The Mystery of The Minoan Civilization

The Mystery of The Minoan Civilization
Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe


The beginnings of Cretan history are locked in the darkness of the Neolothic period which ended around 2600BC. About this time, during the Aegean Bronze Age, there emerged on Crete a civilisation that became known as the Minoan Civilization. It  has been described as the earliest of its kind in Europe, a so called “the first link in the European chain”.

The Minoans represented the first advanced civilization in Europe, leaving behind massive building complexes, tools, artwork, writing systems, and a wide trading network.

The civilization was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The name “Minoan” derives from the mythical King Minos and was coined by Evans, who identified the site ruins at Knossos with the legend of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.


In Greek mythology, Minos was a King of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa. Every seven years, he made King Aegeus pick seven young boys and seven young girls to be sent to the labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur. After his death, Minos became a judge of the dead in the underworld.

The many rooms of the palace at Knossos were so oddly shaped and disordered to Evans that they reminded him of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. According to myth, Minos’ wife had an illicit union with a white bull, which lead to the birth of a half bull and half man, known as the Minotaur. King Minos had his court artist and inventor, Daedalus, build an inescapable labyrinth for the Minotaur to live in.

The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and other Aegean islands such as Santorini from c. 3000 BC to c. 1450 BC until a late period of decline, finally ending around 1100 BC.

Minoan Palaces

Minoan palaces were divided into numerous zones for civic, storage, and production purposes; they also had a central, ceremonial courtyard.

The most well known and excavated architectural buildings of the Minoans were these palaces that acted as administrative centres.

Ancient Phaestos

Ancient Phaestos

When Sir Arthur Evans first excavated at Knossos, not only did he mistakenly believe he was looking at the legendary labyrinth of King Minos, he also thought he was excavating a palace. However, the small rooms and large storage vessels, and archives led researchers to believe that these palaces were administrative centers. Even so, the name became ingrained, and these large, communal buildings across Crete are known as palaces.

Although each one is unique, they share similar features and functions. The largest and oldest palace centers are at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Kato Zakro.

These large and elaborate palaces were up to four stories high, featuring elaborate plumbing systems and decorated with frescoes. The most notable Minoan palace is that at Knossis, followed by that at Phaistos.

The complex at Knossos provides an example of the monumental architecture built by the Minoans. The most prominent feature on the plan is the palace’s large, central courtyard. This courtyard may have been the location of large ritual events, including bull leaping, and a similar courtyard is found in every Minoan palace centre.

Several small tripartite shrines surround the courtyard. The numerous corridors and rooms of the palace center create multiple areas for storage, meeting rooms, shrines, and workshops.

The absence of a central room and living chambers suggest the absence of a king and, instead, the presence and rule of a strong, centralized government.

The palaces also have multiple entrances that often take long paths to reach the central courtyard or a set of rooms. There are no fortification walls, although the multitude of rooms creates a protective, continuous façade. While this provides some level of fortification, it also provides structural stability for earthquakes.

Wells for light and air provide ventilation and light. The Minoans also created careful drainage systems and wells for collecting and storing water, as well as sanitation.

Their architectural columns are uniquely constructed and easily identified as Minoan. They are constructed from wood, as opposed to stone, and are tapered at the bottom. They stood on stone bases and had large, bulbous tops, now known as cushion capitals. The Minoans painted their columns bright red and the capitals were often painted black.


Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe

Because the Minoan alphabet, known as Linear A , has yet to be deciphered, scholars must rely on the culture’s visual art to provide insights into Minoan life.

The visual art – known as frescoes – discovered in locations such as Knossos and Akrotiri ,on the island of Santorini, inform us of the plant and animal life of the islands of Crete and Thera (Santorini), the common styles of clothing, and the activities the people practiced. For example, men wore kilts and loincloths. Women wore short-sleeve dresses with flounced skirts whose bodices were open to the navel, allowing their breasts to be exposed.

Vase Painting

Minoan ceramics and vase painting are uniquely stylized and are similar in artistic style to Minoan wall painting. As with Minoan frescoes, themes from nature and marine life are often depicted on their pottery. Similar earth-tone colors are used, including black, white, brown, red, and blue.

Kamares ware, a distinctive type of pottery painted in white, red, and blue over a black backdrop, is created from a fine clay. The paintings depict marine scenes, as well as abstract floral shapes, and they often include abstract lines and shapes, including spirals and waves.

Minoan Pottery

Minoan Pottery

These stylized, floral shapes include lilies, palms, papyrus , and leaves that fill the entire surface of the pot with bold designs. The pottery is named for the location where it was first found in the late nineteenth century — a cave sanctuary at Kamares, on Mount Ida. This style of pottery is found throughout the island of Crete as well in a variety of locations on the Mediterranean.

Read: The Handmade Delights of Crete

Minoan Symbols

The Double Axe

Whilst the double axe continued to retain its practical use as a forestry and hewing tool in Minoan culture, it became imbued with a special religious significance from an early stage, which can also be seen in Thracian and mainland Greek art.

For the Minoans on Crete, the symbol was especially associated with female divinities and priestesses and thus became a synonym for matriarchy. To find such an axe in the hands of a Minoan woman would therefore indicate that she held a powerful position within Minoan society.

The Minoan Double Axe

The Minoan Double Axe

Bull Leaping

Although the specifics of bull leaping remain a matter of debate, it is commonly interpreted as a ritualistic activity performed in connection with bull worship. In most cases, the leaper would literally grab a bull by his horns, which caused the bull to jerk his neck upwardly. This jerking motion gave the leaper the momentum necessary to perform somersaults and other acrobatic tricks or stunts.

Bull Leaping Frescoe

Bull Leaping Frescoe

Traders And Foreign Influence

The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people who engaged in overseas trade. After 1700 BC, their culture indicates a high degree of organization. Minoan-manufactured goods.

The Minoan period saw extensive trade between Crete, Aegean, and Mediterranean settlements, particularly the Near East. Through their traders and their artists, the Minoans’ cultural influence reached beyond Crete to the nearby Cyclades group of Greek islands, and to Egypt, Cyprus and the coasts of Turkey, Lebanon and Israel


The Minoans settled on other islands besides Crete, including the volcanic, Cycladic island of Thera (present-day Santorini). The volcano on Thera erupted in mid-second millennium BCE and destroyed the Minoan city of Akrotiri. Akrotiri was entombed by pumice and ash and since its rediscovery has been referred to as the Minoan Pompeii. The frescoes on Akrotiri were preserved by the blanketing volcanic ash.

Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe

Some of the best Minoan art is preserved here. A fresco of saffron-gatherers is well-known. The Minoans traded in saffron, which originated in the Aegean basin. According to Evans, saffron was a substantial Minoan industry and was used for dye. Other archaeologists emphasize durable trade items: ceramics, copper, tin, gold and silver. The saffron may have also had a religious significance. The saffron trade, which predated Minoan civilization, was comparable in value to that of frankincense and black pepper.

The influence of Minoan civilization is seen in Minoan handicrafts on the Greek mainland. And Connections between Egypt and Crete are prominent; Minoan ceramics are found in Egyptian cities, and the Minoans imported items, such as  papyrus ,and architectural and artistic ideas from Egypt. Egyptian hieroglyphs might even have been models for the Cretan hieroglyphs from which the Linear A and Linear B writing systems developed.

Knossos palace recreation

Knossos palace recreation


Minoan religion apparently focused on female deities, with women officiants. While historians and archaeologists are unsure of an outright matriarchy, the predominance of female figures in authoritative roles over male ones seems to indicate that Minoan society was matriarchal.


Because their language has yet to be deciphered, it is unknown what kind of government was practiced by the Minoans, though the palaces and throne rooms indicate a form of hierarchy.


Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robeswith short sleeves and layered, flounced skirts. The robes were open to the navel, exposing their breasts. Women could also wear a strapless, fitted bodice, and clothing patterns had symmetrical geometric designs.

Other Minoan sites

The ruins of Minoan sites are scattered across Crete. The most notable if these are at Phaistos and Agia Triada. Gortyn was also inhabitated by the Minoans but when the Romans conquered Crete they made it their capital.

Language and writing

Several writing systems dating from the Minoan period have been unearthed in Crete, the majority of which are currently undeciphered.The most well-known script is Linear A dated to between 2500 BC and 1450 BC.Linear A is the parent of the related Linear B , which encodes the earliest known forms of Greek. Several attempts to translate Linear A have been made, but consensus is lacking and Linear A is currently considered undeciphered. The language encoded by Linear A is tentatively dubbed “Minoan”. When the values of the symbols in Linear B are used in Linear A, they produce unintelligible words, and would make Minoan unrelated to any other known language. There is a belief that the Minoans used their written language primarily as an accounting tool and that even if deciphered, may offer little insight other than detailed descriptions of quantities.

Linear A is preceded by about a century by the Cretan hieroglyphs It is unknown whether the language is Minoan, and its origin is debated. Although the hieroglyphs are often associated with the Egyptians, they also indicate a relationship to Mesopotamian writings. They came into use about a century before Linear A, and were used at the same time as Linear A (18th century BC; MM II). The hieroglyphs disappeared during the 17th century BC (MM III).

The Phaistos Disc

Phaistos Disc, Rachel Blackman, Flickr Creative Commons

Phaistos Disc, Rachel Blackman, Flickr Creative Commons

The Phaistos Disc, discovered in the ruins of Phaistos in southern Crete, features a unique pictorial script. Because it is the only find of its kind, the script on the Phaistos disc remains undeciphered.

Because the Minoans primarily wrote in the undeciphered Linear A and also in undeciphered Cretan hieroglyphs, encoding a language, hypothetically labelled Minoan, has been unsuccessful. The reasons for the slow decline of the Minoan civilization, beginning around 1550 BC, are therefore unclear. Theories include Mycenaean  invasions from mainland Greece and the major volcanic eruption of the the volcano on Santorini.

Decline and The Mycenaeans

Minoan palace sites were occupied by the Mycenaeans around 1420–1375 BC. Mycenaean Greek, was written in Linear B, so we know more about the Mycenaeans who tended to adapt (rather than supplant) Minoan culture, religion and art, continuing the Minoan economic system and bureaucracy.

By Ian Cross

Dictators and Their Cars

Dictators and Their Cars
1949 ZIS (ЗиС) 115 Previous owned by Joseph Stalin, so this ZIS is of course armored, peterolthof, Flickr Creative Commons

1949 ZIS (ЗиС) 115 Previously owned by Joseph Stalin, so this ZIS is of course armored, peterolthof, Flickr Creative Commons

In 1928, Studebaker, the American car manufacturer with a long history of carriage building stretching back to the wagon trains of the Wild West, released its latest model saloon. It was known as The Dictator. It was to be one of its shortest lived models in US motoring history. For with the coming of the 1930s, real life dictators began to dominate political life across Europe.

Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin loved their cars. They saw motor vehicles as the engines of national pride and their own personal vehicles, not only as status symbols, but as icons of their ideologies.

Later dictators such as Mao sought to invent and then promote their national car industries. Middle Eastern dictators such as Saddam Hussein ordered custom model Mercedes , with unique shapes, complete with bespoke security devices such as armoured plating.

And lately Robert Mugabe, famed for his tirades against Zimbabwe’s old coloniser, Britain, prefers the comfort of a fleet of Rolls Royces!

We explore the love affair between some of the world’s most reviled and notorious leaders and their motor cars, from Hitler’s promotion of Volkswagen, the car of the people, to Stalin’s introduction of the communist car, including the Zil limousine.

Many of the dictators’ personal vehicles survive to this day as do the models they embraced and then hijacked to further the cause of their nationalist agendas. Looking back at dictators and their cars provides a dark reminder of the power of national icons to capture the imagination and hearts of countries and their people in troubled times.

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

Hitler’s Italian counterpart and leader of the National Fascist Party was an ardent admirier of the Italian Alfa Romeo brand. One of his favourite Alfa Romeo vehicles, a 1937 2300 MM, sold on eBay for $1,200,000!

Mussolini was known for his love of Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia cars, all of which characterized his political career and his demise — Following his attempted escape in his Mistresses Alfa Romeo, they were both eventually captured in a convoy full of fleeing Fascist leaders during an ambush.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The first leader of the Soviet Union was a Rolls Royce man and owned nearly a dozen of them in his lifetime. One well known vehicle he owned was a Rolls Royce silver ghost. This special vehicle had several modifications designed to enable it to cope with the harsh Soviet climate. The car was capable of running on alcohol, a fuel better suited than petrol in cold climates, and had caterpillar tracks instead of regular tires.

Joseph Stalin

1940 Packard Custom Super Eight One-Eighty, Greg Gjerdingen, Flickr Creative Commons

1940 Packard Custom Super Eight One-Eighty, Greg Gjerdingen, Flickr Creative Commons

Stalin had a much larger collection compared to his predecessor which included some American brands such as Packard and Cadillac. Stalin even received a 1937 Packard V12 as a gift from US president Frankin D. Roosevelt. So great was his love for Packard cars that he got the ZIS-110 built. A Soviet built car, the ZIS-110 was based entirely on the Packard Super Eight.



Idi Amin

Idi Amin, Archives New Zealand, Flickr Creative Commons

Idi Amin, Archives New Zealand, Flickr Creative Commons

Idi Amin was the 3rd president of Uganda who seized power on January 1971 and remained head of the state until April 1979. The Ugandan dictator had thousands of vehicles to call his own, all of which had once belonged to people of Indian descent, who were forced to flee the country in 1972. Like many other dictators, Mercedes Benz is said to have been Amin’s favourite.

Saddam Hussein

Mercedes-Benz 600 S Pullman, a car owned by many of the world's leaders including Iraqui dictator Saddam Hussein, Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr Creative Commons

Mercedes-Benz 600 S Pullman, a car owned by many of the world’s leaders including Iraqui dictator Saddam Hussein, Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr Creative Commons

Of all the dictators to date, the Iraqi dictator perhaps had the most extensive collection of luxury cars. Although most of them are now lost due to the war, many claims suggest that he had more than 60 cars from every era imaginable. Sports cars, vintage vehicles, luxury sedans, luxury SUV’s, and even an authentic London black cab (taxi) were reported to have been found in underground parking spaces. Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay had their father’s taste for expensive and luxury cars, as well as terrible reproductions and odd-looking customs. The bloody dictatorial family also had a fondness fro customised Mercedes and rare classics. Among the haul found after American forces toppled the dictator was a pink Ferrari Testarossa, a Ferrari F40, a couple of Porsche 911s and the dictators delight, a Mercedes S600 limousine.

Muammar al-Gaddafi

The Libyan dictator had the poorest taste when it came to cars and mostly resorted to building poorly designed replicas of luxury cars. However, one car that received a lot of attention was the “Libyan Rocket”. This funny looking sedan, shaped like a rocket, was built by the Libyan Arab Domestic Investment. Funnier still was the tagline behind the car, which the makers decided was to “preserve human life all over the world”. The Libyan Rocket car was clearly the product of a team of auto engineers laboring day and night, but when Gaddafi stepped up and claimed the design as his, no one felt inclined to disagree. The 5-seater was powered by a 260bhp V6 and had collapsible bumpers that Gaddafi claimed would make it safer in a crash…

Interestingly though, Gaddafi’s fleet also contained dozens of environmentally friendly vehicles, too. The most notable was the one-off Fiat 500, which was custom built in Italy for the modest sum of €200,000 by coachbuilders Castagna Milano, whose employees were kept in the dark about the identity of the buyer. Among it’s special details was a logo with a black silhouette of Africa, with Libya highlighted in green, where the Fiat logo would normally be found. The car was captured by rebels in 2011.


Adolf Hitler

Hitler and staff in Mercedes-Benz G4

Hitler and staff in Mercedes-Benz G4

The Mercedes-Benz 770 was the favourite of several heads of state including both Hitler and Japan’s premier Emperor Hirohito.

Among many other military vehicles, Hitler also owned a 1942 Mercedes-Benz 320 Cabriolet D convertible, of which only eight were ever made, and all for Nazi party officials. Nowadays, Benz dreads the Hitler connection being raised.

The brain behind the Third Reich was also the brains behind the original VW Beetle of the 1930’s. Hitler had laid down a vision for a cheap and simple car that could be mass produced in order to use his new network of autobahns. Volkswagen was helped off the ground in 1933 by Hitler whose idea was to produce a car that the average German citizen could afford.

VW Beetle, Santosh Puthran, Flickr Creative Commons

VW Beetle, Santosh Puthran, Flickr Creative Commons

Robert Mugabe

Mugabe Procession, openDemocracy, Flickr Creative Commons

Mugabe Procession, openDemocracy, Flickr Creative Commons

On multiple occasions, Mugabe has opened an inaugural Parliamentary session by arriving in a vintage Rolls Royce, flanked by police on horseback wearing 100-year old uniforms — not forgetting the guard of honour, the military jets and the gun salute, which “pomp and circumstance” is barely able to describe! The British car makes for a strange choice given Mugabe’s vehement anti-West stance and open criticism of the UK, but it appears that the pull of the Rolls Royce is just too strong to resist.

