pay a visit to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the duke of Newcastle.
Newcastle was the secretary of state for the Southern Department, which included everything in America south of Canada. He was also a first cousin to Grace Montague, who was Cosby’s wife. And Newcastle was ever happy to see another relative doing well in government service. He secured Crosby's appointment to America.
And that was why, in 1731, William Crosby arrived in New York armed with the royal seal of approval and carrying his own particular brand of insensitive and clumsy avariciousness. To quote one of Crosby’s staunchest critics, "The Government of New York... came seasonably in (Crosby’s) way to repair his broken fortune."
When a New Yorker later pointed out that one of Crosby’s actions was illegal, he answered directly. “How, gentlemen, do you think I mind that: alas! I have great interests in England, of the Dukes of New Castle, Montague and Lord Halifax." Now that is arrogance with its mask off. And Crosby quickly showed his bare face to the citizens of New York.
When Montgomerie had died, 71 year old Rip Van Dam had been asked by the colonial council to step in to manage the colony until the new governor arrived. And now William Crosby asked Van Dam to turn over half of the salary he had collected since Montgomerie’s death.  That was actually a fairly common practice in the British Empire. But Van Dam was a survivor of the Dutch power structure. The Dutch had founded the colony, and Van Dam did not take kindly to the rude manners and uneducated brashness of the new English royal governor. He told Crosby, that by his calculations, Crosby actually owed him four thousand pounds.
Crosby did not find that very funny. In August of 1732 he sued Van Dam for half of his salary. Crosby was of course, not going to allow a jury to tell him what was legal. So he instructed the three judges of the Colonies' Supreme Court to hear the case. Van Dam challenged the legality of that order, and his challenge was argued before…the three judges of the Supreme Court. As was perfectly predictably, their vote was two-to-one, in Crosby’s favor.
Crosby then ordered the dismissal of Chief Justice Lewis Morris, the only court member with the courage to vote against the governor. Justice Morris laid out his reasons for opposing Crosby’s actions in a letter he paid to have printed up on a "broadsheet", by the “second” printer in the colony, Mr. John Peter Zenger.
Broadsheets were single pages, printed in mass, and posted on public squares throughout the colony, and even read aloud by town criers, for the benefit of the illiterate. The success of Judge Morris' broadsheet in rallying the citizens against Cosby convinced certain wealthy citizens there might be a profit made in starting an opposition newspaper. They called their new weekly venture the “New York Gazette”. And again  they used the printing press owned by Mr. Zenger. Crosby paid little attention, as he was busy stealing land from the Indians, from the original Dutch settlers and from recent English immigrants. But eventually, after certain colonists complained about him to London, Crosby decided to take action.
In November of 1734 he ordered the printer Peter Zenger arrested. And that is how a lowly German immigrant - Peter Zenger - who could barely spell in English, became the center of the first great confrontation between Americans seeking “Liberty and Justice” and the caprice of a Royal prerogative. In the trial on August 5, 1734, an American jury decided that the truth of an allegation was a valid defense against libel, and they found Zenger not guilty.
"Truth" was not an accepted legal argument against libel at the time, and it would be some years before what the New York Colonial court had decided would gain acceptance elsewhere. And long before that happened Governor William Crosby had answered to a higher court.
In early March of 1736 the greedy Crosby died of tuberculosis at the Governor’s house, in New York City. He was buried in St. George’s Chapel. But he did not stay there. In 1788 the post-revolutionary American governor of New York had the last word on the old royal governor, when he ordered Crosby's remains be moved to the graveyard at St. Paul’s Church, and dumped there, in an unmarked grave.
And good riddance, to him.
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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

FOOD FIGHT

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Merzifonly Kara Mustafa Pasa (above). He looks so sad in his portrait, as if he had just eaten something that disagreed with him. History records that he was despised for his petty meanness and infamous for his avariciousness. Both of those charges were true. Mustafa Pasa always wanted a bigger piece of the pie. But the larger truth may be that his greatest sin, historically, was having been born with the perfect skills to be a sous chef. He was a brilliant organizer. His attention to detail and precision was legendary. He could calculate a bribe as quick as greased lightening. But what he lacked was a firm will to turn up the heat and sear the meat. Unfortunately, his Sultan, Mehmed IV, found he didn’t like living in a tent. So in 1683 he went home before the main course was ready. And that left Kara Mustafa alone in the kitchen, a Grand Chef with no limits on his fastidious obsession with detail.
