MODULE 1: Empires and Their Discontents

The Alhambra Decree (1492)

When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s Catholic forces took power over all of Spain in 1492 – overthrowing centuries of Muslim rule in many Spanish regions – they decreed that all the Jews of Spain had three months to leave, or they would be killed. What happened next was the Ottoman Empire sent its fleet across the Mediterranean to Spain to rescue hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews.

This was of course a very significant, life-saving development for all those Jews. But it is also deeply relevant today, as a major example of a Muslim empire showing tremendous solidarity with non-Muslim – in this case, specifically, Jewish – people. There are many other examples, though perhaps none on such a massive scale.

This is especially important because of the way many people have tried to create the impression that Muslim rulers have historically been intolerant of other religions, while in “Christian Europe” tolerance was the norm. The truth is completely different. In reality, the Muslim rulers of the Ottoman Empire embraced a diverse and very, very large society involving many languages, ethnicities and religions. Meanwhile in Europe during the same period, much of the historical record is drenched in the blood of nonbelievers who fell victim to inquisitors and crusaders.


The Golden Age of Piracy (1716-21)

The victors write the history books, as the saying goes. And those who can read and write, too… The pirates of the early eighteenth century were not, in the end, victorious, nor were they literate. For centuries, they have been depicted as basically thugs – criminal gangs, sometimes romanticized while being vilified, but very rarely anything else.

The reality, as revealed by recent scholarship by academics such as Markus Rediker at the University of Pittsburgh, is very different. The pirates of this period were rebelling against completely intolerable conditions of work in the ships, which they often led mutinies to take over. It was common practice for ship captains to beat and torture their crew members to the point of permanent disfigurement. And just as common for such injuries – and death – to come from the extremely hard seafaring work itself.

But the pirates didn’t just take control of ships and lay siege to – and liberate – other ships. They formed communities on those ships, as well as on islands that were, for one reason or another, not easily controlled by the British and other national authorities of the day. Unlike on the merchant ships and navies of the time, on the ships controlled by pirates, profits were shared among the crew — and the captain had limited power, which could be rescinded by a vote at any time.

The pirates had a commonly-known code of ethics, enjoyed tremendous popularity among the citizenry in places like the North American colonies – and most of them were of African origin. On numerous occasions, when the authorities were preparing to execute pirates at the gallows in places like Boston Commons, local citizens came en masse to free the pirates.

Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87)

After the colonial revolt that led to the formation of the United States of America, many people in the new country believed that they had just been fighting a war for land and liberty. Most of them quickly discovered that perhaps they had been fighting for liberty, but not for land — for they still had none of it.

Tenant farmers in western Massachusetts who had been away for years fighting in the Continental Army returned to their farms, only to find that they were being foreclosed upon by their landlords. They couldn’t keep up with the rent when the men were away fighting, and their landlords apparently weren’t very patriotic. The landlords just wanted their rent money — so they could continue to live off of the labor of the farmers who rented land from them. The landlords showed no particular concern for the welfare of these revolutionary war veterans. Many would say these landlords exhibited a degree of compassion and understanding typical of their class. (Scientific studies have recently demonstrated that rich people, as a rule, possess less empathy than everybody else.)

The tenant farmers organized and formed a small army which they named after one of their more prominent participants, a former officer in the Continental Army named Daniel Shays. There was very little actual violence, but many armed people with lots of potential violence. Shays’ rebels kept the courts from opening for years, thus preventing any evictions from being ordered by them.

The “American Revolution,” as it’s popularly known, is often painted as a greater event than it actually was. The revolution was led by rich, slave-owning men, and the main benefits of the revolt went to them – namely, national sovereignty, which most importantly included the freedom to trade with countries other than just Britain. The revolution was never fought for the common people — the tenant farmers — and certainly not for the multitude of enslaved Africans. This new old reality became quickly clear to the tenant farmers in Massachusetts, though the propaganda about the glory of this revolution and its hallowed Constitution has continued to this day.

“Berkshire Hills”

The War of 1812 (1812-14)

War has been an almost constant feature of life for people from the United States since the founding of the country. One of the earlier examples after the country’s founding was the US attack on what we today call Canada in 1812.

Many people crossing the US/Canadian border wonder at all the parks named Peace Park that they notice scattered across the 3,000-mile border. If these two countries were ever at war, they never heard about it. And whether they were depends on your definition of Canada, but in any case, US forces started out by burning down the city of York (today known as Toronto) to the ground. They burned not only government buildings, but civilian homes.