Fidel Castro

The ZIL-111 was introduced in 1958 after unsuccessful tests with the ZIL Moscow prototype two years before. The very first ZIL-111D – a convertible version of the limousine – was built in 1963 and given to Fidel Castro as a personal gift from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

ZIL 111 D Convertible c.1963-66, Andrew bone, Flickr Creative Commons

ZIL 111 D Convertible c.1963-66, Andrew bone, Flickr Creative Commons

Castro typically stuck to a military-style jeep for his own personal transportation and used his fleet of black Soviet cars to ferry around visiting dignitaries. These days, many of the former presidential ZIL and GAZ cars have been converted into Havana taxicabs that ferry around visiting tourists instead!


A Short History of Rubber

A Short History of Rubber

Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

Originating from a tree found in the jungles of the Amazon, rubber was used in its raw form by indigenous tribes for centuries. But it wasn’t until “vulcanisation” was achieved by British and American scientists, that the commodity became truly useful. In the process it triggered a gold rush, changing the fortunes and lives of millions and the fate of nations.


In May of 1526 Andrea Navagero, the Venetian ambassador to Spain, attended an entertainment in Seville staged for the royal court. Seven years earlier, Hernán Cortés, acting without the authorization of the Spanish throne, had invaded Mexico and toppled the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire). The king and the queen had to decide what to do with their millions of new subjects. To demonstrate the intelligence, skills, and noble demeanour of the peoples of the Triple Alliance, the antislavery faction of the Spanish church had imported a group of them from Seville. The Indians divided into teams and played a showcase version of the Mesoamerican sport of ullamaliztli, which the Venetian ambassador attended.

He was mesmerized by ullamaliztli, which he seems to have thought was a performance akin to juggling act. In ullamaliztli, two squads vied to drive a ball through hoops on the opposite ends of a field – an early version of soccer, one might say, except that the ball was never supposed to touch the ground and the players could hit it only with their hips, chests and thighs.

As fascinating to Navagero as the ball game was the ball itself. European balls were typically made of leather and stuffed with wool or feathers. These were something different. They “bounded copiously”, Navagero said, ricocheting in a headlong way unlike anything he had seen before. “I do not understand how these heavy balls are so elastic”. Navagero, d’Anghiera and Oviedo had a right to be confounded: they were encountering a novel form of matter. The balls were made of rubber. In chemical terms, rubber is an elastomer, so named because many elastomers can stretch and bounce. No Europeans had ever seen one before.

Rubber Fever

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

The first simple laboratory experiments, in 1805, gave little hint that rubber might be useful – although the scientist, John Gough, did discover the fact, key to later understanding, that rubber heats up when stretched. Only in the 1820’s did rubber take off, with the invention of the rubber galoshes. ‘Take off’ for Europeans and Americans, that is; South American Indians had been using rubber for centuries. They milked rubber trees by slushing thin, V-shaped cuts on the trunk, latex dripped from the point of the V into a cup, usually a hollowed-out gourd, mounted on the bark. In a process reminiscent of making taffy, Indians extracted rubber from the latex by slowly boiling and stretching out over than intensely smoky fire of palm nuts. When the rubber was ready, they worked into stiff pipes, dishes, and other implements.

Native people also waterproofed their hats and cloaks by impregnating the cloth with rubber. European colonists in Amazonia were manufacturing rubberized garments by the late eighteenth century, including boots made by dripping foot-shaped moulds into bubbling pots of latex. A few pairs of boots made their way to the United States. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were built on swamps; their streets were thick with mud and had no sidewalks. Rubber boots there were a big hit.

The Epicentre of what became known as “rubber fever” was Salem, Massachusetts, north of Boston. In 1825, a young Salem entrepreneur imported five hundred pairs of rubber shoes from Brazil. Ten years later, the number of imported shoes had grown to more than 400,000, about one for every forty Americans. Villagers in tiny hamlets at the mouth of the Amazon moulded thousands of shoes to the dictates of Boston merchants. Garments impregnated with rubber were modern, high-tech, exciting- a perfect urban accessory. People flocked to stores.

The crash was inevitable. The idea of impermeable rubber boots and clothes was more exciting than the fact. Rubber simply didn’t work well. In cold weather, the shoes became brittle; in hot weather, they melted. Boots placed in closets at the end of the winter turned into black puddles by fall. The results smelled so bad that people found themselves burying their footgear in the garden. Public opinion swung violently against rubber.


Rubber Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear photographed by Southworth and Hawes

Just before the collapse, in 1833, a bankrupt businessman named Charles Goodyear became interested in –and obsessed by – rubber. It was typical of Goodyear’s entrepreneurial acumen that he began to seek financial backing for a rubber venture just at the time investors were planning their exits from the field.

A few weeks after Goodyear announced his intent to produce temperature stable rubber he was thrown into debtor’s prison. In his cell he began work, mashing bits of rubber with rolling a pin. He was untroubled by any knowledge of chemistry but boundlessly determined. All the while he was mixing toxic chemicals, more or less randomly, in the hope that they would make rubber more stable. Goodyear began mixing rubber with sulphur. Nothing happened, he said later, until he accidentally dropped a lump of sulphur-treated rubber onto a wood stove. To his amazement, the rubber didn’t melt.

By a circuitous path two thin, inch-and-a-half-long strips of Goodyear’s processed rubber ended up in the autumn of 1842 at the laboratory of Thomas Hancock, a Manchester engineer who had developed processes for manipulating rubber. Hancock was more organized and knowledgeable than Goodyear and had better equipment. For a year and a half he systematically performed hundreds of small experiments. Eventually he, too, learned that immersing rubber in melted sulphur would transform it into something that would stay stretchy in cold weather and solid in hot weather. Later he called the process “vulcanization”, after the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The British government granted Hancock a patent on May 21, 1844. Three weeks later, the U.S. government awarded Goodyear his vulcanization patent. Goodyear didn’t understand the recipe of vulcanization, but he did understand that at least he had a business opportunity. Showing a previously unsuspected knack for publicity stunts, he spent $ 30,000 he did not have to create an entire room made of rubber for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, the first world’s fair. Four years later he borrowed $ 50,000 more to display an even more lavish rubber room at the second world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Parisians lost their urban hauteur and gawped like rubes at Goodyear’s rubber vanity table. Except for the unpleasant smell, Goodyear’s exhibit was a triumph. “Napoleon III invested him with the Legion of Honour” wrote the diplomat and historian Austin Coates, “and a Paris court sent him to prison for debt”. He received the medal in his cell. Goodyear was forced to sell some of his wife’s possessions to pay for their trip home.

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear died four years later, still awash in debt. Afterward, Americans lionized him as a visionary. Books extolled him to children as an exemplar of the can-do spirit; a major tire company named itself after him. Meanwhile, Coates, noted, “Hancock received English treatment: due respect while living, fading notice when dead, and on some suitable centenary thereafter, a postage stamp”.

Neither Goodyear nor Hancock had any idea why sulphur stabilized rubber – or why, for that matter, unadulterated rubber bounced and stretched. Nineteenth-century scientists found bouncing balls exactly as mystifying as sixteenth-century Spaniards.

The last half of the nineteenth century was a heady time for chemistry. Immersing rubber in sulphur causes a chemical reaction in which rubber molecules link themselves together with chemical “bridges” formed of sulphur atoms. So ubiquitous are the bonds that a rubber band – a loop of vulcanized rubber – is actually a single, enormous, cross-linked molecule. With the molecules anchored together, they are more resistant to change: harder to align, harder to entangle, more resistant to extremes of temperature. Rubber suddenly becomes a stable material.

The impact of vulcanization was profound, the inflatable rubber tire-key to the adoption of both the bicycle and the automobile – being the most celebrated example. But rubber also made electrification possible: try to imagine a modern building without insulation on its wiring. Or imagine dishwashers, washing machines and clothes dryers without the belts that transmit the motion of their engines to the appliance itself. Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapour. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids or gases to vent dangerously from joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, and O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust – a potential death trap.

In short three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution: steel, fossil fuels, and rubber.

The Rubber Rush

As this point, the primary source of natural rubber was latex from Hevea Brasilensis, native to the Amazon basin, the tree is most abundant on the borderlands between Brazil and Bolivia. The nearest ports to this area are those on the Pacific coast, across the Andes. Sending rubber to those ports would mean carrying it across the high, icy mountains. After doing that, shipping the latex to England would involve dispatching ships around the stormy southern tip of South America, a long and dangerous trip of almost twelve thousand miles. The entire route was so difficult, in fact, that the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society calculated in 1871 that it would be four times faster to ship rubber to London from the western amazon by transporting it down the Madeira River to the Amazon itself, and thence to the Atlantic.

Even in a time of crazy boom-and-bust cycles the rubber boom stood out. Brazil’s rubber exports grew more than tenfold between 1856 and 1896. Ordinarily such an enormous increase in supply would drive down prices. But instead they kept climbing. Attracted by tales of fortunes gained, speculators leaped into the market. New York rubber oscillated between $1.34 and $3.06 a pound. On top of that, the inflation, financial panics and political instability of the era caused the currencies of Brazil, Britain and the United States to gyrate wildly in value.

Still, rubber kept going up. Its “soaring price is turning rubber manufacturers gray”, the Times claimed on Mach 20, 1910. “Once ounce of rubber washed and prepared for manufacture is worth nearly its weight in pure silver”. The newspaper was hyperventilating, but not entirely wrong. One economist recently calculated that the average London price of rubber roughly tripled between 1870 and 1910.

Theatro de Paz, Belem

Theatro de Paz, Belem

The financial centre of the trade was Belém. Founded in 1616 at the entrance to the world’s greatest river, it had a strategic location. The rubber boom allowed it to become, at last, what Amazonian dreamers had long hoped: the economic capital of a vibrantly growing realm. Convinced they were building the Paris of the Americas, Belem’s newly rich rubber elite filled the cobbled streets with sidewalk cafes, European style strolling parks and Beaux –Arts mansions. Social life centered around the neoclassical Theatro de Paz, where barons in box seats smoked cigars and drank cachaça, the distilled sugarcane liquor that is Brazil’s preferred high-alcohol beverage.

After inspection, the rubber went into series of immense warehouses that lined the shore like sleeping beasts. Rubber was everywhere, one visitor wrote in 1911, “on the sidewalks, in the streets, on trucks, in the great storehouses and in the air – that is, the smell of it”. Indeed, the city’s rubber district had such a powerful aroma that people claimed they could tell what part of the city they were in by the intensity of the odour.

Belém was the bank and the insurance house of the rubber trade, but the centre of rubber collection was the city of Manaus. Located almost a thousand miles inland, where two big rivers join to form the Amazon proper, it was one of the most remote urban places on earth.

Atop one hill was the cathedral, a Jesuit built structure with a design so austere that it looked like a rebuke to the monstrosity that dominated the next hill over. The Teatro Amazonas was a preposterous fantasia of Carrara marble, Venetian chandeliers, Strasbourg tiles, Parisian mirrors and Glasgow ironwork. Finished in 1897 and intended as an opera house, it was a financial folly: the auditorium had only 658 seats, not enough to offset the cost of importing musicians, let alone the alone the expense of construction.

Teatro Amazonas - Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Teatro Amazonas – Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Wide stone sidewalks with undulating black-and-white pattern led downhill from the theatre through a jumble of brothels, rubber warehouses and nouveau-riche mansions to the docks: two enormous platforms that rode up and down with the river on hundreds of wooden pillars. State governor Eduardo Ribeiro aggressively boosted the city, laying out streets in modern grid, paving them with cobblestones from Portugal (the Amazon had little stone), overseeing the installation of what was then one of the globe’s most advanced streetcar networks (fifteen miles of track), and directing the construction of three hospitals (one for the Europeans, one for the insane, one for everybody else).

A celebrant of urban life, Ribeiro took part in everything his city had to offer, including its sybaritic whorehouses, in one of which he died amid what historian John Hemming delicately referred to as “a sexual romp”.  The city’s many brothels were largely for the rubber tappers and field operatives who staggered into Manaus after months of labour on remote tributaries. The owners and managers had mistresses, with whom they sported in the decadent style then fashionable.

In the 1890s the boom went still further upstream, into the Andean foothills – areas that until then had been regarded as useless, and so left largely to their original inhabitants, most of whom had minimal contact with Europeans. Because H.brasilensis can’t tolerate the cooler temperature on the slopes, entrepreneurs focused on another species, Castilla elastic, which provided a less-valuable grade of rubber known as caucho. “Caucheiros”, rather than futilely protect the trees, simply cut them down, gouged off the bark, and let the latex drain into holes dug beneath the fallen trunk. Sometimes collectors could obtain several hundred pounds of the latex from a single tree, thus making up in volume for caucho’s lower price.

Because caucheiros killed the tree they harvested, they naturally put a premium on being the first into a new area. The goal was to extract the most rubber in the least amount of time; every minute not at the axe was a minute when someone else was taking down irreplaceable trees. Work crews spent weeks or months trekking from tree to tree through steep, muddy, forested hills, carrying heavy loads of caucho from the areas they had just looted. Few people from outside the area were willing to come into the forest for this. Caucheiros thus turned to the people who already lived there: Indians. The situation invited abuse – and there are always people ready to take up such invitations. Among them was Carlos Fitzcarrald, son of an immigrant to Peru who had changed his name from the hard-to-pronounce “Fitzgerald”. Beginning in late 1880s Fitzgerald forced thousands of Indians to work the caucho circuit.

More brutal was Julio Cesar Arana. The son of a Peruvian hat maker, Arana came to exert near-total command over more than twenty-two thousand square miles on the upper Putumayo River, then claimed by both Peru and Colombia.

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book "The Putumayo, the Devil's Paradise"

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book “The Putumayo, the Devil’s Paradise”

Not wanting to lure labourers from other areas with high wages, he turned to indigenous people. At first they were willing to do some rubber collecting in exchange of knives, hatchets, and other trade goods. But when Arana asked for more they balked. So he enslaved them. By 1902 he had five Indian nations under his thumb. Caucho flowed from his land in ever-larger amounts. He controlled his slave force with a goon squad led by more than an hundred toughs imported from Barbados. Nobody other than Arana’s agents was allowed to enter Putumayo from outside. Twenty-three custom-built cruise boats enforced his rule. Arana had incorporated his company in London in an attempt to go public and cash out, as software entrepreneurs would do a century later.

The slavery was therefore a British matter. Eventually there was a parliamentary investigation and a yearlong public furore. London sent an investigatory team that included Roger Casement, an Irish–born British diplomat who was a pioneering human rights activist (he had exposed atrocities committed in the Congo by agents of Belgium king Leopold II). Casement shuttled about the Putumayo, confirming Hardenburg’s charges by obtaining detailed confessions of murder and torture. In a misguided fit of nationalism, Peru defended its citizen against foreign meddling. Nonetheless Arana’s empire disintegrated. He died penniless in 1952.

Wickham changes the game for Britain

photo of Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

If this ecological tumult could be laid at the door of a single person, it would be Henry Alexander Wickham. Wickham’s life is difficult to assess: he had been called a thief and a patriot, a major figure in industrial history and hapless dolt whose main accomplishment was failing in business ventures on three continents. He was born in 1846 to a respectable London solicitor and a milliner’s daughter from Wales. When the boy was four, Cholera took his father’s life and the family he left behind slid slowly down the social ladder. Nonetheless at the end of his days he was a respected man. Crowds applauded as he walked onto testimonial stages wearing a silver-buttoned coat and a nautilus-shell tie clip. He was knighted at the age of seventy-four.

Wickham won the honour for smuggling seventy thousand rubber tree seeds to England in 1876.

As a young man, Sir Clements Markham had directed a British quest in the Andes for cinchona trees. Cinchona bark was the sole source of quinine, the only effective antimalarial drug then known. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which had a monopoly, zealously guarded the supply, forbidding foreigners to take cinchona trees. Markham dispatched three near-simultaneous covert missions to the Andes, leading one himself. Hiding from the police, almost without food, he descended the mountains on foot with thousands of seedling in special cases. All three of these teams obtained cinchona which was soon thriving in India. Markham’s project saved thousands of lives, not least because Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia were running out of cinchona trees – they had killed them by stripping the bark. Riding the success to the position of director of the India Office’s Geographical Department, Markham decided to repeat the feat with rubber trees. British industry’s dependence on rubber was leaving the nation’s prosperity in the hands of foreigners, he believed.