Sultan Mehmed IV (above) was always trying to convince people that he was who his titles said he was. He made his first entrance into history as an infant, when his father, in a fit if temper, tossed the baby boy down a toilet. The servants rescued the boy, but Mehmed bore the scar from that experience his entire life, physically on his forehead (ala Harry Potter), and figuratively on his ego. Instead of a cold simple diplomatic declaration of war - or more practically, a disarming surprise attack - on March 31st, 1683 Mehmed sent Austrian Hapsburg King Leopold I a letter dripping with adolescent bravado.
Mehmed IV informed Leopold (above), “We will destroy your little country with our Army… Above all WE order you, to wait for us in your city…so WE can behead you…We will exterminate you and all of your followers, as you are the lowest creatures of God, as all unbelievers are, and erase you from the face of the earth. WE will expose the big and little to gruesome pains first and than give them to a vicious death. Your little Empire, I will take from you and its entire population I will sweep off the earth.”
In the realm of braggadocio Mehmed IV letter has to rank right up there with George Bush’s 2004 invitation to the Iraqi resistance to “Bring it on.” Still, it wasn’t as if either side needed a reason for this new war. The Christians and the Muslims had been butchering each other in the Balkans for 300 years, since the fall of Constantinople. In the first century of these wars Vlad the Impaler (Christian) made his reputation having 20,000 P.O.W's (Muslim) impaled on stakes. And then he had lunch. Things just got worse from there. As Andrew Wheatcroft explains in his recent book, “The Enemy at the Gate”, “Many of the horror stories of these wars are true: the massacres and the atrocities, the endless lines of newly enslaved Hungarians in Sarajevo on their road of tears to Istanbul….The Hapsburg armies also flailed men alive, impaled prisoners, took slaves, raped captives. Savagery was a weapon of war used by both sides.” This was ethnic cleansing practiced by experts.
During the winter of 1682-83 Kara Mustafa was in his element as he prepared the way to war. He oversaw the building and repairing of roads and bridges up to the border between Austria and Ottoman Hungry. Supply depots were established for ammunition and food. And then, in early May of 1683, an Ottoman army of 150,000 men under the direct command of Mehmed IV marched easily from Istanbul to Belgrade, just 300 miles from serving Vienna flambe' .
But after reaching the border between war and peace the Sultan handed over command to Kara Mustafa and returned to his dinner parties in Istanbul. And from this moment things started to go wrong with the expedition.
A month later, now under Kara Mustafa’s command, an advance guard of 40,000 Tartar cavalry reached the outskirts of Vienna. Remembering the note from Mehmed, King Leopold had gathered up 80,000 of the residents of Vienna and taken them to the west, to Linz, leaving just 5,000 citizens behind in the Austrian capital, defended by 11,000 soldiers and 370 cannon.
Kara Mustafa felt he had to offer the commander of Vienna a lesson in Ottoman diplomatic cusine. The lesson was served up in the little village of Perchtoldsdorf, 6 miles east of Vienna, where King Leopold had a summer estate.
The citizens first tried to defend their town. And only that failed, on July 16th, did they surrender. Having been forced to wait for sevice, Mustafa was in no mood to be generous. He released his troops who “…massacred the surrendered garrison with their sabers, slaughtered noncombatant civilians, and then incinerated a church and tower packed with women and children.” (World History of Warfare; Archer & Ferris) Christian fricassee.
However this horror hors d'oeuvre did not have the intended effect. As their own aperitif “The Viennese responded by impaling severed Turkish heads in full view of their trenches and later flayed live captives.” (ibid) Muslim a al carte. Mustafa had no choice now but to lay in a seven course siege of Vienna.
And here technology was on the side of the defenders, thanks to the invention of the “trace Italienne”, also known as the Star Fort. This design replaced the vertical masonry walls which had failed to defend Constantinople against the Ottoman solid artillery shot.
Instead, as Wikipedia explains, “forts became both lower and larger in area. Low brick "curtain walls" filled with earth, absorbed enemy shells. Cannon embrasures allowed defenders to safely target any enemy artillery positions. An exterior ditch or moat (often water filled) kept enemy cavalry and troops at a distance." Mustafa would now have to poach the city, taking the time to tunnel beneath the moats and undermine the forts. With odds in his favor of 800 to 1, this was certain to work. So Kara Mustafa ordered his men to begin digging.