After the burning of York, Great Britain got into the action and sent naval forces to the US. France, the main benefactor of the war against Britain a few decades earlier, was busy with the Napoleonic Wars elsewhere, and without their erstwhile French ally, the US got trounced by the British Navy. In August of 1814 British forces led by General Robert Ross burned down the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court.

There are various explanations for the motives behind the US leadership in starting this war, but one of the more prominent of them was undoubtedly to try to deal with the problem of Canada being a haven for escaped slaves from the US – just as Florida (nominally controlled by Spain at the time) had been before it was attacked by US forces in 1811.

“The Man Who Burned the White House Down”

The Merthyr Tydfil Uprising (1831)

The first time the red flag was flown as a symbol of revolution was in the popular uprising in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831. For several days, people in this mining community took over the town and kept armed detachments serving the British Crown at bay — either by keeping them locked inside a compound, or by chasing them away when they tried to get into the town. As with so many relatively small-scale uprisings, the threat of violence was used much more than actual violence, especially after the first day.

The uprising was prompted by mass lay-offs and the cutting of wages for miners whose families were already barely surviving. “Down with the king” and “cheese in bread” were the chief rallying cries of the rebellion. People in the community were driven by necessity to go into debt, given their starvation wages. Thus, the main point in taking over the town was to shut down the Debtors’ Court, a widely despised institution that tried to get people to pay back their debts by confiscating their meager belongings, such as the farm animals they relied on to compensate their low wages — whether this caused their families to starve or not.

What was perhaps most significant about the Merthyr Tydfil Uprising is that it was to be the last armed uprising that would take place in Great Britain (though across the Irish Sea there would be many more to come). The most commonly-held explanation for this is that it was right around the same time, in the early 1830’s, that the British labor movement began forming a truly national movement. As the labor movement grew, miners and other workers began to change their tactics from such uprisings to what many people in the world today associate with unions – work stoppages, strikes, collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions, and so on.

Of course, these tactics were also met with state repression, including death, imprisonment, and deportation to Australia and elsewhere. It would take the British labor movement over a century to achieve its most fundamental goal – a living standard for the British working class that could be considered adequate to live a decent, dignified life.

“Cheese and Bread”

The Opium Wars (1840-42, 1856-60)

For those of us who grew up learning about the glories of freedom and democracy in the western world, discovering the truth about our history can be fairly devastating. There are few examples where the reality clashes with the fiction more starkly than the British-led Opium Wars in China which took place at different times in the nineteenth century.

The standard line from our governments and economics departments in the west is that we’re all about free trade, and pretty much always have been. The reality is, as usual, very different. Britain’s American colonies were not allowed to trade with other countries. Part of the extremely violent process of colonizing India involved creating an Indian dependency on British textiles. How did they do that? By physically destroying India’s textile industry. Britain’s textiles were of inferior quality and more expensive, but no matter – once the looms in Calcutta were torched, what choice did people have but to buy British products?

Similarly, Britain produced nothing much that people in China needed. China, on the other hand, produced tea, which was quickly becoming a huge part of the overall British economy. Rather than paying for the tea in gold and silver, however, the British Crown came up with the strategy of exporting the addictive drug known as opium from their colonies in India to China. Under Chinese law this was illegal, but the British authorities didn’t care.

When the Chinese Army burned 20,000 crates of opium, Britain responded by declaring war on China. With the help of armed detachments from the US, France and Russia, the British Navy destroyed Chinese cities and killed tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians, until they achieved their goal – the right to continue to sell massive quantities of an addictive drug to the Chinese people, who suffered terribly in many different ways as a result of what the British called “free trade.” This was what is known in many history books as the “opening” of China. This is also how Britain acquired the territory of Hong Kong.

“Trade War”

The San Patricios (1846-49)

The Mexican-American War, like the War of 1812 and many other US military campaigns, is generally not a big part of history textbooks. The tendency is to try to paint the US as the victim in any war, the underdog, the honest broker, the one defending human rights and democracy against authoritarianism, communism, or fascism. The reality has almost always been radically different from this picture, and the Mexican-American War is one of those stark examples that’s almost impossible to spin in a way that makes the US look like the good guy.