Markham argued, “It’s hardly possible to over-rate the importance of securing a permanent supply”. Glory would attach to those who secured that supply. In the early 1870’s, Markham let it be known that Britain would pay for rubber seeds. When the seeds arrived, they would be sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in Southwest London, and the successful seedlings dispatched to Britain’s Asian colonies. Two separate hopeful adventurers sent batches of rubber seed. Neither batch would sprout. Wickham became the third to try. Wickham gathered seventy thousand seeds, enough to pay for passage back to Britain. Today Wickham is reviled in Brazil. Tourist guides refer to him as the “prince of thieves”, a pioneer of what has become to be called “bio-piracy”.

Two months after Wickham appeared in London, Kew shipped out the seedlings, most of them to British Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka.

Henry Ridley and the rise of the Malaya Rubber

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

At the same time that the seedlings were dispatched to Sri Lanka, a further two cases, containing fifty seedlings, were sent to Singapore. There, the Singapore Botanical Garden’s new director, Henry Ridley, set to work on rubber plants, comparing them with other rubber-producing plants, and figuring out the best way to harvest latex without harming or killing the trees and coming up with a method that is still used to this day.

Ridley’s zealous persistence in persuading Malaya’s planters to grow rubber trees earned him less than flattering nicknames such as “Mad Ridley” and “Rubber Ridley”. During the 1890s and early 1900s, he devised successful propagation methods and advocated the large-scale cultivation of rubber in Malaya. Initially, planters largely ignored his advice until their coffee plantations were devastated by disease and they desperately required a new cash crop. During this time, demand for rubber soared as the automobile industry boomed. By 1912, Malaya was producing more rubber than Brazil, and when prices fell the Brazilian rubber industry was reduced to dust.


The first real chance for Brazil to recover occurred in 1922, when British colonies in Asia, which had overplanted rubber, sought to control prices by forming a cartel. Among those enraged by this action were Harvey Firestone, the world biggest tire maker, and Henry Ford, the world biggest car maker.

Firestone responded by creating a huge rubber plantation in Liberia, West Africa. Ford planned one of equal size in the Amazon. Ford hired a Brazilian go-between who in 1927 sold him almost four thousand square miles of land up the Tapajos river that happened to be owned by the go-between. To house his workers Ford built a replica of a middle-class Michigan Town, complete with a hospital, schools, stores, movie theatres, Methodist churches and wooden bungalows on tree-lined streets. On a hill was the Amazon basin’s only eighteen-hole golf course. Orderly and straitlaced as Ford himself, the town was the opposite of boomtown Manaus. Wags immediately dubbed the project Fordlandia.

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

For Ford, the next few years were a series of unhappy surprises; after the first season’s rubber trees died did the company find out that H. brasilensis must be established at particular times of the year to thrive. Only after paying steamship bills did the company realize that it would not be possible to offset the cost of clearing all the hardwood trees on its land by selling the timber in the United States. And only after planting thousands of acres did the company learn that the Amazon has fungus, Microcyclus ulei, that is partial to rubber trees. This last sentence is imprecise. The company did know that M. ulei existed. What it didn’t grasp was that there was no way to stop it. M. ulei causes South American leaf blight.

The disaster effectively ended Fordlandia, though it wasn’t formally abandoned until 1945. Its fate made the most Brazilians conclude that rubber plantations are not viable in the Amazon. When Ford bought land in Brazil, 92% of the world’s natural rubber came from Asia. Five years after Fordlandia ended the figure was 95%.

The Chinese move in

Natural rubber still claims more than 40% of the market, a figure that has been slowly rising. Only natural rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer, then thrust into a freezer-and still adhere flexibly to glass and steel. Big airplane and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber; radial tires were entirely synthetic. High tech manufacturers and utilities use high-performance natural rubber hoses, gaskets and O-rings. So do condom manufacturers – one of Brazil’s few remaining natural-rubber enterprises is a condom factory in the western Amazon.

With its need for materials that can withstand battle conditions the military is a major consumer – which is why the United States imposed a rubber blockade on China during the Korean War.

The blockade helped convince the Chinese of the need to grow their own H. brasilensis. In the 1960s the People’s Liberation Army worked to turn the prefecture into a rubber haven. Xishuangbanna plantations were, in effect, army bases; entry was forbidden to outsiders. Outsiders included the Dai and Akha who lived nearby. As suspicious of minorities in the mountains as the Qing, the Communists imported more than 100,000 Han workers, many of them urban students from faraway provinces, and put them into labour gangs charged with revolutionary fervour. “China needs rubber” they were told. “This is your chance to use your hands to help your country”. Workers were awakened every day at 3:00 am and sent to clear the forest, one former Xishuangbanna labourer told anthropologist Judith Shapiro, author of Mao’s War Against Nature.

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Even as burgeoning China became the world biggest rubber consumer, its rubber producers were running out of space in Xishuangbanna – every inch of land was already taken. They looked enviously over the border at Laos; with about six million people in an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is the emptiest country in Asia. But the real push didn’t begin until the end of the decade, when China announced its “Go-Out” strategy, which pushed Chinese companies to invest abroad. No one knows exactly how much H. brasilensis is now in Laos; the Laotian government estimated that rubber covered seven hundred square miles of the nation by 2010. And the pace of clearing will only accelerate, along with the effects of that clearing.

More than a century ago, a handful of rubber trees had come to Asia from their home in Brazil. Now the descendants of these trees carpet sections of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and parts of southern China. Across the border H. brasilensis was marching into Laos and Vietnam. A plant that before 1492 had never existed outside the Amazon basin now dominates the Southeast Asian ecosystem.


Main image: Rubber Latex in India, Avinash Bhat, Flickr Creative Commons

Header image: Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

In an increasingly interconnected and peaceful world, disease remains one of the greatest fears of the modern age, especially the outbreak of a ‘superbug’ from genetic mutation and antibiotic resistance. Despite the medical advances of our time, diseases such as Coronavirus or Ebola have spread across nations and have caused the deaths of thousands. Throughout history, outbreaks of diseases on a major and international level have been rare but at times disastrous, especially in the poor living conditions and medical standards of previous ages, often made worse by times of war or other hardship.

Undefined Epidemics

We find recorded several cases in history of particularly deadly diseases, which may be termed now as epidemics, but the cause, nature and extent of the diseases are difficult to discern.

Plague of Athens 430-426 BC

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The first major account of an epidemic was the Plague of Athens in 430-426 BC, recorded by the eyewitness and survivor Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War (2.49-54). The plague was facilitated by the Peloponnesian War, as a result of which many Athenians had crowded behind the city walls to wait out a Spartan siege. Thucydides reported that the plague spread from Ethiopia into Piraeus, the city port, a very international centre in the ancient world, that spread rapidly. Many possible diseases have been proposed as the cause: bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid or an ebola-like disease. However, the truth remains a mystery. The death toll is estimated at 75-100,000 people or 25% of the city’s population.

Antoine Plague 165-80

Another major epidemic was the Antoine Plague, described by Galen, which struck the Roman Empire in 165-180 AD. It was first recorded in the Roman siege of Seleucia, in modern Iraq, and spread throughout the Empire as far as Germany and Gaul. The disease is thought to have possibly been either smallpox or measles and at its height killed 2,000 a day in Rome. The estimated death toll is 5 million. The disease may also have spread from Han China, where reports of a similar disease date from the same period. It may have spread along the Silk roads or via the Roman embassy of 166 to Vietnam. Even the thought of this, true or not, may have hampered trade relations between East and West which could have greatly changed history.

Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague has led to history’s most deadly pandemics, with three major and disastrous outbreaks, despite its relative rareness and preventability now. It is caused the bacterium Yersinia pestis which attacks lymph nodes, swelling to form painful ‘bubones’ which can turn black and burst. The bacterium can also cause pneumonic plague in the lungs and septemic plague in the blood. It is carried most often in fleas and infected small animals or flea-carrying animals, particularly rats. The bacterium is then transferred into the human body via bites or consuming fluids from an infected body. Symptoms include high fever, painful swelling of the lymph nodes, and if it spreads to other parts of the body leads to gangrene and blackening of limbs and facial features, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing blood, delirium and death.

Plague of Justinian 541-2

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

The first major outbreak was in 541 affecting much of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire. It was transmitted via rats that existed on the trade ships moving throughout the Mediterranean, especially grain ships travelling from Egypt to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At its peak some estimates conclude there were around 5,000 deaths a day in Constantinople with 40% of the total population dying and that in total up to 25 million fell victim to the disease, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, more modern scholars have concluded on much smaller estimates. It was regarded as the first pandemic and had great effects on European history. The devastation in the Byzantine empire meant agriculture was ruined, with grain prices soaring, whilst tax revenue plummeted due a reduced population. Recent gains in Italy and around Carthage, briefly reuniting the Roman empires, were reversed as the Goths, Vandals and Lombards retook much Byzantine territory.

Black Death 1346-53

The deadliest outbreak of disease was the second major case of bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death. Likely originating in the East and China, the disease spread West along the Silk roads reaching the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Trade ships then spread the disease to the rest of Europe, hitting Italy first in Sicily and Venice in 1347, and the rest of Europe over the next three years. The disease would wipe out entire rodent populations, requiring repopulation before another outbreak would occur, recurring frequently over the next few centuries although never so badly. Estimations of a death toll are difficult but range between 75 and 200 million, 45-50% of the population and in the hot and connected areas of the Mediterranean, mortality rate was even higher. Populations would take years to recover and Florence not until the 19th century. The change in population changed the agricultural workings of many areas and the labour force reduced. Some even claim the decline in population led to a ‘mini Ice age’. Fanaticised and fearful, many blamed minority groups, especially Jews, resulting in many massacres, one at Strasbourg killing 2,000. This led many Jews to relocate to Poland where they were welcomed, leading to the large population there until the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Third Plague (Bubonic) Pandemic 1855-1960

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

The third major outbreak began Yunnan province on the Southern border of China, among the local rodent population. The influx of Han Chinese people to the area for mining, urbanisation, increased trade, and the Panthay rebellion which entailed refugee and troop movements, meant the plague spread rapidly throughout Southern China. Particularly damaging was the spread to the Canton area in 1894 and from there British-held Hong Kong, a centre of world trade and from where the plague spread to every continent.

In India, the plague was particularly severe due to the poor living conditions and packed urban centres of British imperial rule. Moreover, British measures to control the virus such as restriction of movement and the banning of Indian cultural medicines were seen as oppressive and culturally invasive and were hence disobeyed. 10 million died in India, and further 2 million died in the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation only declared the pandemic over in 1960. Bubonic plague still exists in much of the Chinese and East Asia rodent population. In 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating raw marmot in Mongolia.

Epidemics in the New World

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began with Mexico in 1519. The conquest was deadly in its sacking and massacring of cities, but far more so for the diseases it spread. A merchant ship to Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, first brought smallpox to American shores, against which the local population had no immune defence. It devastated the local populations. It reached Tenochtitlan in 1520. Bernard Dial, a Spanish chronicler, wrote “We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians”. The death toll is estimated at over 5 million

On top of this, a native disease named Cocolitzli by the Aztecs led to millions of deaths. The disease returned several times, baffling native and Spanish doctors. Symptoms included high fever, black tongue, dark urine, dysentery, severe abdominal and chest pain, head and neck nodules, neurological disorders, jaundice, and profuse bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth. It usually killed within 3-4 days, leading to 5-15 million estimated deaths.

Subsequent Old World disease epidemics persisted in the Americas such as chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, measles, malaria and yellow fever. A century after the arrival of the Spanish, some estimate over 90% of the New World population had died, the vast majority from disease.


Influenza, or ‘the flu’, is a common viral disease, which regularly mutates leading to the usual seasonal epidemics seen annually. A flu jab is developed annually to combat such mutations but due to the rapid changes in the virus, this will not be effective in subsequent years. Annually, there are three to five million cases of severe illness and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, usually in vulnerable groups such as the old, pregnant, or those with an existing health condition such as asthma or heart issues. Symptoms include high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint aches, headache, coughing, and feeling tired. Complications can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial infections in the sinuses that can spread throughout the body, as well as worsening previous health conditions.

These mutations are usually guarded to some extent by previous immunity among people. However, large influenza pandemics can occur when a new strain is developed in animals and spread into the human population. Their novelty means there is little to no immune protection existing in humans. The virus is spread rapidly between people in the air via droplets in coughs and sneezes or by touching contaminated surfaces. These pandemics occur when such a new strain infects human populations across the world, and occur irregularly, with 9 happening in the past three centuries.

Spanish Flu 1918-20

The deadliest pandemic was the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ involving the H1N1 virus, the only Category 5 influenza pandemic, meaning a mortality rate of over 2% amongst those infected. It is unclear from where the disease originated, but crucially it did not start in Spain. The disease coincided with the end of the First World War, with fighting still ongoing. Participant countries censored press to minimise reports of the disease and maintain morale. Spain, however, was a neutral country, and so press covered the spread of the disease here accurately, making it seem as if Spain was suffering particularly, and so creating the name ‘Spanish Flu’.

British Red Cross

1919: American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919.
It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 100 million people were killed worldwide, or the approximate equivalent of one third of the population of Europe, more than double the number killed in World War I. British Red Cross.

The timing of the flu was particularly apt for facilitating a pandemic. War meant the focus of governments and press was on other matters. Similarly, large parts of Europe had been devastated and both civilian and military populations were weak. Large troop movements facilitated the spread. The virus also mutated resulting in a more virulent strain developing leading to an even more lethal second wave. The more lethal strain was also spread more than usual: in a usual flu, a mild strain still allows someone to work and so move about and spread the strain, whereas a more severe one will incapacitate and keep the sufferer at home, preventing transmission; in war the more mild sufferers remained at their posts and the more severe sufferers were transported to hospitals to transmit the virus.

The disease spread to all parts of the globe, will 500 million estimated to have been infected and 20-50 million estimated to have died as a result. The disease was particularly deadly in its higher mortality among the young population, whereas deaths from most flus occur disproportionately among the elderly. The death toll for the disease was higher than the First World War, and the deadliest since the Black Death, yet it received little impact in the arts of the time. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1926 in her essay ‘On Being Ill’: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache”. It did appear among the work of some artists of the time, and Egon Schiele’s ‘The Family’ has come to embody the disease. Schiele depicts himself, his wife, and daughter, all three of which would die from the illness before the painting could be completed.

Other Influenza Pandemics

There have been 8 other influenza pandemics in the last 300 years, although none have passed beyond a Category 2 pandemic i.e. beyond 0.5% mortality amongst those infected. The ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-8 and the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968-9 were two particularly deadly outbreaks, spreading all over the world and both resulting in the estimated deaths of 1-4 million. Their victims were more typically prevalent in more vulnerable population groups, especially the elderly.

The most recent pandemic was the ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic of 2009-10, originating in Mexico. This pandemic likely infected, according to the WHO, 11–21% of the global population, or around 700 million–1.4 billion people. Mortality was no more than the usual seasonal flu, but the characteristic feature was that the elderly were not disproportionately affected, much like the Spanish Flu.


HIV/AIDS 1981-present

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the infection by two species of Lentivirus, commonly known as the HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses). The virus is usually sexually transmitted, but also occurrs through the transmission of bodily fluids such as from mother to child

in pregnancy and breastfeeding or between people via the sharing of needles or blood transfusions. The virus results in flu-like symptoms 2 to 6 weeks after infection but can remain symptomless for many years after this, whilst still destroying the infected person’s immune system. Left untreated, the virus leads to the condition AIDS, describing when the individual is susceptible to a variety of diseases a healthy immune system would normally defend against. These include tuberculosis, cancers, and other ‘opportunistic infections’. This is the final stage and can quickly cause death if left untreated.

HIV is believed to have originated from chimpanzees in the Democratic of Congo, likely from the bushmeat industry. The disease was discovered in the USA in 1981, when an increasing number of gay men, but also a smaller number of injected-drug users, gained unusual diseases such as rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), usually only found in people with severe complications in their immune system. This led to the disease being initially known as ‘GRID’ (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).

World AIDS Day - Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

World AIDS Day – Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

As organisations struggled to identify the cause, transmission and treatment of the disease, over 2.5 million cases had been confirmed by 1993. In the US, the death rate began to slow by 1997. However, in Africa, where homosexuality was illegal in many countries and the existence of a large homosexual population not acknowledged and persecuted, politics hampered response. AIDS activists were often arrested due to the disease’s associations with the gay population. In 2003, over 40% of adults in Botswana had the disease. Heroin addiction in Asia also led to over 2 million cases in India alone. Response still improved but the current death toll still stands at over 32 million and is constantly rising. In 2018, there remained around 37.9 million cases, with 20.6 million of these in Eastern and Southern Africa.

No cure of HIV exists, but treatment via highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can be very effective, and at present two people have been cleared of the disease.

