Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, February 18, 2012

St. Valentine

We all know Valentine’s Day to be a day of card giving, chocolates and love. But how did this day get started? Where does it come from and whom does it celebrate? The answer is it all began with St. Valentine.

The truth about the life of St. Valentine is wrapped in mystery and shrouded by time. We have very few facts, but tradition holds that St. Valentine, or Valentius, was a Christian priest in the late third century. During the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, the Roman Army was in a state of decline. Claudius theorized that single men make better soldiers than married men. He therefore outlawed marriage for all young men. Valentius continued to perform marriage ceremonies in secret despite the emperor’s decree. Consequently, Valentius was imprisoned but met solace and comfort in the Lord and a friend he had made. The legend goes that Valentius fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, whose job it was to bring him his food. After the jailer reassigned his daughter, Valentius wrote her a love letter that became known as the first Valentine’s card. Eventually, Claudius executed Valentius on Feb. 14, but his legacy of love and devotion survived.

In 496, Pope Gesalius officially recognized Feb 14th as Valentine ’s Day of martyrdom and canonized him as a saint. During the middle ages, it became popular to celebrate Valentine ’s Day as a day of romance and marriage, even to exchange cards. The first surviving Valentine’s card we have dates from 1415. It was written by the Duke of Orleans when he wrote to his wife while he was in the tower of London after his capture at the battle of Agincourt. The tradition of celebrating with cards and gifts continued in America and this holiday remains one of the most popular on the calendar. So the next time you write a card or give a box of chocolates, you celebrate the legacy of love, marriage and the good St. Valentine.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Little Sea Trade

It has long been the prerogative of any seafaring nation to control the waters in which it trades. This prerogative stems from a simple ratio of 21:9:1. Before the invention of the locomotive, it took a traveler twenty-one days by foot, nine days by horse and one day by ship to reach his/her destination. Obviously, traveling by ship is the optimum choice. In ancient times, the seafaring nations of the Phoenicians and Greeks developed wealthy and more dynamic economies than those of the great land empires of Egypt and Babylon. During the Middle Ages, the Venetians and Genoese were the great shippers of spices and textiles. Indeed, the amount of capital that was tied into the shipping industry compelled the Venetians to form the first insurance companies, stock markets and of course, banks. These were the forces that kept the focus of European trade in the Mediterranean, but one man from Genoa was going to change all that.

In an effort to circle around the globe, thereby undercutting the Silk Road middlemen, Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 in search of a passage to the spices of India and China. He didn’t find either, but what he did find, two new continents, gradually drew the focus of European trade away from the Mediterranean Sea and into the Atlantic. The seafaring nations of Europe established colonies and settlements in the new land in order to extract its vast natural resources. The Netherlands settled New Amsterdam, the Spanish settled Mexico and Peru, the French moved into Canada, the English established several colonies between French Canada and Spanish Florida, and all the powers had a smattering of sugar islands in the Caribbean. What followed was a series of naval wars in order to control not only the fledgling colonies in America, but the vast trade system that was growing around the globe. At first, the Spanish were dominant but that changed after the battle of the Armada in 1588. Next was the turn of the Dutch, but they eventually lost control to the English. But not even the great Atlantic could contain the ever-hungry, ever-growing arms of Europe and it soon looked beyond the western hemisphere and into the East.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Europe had stretched its reach all over the world, enveloping it in a new system of global trade and commerce. India was conquered and exploited by the British, the Dutch conquered Indonesia and parts of South Africa, while all the Europeans worked collectively to pry open China from the hands of the wary and jealous emperors there. By the end of the 19th century, the European countries had used up all possible outlets for empire and exploit in the Eastern Hemisphere. They would have tried to reclaim the lost colonies of Central and South America, but the young USA to the north wouldn’t let them. Without any more space to expand, the nations of Europe eventually turned on themselves and fought two world wars to determine who was on top of the global scene. The result was that none of them were dominant any longer. While the nations of Europe faded, new countries were able to develop their own trade systems with each other.  Although we now have electric trains, airplanes and automobiles, shipping by sea is still the most expedient means of transporting goods.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Return to Russia Pt. 2

Poltava 1709

Czar Peter the Great looked over the remnants of the defeated Swedish army. Sweden and Russia had been at war for a long time and this was the climactic victory Peter had been waiting for. It all began with the accession of the young monarch.
Peter the Great

Peter Romanov had dedicated his career to changing his vast hermit kingdom into a modern European Empire. His first task was to move the capital from the ancient wooden city of Moscow. Instead of simply choosing a different city, Peter decided to build a new one. St. Petersburg was built to emulate and even rival the great capitals of Western Europe, such as London, Paris, Vienna, and Stockholm. Architects from France and Germany designed the city’s layout and buildings. French became the official language at the Russian court. Yet despite the advances, Russia had a long way to go. Peter knew that in order to advance Russia further, he needed to trade with Europe and in order to trade with Europe, Russia needed a fleet and merchant marine. The problem was Sweden.

Winter Palace Petersburg 

After Gustavus Adolphus invaded northern Europe during the Thirty Year’s War, Sweden had been a continental power. The subsequent Swedish monarchs turned the Baltic Sea into a Swedish Lake, keeping the Russians out. This state of affairs ultimately led to war, a war that ended with the battle of Poltava. Ten years after the battle, the Stockholm Treaties granted Russia large territories on the Baltic, opening up the rest of Europe to Russia’s vast untapped resources. Peter’s subsequent successor, Czarina Catherine the Great, conquered the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Turks and opened up the Black Sea to Russian trade with the Mediterranean. Eventually, Russia became a lead player on the European stage and even expanded east. They didn’t stop expanding east until they reached the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, the great empire that Peter and Catherine had created fell apart during the First World War and fomented into a communist revolution. But that’s a story for another day.