My apologies for the paucity of posts recently! I just spent a week in the extremely beautiful coastal area near the village of Ubatuba, about three hours northeast of São Paulo, and a place where internet access is scarce. When I get the chance, I will upload and post some of the photos I’ve taken so far — especially those of a remote fishing village, which I suspect dates back to colonial times, that is reachable only by a two hour hike through the Atlantic jungle or a hired speedboat ride from a local fisherman!

I’m afraid all I can offer for now is this video of one of my favorite guitarists, the understated João Gilberto, performing a version of the famous song ‘Aquarela do Brasil‘ on Brazilian television in what I assume is the early 1970s.

Vanished Civilization II: The Tocharians

These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts. 

– Pliny the Elder on the report of an embassy from Sri Lanka on the people who live in “Seres” (northwestern China).

The second installment of an occasional series of posts on my favorite vanished civilizations concerns the Tocharians, a forgotten culture that inhabited what is now far western China from pre-Classical times until the time of Muhammad. Although they were in many ways the progenitors of the Silk Road, the Tocharians remain a most mysterious and poorly understood people. Intriguingly, their language appears to have been a branch of the Indo-European linguistic family that strayed far to the east. Their home, the Tarim Basim, is centered around the forbidding Taklamakan Desert (the name of which can be loosely translated as “place of no return”) and was probably one of the last regions of Asia to be inhabited by human beings

The Taklamakan Desert.

NASA satellite image of the Tarim Basin, with the Taklamakan at center. Tocharian settlements generally ranged along the green northern rim.

The hardy souls who settled in this desolate landscape were known variously by their neighbors as the Yuezhi or the Kushans, and appear to have spoken various Tocharian dialects. Although some subsistence agriculture is possible at the margins of the Taklamakan, where rivers flow down from the foothills of the Northern Himalayas before evaporating into the desert, the rather large towns that the Tocharians appear to have inhabited where only possible due to the existence of long-distance trade routes. In short, the Tocharians appear to have been a mercantile people, serving as middle-men between the more advanced civilizations of early imperial China, South Asia, and the Middle East.

6th century AD wooden plates bearing examples of the Tocharian script.

Most of what we know about the Tocharians comes from the accounts of their Turkic and Chinese neighbors to the immediate east and west, but some intriguing archeological finds have complicated the picture. The most fascinating of all is the Tarim mummies. As the picture below shows, these mummies, which appear to date from around 1800 BC at the oldest to 200 AD, are almost uncannily well preserved.

Recent DNA testing on these mummies shows that they bear haplotypes that are typical of West Eurasian peoples, as well as inhabitants of the Indus Valley and Central Asia. This would appear to accord well with what we know of the latter-day Tocharians of the 6th century AD period and beyond, who are depicted in surviving visual sources as looking almost Celtic, with reddish hair and light eyes. Intriguingly, these mummies were wrapped in cloaks made of cashmere and plaid twill!

Painting of Buddhist monks from the Eastern Tarim basin, Bezelek, c. 8th century AD, with Tocharian at left.

Further investigation by historical geneticists and archeologists is sure to yield even more fascinating finds. Further reading: the Indiana Jones-era Norwegian explorer Sven Hedin wrote a great travelogue called My Life as an Explorer that deals extensively with his unintential rediscovery of an ancient Silk Road city in the Taklamakan Desert (he fell through an ancient roof covered with sand). There´s also a book exclusively on The Tarim Mummies that promises to have much more detail and images than I was able to present here. 

More on the current controversy over the archeological rediscovery of the Tarim mummies — and what it means politically in contemporary China — can be found in this excellent New York Times article from 2008. The political use made of ancient human remains in this instance reminds me of my friend Chris Heaney´s wonderful book Cradle of Gold, which details the controversy surrounding the 1920s adventurer Hiram Bingham´s seizure of Incan bones and other funerary remnants in Machu Picchu (Peru is currently in the midst of suing Yale University to have this archeological heritage returned). Mummies are political!

Signing off from São Paulo!

6th century AD wall fresco from Qizil in the western Tarim basin depicting ´Tocharian donors.

Uniforms of the Brazilian Army

Greetings from Brazil! More to follow on the fascinating city of São Paulo. For now, I present some images of eighteenth century Brazilian army uniforms, courtesy of the excellent Portuguese-language blog Arquivo Histórico, :

Note the ‘auxilaries’ in the bottom left of this last image — apparently mestizo and African-descended soldiers, sporting uniforms with much brighter colors than their rather drab colleagues!

