Wes’s Wild and Woolly History Section


Looking for a page on history that makes it jump off the (Web)page? Something that demonstrates the relevance of ancient events to our modern world and answers all those nagging "I wonder how..." questions? A page that seriously boasts a section called "sleeper history," about lesser-known historical events and figures that have had a massive impact on the course of world events? A page that'll help you finally win back that "I got broke and wasted in Las Vegas" T-shirt from your buddy via a well-placed (and well-informed) bet in Trivial Pursuit? Well, this is the page for you. I've been writing historical essays for over a dozen years now, dating back to college, and some of my articles have been gathered together in book form. On this site, I've put together some of my amassed writings to provide some readily readable and digestible historical goodies, all those cool political movements and individuals and battles that you never encountered in school, but which continue to exert their effects on the modern world.


Sleeper History


The mainstay of the history section. I’ve had a longstanding interest in what might be termed “sleeper history”—lesser-known historical events and figures that have nonetheless had drastic influences on the course of events. Sleeper history doesn’t consist of radical new theories or revisionism of any sort; rather, it’s simply the stuff in specialized texts, periodical historical publications, or doctoral dissertations that you’d find buried in some back aisle in a university library, material that’s well-known to the professionals but hasn’t quite filtered down to the general history texts that are used in schools and public libraries. Sleeper history is all about incidents and individuals who are significant but never quite had the right press agent, the mild-mannered but quiet developers of navigational and communications technologies in the 18th century, the mathematicians and merchants of 10th century Arabia, the little-known climactic shifts or high-seas clashes that had a massive impact on history but never quite announced their presence in stentorian tones. I’ve spent well over a decade amassing such figures and events and the product of this has been two (as-yet unpublished) books. As teaser material, I’m posting up some of my essays and articles on such so-called sleeper history in this section of my Website. There’s no particular chronological or thematic order to the articles provided here; it’s just more or less what seems to have most captured the interest of people when I discuss the topics.


The Defeat of the English Armada


A more detailed look at the Spanish Armada, its immediate results, its long-term effects, and its lesser-known aftermath: Punctured myths and surprising facts


What does a (relatively) little-known land and naval clash between England and Spain in 1589 have to do with the history (even territorial integrity) of Latin America, with the bloody and still ongoing conflict in Ireland, with the English Parliament’s greater assertiveness, and with the first “empire on which the sun never set”—that of Spain? Everything. The Spanish Armada battle is well-known but is often taught, perplexingly, in the absence of its context and of its fascinating aftermath, a protracted and intermittent Anglo-Spanish War that lasted from 1585-1604 and of which the Spanish Armada was an important, but early battle with results not nearly as decisive as many believe. Even more important than the Spanish Armada battle was an invasion we could conveniently term “the English Armada,” an expedition to Portugal and northern Spain in 1589 that had, as its primary objective, nothing less than the destruction of the Spanish Atlantic navy, the basis of its sea power and the nucleus of its military control over its sprawling yet still fledgling New World Empire. What’s now referred to on the map as “Latin America” was still disputed territory in the late 1500s, and an English victory in 1589 would likely have changed the map of the modern world drastically. For reasons remarkable and bizarre, the English Armada was defeated in its aims despite the rare opportunity presented by the Spaniards’ perilously weakened defensive state, and what should have been an easy victory for the English fell apart at the seams. This fascinating event is related here. I’ve included this article first and foremost because it always seems to draw a high level of interest among readers who stumble upon the “sleeper history” essays I’ve written. The article is lengthy, but I hope it’ll also whet your appetite to read further about a particularly fascinating period: the rise of the European Atlantic naval powers in the 16th century, and the origins of the West’s sea-borne projection of its power across the globe.