Ebola 2013-16

The West African Ebola epidemic was a widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in predominantly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is spread via the contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, and is now known, though not at the time, to be also sexually transmitted. The disease is a haemorrhagic fever causing fever, head and body aches, and a sore throat before developing into vomiting, diarrhoea, internal and external bleeding, and the decreased function of the liver and kidneys. The mortality rate was extremely high at somewhere around 40%, usually due to lack of fluid pressure.

Ebola outbreaks had happened before, but this 2013-6 epidemic was especially lethal as it spread out of isolated rural areas to the capital cities of the three affected countries. The poor health and surveillance systems of the area facilitated the spread of the disease. In total there were 28,646 cases, with 11,323 deaths. The impact of the epidemic had knock-on effects on other diseases by absorbing resources and damaging the healthcare workforce. In Liberia, 8% of doctors, nurses, and midwives died. This meant other diseases such as malaria, HIV, and measles grew worse. The Public Health Emergency of International Concern status was lifted by the WHO in March 2019.

COVID-19 2019-Present

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the Coronavirus. Symptoms are similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath which can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome. The disease is caused by droplets often spread via coughing or the touching of contaminated surfaces or people. The disease was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Many believe it originated in the Huanan wet market which sold live animals.

Coronavirus Surgical Mask

Surgical Mask, Paul Sableman, Flickr Creative Commons

The severity of the pandemic is caused by the virus being especially contagious, the little immune defence to its novel form, and the fact it is asymptomatic for up to 14 days. The disease was spread via global travelling between countries and has been particularly deadly amongst the elderly generation. As of the 20 March there have been over 267,000 cases in 183 countries with over 11,000 deaths. But the majority (80%) of deaths have occurred in those over 60, and 75% in those with pre-existing conditions. Countries such as Italy, densely populated and with a high elderly population, have as a result been especially badly hit. Efforts to manage the pandemic have included quarantines, border closures, the closing of schools and universities, and the closing of bars, restaurants, cinemas and other social venues. The economic and social effect has been vast, with many businesses closing due to lack of business, and hysteria causing panic-buying and xenophobia, especially against Chinese individuals and businesses. The pandemic at the time of writing is ongoing and on the rise.


These epidemics were particularly impactful and frightening due to their fast and novel spread and the condensed nature of their effect. However, other diseases can be as deadly on a regular basis. There have been 7 Cholera pandemics, the worst being that of 1852-60 claiming over 1 million lives; there were 228 million cases of Malaria in 2018 with 405,000 deaths; over on quarter of the world’s current population have been infected with Tuberculosis and last year there were 8 million cases with around 2 million deaths. The threat of disease and epidemics has been a constant of life throughout the ages. And the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the still real threat of epidemics to all nations even today.

More information:

Read: World’s Deadliest Plagues

Read: Where in the Wild has the Coronavirus Come From?

Worldometer: Live COVID-19 Updates

GOV.UK Guidance

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Australian Department of Health Guidance

By Wilfred Sandwell

WWII in the Pacific

WWII in the Pacific
Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal


Japan in the decade preceding World War Two had become increasingly imperialistic, with worship of Emperor Hirihito on the rise and the army becoming an increasingly political body. Expansion begun as early as 1931, with the invasion of Chinese Manchuria, making it a puppet state. This was seen as brazen disregard of the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN, increasing tensions between Japan and the West.

Japan looked further, identifying the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia, as a key target due to their oil reserves in 1935. Another puppet state was created in Inner Mongolia in 1936, and a full invasion of China began in 1937. In 1939, Japan invaded the Soviet Union but was soundly defeated in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. In September 1940, Japan seized French Indochina (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), and singed a treaty with the Axis forces of Germany and Italy. To stop this imperialist expansion, America, Britain, Australia, Holland and China banned the export of oil to Japan, known as the ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) lines. These imports made up 80% of Japan’s consumption; they were essential and hence in Japanese minds, war was guaranteed.

Japanese Plan

The Japanese plan of war depended on a weak reaction from the UK, Soviet Union, and other European powers due to their ongoing war with Germany. Accordingly, a neutrality pact was signed with the Soviet Union in 1940. The Japanese believed the USA would inevitably become involved (although this has since been debated) and so planned for a fast, strategic war.

Total victory and occupation of the USA was impossible. Instead, Japan hoped to take key targets in two operational phases. The first focused on the South-East Pacific and the capturing of the Dutch Indies, British held Malaya Hong Kong, and Singapore and the US held Philippines, to escape the crisis of the ABCD lines. They then planned to expand as far as Fiji, Samoa, Midway and the Aleutian Islands. To do this, a shock attack on Pearl Harbour, America’s main Pacific military base in Hawaii, would paralyse the US Navy whilst the perimeter was secured. By holding all major islands in the Pacific, the Japanese hoped to block any attempt to launch a counter-attack and could squeeze the US into a surrender.

Japanese Invasion of China

"Bloody Saturday" by H.S. Wong. baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

“Bloody Saturday” by H.S. Wong. Baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

Japan controlled Manchuria after their invasion in 1931 but had also increased influence into Northern China. Puppet states had been set up in areas such as Tongzhou, a district of Beijing, with a Japanese garrison. China was also subject to a number of ‘Unequal Treaties’ in which several nations were granted occupation of parts of Chinese cities. Japan was allowed to station guards along the railway to Beijing, as were other European nations, but had increased that number to over 7,000, well beyond the limits set the in the Boxer Protocol.

An incident at the Marco-Polo Bridge near Beijing, led to an escalation and Japanese invasion and occupation of Beijing and Tianjin. Despite Japan’s contentment with occupation of Beijing, China had had enough. Chinese resentment is shown in the mutiny of the troops of the

Japanese puppet state in Tongzhou and the setting fire to the Japanese section of the city, in which 200 Japanese civilians died. The KMT, Chinese Nationalist government, also surrounded the Japanese section of the Shanghai Occupied Area, and on August 14, accidentally bombed it, resulting in 3,000 civilian deaths.

A full-scale invasion of China began, but Japanese casualties were much higher than expected. The Civil War between the KMT and Communists in China had been suspended to face the common Japanese threat. 200,000 men, several war vessels and strong airpower was needed to take Shanghai in a 3-month long siege. Japan flooded China with men, committing 350,000 to the taking of the Chinese capital, Nanjing. Following its fall, there occurred the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, in which the Japanese are estimated to have killed up to 300,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, whilst also committing extensive rape and looting.

The advance continued with great momentum, as Wuhan, the new KMT capital, Kaifeng, capital of Henan province, and later French Indochina fell. The KMT retreated to Chongqing, and to stop the Japanese advance destroyed the Huayuankou dike on the south bank of the Yangtze. Up to 800,000 civilians and soldiers on both sides drowned; 10 million became homeless. Here most of the Japanese advance halted. Japan struggled to hold a Chinese territory so full of resentment and the Chinese managed to launch a counter-offence with minor success. A stalemate was reached but Japan held most of the Chinese coast and North.

Outbreak of War with the West

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

On the 7 December 1941 (8 in East Pacific), Japan launched attacks without warning with both its navy and army on Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, Hawaii, Wake, Guam and Thailand. The largest attack fell on the US Naval base of Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. Casualties were substantial: 8 battleships, 188 aircraft and 2,403 American soldiers. However, the crucial aircraft carriers were at sea, and most of the base facilities weren’t damaged. Far from disabling the US fleet into submission, Japan had sparked fury in the US at the unprovoked and undeclared attack.

The US, UK, Canada, Holland and Australia declared war within two days. Germany and Italy in turn declared war on the US, even though Japan would give little aid to the European war whilst America would be of vital importance.

South-East Asia Advance

Despite the relative failure of the Pearl Harbour attack, Japan’s speed of expansion was extremely effective. Thailand surrendered within 5 hours, even allying with Japan on 21 December, allowing access to European colonies in Malaya. By Christmas 1941, Hong Kong, Wake, Guam and Penang had all fallen.

On 1 January, the Allied forces were united in the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM), under the leadership of Sir Archibald Waver, a British general. But the Japanese momentum continued with invasions into Burma, the Dutch Indies, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

On 15 February 1942, Britain suffered what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster’ in British military history as its major base in the Pacific, Singapore, surrendered, in which 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were captured.

Japan expanded further even bombing Darwin in Australia in the largest attack on Australia by a foreign power in history, killing 243 people. It would be the first of over 100 air raids. In the Battle of Java Sea, Japan defeated the main allied navy and as a result the forces in Malaya surrendered on Java and Sumatra. Japan raided into the Indian Ocean, sinking the HMS Hermes aircraft carrier and targeting bases in Ceylon, pushing the British Navy out of South East Asia.

Burma had become occupied as Britain retreated to the Indian border but the territory would remain disputed, with the Chinese aiding the British, for example at the Battle of Yenangyaung, where 7,000 trapped British soldiers were rescued by the Chinese.

Fall of the Philippines

In March, America suffered a great defeat in losing Manila the Philippines. The islands were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, a charismatic figure famous for his corn-cob pipe. He felt a strong personal duty to the Philippines and so when Roosevelt ordered his smuggling out of the islands in order to be able to continue his command of the American forces in the South-West Pacific, he delivered the famous words “I came through and I shall return”, which he refused to change to ‘we will return’ despite being asked to do so by the government. On April 9, Bataan, the last US holding in the Philippines. 76,000 Allied soldiers were captured and were forced in the ‘Bataan Death March’, an 106km march to Camp O’Donnell in which it is estimated between 5,000 and 18,000 Filipinos and 500 and 650 Americans died.

Failure of the Second Operational Phase

With the fall of the Philippines and British colonies, Japan had completed its first operational phase, and begun to move toward its second. The Allies had begun something of a counter-attack, making use of their aircraft carriers, bombing the Marshall islands, Wake and Marcus Island and Rabaul from land-based aircraft.

Japan desired to cut off Australia as a possible base for an offensive. Some generals in the Japanese Navy proposed an invasion but the Army refused as they were too committed in Manchuria and afraid of a Soviet invasion. Instead, the option was taken to cut off Australia by taking New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, eastern New Guinea and the western part of New Britain (together now Papua New Guinea), and from there threaten Australia by air. Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands were also targeted to pressure America and their Navy by removing possible advance bases.

However, Allied morale was slightly restored in April by the Doolittle raid, an ineffective but symbolic bombing raid on Tokyo by 16 bombers. In May, the battle of the Coral Sea, despite the Japanese sinking one US carrier and disabling another, was a victory for the Allies and they repelled the Japanese invasion of Port Moseby, capital of New Guinea. Moreover, none of the three Japanese carriers

involved could be used at Midway. In this battle, neither fleet sighted each other but fought from range and with aircraft, indicative of how important carriers would become.

Allies Regroup

The Japanese cancelled further attacks on Fiji and Samoa and focused all attention on the North Pacific, aiming to take Midway, pressuring the US Navy into surrender. The Japanese outnumbered the Americans with 4 heavy carriers to America’s 3, 3 light carriers to none, 11 battleships to none, 44 destroyers to 18, but America fielded 19 submarines to Japan’s 15, and could use land-based aircraft from Midway. Despite this, American carrier bombers sunk all four of the Japanese heavy carriers, only losing the Yorktown carrier in return. Midway is commonly held as the turning point of the Pacific War, with the Japanese momentum dramatically halted and her naval offensive capabilities nullified by her loss of her carriers, though her defensive air capabilities remained via land-based aircraft.

Coastwatcher aptain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

Coastwatcher Captain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

The war now became a series of bitterly contested conflicts. In July 1942, Japan landed on Guadalcanal in the Southern Solomon islands and started building an airbase but were spotted doing so by Allied Coastwatchers. These were intelligence officers stationed on Pacific islands, sometimes aided by the locals, who supplied information to the Allies, especially later in the battle giving early warning of Japanese air raids.

On 7 August, the Allies launched their first major offensive and took the airfield and the strategic Tulagi harbour within a day via an amphibious landing. However, the Japanese countered decisively on the night of 8-9 August during the naval battle of Savo Island. Five allied cruisers and two destroyers were lost whilst only mildly damaging one Japanese cruiser. This would start a long battle of attrition in which, by January, Allied losses rose from around 14,000 to 44,000, Japanese from 7,000 to 22,000.

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

So costly was the battle to both sides that the sea north of Guadalcanal became known as ‘Ironbottom Sound’ as so many ships (an estimated 50+) were sunk there during the battle. The US Navy commemorates the area annually by laying wreaths, and many sailors still pass the area in silence. In the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the only two US admirals lost in a surface engagement in the entire war died. In total, the Allies lost 2 carriers and 22 other vessels, but the Japanese lost over 20,000 men and after losing the vital Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, decided to withdraw from the island. Momentum was now with the Allies.


China Regroups

In China, the Japanese had also slowed, with their first major defeat of the war occurring at Changsha in Hunan. The conflict was bloody. Operation Sei-go was a mission launched by the Japanese in July 1942 to capture the Allied pilots of the Doolittle raid who had parachuted into the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangxi and were mostly hidden by Chinese civilians. The Japanese launched a campaign of retribution, burning Chinese towns and using biological warfare by spreading cholera, typhoid, dysentery pathogens and contaminating food and wells with paratyphoid and anthrax. Around 10,000 Japanese soldiers fell ill from their own biological weapons, and 1,700 died, but Chinese civilian casualties numbered around 250,000.

The British continued to flounder in Burma through the embarrassing defeat of the Arakan offensive, not helped by a famine in Bengal causing up to 3 million deaths. But China continued to succeed in the Battle of Changde. The Japanese captured the city on December 6 but only after over a month of tough fighting, and the Chinese 57th Division held the Japanese pinned in the city for enough time that other Chinese forces were able to surround the city and forced a Japanese withdrawal. It was a victory in particular for the Chinese air-force, previously too easily defeated, who had been helped by Witold Urbanowicz, the second highest-scoring Polish Ace in the Battle of Britain.

A Turning Point in India and Burma

The Allies regrouped under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, and with US troops, began constructing the Ledo Road to link India with China. In reaction, Japan launched Operation U-go in March 1944, a large offensive on Allied positions at Imphal and Kohima in India. The British were bolstered by the firm Indian divisions of XV Corps and the Japanese attack on both targets was repelled. Without an early victory, supplies over the forested and mountainous terrain failed. Japan lost over 50,000 troops, her greatest defeat yet, but mostly to disease and starvation. The US troops advanced north in Burma, aided by the Chindits, a unit of British, Burmese and Ghurkha battalions, that worked deep behind enemy lines in difficult conditions. The Chinese invaded Northern Burma and over the course of 1944- 5, would link up with American forces. Allied advance was then gradual but consistent, capturing Rangoon in May 1945 and preparing to advance to Malaya when surrender occurred.

Allied Island Hopping 1943-4

After Midway, the Allies and especially America turned to a policy of mass-industrialisation, replenishing their navy and air force. Japan lacked the industrial base to do the same. The Allies began a policy of ‘Island-Hopping’, taking islands one at a time, or at least neutralising their offensive capabilities without capturing in examples such as Truk or Formosa. First to fall were the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, in which the Allies greatly improved their tactics of amphibious invasions and exposed the over-extended Japanese island garrisons.

The Allied forces now targeted the Mariana Island and Palau. It involved an ambitious amphibious operation, juxtaposed by the D-Day landings in the same month (June 1944), over 1,000 miles from a permanent US base. Despite heavy bombardment, the Japanese forces were largely unaffected, and victory was won by a hard-fought infantry engagement. American troops were armed with flame-throwers and demolition charges to maximise damage but in doing so unleashed horrific conflict. On the night of 6-7 July, the pocketed groups of Japanese banded together in the largest Bonsai attack of the war, a 4,000 strong suicidal charge. The Japanese civilians on the island of Saipan committed suicide by jumping off cliffs to the north.

The capture of the Marianas allowed B-29 bombers to be stationed within range of Tokyo and, when the news arrived, the Japanese Prime Minister and his cabinet resigned. It was viewed by many as the last Japanese defence before the homeland.

Re-Occupation of Philippines

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

Holding Saipan was seen as a priority by the Japanese and so followed in June 1944 the largest carrier battle of the war and history in the Philippine Sea. It was a catastrophic defeat for the Japanese. 3 of its 9 carriers were sunk to none of the American 15. Even more damaging though was the loss of around 90% of its air-force from strong anti-air guns, and effective American bombing of their land air-fields.

It was decided to make one more all-out attack in October 1944 in order to prevent the Allied occupation of the Philippines. The aim was to draw out the US carrier group with 4 of their remaining carriers by sailing North to open sea. Two strong fleets of the remaining battleships and heavy cruisers would then converge on Leyte Gulf and destroy the American beachhead there. The diversion succeeded, and the Japanese carrier aircraft inflicted some damage through the first use of kamikaze aircraft, but in the end the entire force was sunk. The sacrifice did not work. The two main forces failed to take the beachhead, and suffered heavy losses including the Musahi, one of Japan’s two flagship battleships. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, argued by some as the largest naval battle in history, was a catastrophic loss for Japan.