All through August the Ottoman engineers tunneled, hollowing out massive galleries underneath Vienna’s outer crust. In early September, when these were packed with gunpowder and exploded, an almost 12 mile line of fortifications simply collapsed; Vienna was al dente. The defenders were almost out of food and ammunition. Then, on September 6, 1683, as the Austrians prepared for the literal last ditch defense of their city, out of the muddy waters of the mighty Danube River, arose a hero; Jan Sobieski, King of Poland.
Sobieski’s original not-so-heroic plan had been for an alliance between himself and the Ottomans against Leopold’s Austria. But finding Mehmed IV was not interested in sharing Vienna, Sobieski joined up with the Austrians instead. The newly christened “Holy League” had about 80,000 men outside of Vienna, still giving Mustafa a numerical advantage of almost 2 to 1. But Mustafa refused to relese the bird in his hand. The last fortress had already been undermined, the charges planted and the fuses set. Whatever happened with Sobieski’s army, the final act of the siege would be played out on September 12, 1683.
The Polish King chose as his battle ground a hill (Kahlen Berg) rising like a great dinner roll 1,500 feet above the Danube flood plain,  just outside the walls of Vienna. On this hill a large part of the Ottoman army was camped, including Mustafa in his red tent. But anticipating Sobieski’s plan, at four that morning, Mustafa launched a spoiling attack against the League’s troops.
As the armies threw themselves against each other all morning long atop the hill, the Ottoman engineers were finishing their preparations underground. At about one that afternoon they lit the fuses and sealed the mine from their end. But an Austrian counter-mining operation then broke into the underground gallery and at almost the last second extinguised the fuses. Vienna would not fall this day. Kara Mustafa had run out of time.
Sensing the Ottoman forces were exhausted, at about five o’clock Sobieski launched a massed cavalry attack (20,000 men and horses), led by his distinctive “winged angels”. The well dressed Polish riders devoured the Ottoman troops, and swept them from the hill.
By 5:30 Sobieski was entering Mustafa’s personal tent and the Ottoman army was in full retreat toward the twin cities of Buda and Pest. Kara Mustafa had lost 15,000 dead and wounded and 5,000 captured, while the “League” had 5,000 dead. As history tells the tale, Sobieski got the glory while the Hapsburgs got the empire.
To celebrate the miracle of victory the bakers of Vienna invented a new pastry, twisted into a crescent in rememberance of the Ottoman crescent flags. In Austria the pastry is called a “Vienniuserie”. When Marie Antoinette introduced the treat to France in 1770, it was given the name by which the rest of the world knows it; the “croissant”. A more suspect legend says Sobieski introduced the bagel to Poland commemorate the stirrups of his victorious cavalry, and that Europe’s first taste of cappuccino was in bags of coffee left behind by the fleeing Ottoman troops, or perhaps what was left behind was some tasty “Vienna Roast” coffee. There may be an element of truth in some or all of these stories, but true or not, they are legendary. And delilicous.
Mustafa regrouped his forces at Belgrade, and put them into defensive positions, in case the Austrians tried to quickly follow up their victory. But Sobieski and Leopold’s armies were as exhausted as the Ottoman troops, and the Hapsburg prince was not interested in taking undue risks. Leopold knew that time was on his side, now.
The final casualty of the battle of Vienna was Kara Mustafa himself. On December 25, 1683, a date with little meaning to a Muslim, the soldiers came for him. He waited for them with his collar open, and stretched his neck so they might wrap the traditional silk rope around his throat. Ever attentive to details, his last words to the assassins were, “Be certain to tie the knot correctly.”
Then several men pulled the knot tight until the life was squeezed out of Mustafa. His decapitated head was carried to Istanbul and presented to Mehmed IV in a velvet bag.
His grave was disgraced and lost by conquering Hapsburg armies a generation later, and his headstone now rests in the Bugarian/Turkish border town of Edirne, as either a warning or a promise, depending on which side of the border you are standing on. And I understand that modern Edirne is a good place to pick up a cup of cappuccino and a croissant. Bon appetit.
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Sunday, April 03, 2011

AMERICAN ARCHTYPE: PART FIVE

I would call him a prime example of the past being prologue. Timothy Pickering (above) was a hot headed right-wing nut the President was forced to include in his cabinet to appease the ultra-conservatives who threatened to tear his administration apart. In this case the President was George Washington and the appeasement was part of the Federalists “New England” strategy. When the Federal capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1791, Pickering was tapped to run the Post Office. During Washington's  second term, from January to December 1795, Pickering was appointed the Secretary of War. Then he became Secretary of State, a post he held into the next administration, until May of 1800 when President John Adams fired him because Pickering wanted to declare war against the French.