The Spanish Armada Sets Sail Into the Waters of Historical Confusion


Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle


To paraphrase Churchill, rarely in the field of human conflict has so much been said so incorrectly from so many places about one battle. In its retrospective depiction, the Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 is one of the most commonly and persistently error-prone and myth-laden clashes in world history. The facts of the Spanish Armada battle are well-established and discussed among individuals in the historical field, yet these details do not seem to have percolated into the general history texts from which the Spanish Armada confrontation is actually imparted to schoolchildren. Although the academic historical literature has long since debunked the excesses of the patriotic Victorian-era Armada historiographic tradition, this more accurate and dispassionate picture of the Spanish Armada clash has largely failed to correct the errors that have long littered many popular accounts of the battle. The result is that popular histories of the Armada even today run rampant with Victorian-era myths and misconceptions, presenting a grossly inaccurate picture of the battle itself, its antecedent causes, and its short-term and long-term effects. I’ve been fascinated by the story of the Spanish Armada—and the extraordinary personage of Sir Francis Drake in particular—for many years, yet I’ve also been appalled at the alarming inaccuracies that still permeate most descriptions of the Spanish Armada encounter. I’ve therefore written this essay as a corrective. In the style of David Letterman’s masterfully crafted Top 10 lists, I’ve scrutinized the 10 most common myths surrounding the Spanish Armada and demolished them one by one, reporting the myth and then providing the fact. So, without further ado, here’s the Top 10 list of Spanish Armada myths, muddles, and facts.


Clash on the Talas, 751 A.D.: History’s Most Important Battle


Historical junctures and linchpin battles are always a favorite topic for historians both amateur and professional, whether huddled around a college seminar room table or arrayed on a row of barstools sipping a pint after work. The popular historical canon is replete with books on the most significant historical events, the most pivotal and influential people (Michael H. Hart’s The 100 being the most recognized title in this genre), and—perhaps inspiring the most vigorous debate of all—the most critical battles and military turning points in history. (See here for a brief but detailed discussion of the criteria that I use to decide pivotal battles. My most significant battles aren’t necessarily large or recent in history; above all, they’re associated with compelling ideas or the dissemination of technologies or practices that hinge on the battle’s outcome.) In this article, I describe and discuss what may be fairly argued to be history’s single most important military confrontation in its implications: The Battle of the Talas River.

The Battle of Talas is almost unknown for American history students, yet it would be difficult to overstate its ramifications. Talas was the first and only clash between the dominant civilizations in the Western world—at that time, the Abbasid Islamic Arab Empire—and the Eastern world, that of the T’ang Chinese imperial domain. Arab victory at Talas provoked a rebellion that destabilized the T’ang Dynasty and thwarted Chinese expansion into Central Asia for nearly a millennium before the early Manchu emperors finally managed to conquer the western frontier. Far more importantly, Talas enabled the Arab armies— at a time of rare political and military cohesion—to project their influence eastward, transforming the Muslim creed from a regional faith based in the Middle East into a world religion with its greatest demographic strength, today, in Central, South, and East Asia—the fertile lands beyond the Talas River. Of even greater significance, it was at Talas that the genius of Chinese innovation first began to disseminate westward. The victorious Arabs conquered several Chinese experts in the arcane, intricate art of papermaking, which had been invented centuries before, in the Han Dynasty, by Ts’ai Lun. The Chinese POW’s quickly became masters to their new Arab apprentices, and the then rare, extraordinary medium of wood pulp-based paper disseminated into the more westerly regions of the Muslim cultural spheres—ultimately reaching southern Italy and Moorish Spain. It was from these frontier Islamic civilizations that paper entered into the lands of western Europe, ultimately working its way into the design of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and providing the crucial ingredient that would spawn the High Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment in Europe. Talas itself was a pitched but relatively small-scale military encounter, one in which the rival armies clashed briefly and the Arabs refrained even from pursuing their defeated opponents when the latter were most vulnerable. Yet the impact of Talas redounds today in countless ways large and small. The essay here examines this little-recognized but pivotal battle in greater detail.