The Mexican-American War was, at its root, a war of a slave-based economy (pre-Civil War US) against a country that had abolished slavery decades earlier. As with the wars against Spain in 1811 and Canada/Britain in 1812, the war against Mexico was very much about maintaining and expanding the very profitable institution of slavery. The main issue there was whether the Anglo (US) settlers in Texas could keep their slaves, as the slave-owners among them wanted to, or whether they had to free them, as their Mexican overlords were insisting they do. Their solution was to declare themselves independent, and then to join the United States. And then to invade and annex most of Mexico.

The timing of the conflict in Texas was also fortuitous for the US invaders, because it coincided with an unprecedented wave of immigration from Europe, due many factors – industrialization in Europe was leading to the unemployment of millions of artisans who were being replaced with the new factories, and going hand in hand with this chaotic process, there was also a huge crop failure. The combination of the potato blight and exploitative government policies led to famine in Ireland, and near-famine in many other parts of Europe.

The answer to this wave of immigration by the US authorities was to give the young men among them a uniform and a gun, and tell them to go prove their patriotism by killing Mexicans. As the war dragged on and the US forces got deeper into more populated areas of the sprawling land mass that was then called Mexico, thousands of soldiers deserted from the army, rather than commit the atrocities against civilians that many of their fellow soldiers and volunteers had been engaging in – and of course rather than risking their lives for what was now obviously a war of naked aggression.

The San Patricios took desertion a significant step further. This group of approximately 200 men, the vast majority of them Irish Catholics, first deserted from the US Army and then joined the Mexican Army. They became the Mexican Army’s only foreign legion, with their own flag that included a harp, a shamrock, and references both to the liberation of Mexico and the liberation of their own occupied country. Although their story isn’t well-known in the US or in most other parts of the world, it is well-known to this day in Mexico as well as in Ireland.

Most of the San Patricios – the Saint Patrick Battalion – were killed over the course of five battles with the US Army. Some were captured and executed. Others escaped from the last battle and lived out the rest of their lives in Mexico, where commemorative plaques and statues can be found today, such as on the church compound where many of them lived in the San Jacinto neighborhood of Mexico City.

The Rent Strike Wars (1839-48)

On the Fourth of July in 1839, farmers had a meeting in the village of Berne in upstate New York. They were organizing a rent strike. They were tenant farmers, and their landlord was a man who had inherited the land from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and so on. The title to the land for the Van Renssalaer family dated back to the Dutch Crown, which had been the original entity responsible for the theft of the land from the native inhabitants, who had declared the land to belong to the Van Renssalaers.

The current iteration of the Van Renssalaers raised the rent, which had already been almost impossible to pay and make ends meet at the same time. Starting with farmers in the hills, where farming was the most difficult, the rent strike began.

In order not to be recognized, the tenant farmers wore costumes and masks, and spoke as little as necessary. When they did speak, it was a simplified form of English. They rode horses and carried guns and horns. The horns were their essential method of communication across the resonant mountains and valleys – when a farmer was being threatened by a posse working for the landlord, the blowing of the horn indicated to anyone within earshot that help was needed fast. Soon there would be hundreds of armed people on horses there to defend their fellow renters.

For nine years they did not pay the rent, and they kept their farms throughout this period through collective action, solidarity, and the threat of violence. In 1848 – while almost all of Europe was undergoing a very violent series of uprisings known today by the shorthand, “1848” – a police officer was killed by a tenant farmer. Fearing the consequences, the rent strikers buried their costumes and ended their armed actions. But by this time the landlords had also decided it was time to settle, and they began selling their land to the local farmers, who now became what those of us with a more mainstream education might be forgiven to have thought they already were. That is, small farmers who owned their little plots of land – not tenant farmers, or what they would come to call “sharecroppers” in the post-Civil War southern US.


There are various moments in history where everything seems to come together, where the power structures of many different societies are shaken to the core or overthrown altogether. Moments such as the Japanese defeat of the Russian Empire in 1905, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Tunisian Revolution in 2011. Possibly the historical moment that led to the biggest changes in the largest number of countries was the tumultuous year of 1848.

In the course of 1848, tens of thousands of people died in violent insurrections throughout Europe, and every monarchy in Europe except for Britain’s and Russia’s was deposed at least temporarily.

It’s a deceptive fact that all of these monarchies returned to power afterwards. The deceptive part is that they returned to power in a thoroughly transformed environment.