Occupation of the Philippines was now near inevitable but progress was still bitter and slow. Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, involved ten US divisions and five independent regiments, more US troops than any other conflict of the war, and 250,000 Japanese troops, of which 80% died. Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer, only surrendered on 9 March 1974 after hiding out for 29 years, relieved by his former commander after an order from the Emperor Showa. Despite MacArthur’s refusal to allow aerial bombardment in order to protect civilians, Manilla fell on 4 March 1945 and MacArthur kept his promise to return and liberate the Philippines.


Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

During the war, around 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were residing on the west coast of America were “interned” in ten different camps. Families were kept together but conditions were hard with internees staying in military style barracks that were over-cramped and unsuitable for family living. Incidents of internees being shot were rare but did happen, such as the case of James Wakasa.

However, Japanese-Americans still played a great role in the American services. 33,000 served, of which 20,000 joined the army. The Japanese-American units achieved great success: the Military Intelligence Service was vital in deciphering the ‘Z Plan’, the Japanese plans to defend Saipan; the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany; and the 442nd Infantry regiment became the most decorated unit in US history earning more than 18,000 awards in two years.

In 1988, President Reagan opened an investigation of the legality of internment, which concluded there was insubstantial evidence of any security risk posed by these Japanese-Americans, and interment was instead a product of racism. $20,000 dollars was agreed as compensation to each internee and the US government eventually dispersed more than $1.6 billion.


The war was now entering its final stages. The final major campaign in the South-West Pacific was the capturing of Borneo. Australian troops invaded the nearby island of Tarakan on May 1 1945, and over the course of June and July attacks were mounted on the island proper. The campaign was criticised as unnecessary, but it did break the Japanese supply of oil and liberate several POW camps, including Sandakan in which only 6 of 2,500 prisoners survived.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa

Attacks moved onto Okinawa and Iwo Jima, two Japanese home islands to the south of Japan itself. Both were key for stationing planes in order to defend against the American B-29 bombers aimed for Japan. And Okinaway was selected as the vital staging post for an eventual invasion of Japan. Japan resorted to forcing unacceptably high casualties for the Allies in order to discourage further advance.

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

At Iwo Jima, the Japanese dug in, their command being under 10m of concrete, rendering preinvasion bombardment ineffective. They also resorted to kamikaze tactics as the air-force began to run out of skilled pilots. Despite the inevitability of defeat, the Japanese were fierce and this was the only battle in which American casualties at over 26,000 (killed and wounded) totalled more than Japanese at around 18,000. On February 23, 1945 six American soldiers raised the US flag over Mount Suribachi marking victory and the photo taken of them would become one of the most iconic of the entire war.

Okinawa was even fiercer. Referred to in Japanese as etsu no bōfū (“violent wind of steel”) due to ferocity and high number of vehicles in the conflict, it was one of the bloodiest of the war. Half the total civilian population of 300,000 went missing, died or committed suicide, and there were over 160,000 combined casualties on both sides. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. was commander of the US infantry on the island, and was killed in action, being the highest-ranking US officer to do so until the 9/11 attacks. The Japanese made wide use of suicide tactics, including bomb laden gliders and the one-way mission of the battleship Yamato. On July 2 1945, the island was declared as won. 94% of the Japanese defenders died.

Atomic Bombs

The campaigns of Iwo Jima and Okinawa showed invading Japan would be a very costly affair. Since 1942, partly due to Einstein’s warning in 1939 of the dangers of Germany doing the same, the Manhattan Project had been started to develop nuclear weapons. Fire-bombing became widespread, one napalm strike on Tokyo in March 1945 killing over 100,000 people, more than either later atomic bomb, but Japan would not surrender and so the Potsdam Declaration by Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai-shek was issued in July 1945: surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

On 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, and on 9 August on Nagasaki. An estimated 140,000-290,000 would eventually die of these attacks due to the effects of radiation, of which 120,000 died immediately. The site is now a Peace Memorial Site.

End of War

The devastation of these bombs stunned the Japanese leadership and it took the second bombing for their repercussions to truly be believed. On top of this, on 8 August, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria. On 10 August, Japan agreed to accept the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration, and on 15 August, known as V-Day in the East, victory was finally declared. The official treaty was signed onboard the USS Missouri, docked with more that 250 other allied ships in Tokyo Bay, on 2 September.

MacArthur took over the occupation of Japan, of which the Soviet Union was allowed very little influence. Emperor Hirohito remained on the imperial throne but his powers were strictly limited by law, the Japanese cabinet was completely changed and became a democracy. Initially, Japan was treated as a dangerous enemy and America tried to undermine any chance to regain strength. But with the growing cost of occupation and the Cold War, American perception of the enemy changed. The occupation ended in 1952 and sovereignty was fully restored.

European power in the Pacific had also been irreversibly dented, and the colonial powers would gradually withdraw nearly entirely.

War Crimes

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East took place in Ichigaya, Tokyo from 29 April 1946 to 12 November 1948. This was to try and condemn Japanese war criminals in the Pacific conflict.

American and European powers suffered the undeclared attacks on 7 December 1941, and the Japanese POW camps were notorious. The infamous Burmese Railway cost 12,000 allied prisoners, and 90,000 civilians their lives subject to terrible conditions, disease, and execution. The death rate of POWs was 27%, 6 times that in German or Italian camps.

The Chinese suffered even worse. Some 200,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into prostitution for the Japanese army, a fact denied even by the Japanese Prime Minister in 2007. The Rape of Nanjing resulted in 300,000 civilian deaths and widescale rape. Biological and chemical warfare was estimated to have killed 300,000-400,000 civilians. Unit 731 was a research unit that conducted various experiments of Allied and civilian prisoners, including vivisection, biological weaponry, forced impregnation, syphilis, and frostbite. Perhaps most shocking of all, the researchers of the unit were given immunity by the US government in secret, in exchange for their results.

The Inca Empire

The Inca Empire

The Incas were a civilisation which flourished from the 12th century until their conquest by the Spanish in 1533 in modern-day Peru and spreading to surrounding countries. With a centre in Cuzco in the Peruvian highlands, the Incas expanded into the largest pre-Columbian kingdom in the Americas, spreading across a diverse selection of climates such as the highlands of the Andes, plateaus and jungles. Famous for their advanced technology, opulent and magnificent art and impressive architecture, the Incas were nonetheless undermined by their lack of military technology and resistance to European diseases.


According to Inca beliefs, in the beginning, Viracocha came out of the Pacific Ocean and created the Sun and all ethnicities of people, who were buried in the Earth to emerge later. The Incas specifically were spawned first as Manco Capac and his sister (and wife) Mama Oqllu, followed by three more sibling pairs. In one legend, these were spawned as children of Viracocha, in another as children of the Sun god, Inti. In either case, the Incas saw themselves as special, the chosen representatives of either deity on Earth and hence destined to rule. The different legends could be explained by the fact that commoners could not utter the name of Viracocha.

There are also different legends about where the first Incas spawned. The earliest says they spawned from a cave at Tampu T’oqo or ‘The House of Windows’, which was located at Pacariqtambo, south of Cuzco. However, in another the Incas emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca onto the shore at Tiwanaku. This was a large but abandoned earlier Andean settlement in Bolivia, thought by the Incas to have been built by giants but who were later destroyed in a flood sent by Viracocha. This later myth may have been a way to link the Incas to the mysterious city and to bring the powerful local Aymara tribes under their control.

The siblings then set off with a golden staff, having been instructed to build a temple of the Sun where it sank into the ground. On the way, Manco Capac’s brothers die, in most stories killed by Maco Capac, before they reach Cuzco and here set up their capital.

Before the Incas

The Incas were only the latest in a series of Andean civilisations. Cuzco seems from archaeology to have been settled since possibly 4500 BC but was not important until the rise of the Incas in the 12th century. Before this, there were two major civilisations, that of Tiwanaku (300-c.1000 AD) and the Wari (600-c.1100AD), with Cuzco located quite centrally between the two. The Moche civilisation preceded even these two.

One of the reasons for the Incas’ success is thought to have been the pre-existing infrastructures and practices of these previous civilisations. Roads, hydraulic systems, and the agriculture of these civilisations were already in practice and were used by the Incas. As were their administrative practices, which involved creating several colonies and then integrating foreign settlements in between by keeping the local ruling systems but including them under their own administration. Non-reciprocal labour was also demanded as a form of tribute which explains how the colossal site of Tiwanaku could be created. The Incas both adopted the process of this labour tribute, and were inspired by the achievements of these former civilisations.


Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco

Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco, Pilot Productions

Cuzco was originally inhabited by the Killke people from 900-1200 AD who established the Sacsayhuaman, a fortress on the edge of Cuzco.

The Incas then incorporated this into the wider city of Cuzco, mostly under the reign of the Pachacuti, supposedly laid out in the shape of a puma, although some scholars believe this to be metaphorical. The Saksaywaman, with its own temple, road and aqueduct system, made up the head of the puma, and the imperial metropolis of Pumachupan made up the tail.

At its peak, the city may have had a population of 150,000. It was split into two main plazas, supposedly between the fore and hind legs, from each of which sprung two highways, extending to the four imperial quarters of the empire, called suyus. The wealth of the city was famous: it was dominated by the Coricancha complex (Temple of the Sun). The greatest temples were built to Inti, covered in 700 2kg sheets of gold, and to Mama Kilya, covered similarly in silver. There were also vast systems of parks, canals, irrigation, temples and fountains but most is now lost and remains only in the account of the Spanish and other European eye-witnesses.


Pachacuti is often credited as the first great ruler of the Incas, reorganising the small city kingdom into an empire. Pachacuti was the second-born son but earnt his succession to the throne when in 1438 he defended Cuzco from an army of the invading Chanka tribe, supposedly 40,000 strong, whilst his father and elder brother fled. Upon succeeding to the throne, Pachacuti continued the war against the Chanka, defeating them and the Collao.

The son of the king traditionally led the army, and Pachacuti appointed his son, Thupa Inca Yupanqui, as head of the army in 1463, who succeeded his father as king in 1471. He is credited with having expanded the empire by a massive 4,000 km (2,500 miles). His greatest victory was against the Chimor on the North-West Coast of modern Peru, the last remaining rivals to the Incas, but he also expanded south into modern Chile and Argentina. Succession proved a great issue, as Thupa died with 2 legitimate sons and 90 illegitimate children. He initially favoured the son of one wife, but then decided on his other son, who would become emperor Huayna Capac. This caused the first wife to poison him, resulting in her and her son’s death after Huayna’s accession.

Civil War

Huayana ruled over the peak of the Inca Empire, expanding further south into Chile and Argentina, and north into Ecuador and Colombia, most importantly absorbing Quito in Ecuador by marriage to its queen. But the symptoms of the Incas’ fall began to become apparent: Huayana died in c.1524, many suspect from a European disease, spreading from the first Spanish Conquistadors in Central America, against which the Incas had no immune defence and so died in their thousands.

Succession also proved an issue as Huayana split his empire in two between his two sons: the North and Quito to Atahualpa and the South and Cuzco to Húascar. Peace lasted for 5 years despite rivalry before Húascar gained the favour of the Canari tribe, a powerful group in the Northern Empire who resented Atahualpa. Civil war ensued in 1529 in which Atahualpa was initially defeated and captured, losing an ear in captivity, before escaping. Bitter war continued with several cities razed to the ground and many leading Incas tortured and executed. But Atahualpa’s favour with his father’s generals turned the tide, as he gradually pushed south and captured Cuzco. However, Atahualpa stayed behind the front line and consulted the oracle of the Huaca Catequil, who prophesied that Atahualpa’s advance would end poorly. And just at this moment, the Spanish began their encroachment into Inca territory.

Spanish Invasion and Collapse

Francesco Pizarro had obtained permission from King Charles I and Queen Isabel of Spain to launch a conquest of what was known as Peru and marched into Incan territory in 1532 with a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry. Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro near Cajamarco in what is now the Inca baths. Atahualpa refused to become a Christian and tributary of Spain, not fearing the small Spanish force having brought 6,000 of his 80,000 strong army. However, Pizarro had planned an ambush hiding cavalry, musketeers and artillery in nearby buildings, technology the Incas had never faced and had no defence against. Pizarro launched and succeeded in his ambush, capturing Atahualpa. Atahualpa offered to fill the room he was imprisoned in with gold and twice that amount of silver, which he duly did, treasures being shipped from throughout the empire. However, Pizarro broke his word, eventually executing Atahualpa for treason against Spain and the assassination of his brother.

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

In the meantime, the war continued. Most of the Incan forces and the best generals were to the south near Cuzco, finishing the Civil War – a grave disadvantage. The Spanish armour and weapons were also a great advantage but defeat for the Incas was not inevitable. Pizarro could not be reinforced due to rebellion in Mexico and what was the Aztec Empire. He was forced to ally himself to local tribes, such as the Wanka tribe, who resented Inca rule. The Incas also failed to use guerrilla warfare as the Mapuche in the Amazon would successfully hold off the Spanish with. Finally, European diseases, such as smallpox and typhus, wiped out thousands of the native South Americans, spelling their downfall.

The Last Incas

In 1533, Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca Yupanqui was installed as king and for a time cooperated with the Spanish before retaking Cuzco. He resisted four counter-attacks and killed 500 Spanish before being forced out of the city. He retreated to the remote mountain jungles of Vilcabamba and set up the ‘Neo-Inca’ state.

Here the Incas adopted some Spanish weaponry and tactics, especially crossbows and cavalry. The new state lasted for 36 years before an incident on the border caused the death of two Spanish ambassadors, triggering the final Spanish invasion in 1572. Despite spirited resistance, the Incas could not break the siege and abandoned their final cities, retreating to the jungle.

The final king, Tupac Amaru, was found and executed. The remaining Incas were forced into labour for the Spanish, with one male from each family being forced to mine precious metals. Such men usually died after a year or two, and another male was expected to replace them. Moreover, disease outbreaks such as typhus in 1546, smallpox in 1558-9, diptheria in 1614 and measles in 1618 killed many.


The Inca empire was known as the Tahuantinsuyu, which consisted of an administrative centre of Cuzco, with four highways leading to four provincial suyus: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW) and Qullasuyu (SE).

The Inca king (Sapa Inca) was the centre of the Empire. Supposedly he drank from gold and silver cups, wore silver shoes, and living in a palace furnished with the finest textiles. The Incas also mummified their rulers and stored them in the Coricancha temple in Cuzco. These were sometimes brought outside, especially in November, ‘the month of the dead’, wearing their finest regalia. They were given offerings of their favourite food and drink, and ‘consulted’ for their opinion on pressing state affairs.

The Incas had no laws but three moral principles: Ama sua: Do not steal; Ama llulla: Do not lie; Ama quella: Do not be lazy. The Incas achieved great success by not conquering local tribes but indoctrinating them and allowing their local elites to continue ruling. However, the families of these elites were often held as hostages and the most important roles were reserved for Incas. Colonies were also dotted through the empire to ensure Inca control and garrisons throughout. The Incas used no currency, so tribute existed either in the form of labour or in the mode of goods such as textiles and luxury items.


Quecha was the official language of the Incan Empire. It was not only an Incan language but existed before in many areas and was indoctrinated in all conquered territories. Special privileges were given to those who could speak the language. However, regional dialects were maintained and some areas maintained their own language such as Aymara, still spoken in Bolivia. Quecha is in fact still spoken by over 8 million people.


At its peak the Incan empire contained nearly 12 million people. Most were farmers and existed in agricultural communities but the Spanish were greatly impressed by the Incan cities. Eyewitnesses described that they were as large as European cities but generally more pleasant to live in, for the road and water systems were superior in South America to Europe.

The Incas divided their lives up into various stages. Until 3, children were known as wawa, a near void description given the common infant mortality rate. At 3, a ceremony occurred where a child was welcomed into life; the whole family would be invited and given a lock of the child’s hair before it was shaved. The child was now warma, a stage of ignorance, before reaching 14 and the first stage of puberty and gender realisation.

The Incas had strong but equal gender roles. Boys’ coming-of-age ceremonies included dancing, fasting, and tasks to display strength. Girls’ main ceremony was the onset of menstruation, upon which they would go into the forest until the bleeding stopped. Both would then be given new clothes and taught how to live as a man or woman. A ‘folly’ stage then occurred, allowing sex without being a parent, before marriage and full maturity. Old age was described as a decline, particularly the final phase of Ruku, or decrepitude from the age of 90.

The Incas were uniquely adapted to high altitude: slower heart rate, high lung volume, and larger haemoglobin amounts to transfer oxygen. Incan nobility also adopted the practice of wrapping the heads of new-born in tight fabric to mould their heads into conical shapes, designed to set them apart as nobility.