Westward Ho! Rapid US Territorial Expansion in the 19th Century


Unintended Consequences: Napoleon’s Invasion of Haiti and the Louisiana Purchase, 1802


Robert E. Lee’s Most Important Battle: The Epochal Impact of the Mexican War, 1848


The swift territorial growth of the United States of America represents one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the 2nd millennium A.D. From 1776 to 1848, the United States transformed itself from a loose, weak, and insecure collection of fractious colonies on the eastern coast of North America into a formidable colossus stretching from one ocean to the other. Blessed with abundant, resource-rich land, an industrial society, and the capacity to place its navy swiftly into the waters of the world’s two major oceans, the US was poised to expand further into the strategic islands of the Pacific and the oil-rich, ice-caked region of Alaska. No country in history expanded its territory more rapidly than the United States, and it did so largely as the result of two remarkable historical events: the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which doubled American territory, and victory in the Mexican War in 1848, which gave the US the strategically and economically pivotal land that now constitutes the Southwest. It is important to note that in start contrast to Latin America—in which the newly independent nations essentially inherited territory that had once been part of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, land that devolved upon the new states with independence—the US stands out in that the vast majority of its territory resides on land that was never, at any point, a part of the British Empire. The Louisiana Territory was a domain of France in North America, while Mexico’s northern lands had been part of New Spain prior to the country’s independence in 1821. Thus ironically, barely 60 years following its own independence from Great Britain, the new US empire had expanded and evolved into a direct economic and political competitor of the British one. Furthermore, the young United States would incorporate an astonishing cultural heterogeneity under its umbrella, since the lands of the Midwest and Southwest would bear permanent witness to their respective heritages under French, Spanish, and Mexican rule.

Neither of these two momentous historical events was foreordained. The Louisiana Purchase ensued consequent to an unlikely confluence of events, in particular, an unexpected and devastating reversal suffered by Napoleon’s forces against the crafty soldiers of Toussaint L’Ouverture in newly independent Haiti. The renowned French general and soon-to-be emperor had intended for French Louisiana to be a breadbasket for his Caribbean sugarcane empire, but the debacle in Haiti convinced him—in response to American offers seeking only New Orleans—to divest France of the country’s prized possession in North America, for a firesale price to Thomas Jefferson. 45 years later, US marines marched into the Halls of Montezuma to plant the Stars and Stripes in occupied Mexico City. In spite of corruption and disunity in the chronically unstable Mexican government, the country’s troops acquitted themselves cleverly and courageously in a 3-year war against the US, yet the battlefield mastery of Winfield Scott—perhaps the United States’ most underrated general—had brought victory to the United States, which seized half of Mexico’s territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Mexican War, while relatively little discussed, is one of the most important conflicts of the past 500 years and—outside of the American Revolution itself—the most pivotal in US history. It was only because of victory in 1848 that the United States was able to become a superpower fronting on two oceans, sending its vessels into the Pacific and inundating the world with movies from Hollywood in the captured land. It also represents a continuing source of bitterness between two neighbors with an often hot-blooded history, with implications for the 21st century as the region once again begins to assume a more culturally Mexican character. The superpower of 2004 was forged in the wake of two historically unique bursts of 19th-century territorial expansion, and the two essays of this section explore the historical consequences of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s victory over Napoleon in 1802 and the Mexican-American War—and the resultant treaty—in 1848.



Historical Conundrums


This is a more analytical section that considers historical periods and confronts often-befuddling questions about why a particular historical phenomenon evolved the way it did—why this empire rose and spread while that empire declined and fell, why a particular economic policy in one country caught hold and engendered prosperity while a similar program in a different nation, under disparate circumstances, failed to produce the same result. This is a more college seminar-ish portion of the History section, but hopefully a valuable one to you loyal readers.


The Roman Legionnaire Next Door: Debunking the Natural Life Cycle Concept as Applied to Civilizations and Societies


In spite of their disagreements on just about every other issue, both liberal and conservative commentators like to invoke the presumption of the natural course of civilizations. It’s just so easy, so facile to presume that civilizations have a natural birth, life, and death, a rise and fall, just like individual humans, and this assumption becomes a prism through which we view modern societies, a readily cited framework that biases many of our interpretations about nations and societies at the outset. Yet groups of any sort differ radically in their behavior from individuals, and are notoriously unpredictable in any way, shape, or form. This goes doubly so for civilizations, which are extraordinarily complex entities that do not simply live or die; they grow, expand, change, and transform themselves, propagating their essences through legacies of culture and tradition (much like the ancient Roman Republic and Empire in our own modern 21st-century world) as much as direct political units linked to defined nation-states. And no two are even remotely the same, as the discussion below notes with many specific examples. We cannot talk sensibly about modern civilizations—including our own—until we disabuse ourselves or lazy and facile assumptions that compare them with the experiences of individual human beings. The two cases are not even slightly similar.