These officers look almost exactly like Revolutionary War era British redcoats to my untutored eye. Here’s the full book on archive.org.


I leave for Brazil (S.P. and Rio) today and will be there until the end of the month. While traveling I plan to use this blog as a clearinghouse for the interesting history-related things I find there, and for the occasional photo I take with my friend’s fancy DSLR camera.

Inspired by my impending visit, I present some color illustrations from Jean-Baptiste Debret‘s famous and extremely out of print Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Brésil (1834-39).

 Valley of Serra do Mar (mountain chain near the sea)
 “Family of a Camacan chief preparing for a feast.”

“Mummy of a Chief of Coroados” 

“Black slaves of different nations.”
“Black hunters returning to town (left); the return of the slaves of a naturalist (right).”
For more on these images see this 2006 BibliOdyssey post on the Voyage Pictoresque, and for a complete, searchable database of all the images, see the New York Public Library’s excellent Digital Gallery
Finally, here’s a link to one of my favorite bands, Os Mutantes, then still teenagers, backing up Gilberto Gil and his song ‘Domingo no Parque’ on national television, circa 1966. Its a wonderful live performance — highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Brazilian music, or just music in general.
Um abraço!

South Georgia Island Church

Click to enlarge.

I love the solemness and austerity of this old church in the abandoned settlement of Grytviken on one of the most remote islands in the world, South Georgia, which lies hundreds of miles to the east of Tierra del Fuego. According to Wikipedia, the church was built by Norwegian whalers in 1913. South Georgia’s history goes back to the seventeenth century, when a ship commanded by an English-Huguenot merchant named Anthony de la Roché was blown off course during a trading mission from the Viceroyalty of Peru to Bahia in Brazil.

A NASA satellite image of South Georgia Island.
Remote, inhospitable islands like South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha fascinate me because they seem to attract all sorts of strange historical events and individuals — witness, for instance, the bizarre tale of Tristan da Cunha’s 1811 conquest by three New England sailors who renamed it the ‘Islands of Refreshment’. South Georgia has nothing quite so entertaining, but it was visited by Edmund Halley and James Cook, happens to be home to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, and contains the beautiful, stark and desolate church pictured above.
The abandoned whaling station of Grytviken in South George Island, c. 1986.
As an island-related aside, I recently came across a wonderfully detailed website filled with primary source extracts (including ones from manuscripts) relating to the Galapagos Islands. These guides to the manuscripts of the buccaneers Ambrosius Cowley and William Dampier, among others, are particularly useful and interesting.

Image of the Week 2: the Court of the Ottoman Grand Vizier

Click to enlarge.

Today’s image of the week depicts a formal audience between Ahmed III‘s powerful Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, and the  Vicomte d’Andrezel, the French Ambassador to the ‘Sublime Porte‘ (as the Ottoman court was called in diplomatic circles.) The date is given as October, 1724. This puts the work squarely in the middle of the so-called ‘Tulip Era‘ of the Ottoman Empire, a time of relative peace and prosperity, and one in which what John Brewer called the ‘world of goods’ opened up by global trade and consumer culture was beginning to transform Ottoman society. These changes are evident from the French fashions which dominate the painting, as well as the craze for exotic tulips which gives the period its evocative name.

The artist is Jean-Baptiste van Mour (1671-1737) a Flemish-French painter who became celebrated as a painter of the Ottoman court. His specialty was audience scenes such as the one above, but he was also allowed to paint the harem.

Europeans as ‘Other,’ Redux [February 2011 update]

A post today inspired by last week’s post on early modern Japanese and Chinese depictions of Europeans. Thinking about that led me to look more closely at an image I’ve had filed away for awhile — a remarkable example of sixteenth century Japanese Nanban (‘Southern Barbarian’) art depicting a group of Portuguese merchants at a Japanese port, apparently selling a small collection of exotic animals. Here is the image in full (or, at least, the most complete version of it I’ve found — this is itself likely a detail from a larger painted screen):

Looking at the image more closely I realized that it could be cropped into detailed individual portraits. The result is a fascinating inversion of the early modern European ethnographic gaze — one in which the Portuguese, rather than the Japanese, are depicted as exotic-looking foreigners.  The palpable strangeness that Portuguese clothing and physiognomy held for the painter is evident from the remarkable level of detail throughout, and especially the close attention paid to the figures’ outlandish apparel.

