Category Archives: History Undusted

History Undusted: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

Mississippi and Chinese are not two terms one usually expects to see in the same sentence; yet it’s a slice of history worth undusting (though, for those who grew up in this subculture of the South, it’s not history, but reality): An industrious, well-educated but small population of Chinese immigrants made a significant impact on the economy and social environment of their communities along the Mississippi Delta.

The first influx of Chinese to America came in the pioneering days, when they worked in gold mines, along railroads, and provided laundry services in the Old West.  More came to work in the cotton fields of the South when the plantation owners could no longer count on free slave labour.  Most of these Chinese came from Guangdong province in China, which has a similar climate to the Delta.  The opportunity for work in America afforded them the chance to help support their family members who remained behind in China.  They quickly established themselves in a niche market between the whites and the blacks, serving both communities with segregated grocery stores.

During the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), they were unable to own property, so the families lived behind their stores in the same building; their children all attended one-room schoolhouses, some of which were built by the Southern Baptist church (which remains a big part of their lives). [The fact that there was such a law implemented to restrict a specific ethnic group is the greatest remaining witness to the number of Chinese immigrants of the initial wave (during the California Gold Rush, 1848-1855), as records or censuses of that time period have all but vanished.]  The parents worked 365 days a year to send their children to college; many of those children went on to be pharmacists, NASA scientists, veterans (the Delta was represented by 182 Chinese men who served in World War 2), doctors, and many other professions.

For a fascinating look at an almost unknown community in the heart of America’s South, click on the photo below and the links provided below that.

Mississippi Delta Chinese

 

E. Samantha Cheng: Discovering the Mississippi Delta Chinese Legacy

Heritage Series: Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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Stinging Nettles: A Weed with a Bad Rap and a Great Sap!

stinging nettleStinging nettles have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion.  True, they’ve not done much to endear themselves to hikers who get stung as they walk through undergrowth; but if you can get beyond first impressions, you’ll discover one of the power-packs of nature!  Stinging nettles have been around for thousands of years, and recipes for their use have been around for probably just as long. A fast-growing herb related to the mulberry, they grow everywhere (especially well in northern climates), and the list of their benefits reads more like a “Who’s Who” of remedies, from prostate, arthritis, blood pressure (it balances both high and low!), to iron and mineral deficiencies.  The younger the leaves, the more power and goodness they still have in them, so pick the top 4 to 6 new leaves for the best results.

It can be eaten raw straight off the plant:  “Taco”-fold the leaf by gripping it on the underside near the base of a young leaf and nipping it off with a pinch of the fingers, pop it in the mouth and chew; the juices from the leaf itself will neutralize any brief sting.  Also, if you’re out on a hike and get stung by the leaves inadvertently, take a leaf as described, chew it up or smash it up in your hand and rub the juices onto the sting area; it will neutralize itself.  It can also be boiled for teas, soups (it boils down like spinach, so you’ll need a lot more than you think you will), or blended into a pesto, or pizza sauce; the variety of ways to eat it are endless.  Once the stingers have been neutralized (their own juices will do the trick once released through blending, boiling, or processing in any way needed), its health benefits are unprecedented as a common plant, free to be had!  Just a word to the wise:  If you let it grow in your own garden, eat it as-is or with a light rinse if you’d like; but if you harvest from a public pathway, park or forest, washing it thoroughly is a good idea; where there are humans, there could be traces of herbicides or dogs… need I say more?

Click on the image above for a delicious, quick recipe.  When spring arrives, I’ll be looking for a fresh patch!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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History Undusted: On Changing the Course of History

Mahatma Gandhi - Determined, alter history

Originally posted on History Undusted, 11 January 2014

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History Undusted: Dear Photograph

I love coming across websites that combine humanity with a history that is as unique as the people involved.  I recently came across “Dear Photograph,” a viral concept that encourages people to take photographs of photographs in the same locations, and to tell the story of the original photograph in the submission.  Some of the images could spark an idea for a story or two!  Take some time and browse through this site; you’ll be glad you did.  Just click on the photo below:

 

Dear Photograph

 

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History Undusted: Famous Misquote

Sometimes famous last words occur long before the individual dies; what I mean by that is that a pivotal statement is made, and thereafter (whether immediately, or down through history ever after) the person ends up eating their hat.  Here’s an example:

Charles H. Duell, director of the US patent office 1899, is thought to have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.