Religion was of great importance to the Incas and strongly linked with the movement of the constellations as seen from Cuzco, thought to be the centre of the world. These were normally observed in special sanctuaries, huacas, positioned in spectacular places. The most important deities were Inti, the sun god, and Viracocha, the creator god. On Lake Titicaca there was an island temple devoted to Inti. But the Incan pantheon was vast, and adopted many foreign deities as their own, as well as allowing the worship of local religions in conquered territories. One such example was the scared city of Pachacamac, named after a god of the same name, with a wooden statue considered to be an oracle, which attracted many visitors.

The Incas believed in reincarnation in another world and so the worship of ancestors was of great importance. It was important that no body was burnt, as this would destroy their vital force. The ancient sites of previous civilisations, particularly Tiwanaku, were head in special reverence. Mummies were also frequently displayed and ‘fed’, either with food or libations of chicha beer, as part of ancestor worship. The most gruesome form of worship was sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice. 4,000 servants and officials were supposedly sacrificed upon the death of Huayna Capac in 1527. In 1999, archaeologists in Argentina even found the remains of three sacrificed children in a huaca on a volcano, specially fed maize and dried llama meat and drugged with coca leaves and alcohol.

Science and Technology

The Incas were an advanced civilisation, especially given the lack of a written language. In place of this, they developed the Quipu knot system. A series of differently coloured and lengthed string would hang from a wooden bar, with knots tied at different heights. Sometimes the ropes were interwoven, with larger quipus containing as many as 1500 ropes, suggesting a great complexity of meaning some scholars suggest as an alternative to written text. How to interpret these quipus has sadly been lost and will remain a mystery.

The Inca also made impressive medical discoveries, achieving 80-90% survival rate in skull surgery and using coca leaves as anaesthetic, lessen hunger and give energy.


Inca Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Inca art is most evident in luxury items. Precious metals were beautifully worked to mark their near divine status – gold as sweat of the sun, silver as tears of the moon. However, textiles, especially cumpi, made of alpaca or vicuna wool and cotton, or sometimes more exotic materials such as bat hair or hummingbird down, were the prize items. Designs often used repeated geometric patterns, such as chequer boards, and often special designs designated specific ethnicities to mark out their tributary contributions.



Incan architecture was their most impressive development. Without using any mortar, the Incas were able to build large buildings in extraordinary locations, by incorporating the natural landscape and using stones that were cut to perfectly fit together. One scholar even wrote a razor blade could not be fit between. As a result, many structures still remain despite the frequency of earthquakes in the region, most spectacularly at Machu Picchu, a mountain citadel most commonly thought to have been built as an estate for Pachacuti.

Macchu Picchu, Inca Empire

Macchu Picchu, Pilot Productions

The most common buildings were qollqa, one room warehouses to store potatoes and other foodstuffs. One major cause of Incan success was their ability to store potatoes, freeze-dried in the freezing outdoor night-time conditions and then stored in such qollqa. Most buildings were one room, with the kancha the most normal dwelling: a single room with a thatched roof. Terraces were also developed as a key part of Incan architecture as way of farming in the steep Andes.

But the most vital building of the Incas were roads which spanned across the empire and transported messengers with great speed, as well as llama caravans. Some estimates state the road system consisted of almost 25,000 miles of road – three times the Earth’s diameter.


The Incas were a spectacular and advanced civilisation that dazzled even the Spanish explorers who conquered them. Even with their fall, their influence carries on today in their art, monuments and language which still survive as a key part of Peruvian and South American identity.

More information:

Download: Bazaar – Peru

Read: Horsetrekking the Inca Trail

Read: The Andes Before The Incas

By Wilfred Sandwell

The Russian Tsars

The Russian Tsars
Arists: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible Date: 1897 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Artist: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926)
Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible
Date: 1897
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm
Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

IVAN THE TERRIBLE was one of the most significant and controversial figures in Russian history, Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he is more commonly known, changed the face of Eastern Europe forever. In power for over 50 years, Ivan left behind a complicated legacy; on one hand as an unparalleled military leader and on the other, the military successes the achieved were marred by mental instability.

Ivan IV was responsible for turning Russia from a Medieval state into a vast empire and world power spanning over a million square miles and all the while his mental state grew increasingly volatile throughout his life as he carried out the ruthless oppression of his people. Amongst Ivan’s most significant contributions to history was his creation of the Tsardom, the autocratic and centralised form of rule, which would dominate the Russian Empire for centuries to come. Prior to his accession to the throne, the title of Russia’s ruler was the Grand Prince. Ivan however, changed everything. Proclaiming himself the Tsar of all the Russia’s, he added a religious dimension to his power. Not only was he his subjects’ political leader but also their religious leader, answering only to God. This new religious component to Ivan’s power enabled him a sense of authority afford to none of his predecessors, surrounding him with an aura of invincibility, ensuring that any threats to his power could remain suppressed.

As successful as this element of his rule was, it was however, not the only way Ivan kept his subjects in check. Ivan earned his terrifying reputation through relentless oppression he inflicted upon his people, particularly the Boyar Elite-the noble families, whom he perceived as a threat to his power. In the 1560’s, Ivan established the Oprichnina, essentially a state within a state, which was the head quarters to the brutal secret police known as the Oprichniki who carried out several arrests and executions of those Ivan believed to be conspiring against him. As Ivan’s mental state deteriorated, these acts of barbarism became increasingly common. His oppression reached a crescendo with the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570, a brutal purge, with 60,000 people murdered under Ivan’s command another major factor in the city’s decline from its position of prominence. Ivan’s worsening mental state had taken its toll and would impact his personal life as much as it would his political one.

One of the defining incidents of Ivan’s life was delivering a fatal blow to his own son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich. A competent military operative, Ivan Ivanovich was present at the Massacre of Novgorod amongst other conflicts. Their relationship became increasingly strained during the Livonian War, a conflict marred by Ivan’s string of failures. In the midst of the conflict, Ivan IV physically assaulted his son’s pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. His son angrily confronted him, with the conversation eventually shifting to Ivan’s military failures. Furious over what he perceived as insubordination, he struck his son in the head with his sceptre, a wound he would never recover from. Ivan died three years later from a stroke during a chess match in 1584. The murder of his son left his other son Feodor as his heir who was less physically and mentally abled than Ivan, proving incapable of ruling, and thus Russia entered the ‘Time of Troubles’, a catastrophic phase during which a third of the population died from famine while the region descended into civil conflict.

Despite his incredible military accomplishments, Ivan’s reign had a severely detrimental effect on Russian society. His creation of the autocracy set the precedent for centuries of oppression under future Tsars. Furthermore, his mental instability hampered any virtues he may have held as a leader, giving way instead to his increasingly paranoid state, undoing any good he brought about through acts of sheer barbarism.

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy


Nearly a century after Ivan the Terrible’s death, another highly influential leader rose to power under the title of Tsar, Peter the Great, also known as Peter Alexeyevich. His contributions to Russian society were amongst the most significant of any ruler. As a brilliant military leader, he expanded Russia’s territory, establishing his Empire into a world power. Furthermore, he spearheaded a cultural revolution, enabling the Russian Empire to keep pace with the Enlightenment, an evolution of intellectual thought, prevalent in Western Europe during the 18th century.

Peter’s early life was unconventional. He became joint sovereign of Russia at the age of 10 with his older brother Ivan V, who died ten years later. Due to his young age, the actual ruling of the Empire was managed by members of the elite during which a turbulent time ensued with many forces vying for power, resulting in the death of those close to Peter who were killed during conflicts. When Peter eventually assumed full control of his Empire, it was in a shambolic state, years behind the rapidly developing Western European powers. In what would prove to be the defining achievement of his reign, Peter set about implementing a series of modernising measures to allow the Russian Empire to catch up with its rivals to become a world power in its own right. These changes were broad in scope, covering a variety of different areas which included an update of the Russian alphabet and the adoption of the Julian calendar. Having cultivated a variety of Western European advisors, he also sought to turn the Russia Empire into an economic power by stimulating industry, allowing a bourgeoisie social class to emerge. These changes would prove to be vital in the Empire’s transition from an archaic sprawling mass into a world power.

Peter was also renowned for his capabilities as a military leader. Under his rule, the Russian Empire’s territory expanded significantly by the acquisition of key regions including Estonia, Latvia and Finland, as well as registering victories over Sweden. Most important, however, after a series of major conflicts, was his defeat of the Ottoman Empire. This allowed the Russian Empire access to the Black Sea, a vital territorial victory. Furthermore, he founded the city of St Petersburg, a significant milestone which acted as a buffer zone of sorts between West and East.

Despite Peter the Great’s numerous personal shortcomings, known for his ruthlessness and often oppressive behaviour towards his subjects, his legacy is regarded as highly impressive, turning the Russian Empire into a force to be reckoned with through rapid and effective modernisation. Few Russian rulers have left a legacy considered as great as his.

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov


Also known as Yekaterina Alexeyevna or Catherine II,  Catherine the Great was the Russian Empire’s longest-serving and best known ruler, her reign lasting 34 years highly influenced by Peter the Great’s drive for modernity. Catherine came to power during a troubled time in Russian history following a coup d’etat during which her husband Peter III was killed.

Her reign coincided with a period of prosperity in the Russian Empire, whilst she oversaw its significant territorial expansion. Under Catherine’s rule, Russia annexed several territories along the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. Furthermore, following the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire gained the most significant stake in land. Furthermore, following a war against the Ottoman Empire, she gained significant territorial gains which further consolidated her power and reinforced sentiments of patriotism throughout the Empire.

Notably, she began the Russian annexation of Alaska, forming Russian America. Her victories rested on a combination of strong interpersonal diplomatic capabilities alongside military prowess, the latter in part due to the strategic placement of a number of highly successful military leaders such as Grigory Potemkin.

In terms of domestic affairs, Catherine oversaw the establishment of several new towns and cities whilst simultaneously reforming the Russian governorate system. She also attempted to integrate several Western European ideas into the fabric of Russian society. As a renowned patron of artistic and cultural endeavours, she counted such significant figures as Voltaire amongst her acquaintances and was an accomplished writer in her own right, composing literary works across many genres. This reconciliation of Western European ideology within Russian society gave birth to the Russian Enlightenment. The period also saw the significant secularisation of the Russian bureaucracy a result of which detracted power from the Church which allowed the State a number of additional resources in terms of land, resources and manpower (the peasantry.)

Catherine showed a sense of patronage towards education. Although she failed in her bid to implement a national school system, she nonetheless heavily revitalised Russia’s antiquated education system and transformed the curriculum of military schools to encompass a wide range of fields such as science and the arts. Furthermore, she established the Smolny Institute, both Russia and Europe’s very first state higher educational institution for women. Whilst falling short of her all her ambitions at educational reform, her accomplishments were substantial.

Building on the foundations of Peter the Great’s implementation of reform, Catherine the Great left behind a highly impressive legacy in the pantheon of Russian rulers, playing a pivotal role in Russia’s transition into a global power while overseeing significant reforms domestically, consequently, many historians consider her reign as Russia’s Golden Age.



Commonly referred to as the Tsar Reformer, Alexander II left behind a polarising legacy. While some consider him, along with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, as the Russian Empire’s most important reformers, others doubt the substantiality of this claim.

Coming to power in 1855 following the international humiliation of the Crimean War, during which his reactionary father, Nicholas I plunged the Empire into domestic and international turmoil; those issues which were deep seated within the fabric of Russian society became glaringly apparent and reform was essential. Alexander II, aware of these failings, acknowledged the urgent necessity for reform and set about overseeing its implementation across a variety of different fields.

First and foremost was the issue of Russia’s serfdom. Despite comprising an estimated 40% of the Russian population, the serfs had very few rights; bonded to the land-owning gentry, forced to make regular payments in labor and goods. The poor status of serfs across the the Russian Empire caused mounting resentment amongst their communities thereby resulting in turmoil in a number of other spheres in which they were engaged, most notable the ineffective operation of the Empire’s economy and military. Thus the first major piece of reform legislation Alexander II passed was the Emancipation Decree of 1861, which was finally forced through after years of protracted negotiation and compromise. While the Emancipation Decree was, contextually at least, a major political undertaking, its limitations have come under criticism. The Decree freed 20 million serfs and allowed them the rights of citizens, that is the right to freely marry, right to vote etc. However, most were left with little means to survive on with land allotments highly insufficient and worse still they were saddled with heavy redemption payments to their former landlords. This meant the bulk of the profit they would reap from their meagre supplies would be taken, leaving them little means to survive on let alone prosper.

Arguable, Alexander II’s other reforms were more successful. The military reforms, considered a priority after the Crimean War, saw the Russian Empire’s army completely revitalised. Rather than limited to the the peasantry, compulsory conscription was introduced to people of all social classes. Military education was significantly improved and corporal punishment amongst the military was banned.

Judicial reforms were also implemented in 1864, influenced by the French Justice system. A model was put into place allowing open trials as well as a jury system deemed as more just. Other important reforms included economic and local government reforms, which were generally successful.Despite these reforms, revolutionary sentiments grew considerably during Alexander II’s reign, with many seeing his reforms as half-measures. In the later years of his reign he survived several attempts on his life by revolutionaries, the severity of which prompted him to back-track on a number of his reforms. In 1881, he was finally assassinated in a bombing carried out by a member of People’s Will, a revolutionary populist group attempting to encourage mass-revolution. Ironically, on the day of his assassination, he was on his way to sign a piece of legislation establishing a parliamentary body.

Alexander II’s death proved to be a devastating blow for reform in Russia. Following his death, civil liberties were hugely oppressed and police brutality became increasingly prevalent. His son Alexander III, traumatised by his father’s death and encouraged by his autocratic mentors, reversed several reforms, hampering Russia’s development. Indeed, it was not until after the 1905 Revolution when a parliamentary body would come into being. While Alexander II introduced several significant reforms, his commitment to the autocracy hampered their effectiveness, leading ultimately to their failure.

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909


As the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II witnessed centuries of oppressive autocracy collapse under his rule. There is much debate as to whether he was personally responsible for his own downfall or he fell victim to the multitude of external factors, at the time unfolding across the Russian Empire.

Nicholas II acceded the throne in 1894 and for the majority of his reign struggled to escape the imposing shadow of his father and predecessor in power, Alexander III. An intimidating and fiercely reactionary autocrat, Nicholas II struggled to live up to his father’s reputation. Many of the poor decisions he made were influenced by this misplaced ambition, lacking the personal character to reign in the way his father had.

During Nicholas II’s reign, several long-simmering political tensions boiled over. The oppressive Tsarist regime was reaching the end of its rope as opposition became more wide-spread and organised, capable of dismantling the regime. This was further intensified by several political events, which served to damage Nichols II’s reputation. The first of these was the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904 during which the Russian military was completely outmanoeuvred by the Japanese and despite several costly defeats, Nicholas II insisted on dragging the conflict on for longer, believing that Russia could still win. This misguided approach worsened the defeat and leaving 50,000 dead.

The costs of the war coupled with a variety of other factors lead to a sharp increase of protest in the following years, reaching its apex with the 1905 Revolution. The catalysing event of this nation-wide wave of protest was the Bloody Sunday Massacre. A peaceful protest on the Winter Palace that ended in bloodshed, with thousands estimated to have been killed. While the revolution
was not entirely successful, it saw Nicholas II forced to make several concessions as outlined in the October Manifesto. These included the establishment of a parliamentary representation in the form of the State Duma, Russia’s first elected parliament, whilst an indication of significant social progress, proved to be short-lived.

Nicholas II was unable to reconcile his firm commitment to the Tsarist autocracy and backtracked on several of his promises, issuing the Fundamental Laws not long afterwards to uphold his absolute power as Russia’s ruler leaving the State Duma virtually powerless – unable to pass through any effective legislation without the Tsar’s approval. This contributed significantly to anti-Tsarist sentiments amongst the general public, which continued to intensify over the following years.

Even though revolution was inevitable long-before the First World War, many see this as the event that finally caused the Tsarist regime to collapse. The War had a devastating effect on Russia with nearly 1.5 million dying in the conflict. The Russian Army were caught in several devastating theatres of conflict, the Battle of Tanenburg being its most costly. Completely unprepared, the logistics of transporting soldiers and supplies across thousands of miles of terrain to the battlefields were grossly underestimated. Perhaps most disastrously, Nicholas II assumed leadership of the military.

His lack of experience and competence hampered the Russian war effort significantly. Meanwhile, in Russia the court was in complete disarray under the control of Rasputin, a mysterious confidante of the Tsar left in charge during his absence. Food supplies were running short and public outcry was stronger than ever – revolution was imminent.

The Revolution of 1917 was a long, drawn-out affair, split into two distinct rebellions. The first of which was the February Revolution, catalysed by protests on International Women’s Day. The Tsar returned from the battlefields of the war when the revolution was in full-swing, previously detached from public opinion. Initially dismissive of the severity of the situation, eventually he relented, and towards the end of the Revolution agreed to abdicate ending centuries of Russia’s Tsarist autocracy.