This was the man Fort Pickering had been named after. And it was appropriate that “his” fort, standing on the bluffs (above) along the Mississippi River, was half military establishment and half private enterprise, which sold and distributed goods to the Chickasaw Indian nation. They called this hybrid a “factor”. Captain Meriwether Lewis had commanded this post for awhile back in the 1790's, and now as Governor Lewis he was back. But his was a far from triumphal return. He had to be carried into the post on a stretcher.
The fort stood back from the Mississippi River, atop the fourth of the Chickasaw bluffs, in the midst of what is today Memphis, Tennessee. It was not a prime landing spot, but at least it had fewer mosquitoes than the previous fort, and once there Lewis began to improve quickly. The day after his arrival, on Saturday September 16th 1809, Lewis wrote to President James Madison that “I arrived here yesterday...very much exhausted from the heat...but having taken medicine, feel much better this morning.”
The medicine he was taking was a combination of opium and alcohol, known as laudanum. It was highly addictive and the Governor was not merely feeling better, he was probably high. He wrote to the President that he was not continuing down the Mississippi as planned, but rather would be coming overland via the Natchez Trace. Then he mentioned his real reason for all this effort. “I bring with me”, he wrote, “duplicates of my vouchers for public expenditures... which when fully explained...will receive both sanction and approbation and sanction.” Did I mention he was probably high? As a final needling point, Lewis included in his letter those territorial laws he had translated into French, the rejection of the bill for which had inspired this horrendous journey.
Lt. Gilbert Russel, the current commander of Fort Pickering, had ordered the post medic to prevent Governor Lewis from drinking anymore laudanum. Under this regimen, wrote Lt. Russel, “all symptoms of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses...”. Within a week the Governor was ready and eager to continue his journey. But Lt. Russel thought he ought to accompany him. Lt. Russel's accounts had also been questioned by the bureaucrats back in the War Department, and Russel was awaiting permission from his boss, General Wilkerson, so he could also have it out in person with those annoying bean counters. In fact, I suspect, that it was Russel who convinced Governor Lewis to change his travel plans and proceed overland. It would be far more effective for both of these men to make their appeals together, and safer for Governor Lewis if he had someone to watch his laudanum consumption during the trip back.
However, almost two weeks went by, and still there was no release from General Wilkerson. Lewis was anxious to get moving and, suspected Russel, to get back to his "medicine". But just when it seemed as if Russel would have to send the Governor off into the wilderness alone, a seeming savior arrived at Fort Pickering; James Neelly; agent to the Chickasaw Indians, and an ex-army major.
Neelly was delivering a white prisoner to be shipped down to New Orleans for trial. He had brought the man from his post at the Chickasaw nation, some 100 miles south-south east of Fort Pickering. And by what seemed at the time to be a happy coincidence, Neelly now had urgent business in Franklin, Tennessee, just 20 miles south west of Nashville, Governor Lewis' intermediate destination. Perhaps Neelly could accompany Lewis and watch over him. But there was a catch, of course.
Neely was not good material for a guardian angel. He was an alcoholic and the worst kind of gambler, which is say an inveterate one. He gambled on cards, horse races and he was also, of course a land speculator. And like most gamblers, he usually lost. His gambling had put him in debt to just about everybody he knew, even his boss, General James Wilkerson. And just the month before he had asked the penny pinching Secretary of War, William Eustis, for a loan. Good luck with that. But if James thought he might put “the touch” on Governor Lewis, he was quickly dissuaded.
On Wednesday, September 27, Lt. Russel signed the paperwork loaning Lewis two horses and a saddle from the Fort's herd, and gave him a personal check for $100. In return Governor Meriwether Lewis signed an IOU for $379.58. This trip, undertaken to settle his financial problems, was putting Lewis deeper in debt.
Before dawn, two days later, Governor Lewis and James Neelly, along with their servants, an Indian interpreter and a few Chickasaws, left the fort by horseback. Three had days later, on October 3rd, they reached Big Town, a village not much smaller than St. Louis. This was the main Chickasaw town. There were about 1,000 residents in 300 log cabins, interspersed amongst fields of corn, rice, tobacco and cotton. The fields were worked by African American slaves, something the Chickasaws had in common with the Americans, along with their religion. These savage natives had largely converted to Christianity. It was not going to help them. In the end the Americans would steal their land and ship these Christians across the Mississippi.
In Big Town Lewis and Neeley picked up the Natchez Trace, the “Devils Backbone” trail that wound north-eastward through the dark and ominous forest to Meriwether Lewis' final destination.
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