But we should never judge a book by its cover; because he never said this!  What he actually said was, “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.” ( The Friend, Volume 76, 1902)  Quite a different matter.

It was, in fact, an earlier Patent Office Commissioner, Henry Ellsworth that may have been responsible for the sentiment: In a report to the 1843 Congress, Ellsworth states, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.“*

Oddly, you will find the misquote in published books and all over the web; let that be a reminder to us to do a bit of investigation of our own.  Don’t even trust news sources such as newspapers or television news, as they are known to hype up, propagandize, invent, or at the very least embellish events. This last link is a short talk about journalism in the US, and it’s an important reminder for everyone in the world that just because it’s in print or on the news doesn’t mean you can fully trust its veracity.

Abraham-Lincoln-Internet-Quote.png
*Source:  Wikipedia (Take even that source with a pinch of salt!)
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History Undusted: A World War II Love Story

Once in a while I come across amazing stories; this one is truly one of dedication, perseverance, love, and gratitude.

Peggy and Billie Harris were married just 6 weeks before he was sent off to war as a fighter pilot over Nazi-occupied France in the Second World War.  Six decades later, Peggy finally found out what happened to him, no thanks to her own government.  Deep gratitude to, and a friendship with, a small French village is just one result of her amazing patience and quest for the truth.  Click on the picture to hear about this amazing story. (9½ minutes long, 3-part story)

 

Peggy and Billie D. Harris, 1944

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The History of the Nativity & Christmas

nativity - by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)In 1223, in Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi is accredited with creating the first Nativity Scene.  We tend to think of commercialism and materialism as a modern disease, but in fact, Francis created that display to be a visual reminder of what Christmas was all about, and to counter what he felt was a growing emphasis on secular materialism and gift-giving.  It was to be a day of celebration and worship of thanks to God for what he had inaugurated through the birth of the prophesied Messiah, Jesus.

When we think of a modern nativity scene, we think of a few elements as standard:  Shepherds, Jesus in a wooden manger of straw, three kings, angels, and cattle and donkeys and sheep.  In fact, the stable was more likely a cave or a small hand-dug dugout, a shelter for animals in cold weather or raids, and perhaps a place to store surplus grains or foodstuffs.  The manger was a feeding trough, much like modern feeding troughs found on small farms.  The shepherds “watching the flocks by night”  tells us that it was likely in spring or summer in that region; the day we celebrate as Christmas was adopted throughout Western Europe in the fourth century.  Imagine the scenario:  Rome had called for a census of the entire region, turning everything on its head as everyone was required to travel to their ancestral homes, including businessmen like Joseph, and innkeepers as well.  Hundreds of people descended en masse onto sleepy little villages unequipped with beds or food to cope with them all.  Perhaps Joseph had tried at several places in Bethlehem; perhaps there was only one Bed & Breakfast in the entire village; turned away, they headed back to the stable to get their donkey, and uh, “Wait!  The baby’s coming!”