Held in captivity alongside his family for months, Nicholas II and his family were eventually assassinated in July 1917 by the Bolsheviks in part due to his crimes as well as to prevent the autocracy from resurfacing in the future.

While Nicholas II doubtlessly bears a significant share of responsibility for the Russian Empire’s decline and eventual collapse, the Revolution had been inevitable for decades. It is arguable a more imposing and competent leader could have prevented this from happening for a longer period of time, but it would have certainly unfolded regardless. Through incompetence and ineffectual rule, the end of the autocracy accelerated under Nicholas II’s rule.

The Chinese Revolution

The Chinese Revolution

Their activity, aimed at curtailing the power of local warlords was hampered by a brutal purge by the Nationalists, who purged them during the ‘White Terror’ of 1927.

Despite this, the CCP remained active. During the Japanese invasion of Manchuria of 1931, the Nationalists wasted valuable resources on stamping out Communism rather than devoting their attention to the more immediate and far graver threat of Japanese takeover. While the Nationalists were distracted, the CCP built a strong foundation of support in the more remote, rural areas of China. This support steadily increased as the Second World War progressed. The combination of disillusionment towards the rampant corruption within the government, the relative successes of the CCP in their resistance to the Japanese and implementation of land reform policies, all helped consolidate their growing support.

Despite this, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the waning nationalist Government of the Republic, remained in power after the Japanese surrender in the dying days of the Second World War. His administration was supported by the foreign aid of the United States who did not want China to fall under a Communist regime. China was still bitterly divided however, with the Soviet Union occupying Manchuria which eventually enabled the CCP to move in, and the Civil War and subsequent Communist Revolution was set into motion.

Although a shaky truce was settled between the CCP and Nationalist leadership in 1945, peace didn’t last long. Only a year later civil war broke out between the two forces, and would continue for an additional three years. The CCP’s efforts gained traction as the conflict progressed due to a number of key advantages they held over the Nationalists. Their military was far better organised and equipped, in no small part due to the immense stockpiles of weaponry they inherited from the defeated Japanese forces. Furthermore, their base of support amongst the people was stronger and their commitment to their cause deeper.

By contrast, the Nationalists’ power and influence was waning. While they held strongholds in a number of key cities, in due course they were easily overrun and eventually forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Furthermore, they gradually lost pivotal financial support from the US, who no longer saw them as a strong ally. In 1949, Communist leader and eventual dictator Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), forcing the Nationalists into retreat, all but defeated.

Mao’s seizure of power was followed by increased tensions with the US. The two states were unable to forge an effective alliance. Although the PRC had effectively seized control of China and won the conflict, the revolution itself was left somewhat incomplete. The government remained in exile under American protection, which intensified hostilities between the two countries. Despite this, China was now under Communist rule, the Nationalists still active yet almost entirely powerless.

There were several important implications of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. On an international level, relations between China and the US remained tense for decades to come. Not long after the Communist victory, the Korean War erupted, which saw the two nations pitted against each other. Furthermore, political and economic ties were cut with for over twenty years, with the US viewing the exiled Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese government. It was not until Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1972 when relations between the two countries eased.

More importantly however were the domestic implications. Mao Zedong’s reign of power was a key turning point in Chinese history. While he is credited for his role in the modernisation of China through industrialisation as well as bringing imperialism to an end, he also unleashed a wave of terror upon his people comparable to the heinous acts of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler earlier on in the twentieth century. Mao Zedong is believed to be responsible for over 70 million deaths through direct execution or via indirect means such as starvation caused by mass famine and furthermore was responsible for the relentless manual labor enforced upon his people during ‘The Great Leap Forward’ from 1957.

Regardless of his polarising reception in the world, it can be claimed without a doubt that Mao significantly altered the course of Chinese history. His pivotal role in the Revolution reshaped a nation from an Imperialist state into one of the world’s most powerful countries in the world, but at a heavy and deeply inhumane cost.

Please note this article has been researched using a number of sources, it is always best to refer back to academic sources when citing for study.

The Chinese Empire

The Chinese Empire

The Chinese Empire

China has a long and rich history stretching back several millennia, as far back as the 20th Century BC. The Chinese Empire does not refer to a singular dynastic power but rather several different ones, each of which held power over its many millennia of history.


Xia Dynasty

The earliest known dynasty was the Xia Dynasty, which was in power from as early as 2070 BC before falling into obscurity around 1600 BC. Little is known about the Xia Dynasty and it was believed to be a mythical story for many years. It serves an important role in Chinese history due to its prevalence in a number of major texts such as the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian. Despite this, little archaeological evidence exists from this period, rendering much written information about the period unreliable.

Shang Dynasty

The first Emperor of the Shang dynasty

The first Emperor of the Shang dynasty

Encompassing the period otherwise known as the Chinese Bronze Age was the Shang Dynasty. While the exact date of its ascendancy is somewhat ambiguous, it is estimated that the Shang arose around 1600 BC. Unlike the preceding Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty is supported by a wealth of archaeological evidence. The dynasty was centred around the Henan Province along the Yellow River. The dynasty was known for making a number of major advancements in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and military technology. Major urban centres included Zhengzhou and Anyang, the latter serving as the capital. The dynasty collapsed during the rule of Di Xin, a cruel leader who lost the support of his subordinates. During the Battle of Muye, the advancing forces of the ascendant Zhou Army secured victory as Xin’s followers defected and refused to fight. The King killed himself by burning his palace to the ground, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by the invading Zhou Dynasty

Zhou Dynasty

The longest-living dynasty in Chinese history, the Zhou Dynasty remained in power for over 8 centuries. It is generally divided into two separate periods-the Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) and the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BC). It is considered to be amongst the most influential periods in Chinese history, establishing political systems which would be put in place for millennia and creating a distinct cultural identity. The Zhou Dynasty coexisted with the Shang Dynasty for several hundred years and eventually consolidated rule over its rival and exerted control over the entirety of China. The Western Zhou was the less important of the two, peaking for about a century and declining thereafter. Little is known about the period beyond the names of its Kings and a general outline of events. The Zhou’s movements Eastwards represented the coming of the Eastern Zhou and a more illustrious period of history.

Spring and Autumn Period

The Eastern Zhou marked the beginning of the Iron Age in China, a major turning point in the country’s history. The first period of this, spanning 771-476 BC, is known as the Spring and Autumn Period, its name stemming from the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’. The centralised Imperial family lost its power over this period as regional duchies emerged and consolidated power. As divisions began to emerge, a number of important developments occurred in the fields of education and academia. Confucius and several other intellectual figures were active at this time. It was also a period which saw significant infrastructural improvements in the forms of canals and roads.

Warring States

King Wen of Zhou

King Wen of Zhou

As divisions formed, conflict became increasingly prevalent. The final years of the Zhou Dynasty are better known as the Warring States Period. The duchies had declared themselves Kings and had begun more openly feuding with one another. Eventually, two states emerged from the conflict-the Qin and Chu dynasties, with Qin ultimately overcoming its closest rival and becoming the head of the first unified Chinese Empire. Despite the period being dominated by conflict, the Warring States Period also saw a number of major developments in the government systems.

Qin Dynasty

The first of dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty only lasted for 15 years but was immensely important in its foundational legacies. Overseen by its founder Qin She Huang, the dynasty introduced a number of laws and systems which remained in place until the early 20th Century. The dynasty achieved its goal of establishing a unified centralised state of political power. It removed power from feudal lords and established strict control over the peasantry. The authoritarian government introduced standardised writing and measurement systems, a single currency and large-scale construction projects, including the initial Great Wall. It was also known for its anti-intellectualism, with book burning becoming common. The harshness of this regime caught up with it. After the first Emperor’s death, a brief power struggle emerged, which caused a rebellion to oust the dynasty from power. A brief transitional period followed, with the power vacuum being filled by the Han Dynasty.

Han Dynasty

Following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty emerged as the next great period, exerting control over China for 400 years. It is considered to be one of the most illustrious periods in Chinese history, often labelled a golden age. The ethnic Chinese term ‘Han Chinese’ stems from this period, giving a sense of its importance. Established by rebel leader Liu Bang, the dynasty is divided into two periods-the Western Han (206 BC-9 AD) and the Eastern Han (25-220 AD), separated by the brief Xin Dynasty. The period was known for its vast cultural achievements, restoring the artistic and intellectual rigour the preceding Qin Dynasty repressed. Literature and music flourished while historical documentation improved significantly. Importantly, Buddhism was introduced from India during this period, a major cultural moment in Chinese history.

Western Han Dynasty

Paintings from the Han Dynasty

Paintings from the Han Dynasty

The Western Han Dynasty, under the rule of Liu Bang or Emperor Gaozu as he was retroactively known, made Chang’an its capital. Gaozu restored authority to some members of the nobility to quell an uprising following their contributions to the overthrowing of the Qin dynasty. This division of power was not long-lasting as these feudal lords were replaced by members of the Liu family due to questions surrounding their loyalty. This resulted in a number of uprisings, the most notable of which being the Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BC. In the aftermath, the Han Kings’ powers were reduced significantly and the Imperial court played a more significant role in the oversight of their kingdoms. The lesser kings were rulers in the nominal sense but lacked major powers. The Western Han Dynasty was ended following the accession of Wang Mang, who established the Xin Dynasty.

Xin Dynasty

Wang Mang’s grip on power proved to be short-lived. He passed a number of sweeping reforms such as the abolition of slavery and the nationalisation of land in a bid of creating a harmonious society inspired by the works of Confucius and other scholars. These reforms, however well-intentioned, backfired and drew considerable opposition. This opposition intensified significantly following a series of major floods, which left vast swathes of the peasantry homeless and destitute. Rebel groups began to emerge and they eventually stormed Wang Mang’s palace and killed him. Another brief power struggle emerged but eventually the Han Dynasty was restored.

Eastern Han Dynasty

The second Han Dynasty, better known as the Eastern Han or the Later Han, was restored under the leadership of Emperor Guangwudi in 25 AD. This marked a return to the Western Han’s government institutions. The Eastern Han pursued a more aggressive foreign policy while trade and cultural exchange increased considerably. Contact was made with the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire and many other foreign powers. The dynasty reached its zenith under Emperor Zhang in 75-88 AD, with Han society and culture reaching its apex. Thereafter, the dynasty began a slow decline. The eunuchs began to exert more and more political power and imposed authoritarian restrictions. Conflict intensified considerably as rival powers vied for control. The eunuchs were massacred by the military following the death of Emperor Ling in 189 AD and a power struggle emerged between military and nobility figures, dividing the Empire once more.

Three Kingdoms

Flag of the Shang Dynasty

Flag of the Shang Dynasty

With the Han Dynasty all but vanquished, a period of major political discord dominated China. Daoist and Yellow Turban rebellions were quashed and China entered one of the bloodiest periods in its history. The period is known as ‘the Three Kingdoms’, with three figures claiming control of the entirety of China. The states were Wei, Shu and Wu. This relatively short period is deeply ingrained within Chinese history with numerous figures entering the canon in an age of chivalry and heroism. Eventually, in 263 She was conquered by Wei, only to be overcome itself by the ascendant Jin Dynasty. The Three Kingdoms Period was a time of major technological advancement and the exploits of its major figures have been lionised in Chinese culture.

Western Jin Dynasty

In the aftermath of the turbulent and bloody Three Kingdoms Period came the Western Jin Dynasty, a period known for its relative stability. Attempts were made to enact political and economic reform in a bid to repress the rebellion of the nobility and restore the glory years of the Han dynasty. However, these attempts were in vain as in-fighting between rival clans caused thew Jin’s grip on power to disintegrate and foreign powers to emerge.

The Barbarian Invasions and the Sixteen Kingdoms

With the Jin dynasty in disarray, China was vulnerable to outside conquest, which came in the form of Liu Yu, a Xiognu warlord who began to conquer China’s North with the aid of Chinese bandits. Northern China subsequently fell under the rule of a number of warring barbarian factions for many centuries, which were referred to as the Sixteen Kingdoms.

Eastern Jin Dynasty

While the Western Jin Dynasty was displaced by invading foreign tribes, the East functioned as a refuge for exiled members of the royal family and the nobility. The royal family found themselves subjected to the domimion of the nobility, who functioned as oligarchies, often coming to blows with one another. This persistent conflict ensured that the Eastern Jin did not survive for long and was overthrown by the Liu Song Dynasty’s founder Liu Yu in 420, ushering in a new period now known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties.

Northern and Southern Dynasties

Another major period of conflict and disorder, the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties lasted from the collapse of the Eastern Jin in 589 until the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty’s Emperor Wen. It is considered to be a major transitional period in the country’s history, seeing Buddhism and Daoism become increasingly widespread while the Han Chinese diaspora spread southwards. The dominant philosophy of Confucianism began to wane and gave way to a diversification of intellectual thought while literature and the arts flourished.

Sui Dynasty

Emperor Wen of Sui by Yan Li-pen

Emperor Wen of Sui by Yan Li-pen

Following nearly 400 years of infighting and fragmentation, the Sui Dynasty reunified China. However, its authority would prove to be short-lived. The leadership of the Sui Dynasty attempted to enact sweeping political reform but ultimately overextended itself and collapsed. Its founder Wendi, a former member of the Northern Zhou aristocracy emerged as a major military power and established a new capital-Daxing and prioritised defence whilst engaging in foreign affairs. His military supremacy saw him easily overcome the Southern dynasties. He strengthened his standing with institutional reforms, establishing a more lenient penal code and expanding the central government. He conducted a major census and reformed the taxation system. Its most enduring physical legacy was the Grand Canal, the oldest and longest of its kind in the world and a major trading artery. Despite the dynasty’s early promise, it was brought to an abrupt and ignominious end during the Goguryeo-Sui War, a conflict with one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Civil unrest grew to such an extent that the dynasty was overthrown and the emperor assassinated.

Tang Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty’s successor-the Tang Dynasty is considered to be one of the cultural peaks of Chinese history. The power vacuum was quickly filled by the Li family, which oversaw a period of peace and prosperity. Expanding upon the reforms established by the Sui dynasty, the Tang Dynasty saw civil order form while culture reached new heights, the mediums of poetry and fine art flourishing particularly well. The Tang Dynasty ultimately reached its end as the central government eased control over the economy, which coupled with natural disasters to cause civil unrest amongst the agrarian population. Uprisings such as the Guangzhou massacre toppled the dynasty and led to yet another period of political unrest.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Civil disorder gripped China for nearly 50 years, marking the arrival of a multi-state system. Northern China’s Imperial stronghold was dominated by five short-lived, successive regimes (Hou Liang, Hou Jin, Hou Han and You Zhou). Meanwhile, the South was divided into ten separate, stable regimes of varying size. This period was plagued by conflict and moral degradation.

Song Dynasty

Divided into two distinct periods-the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279), this was a major turning point in Chinese history. A time of considerable economic growth and expansion as foreign trade, commerce, urban growth and technological development all occurred. It was also a time of considerable population growth while Confucianism underwent a cultural revival. It was a time noted for the conflict with the Mongol Empire, which conquered the Song Dynasty in 1279.

Yuan Dynasty

Marking a dramatic change was the Yuan Dynasty, an empire established by Mongol leader Kublai Khan. An outlier of the Mongol Empire, Khan ruled over China in isolation from the rest of the Khanate. The Khanate ruled over China for nearly 100 years, synthesising Chinese traditions with Mongol military identity. Mongol rule brought initial economic and cultural success but eventually descended into feudalism and was ruled like a colony, a fatal error given China’s immense size. It was conquered by the emerging Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty

The Xuande Emperor

The Xuande Emperor

The initial Ming Emperor Hongwu established an austere, authoritarian political system which placed strong emphasis on the agricultural sector of the economy. As the dynasty developed, major economic change was implemented as foreign trade expanded significantly. The Great Wall of China was significantly developed into its current form. The dynasty collapsed following a series of natural disasters and crop failures, usurped by rebel leader Li Zicheng, who was shortly afterwards ousted himself by the Eight Banner army-the founders of the Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty

China’s final dynasty was established in 1636 and ruled the country until the early 20th Century, its power extinguished in 1912. One of the largest empires in the history of the world, the Qing Dynasty created the territorial basis for modern-day China. This period saw a dramatic increase in population and an intensification of foreign policy as it acquired new territories, most notable Taiwan. Its aggression drew the ire of Western powers and conflict broke out. Despite late attempts at modernisation, the empire collapsed due to the divisions between the reformers and the hardliners.