Could this be an African slave or Afro-Portuguese crioulo?

What I find most interesting about these portraits is the acute attention given to ethnic signifiers, from skin color to clothing, and what they might tell us about the individuals of diverse backgrounds who were lumped into the undifferentiated category of ‘Portuguese’ in early modern Japan and elsewhere in the Portuguese empire.

(The role of animals — some of New World origin — in these images is another fascinating topic, one I plan to return to at a later date).

The Portuguese themselves, being, like other early modern Iberians, obsessed with limpieza de sangre, tended to depict themselves as exclusively Christian, European and, to use an anachronistic term, ‘white.’ Recent work on the Portuguese empire, however, is beginning to reveal a different picture. I’ve heard an estimate from one noted historian of slavery in the Lusophone world that up to one tenth of the population of Lisbon in the seventeenth century was of African origin, while another important recent work has revealed the pivotal role played by Portuguese Jews and Marranos in creating the networks of commerce and credit that were, in truth, the real substance of the Portuguese empire. Finally, in areas such as Goa, Sri Lanka, Cape Verde and East Timor, prominent Portuguese creole populations developed.

It is difficult to speculate about the backgrounds of the diverse Portuguese traders pictured in these images, but the potential countries of origins of these figures (from Malaysia and India to Angola and Brazil) is a testament to the truly global character of the Portuguese empire, and to the new perspectives which an outsider’s gaze can bring.

A. J. R. Russell-Woods’ The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: a World on the Move and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert’s A Nation Upon the Ocean Sea are two books I’ve been reading on this subject, both excellent in different ways. I’m particularly enjoying the Russell-Woods book.

Finally, here’s an example of Nanban cuisine — a Japanese recipe that originated as a Spanish and Portuguese dish called escabeche (I have yet to try it myself, but it looks pretty good). Other culinary cross polinations abound: apparently we even have the Portuguese to thank for tempura.

Animals in Pisanello

Looking at the paintings of the early Italian Renaissance painter Pisanello just now, I was struck by how wonderfully delicate and accurate his paintings of animals are. If he had lived in a different time or created these images in a different context (one of scientific learning rather than courtly patronage) I’m convinced that Pisanello would have been a famous naturalist. Here are a few cropped images I’ve made, deriving primarily from his lovely paintings The Vision of Saint Eustace (c. 1438) and Portrait of a Princess of the House of Este (c. 1440s?).

And finally, Pisanello’s only surviving sculpted piece, a medal depicting “Innocence and a Unicorn in a Moonlit Landscape.”

The Drawings of George Psalmanazar

The brilliant eighteenth century impostor George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763) is one of my favorite historical figures and someone I’ll return to at a later date to write about in more depth. Today I’m just going to post some of his drawings, which were discovered by the historian Frederick Folely, S.J., in a sheaf of Church documents held by the Lambeth Palace Library (in 1968 Folely reprinted the images below in his rare and out of print  Great Formosan Impostor).

Put very briefly, Psalmanazar was a mysterious young man who convinced a wide array of early eighteenth century British luminaries, such as Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, that he was a native of the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. In reality, he was most likely from southern France, and his claims about Formosa were almost completely fictional — which makes them very interesting.

The rather crude drawings below were apparently drawn by Psalmanazar himself (in his posthumously published Memoirs he modestly admits to “some ability” in the visual arts, not evident here). They depict various Formosan stock types, from a rustic fellow labeled ‘a Country Bumpkin’ to a ‘Vice-Rey’ and ‘King.’ Below the drawings, I’ve included the actual engravings from Psalmanazar’s published work on Formosa, the Historical and Geographical Description.

‘Tabernacle in which God appears.’

Comparison of Psalmanazar’s original drawing (left) with the published British (center, 1704) and French (right, 1705) editions.

The printed English versions of ‘Rusticus’ (Country Bumpkin) and ‘Civis’ (Burger) shown above.

For more on these drawings see Peter Mason’s excellent article on them, “Ethnographic Portraiture in the Eighteenth Century: George Psalmanazar’s Drawings” in Eighteenth Century Life. The best book on Psalmanazar’s life and influence is The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax by Michael Keevak.