If you travel around Europe looking at old government buildings you’ll often see plaques that refer to 1849 – 1849, the year the lower house of parliament in one country was formed, or 1849, the year the serfs got rights in one country, or land in another. The plaques don’t tend to mention that the year before the lower parliament was formed, the upper parliament had been burned to the ground by an army of hungry peasants with pitchforks and torches.

The conflagration of events that created the perfect storm in 1848 went like this: the crop failure that led to famine in Ireland also happened across Europe. Most people in continental Europe didn’t starve, but they did have tremendous challenges with the skyrocketing cost of food engendered by the potato blight. Since almost all their earnings were now going to food, most people in Europe could no longer afford new clothing, new farming tools or wagons or any of the other products of industry – so almost all of the factories closed.

Now people were unable to buy food, since they were unemployed at this point. But with industrialization had come an urban labor movement, which then found allies among the hungry peasants as well as the large elements within the more privileged classes who were fed up with living under corrupt monarchs. The aftermath of 1848 was the beginnings of the modern European welfare state. That is, states that have the physical and economic infrastructure to keep their population from starving, even when the crops fail – thus allowing the bourgeoisie to be confident that their heads will remain on top of their shoulders.


The Eureka Stockade (1854)

One of the most significant, definining moments in Australian history is known as the Eureka Stockade. To this day, the southern cross (a constellation that’s in the skies throughout the southern hemisphere) flag of the Eureka Stockade can be found flying wherever Australians are expressing dissent against the status quo.

The big gold rush in the Australian state of Victoria began in 1851 – two years after the gold rush in California. Veterans of the rush in California – “Fortyniners” – were among those who joined the gold miners in Victoria, known most often as “diggers.” Also among the diggers there were veterans of the 1848 uprisings in Europe.

The trouble for the authorities began when they decided, in their wisdom, to raise the taxes on the diggers at the same time as the amount of gold they were managing to mine was decreasing markedly. Unable to pay the tax and survive, people rebelled. The diggers refused to pay the tax. Ultimately the British Army went in and quickly overcame the limited armed resistance that was offered by some of the diggers. Dozens were killed, including six British soldiers.

On the anniversary of this massacre, most of the gold diggers held a protest – despite the threat of another massacre. After seeing that the diggers were uncowed, and considering the fact that they now made up a very significant percentage of the population of the state of Victoria, the response of the authorities at that point was to begin to give the diggers everything they had been asking for – an end to the tax, a plot of land, and the right to vote.

“Song for the Eureka Stockade”

Egyptian Rag (1850’s)

One of the more macabre explorations of the morality of capitalism can be found in the example of the US paper industry of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Evidence is sparse, but from what remains of the historical record it seems likely that the source for much of the cloth that went into making paper during this period was the cloth that wrapped the bodies of dead Egyptians.

Before the process of making paper from wood was perfected, paper was made from cloth. The cloth didn’t need to be new – old rags worked great. But where to find massive amounts of old rags?

As the British were overseeing the construction of a railway between the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Cairo, everywhere they dug they kept coming up with old bodies. For thousands of years, Egyptians had been wrapping their dead in textiles and taking them out to the desert to be buried. In the arid climate, the cloth (and the bodies) had been well-preserved. So in the course of building the railway, a new side industry developed – harvesting the wrappings of mummies in order to sell them to the paper industry in the US state of Maine.

This practice was never something that the industrialists bragged about openly, so the fact that they were using the wrappings of mummies for their paper mills had to be ascertained in other ways. Some of the evidence includes receipts for ships full of rags that say the rags originate from “the tombs of Egypt.” Other evidence involves the accounts of paper mill workers of the day, who report that sometimes when they threw the rags onto the floor to begin to use them in the paper-making process, the rags would spring into the shape of a human being. Naturally, they had been wrapped into that shape for thousands of years, so they still retained the shape after being separated from their corpses.

“Egyptian Rag”

Sunset Laws and Exclusion Laws (1844-1926)

Before it even became a state, Oregon passed Exclusion Laws directed towards people of African origin, and later other Exclusion Laws directed at other people of color. They weren’t rescinded until 1926 – and overt institutional racism certainly did not end then, in Oregon or anywhere else in the US.

For some in Oregon, the reason for excluding nonwhites was because they didn’t want to have slavery in their state. But even this strange logic only works if you assume that the presence of people of color in a state means that there is necessarily going to be super-exploitation of their labor, and thus unfair competition with whites, taking place.