Illustration of the construction of the Great Wall of China during the Han Dynasty

Illustration of the construction of the Great Wall of China during the Han Dynasty

Without a doubt China’s most iconic and enduring landmark, the Great Wall of China is one of the most impressive physical accomplishments in human history. Straddling China’s historical northern border, the wall was built incrementally over several centuries as a means of fortification against invading forces, particularly the nomadic forces of the Eurasian Steppe, who regularly tried to invade and conquer China. The earliest walls date back to the 7th Century BC, and were added to in the years since. Major developments were made during the reign of China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd Century BC. The majority of the modern-day Great Wall date s back to the time of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century. Traversing an immense distance of over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall remains one of the most iconic and historically significant landmarks in the world.

RELIGION AND BELIEFS: From Buddhism to Confucianism

Religion in China has been an ever-changing and complex issue over several millennia. Historically, the country was dominated by Chinese folk religions, which have a strong emphasis on nature and ancestors and include the worship of a plethora of different deities. The concept of Yin and Yang is a central principle to Chinese folk religions. In modern times, adherents to Chinese Folk Religion still accounts for nearly 75% of the country’s population, although this also includes worshippers of Taoism and Confucianism, two officially recognised religions. Taoism is heavily rooted in the philosophical concept of ‘The Way’, the natural order of the universe. It first emerged in the 2nd Century and remains a focal point of Chinese religious and cultural identity. Equally important is Confucianism, which first emerged in the 6th Century BC. A major influence on Taoism, Confucianism is named after the philosopher Confucius and places strong emphasis on the importance of family. It is more humanistic than spiritual. Confucianism has gone through cycles of significance, particularly important during the Shang, Han and Tang dynasties. It remains immensely important in modern times. Buddhism accounts for 15% of the country’s population. Having arrived in China due to the increase of cultural and physical exchange associated with the Silk Road, Buddhism emerged during the end of the Han dynasty during the 1st Century. During the period of political discord and civil conflict which followed the collapse of the Han dynasty, Buddhism became increasingly widespread amongst the population, reaching a point of religious supremacy as it competed with the country’s native religions. Overall, there are five recognised religions in China-Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam-however, it is the first three which are of major cultural significance, forming the ‘three teachings’ of Chinese culture. While these views were repelled during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s due to their perceived regressiveness, they have since been formally embraced as a major part of the country’s national identity.

TRADE SECRETS: Tea, Porcelain, Silk

The Silk Road, a series of networks, which connected the Eastern and Western worlds, opened Europe to a number of important commodities from China.


Tea is amongst the most significant of these. Consumption and production of tea in China dates back nearly 5000 years. Tea has a major cultural and spiritual significance in China, having been believed to relieve a number of sicknesses and ailments. It emerged as a recreational beverage during the Tang Dynasty and spread throughout East Asia. Tea was imported to Europe first by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, becoming popular in Britain around 100 years later and eventually becoming a cultural institution. Due to the Chinese monopoly on production, the British Empire established major manufacturing hubs in India in a bid to overcome this domination of the market. In modern times, nearly two thirds of the world’s tea production comes from China and India.


Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase

Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase

China’s importance in the development of porcelain is so significant that the ceramic is commonly known as ‘china’ in Europe. A resilient material known for its toughness and distinct white colour, porcelain took many years to perfect, with its progenitors dating back to as early as the 17th Century BC. The manufacturing process was perfected during the Han Dynasty and a major industry surrounding it soon emerged. Exportation to Europe began during the Ming Dynasty as its popularity grew immensely, proving to be a lucrative source of trade for the country as Portuguese and Dutch merchants instigated direct trade.


Giving the Silk Road its name, the eponymous product has been an immensely popular and important export of China. As the birthplace of the product, China has been a major development for silk for over 8000 years. The heart of the Chinese textiles industry, silk production played a major role in China’s trading relationships with Western countries. It proved so lucrative that the Chinese went to great lengths to ensure that the manufacturing process remained a secret so as to preserve their monopoly. In modern times, Chinese silk production accounts for nearly three quarters of the world’s total and exports accounting for nearly 90%.


The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting

The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting

Now one of China’s most iconic landmarks and tourism attractions, the Forbidden City is located in the heart of the country’s capital city Beijing and is a site of major cultural and historical significance. A vast palace complex built during the Ming Dynasty, it functioned as the home of the Emperor and the government’s political centre for nearly 500 years. Consisting of an astounding 980 buildings, the Forbidden City spans an area of 180 acres. It is considered to be perhaps the definitive example of Chinese palatial architecture. Since the collapse of the Chinese monarchy in 1912, the Forbidden City has changed purposes repeatedly. In modern times, it is a major tourism attraction, administered by the Palace Museum.


One of the most notable series of conflicts in Chinese military history, the Opium Wars were two separate wars between China and the British Empire during the 19th Century.

The First Opium War lasted nearly three years, from 1839 to 1842. It stemmed from trade disputes between Great Britain and China. Trade between the two countries was strong, with demand for Chinese goods such as tea, porcelain and silk very high in Britain. Chinese demand for British goods was less high and overwhelmingly focused on silver, which saw a shortage in Britain. In order to force the Chinese hand, British merchants with the assistance of the East India Company, began to smuggle opium into the country through illegal channels, demanding payment in silver, for which they would purchase Chinese goods such as tea. Indeed, by the outbreak of the war, opium sales paid for the tea trade. This outraged China due to the massive addiction problems it caused as well as the upset of the balance of trade. They forced British trade figurehead Charles Elliot to hand over and destroy opium supplies, which caused strained relations to reach breaking point and conflict to emerge. The war was dominated by naval battles, which the British won with ease. Despite being drastically outmatched, they secured victory after nearly 3 years. Victory was sealed with the Treaty of Nanking, which saw the British resume free trade and seize control of Hong Kong from the Chinese. The defeat significantly affected the dynasty’s international prestige and remains a dark period during Chinese history. It marked the beginning of modern Chinese history and what some nationalist historians describe as the ‘Century of Humiliation’.

The Second Opium War began over a decade later following European frustrations over the Chinese government’s failure to comply with the terms of the Treaty of Nanking. European powers wanted the country to be more open to their merchants as well as the legalisation of the lucrative opium trade. China, still frustrated by the previous conflict, refused to negotiate with any European countries. Tensions reached boiling point in 1856 when the Chinese boarded a British ship-the Arrow which was owned and manned by Chinese traders. The British demanded their release and upon Chinese refusal, conflict between the two escalated significantly. The British asked other Western powers for military assistance, with the French eagerly agreeing. Although peace was agreed in 1858, conflict continued as China refused to adhere to certain terms of the treaty. Peace was finally ratified with the Convention of Peking and the Chinese ceded even more territory to the British. Other terms included the freedom of religion in China, the legalisation of the opium trade and reparations to the British and the French.

These conflicts were a major period of humiliation for China and informed a lingering sense of hostility towards the West which remained intact for many years.


Puyi as the Kangde Emperor, circa March 1934

Puyi as the Kangde Emperor, circa March 1934

Centuries of monarchy in China finally culminated with the reign of Emperor Puyi, whose forced abdication in 1912 marked a major turning point in the country’s history. Reigning from the age of 2 until the age of 6, his brief stint in power was ended during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. This was mainly prompted by the deep decline of the Qing State as a part of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, which saw Chinese international prestige wane considerably. Major disgraces included the defeats of the opium wars amongst others. This caused unrest and eventually rebellion to develop, causing 2000 years of imperial rule to come to an end. Puyi was still permitted to live in the Forbidden City and went by the new anglicised name of Henry Puyi. He was briefly restored to power for less than two weeks in 1917 by royalist warlord Zhang Xun. He fled Beijing in 1924 to live in the Japanese concession, installed as president and eventually Emperor of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he was captured by Russian forces and returned to stand trial in China as a war criminal. Imprisoned for nearly a decade, he was freed in 1959 and lived in Beijing as a civilian, eventually pursuing a career in academia.


The second half of the 20th Century has been a major period of transition in China. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Communist Revolution broke out following the Chinese Communist party’s ascent into power. Eventually, after four years of conflict and millions of death, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared victory in 1949, proclaiming the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. Communist rule was effectively consolidated and embedded into the public consciousness during a period known as the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 to 1976 under Mao’s oversight. This period saw a purge of lingering elements of capitalist and traditional Chinese culture from society. Mao Zegong Thought, or Maoism became the dominant ideological thought of the country. Making up for the failure of Mao’s earlier attempt to transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist state, the Cultural Revolution removed bourgeoisie elements through increasingly violent and inhumane means. It is believed that 1.5 million people were executed during the Cultural Revolution with millions of others suffering imprisonment, torture or public humiliation. Following Mao’s death, these policies were mostly dismantled and the Revolution deemed a major setback to Chinese modernisation.

The History of the Silk Road

The History of the Silk Road


Perhaps the most essential development in the cultural exchange between the Eastern and Western worlds, the Silk Road was a network of critical trade routes linking Europe and Asia. These routes stretched from the the Mediterranean region to as far as Japan and included a plethora of land and sea trails. The increasing prevalence of the Silk Road had not only a profound material effect on the world but was also critical in the cultural development of several civilisations around the world.


The foundations of the Silk Road were laid and built upon thousands of years ago. Trade between China and Middle Eastern countries can be dated back as far as 2000 BC, while traces of Chinese silk can be dated back to 1000 BC in Ancient Egypt, which indicates trade between the two areas. Little is known about these early links, and they were certainly not as substantial as they would later become. The Persian Empire maintained a complex trade route through the entirety of its territory to Ancient Greece, which could be seen as a progenitor to the more well-known Silk Road routes. Arguably the first significant development in the establishment of the Silk Road came during the reign of Alexander the Great, whose conquest of Central Asia brought his Greek Empire within spitting distance of China. The Greek presence in Central Asia, which would last for 300 years, saw the commencement of the cultural exchange between the West and the East, which would flourish for millennia. It is believed that during this period, in around 200 BCE, that the first Chinese contact with the West was established.

China was the principal instigator of the Silk Road’s transition into the vast network it became. During the Han Dynasty, China became increasingly interested in Western trade as its empire expanded deeper into Central Asia. The Hans were motivated by both diplomatic and materialistic interests as more and more routes connecting East and West opened up. The Hans established routes on land and sea, which saw trade begin to increase significantly, although they were not as complex as they would eventually become.

The Roman Empire were also an important force in the Silk Road becoming a global phenomenon. The Roman takeover of Egypt in 30 BCE saw its trade with Eastern countries increase significantly. Having essentially displaced the Hellenic Empire, the Romans inherited many of its prototypical trade routes with Eastern territories. The dominant force that it was, the Roman Empire galvanised trade links between East and West, its significant wealth causing demand for artisanal products such as silk (hence the Silk Road) to skyrocket. The Empire’s collapse in the 5th Century caused trade between East and West to cool, due to the absence of such substantial demand. However, this initial contact set the foundations for the Silk Road.

Marco Polo

One of history’s most iconic explorers of all time, Marco Polo was a figure whose exploits were critical in opening up a dialogue of trade and communication between the East and the West. An Italian merchant born into a family of explorers, Marco Polo can be credited with reigniting the interest of Europeans in visiting the Far East. Inspired by the travels of his father and uncle Niccolo and Maffeo, who had met Kublai Khan, a powerful Mongol leader, on their Asian travels, he joined them on their next journey in 1271, not to return home for nearly 25 years. It is difficult to present an entirely factually accurate account of Polo’s journeys, with some questioning the accuracy of his claims.

During his travels, Polo traversed the routes which now fall under the Silk Road, reaching modern-day China. He became associated with Kublai Khan, and purportedly travelled throughout his domain whilst under his employ, returning to Venice shortly after Khan’s death, which triggered the downfall of the Mongol Empire

Upon his return to Venice, he bore substantial newfound wealth, converted into gemstones. He wound up in Genovese captivity shortly after his return in a conflict with Venice. During this impriisonment, he dictated the stories of his travels, which eventually became The Travels of Marco Polo manuscript, which circulated widely throughout Europe and played a critical role in inspiring a new generation of travellers, most notably Christopher Columbus.

Polo’s travels, despite the ambiguity over their truthfulness, nonetheless left an enduring legacy, inspiring interest in the Far East and its potential riches. They left an important contribution to cartography and left a template upon which figures of the Age of Exploration would build upon.

What Was Traded

As its name suggests, the Silk Road’s origins lay in the trade of valuable Chinese silk with Western commodities. Originally, during the Hellenic Period, the main Western item traded were horses. The Chinese were taken aback by the Ionian horses, which were unlike any they had previously seen. This is often considered to be the initial main exchange between East and West, giving the Silk Road its name.

However, as the routes developed and grew increasingly complex along with the cultural exchanges they enabled, a plethora of commodities were traded. Other commodities included ivory, gold, silver and wool. Spices and foods were also an important item of trade, opening up territories to new novelties they had never experienced before.

Most important however is the cultural exchanges, which trade along the Silk Road allowed. The very fabrics of cultures were altered and grew increasingly linked as commodities, languages and ideas found new exposure elsewhere. The Silk Road played a fundamental role in the establishment of cosmopolitanism, which is so prominent around the world today.


Northern Route: A critical route in the Silk Road reaching from Xian, Northern China, through the Taklaman Desert through the Persian and Parthian Kingdoms and eventually to Rome. This is considered to be the first major route of the Silk Road, defined in the 1st Century BCE, and was used during the Han Dynasty. This route had a number of branches.

Southern Route: A more cohesive, singular route, which connects China and Pakistan through the Karakoram mountains. This route remains intact today as the Karakoram Highway. This Southern Route was essentially a straight, lateral line bisecting the Eurasian continent through Afghanistan, Iran and towards the Mediterranean.

Tea Horse Road: A critical route of the Silk Road, this opened up access to India from China. This route travelled through Tibet, Burma and finally Bengal. It was, as its name suggests, important in transporting tea as well as other commodities such as salt. It was indirectly pivotal in opening up the riches of India, mainly spices, to the West, providing an accessible route for later travellers.

Maritime Silk Road: Although the Silk Road is most often considered to be a land-based route, people often neglect the importance of sea travel to the emergence of trade. The Maritime Silk Road was a vast network encompassing several of bodies of water, particularly the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. It allowed travellers to bypass the sometimes dangerous land routes, providing another important outlet for trade.

Caravanserai: These were structures which emerged as travelling became increasingly common along the Silk Road routes. Caravanserai were essentially roadside inns where travellers could rest whilst journeying across the Silk Road. Varying in levels of opulence, they were typically rectangular buildings and provided water and other supplies to travellers as well as lodgings. Their construction reflected the increasing importance of the Silk Road and the need for infrastructure along it to accommodate the significant increase of travellers. Several Caravanserai ruins remain
intact today, most notably in Iran and Armenia where they were highly common.

Silk Road Cities

Samarkand: One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand is located in what is now known as Uzbekistan. Samarkand rose to prominence due to its positioning along the Silk Road and became a major centre for trade as travel became increasingly common. Samarkand became one of Central Asia’s most prosperous cities, its positioning at the mid-point between China and the Mediterranean made it a critical location for travellers along the Silk Road. Marco Polo wrote about it in his travels, which arguably popularised it amongst Western travellers. Samarkand’s importance as a trade hub saw it become an important cultural centre, eventually becoming the intellectual epicentre of Central Asia.

Merv: Although it is no longer an inhabited city, the ruins of Merv marked the location of a significant Oasis-City along the Silk Road. A number of different cities were located on the ruins of Merv during Hellenistic, Arab, Turkish, Mongol and Uzbeki periods of dominance of the territory. As a result, the site has seen several different cultures and civilisations leave their mark on the city, a process which intensified as West/East contact became more commonplace.

Xi’An: One of China’s most important modern-day cities, Xi’an emerged as an important urban centre as the capital of the Tang Dynasty, which coincided with the rise of the Silk Road. Xi’an is considered to be the starting point of the Silk Road and China’s window into the Middle East. Indeed, a substantial Muslim population remains prevalent in the city today.

Aleppo: A pivotal trade centre of the Silk Road, Aleppo’s close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates Valley ensured its importance as trade between East and West opened up. Aleppo was famous for its vast 13 KM bazaar, which served as an important trading centre for commodities and cultures.

Mosul: Located in modern-day Iraq, Mosul arose as a key Silk Road city at some point prior to the 10th Century and evolved into one of the Middle East’s most diverse urban centres. Mosul was known for its economic prosperity, resulting from its artistic and industrial production. It became known particularly for being one of the Middle East’s most important textile centres as well as a key producer of crude oil.


The Silk Road’s importance in history cannot be overstated. On a material level, populations were exposed to goods they had never previously encountered, which by extension reshaped various areas of culture. More importantly, the cultural impact is immeasurable, allowing both Eastern and Western ideas, philosophies and practices to be exposed and embraced by new audiences. Furthermore, the Silk Road caused travel to regain popularity in an significant way, instigating a new Age of Exploration. The Silk Road’s explosion in popularity caused the barriers between the Eastern and Western worlds to collapse and begin to merge, leaving the foundation to the cosmopolitan world we live in today.