The kings were actually Magi, likely a caste of scientists and astronomers, from the “east” – i.e. east of Israel, which could have made them Asian, Indian, Caucasian, or even African.  There were not three, but rather three gifts:  Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.  In reality, their number might have been more like a small army:  They would not have travelled such a distance with the quantities of gifts fit not only for a king but representing their own importance, as well as the honour they wished to bestow on this new king, without protection!  The Bible records that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed by their presence and the reason for their journey (Matthew 2).  The three gifts offered by the Magi were very symbolic:  Gold was a symbol of kingship, the wealth of the earth.  It is one of the only metals that, when heated, loses none of its nature, weight or colour, but allows impurities to surface.  It is used to symbolize faith and the process of refinement.  Frankincense represents priesthood and divinity.  It was familiar to most people in the ancient world, used in religious ceremonies.  Myrrh, unlike sweet Frankincense, is bitter.  It was used as a resin in a spice mixture used to embalm the dead and was symbolic of Jesus’ purpose in coming:  His death, burial and resurrection.  It makes an appearance both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  It was used medicinally as a painkiller (often dissolved in wine) which is the reason Jesus refused to drink it on the cross (Mark 15:23).  And note that the Magi did not show up at the manger in Bethlehem, but by the time they’d travelled that far and found Jesus, he was a child, and Mary and Joseph had set up house (Matthew 2:11).

ichthus

ICHTHYS

Let’s address one more historical topic:  Xmas.  Many people think it’s a modern attempt to “X” Christ from Christmas; but in fact, it is just the opposite, historically-speaking.  The X is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός which comes into English translated as “Christ.” and such abbreviated references date back as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1021.  Even further back, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) was an acronym meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” used by ancient Christians.  It is often placed within the symbol of a fish, as Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men.”  Ichthyology is the study of fish, reflecting the Greek connection for the use of the symbol.

Modern Nativity scenes represent a condensed version of a historical event (there is, after all, more historical evidence for Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection than many other events in history people accept as fact); so the next time you see one, think about the significance, the reason for its inception by St. Francis of Assisi in the first place, and the Reason for the season.

Merry Christmas!  Or, Merry Xmas!

Originally posted on History Undusted, December

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History Undusted: The 1867 Sailor’s Word-Book

Sea Captians Logfixed(web)

As part of my research for my upcoming novel, Asunder, I came across the 1867 “The Sailor’s Word-Book:  An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, including some more especially military and scientific, but useful to seamen; as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. by the late ADMIRAL W. H. SMYTH, K.S.F., D.C.L., &c.”  It’s a massive document, but below is a small gleaning; if you want more, check out my original posts on History Undusted here.  It’s a fascinating insight into life and demands at sea in the 18th & 19th centuries, and gives a glimpse of just how many of our common idioms originated at sea; how dull our language might have been otherwise!  I’ve also included a few odd ones that I think deserve revival!

ACCOMPANY, to. To sail together; to sail in convoy.

AVAST. The order to stop, hold, cease, or stay, in any operation: its derivation from the Italian basta is more plausible than have fast.

BADGER, to. To tease or confound by frivolous orders.

BALLARAG, to. To abuse or bully. Thus Warton of the French king— “You surely thought to ballarag us with your fine squadron off Cape Lagos.”

BAMBOOZLE, to. To decoy the enemy by hoisting false colours.

BEAT TO QUARTERS. The order for the drummer to summon everyone to his respective station.

BLOAT, to. To dry by smoke; a method latterly applied almost exclusively to cure herrings or bloaters.—Bloated is also applied to any half-dried fish.

BONE, to. To seize, take, or apprehend. A ship is said to carry a bone in her mouth and cut a feather, when she makes the water foam before her.

BOTCH, to. To make bungling work.

BULLYRAG, to. To reproach contemptuously, and in a hectoring manner; to bluster, to abuse, and to insult noisily. Shakspeare makes mine host of the Garter dub Falstaff a bully-rook.

BUNGLE, to. To perform a duty in a slovenly manner.

CLINCH A BUSINESS, to. To finish it; to settle it beyond further dispute, as the recruit taking the shilling (those who were impressed into the Royal Navy, if they took the pre-payment of one shilling, were forthwith considered volunteers).

COBBLE, to. To mend or repair hastily. Also, the coggle or cog.—Cobble or coggle stones, pebbly shingle, ballast-stones rounded by attrition, boulders, &c.

CORN, to. A remainder of the Anglo-Saxon ge-cyrned, salted. To preserve meat for a time by salting it slightly.