Chinese miners in Oregon were massacred so often that they gave up mining and went to the cities to seek safety in numbers. Signs were posted at the entrances of towns throughout Oregon (and many other states) that told people of color that they had to leave by sunsest or risk being killed.

These “sunset laws” never made their way into writing, but the Exclusion Laws did, and they defined in great detail exactly what was meant by different racial terms such as “white Mexican,” “half-breed Indian,” and so on. Laws on the books detailed the physical punishments that were appropriate to mete out to people of color who dared try to live in the state of Oregon.

To this day, there are far more people of color per capita in the states to the north and south of Oregon than there are in the state of Oregon. And because of gentrification in 21st-century Portland, Oregon’s biggest city has lost more than half of its African-American population between 2000 and 2010. (The same process of ethnic cleansing has been taking place in San Francisco and many other cities.)

The current and historical situation with institutional racism in Oregon is especially significant because of the widespread impression that many people in the US have that historical racism of this nature was primarily a southern thing. Oregon, however, is more the rule than it is the exception, and it is most definitely a very long way from Alabama.

“Sunset Laws”

John Brown (1859)

John Brown is a well-known historical figure in the US. But what most people who know anything about him know is that he tried to foment a slave revolt in Virginia in 1859 by seizing an armory and distributing arms, and that the rebellion didn’t go as planned and John Brown and his men were captured (by Robert E. Lee, among others) – and then he was executed.

While this is all true, this selective memory around different historical events and people is dangerous – and the fact that we usually know more about John Brown’s failure than we do about his successes is not coincidental. While the raid on Harper’s Ferry didn’t go so well, in the years just prior to that, John Brown and the armed wing of the US abolitionist movement led a successful routing of the forces of slavery in the new (freshly-stolen) state of Kansas.

The way things worked back then was a territory wouldn’t be admitted for consideration as a US state until it had a white settler population that outnumbered the native population and other nonwhite elements. Once there was a white majority, whether the state might allow slavery or not was the big question, which would depend on what the white men (the voters) thought was preferable. So pro-slavery people from Missouri and anti-slavery activists from New England and elsewhere converged on Kansas, and the abolitionists won.

The armed abolitionist movement had many supporters who kept a low profile about their support of such extremists, including a Reverend Beecher, who sent boxes full of rifles to Kansas marked “Bibles” on the outside, to confuse the postal service. Thus, they earned the nickname, “Beecher’s Bibles.”

Questions/thoughts for further exploration…

The Alhambra Decree (1492)

Who was more tolerant? Medieval Europe or the Middle East?

The Golden Age of Piracy (1716-21)

Who were the “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Criminals or heroes?

Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87)

People had just fought a revolution in the US – but who owned the land? What liberties had people just won?

The War of 1812 (1812-1814)

Why did the US invade Canada in 1812? To defend slavery? And why did the US lose? Lack of French support?

The Merthyr Tydfil Uprising (1831)

Why was Merthyr Tydfil the last armed revolt in Great Britain? How did the labor movement evolve in Britain at that time in history? (TUC formed.) Why was Dic Penderyn hanged? (To set an example.)

The Opium Wars (1840-42, 1856-60)

How do fantasies of “free trade” square with the realities of the Opium Wars? What do the Opium Wars tell us about colonial notions of trade?

The San Patricios (1846-49)

Why did the US invade Mexico? Was it about slavery? How did immigration play a role? What was similar about Mexico and Ireland?

The Rent Strike Wars (1839-48)

How do the tenant farmers of upstate New York compare with the small farmers in Little House on the Prairie? What do the Rent Strike Wars tell us about effective forms of rebellion? Why is this hidden history?

1848 (1848)

It may indeed be true that real change can happen through democratic processes, but how true was that before 1848?

The Eureka Stockade (1854)

Why did the gold diggers get all their demands met eventually? Why was the state so scared of them?

Egyptian Rag (1856)

Is it hard to imagine a corporation digging up thousands of graves in Europe, unwrapping the bodies, and using the wrappings to make paper in the US?

Sunset Laws and Exclusion Laws (1844-1926)

Did slavery end with the Civil War?

John Brown (1859)

John Brown’s militant tactics drove the forces of slavery out of Kansas. Why do we only ever hear about him in the context of the failed slave uprising in Virginia?