Whatever happened to the Mongol Empire?


The Mongol land empire initiated by the warrior Temujin—better known as Genghis Khan—in the 1200s was the largest ever seen, stretching at its greatest height from the Pacific Ocean to the gates of Budapest, from the permafrost steppes of Siberia to rough bordelands of China, India, and Syria. The Mongol armies were the most intimidating since the Roman legions, and the Mongol administrative apparatus was remarkably efficient and relatively free of corruption. Yet the empire had collapsed with astounding rapidity and thoroughness barely a century-and-a-half later. What happened? This essay attempts to answer the question. We sometimes offhandedly assume that military superiority and conquest translates into a durable empire and cultural hegemony, citing examples like the Romans, Persians, Macedonians, Chinese, Arabs, and Russians. Yet in fact, such lasting, integrated, culturally significant imperial entities were if anything aberrations; the vast majority of empires have left relatively little cultural or administrative imprint on the conquered peoples, often themselves being “conquered” and assimilated into the surrounding cultures. While military ascendancy and authority are usually a prerequisite for empire-building, they constitute merely one small step toward constructing a truly significant land and sea empire; far more important over the long term are a well-managed and competent administrative bureaucracy, economic self-sufficiency, and—perhaps most important—a compelling cultural wave to which people in the region or drawn. The Mongol Conquests, like those of the Vikings and Germanic tribes in Western Europe, help to provide an illuminating case study about what is actually needed to found and maintain a durable empire.


The French Military as Contrasted with the English since 1500: Proud Traditions or a Badge of Shame?


In the midst of the ferocious Francophobia surrounding the US-led invasion of Iraq beginning in March of 2003, it has become fashionable in the United States to cast aspersions at France’s supposed military pusillanimity at every opportunity. Semi-facetious articles such as “The Complete French Military History” have sought to attribute to the French a record of reliable military bungling and failure. Are the French really such cheese-eating surrender monkeys, exemplars of abject capitulation, when the historical record is examined in detail? Not at all. In fact, if one examines the French military record in comparison with France’s historic archrival—England—their military records aren’t too much apart from each other. To be sure, France has had a rough stretch over the past two centuries, but in the long view (since these two nations first jelled, essentially around the turn of the first millennium A.D.), France has had a reasonably decent military track record. A closer look reveals that the British as well as the French have suffered a substantial number of particularly severe defeats over the past 500 years, including a surprisingly large number in colonial wars against indigenous forces.



Short Cuts


Brief Essays on Assorted Historical Topics


Linked essays within my Spanish Armada article


Each of the essays below is linked as a special topic within my Spanish Armada article. Many of them contain informative tidbits in their own right, and so for the sake of convenience, Ive also indexed and summarized them here.


The Hapsburgs

Get the low-down on a family that really ruled—the Hapsburgs, a clan that managed to insinuate itself into so many European ruling houses over so many centuries that sibling rivalries and family feuds could translate into Continent-scale wars.


Iberians at the Foremast


Why were Spain and Portugal the initiators of the European Age of Exploration, that epochal period of maritime venturing in the late 15th century that so drastically changed the world, uniting the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and enabling Europe to project its culture and imperial designs across the globe? A mixture of factors, from proximity to Mediterranean trade routes closed after 1453, to the technological heirlooms of Moorish Spain, played an important role. This essay fleshes them out and discusses them in detail.


But I don't see Iberia on the map!?


The “Iberian Peninsula” is referenced an awful lot, but many a Jeopardy! contestant might stumble when picking out where it is or what countries it contains. It’s the shoulder of Europe, jutting out in the southwest and boasting the nations of Spain and Portugal. This essay briefly explains the origin of the term “Iberian” as well as that of “Hispania,” the Roman name for Spain now applied in adjectival form to a vast and diverse ethnic group in the US today.


What's in a (war's) name?


Spain and England waged an intermittent yet ferociously contested war from 1585-1604, a clash on many lands, seas, and oceans that was, in many respects, the first world war. Yet this epochal clash has remained strangely anonymous. I’ve dubbed it the Twenty Years' War in my writing here, and in this brief essay I explain why I’ve chosen this option over other viable alternatives.