CUT AND RUN, to. To cut the cable for an escape. Also, to move off quickly; to quit occupation; to be gone.

EGG, to. To instigate, incite, provoke, to urge on: from the Anglo-Saxon eggion.

FLEATE, to. To skim fresh water off the sea, as practised at the mouths of the Rhone, the Nile, &c. The word is derived from the Dutch vlieten, to skim milk; it also means to float.

GEE, to. To suit or fit; as, “that will just gee.”

GUDDLE, to. To catch fish with the hands by groping along a stream’s bank.

HARASS, to. To torment and fatigue men with needless work.

HOLD-FAST. A rope; also the order to the people aloft, when shaking out reefs, &c., to suspend the operation. In ship-building, it means a bolt going down through the rough tree rail, and the fore or after part of each stanchion.

JIRK, to. To cut or score the flesh of the wild hog on the inner surface, as practised by the Maroons. It is then smoked and otherwise prepared in a manner that gives the meat a fine flavour.

KEEP YOUR LUFF. An order to the helmsman to keep the ship close to the wind, i.e. sailing with a course as near as possible to the direction from which the wind is coming.  LUFF, or Loofe. The order to the helmsman, so as to bring the ship’s head up more to windward. Sometimes called springing a luff. Also, the air or wind. Also, an old familiar term for lieutenant. Also, the fullest or roundest part of a ship’s bows. Also, the weather-leech of a sail.

MAKE IT SO. The order of a commander to confirm the time, sunrise, noon, or sunset, reported to him by the officer of the watch.

PIPE DOWN! The order to dismiss the men from the deck when a duty has been performed on board ship.

STAND FROM UNDER! A notice given to those below to keep out of the way of anything being lowered down, or let fall from above.

TOE A LINE! The order to stand in a row.

KICK THE BUCKET, to. To expire; an inconsiderate phrase for dying.

KICK UP A DUST, to. To create a row or disturbance.

LET FLY, to. To let go a rope at once, suddenly.

MAN-HANDLE, to. To move by force of men, without levers or tackles.

MARINATE, to. To salt fish, and afterwards preserve it in oil or vinegar.

NAIL, to. Is colloquially used for binding a person to a bargain. In weighing articles of food, a nail is 8 lbs.

OVERSHOOT, to. To give a ship too much way.

PITCH IN, to. To set to work earnestly; to beat a person violently. (A colloquialism.)

RANSACK, to. To pillage; but to ransack the hold is merely to overhaul its contents.

SKEDADDLE, to. To stray wilfully from a watering or a working party. An archaism retained by the Americans.

SPIN A TWIST OR A YARN, to. To tell a long story; much prized in a dreary watch, if not tedious.

SUCK THE MONKEY, to. To rob the grog-can.

TOP THE GLIM, to. To snuff the candle.

TROUNCE, to. To beat or punish. Used as far back as the 1550s.

TURN A TURTLE, to. To take the animal by seizing a flipper, and throwing him on his back, which renders him quite helpless. Also applied to a vessel capsizing; or throwing a person suddenly out of his hammock.

TWIG, to. To pull upon a bowline. Also, in familiar phrase, to understand or observe.

WADE, to. An Anglo-Saxon word, meaning to pass through water without swimming. In the north, the sun was said to wade when covered by a dense atmosphere.

WALK SPANISH, to. To quit duty without leave; to desert.

WEATHER ONE’S DIFFICULTIES, to. A colloquial phrase meaning to contend with and surmount troubles.

WHISTLE FOR THE WIND, to. A superstitious practice among old seamen, who are equally scrupulous to avoid whistling during a heavy gale.—To wet one’s whistle. To take a drink. Thus Chaucer tells us that the miller of Trumpington’s lady had “Hir joly whistle wel ywette.”

WORK DOUBLE-TIDES, to. Implying that the work of three days is done in two, or at least two tides’ work in twenty-four hours.

 

Image Source: Unknown.  Please let me know if it’s yours – I’ll gladly credit the artist!

 

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