Parma: The Iron Duke of the 16th Century


Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, was the George S. Patton and Duke of Wellington of the 1500s. One of the most competent, effective, and feared military strategists in European history, Parma was King Philip II’s most reliable field general.


The Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Maritime Mastery of Michiel de Ruyter


Though the notion of Britain as Europe’s predominant sea power is fixed in the popular imagination, fueled by the breathtaking span of the country’s imperial undertakings during the Hanoverian and Victorian years of the 1800s, in fact the British navy would not assume such an exalted status until 1763, at the conclusion of the epochal French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War in Europe). Prior to this, England (Britain after 1707, following the Act of Union which united Scotland with Wales and England) had to contend with other powerful national navies, which often bested the English in sea-borne quarrels. As noted in the Spanish Armada article here, the defeat of the Armada did not in any way confer naval predominance upon England in 1588; it was merely an early battle in a long land and naval war, in which Spain would gain the lion’s share of victory against the Elizabethan English military in the 1590s, boasting the most effective and tactically sound navy the Iberian country had ever put to sea. Following the debacles of that decade, English shipbuilders, engineers, and commanders quietly tweaked their vessels as Spain began to falter into the mid-1600s, beleaguered by inflation and chronic venality in its leadership class. However, by 1650, when Spain relinquished its mantle as lord of the oceans, the role would be newly taken up not by the English, but by the Dutch. In an extraordinary and unusual series of reversals for the English, the Dutch navy managed to consistently defeat its English opponent in three raging maritime trade conflicts in the late 1600s, the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The Dutch victories ensued in large part from the small country’s secret weapon at the time: an admiral named Michiel de Ruyter, one of history’s most competent, effective, and underrated virtuosos of the high seas, whose remarkable tactics would serve as an inspiration for generations of martial mariners. After repetitive setbacks against this Dutch Master, the British finally revamped their ships and their styles of naval warfare to produce the efficient, potent sailing fleets of the 1700s. It was this 18th century fleet that would serve as the bedrock of the British Empire, and it provided the basis for the maritime supremacy that in the 1800s would spread the Union Jack across distant and disparate lands.


War of the Waves: The Battle of Lepanto, 1571


An examination of the brief yet pivotal naval confrontation between the fleet of the European Holy League, led by the resourceful Don John of Austria, and the Ottoman Turks. The most important naval clash since Actium, Lepanto resulted in a defeat that in no way crippled the persistent Ottoman forces, but did thwart their intention of seizing control of the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean Sea.


The Magnificent and the Mercenary: The Siege of Vienna, 1529


The Ottoman Siege of Vienna was a pivotal confrontation between the massed forces of the revered Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and a multinational defensive garrison led by a crafty old German mercenary named Nicholas Salm (Nicholas, Graf von Salm). Not since the Battle of Poitiers in 732 had Europe been so directly threatened by an invading army, and perhaps not since the Punic Wars by one so numerous and well-organized. Suleiman’s forces, attenuated by severe rains, nonetheless besieged the city with ferocity, employing a clever tactic involving the breach of its defensive walls via furtively excavated subterranean tunnels in which powder keg mines were painstakingly placed. Yet Salm rose to the challenge and employed an innovative defensive strategy to deal the Ottoman sultan a rare and crucial defeat. The Siege of Vienna was exemplary for numerous improvised tactics and weapons systems, and it featured perhaps the only recorded example of an underground battle in history. This brief article examines it in greater detail.



Wes’s What-Ifs and Counterfactuals Page


This is a section chock-full (well, it soon will be, at least) of counterfactuals, those fascinating examinations of history in the subjunctive mood, when historical turning-points are postulated to play out differently with a myriad of debatable and discussable ramifications. In keeping with my general interest in lesser-know “sleeper history,” I’ve largely ignored the 300-pound gorillas of WWII and the Civil War and stuck with battles and incidents you’ve probably never heard of. Enjoy, and in the words of the inimitable Linda Richman on SNL, “Discuss among yourselves.”


©2003- Wes Ulm (J. Wesley Ulm), Harvard University Personal Website: Wes’s Wild and Woolly History Page