Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The End of the World

Posted: March 6, 2014 in History


“Ch’iaot’ou is a market of about 100 families and gives the impression of being the end of the world, as it is near the limit of settled Chinese penetration in those parts, and beyond is nothing but t’ussu ti, the wild tribal territory of the Sawbwas.”

In April 1941, British diplomat M. C. Gillett passed through the end of the world, or at least the end of Chinese civilisation. Some days earlier, on the 15th April, Gillett left the British consulate in Tengyueh, Yunnan Province to start a 900 mile tour of the rural lands. The whole trip took about three months and the goal was to “obtain first-hand information about the country”, liaise with Chinese officials, meet the “scattered” British expatriates and “show the flag”.

1941 was the third year of the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict which had run into stalemate after initial fighting had forced the Chinese Nationalists to relocate their capital to Chungking. Britain itself was also at war, fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe and North Africa. In the midst of this global conflict, Gillett set off to explore the villages of one of the remotest parts of China. To say he was a world away would be an understatement.

Although a diplomat by profession, his report is filled with anthropological observations of local tribes, such as the Lisu: “[They] are a well-built race of average height… As regards features the men often have an almost european [sic] cast… The women are not attractive.”

Overall, Gillett found the Lisus “a likeable and friendly race” with an “improvident habit of turning as much grain as they can into beer.” This wasn’t always the case, however. “Thirty years ago the traveller met with intervillage feuds, savagery, surliness, sometimes poisoned arrows and, on one occasion, death. Now one hears hymning…”

Although pleased with the transformation the Lisu had undergone, Gillett had mixed feelings about the Christian influence in the area. “I am no particular friend to missionaries: I admire their sincerity but deplore their bigotry…”

It was Christian bigotry which caused the decline of their native song, Gillet laments: “For the Demon Sex raises his ugly head in the Lisu songs, which the worthy Missionaries regard as horribly immoral.” On one evening he was lucky enough to chance upon a Lisu “sing-song”, which featured a man playing guitar while another man and three girls danced in the middle. “The Lisus have quite pleasant voices to our way of thinking, and the singing was quite beautiful, wild and entirely suited to the mountains.”

I wonder if Gillett reflected on the course of the war during this fire lit evening? It must have seemed so distant. While the world’s great civilisations were blowing themselves apart, Gillett sat in remotest Asia listening to the “wild, melodious chorus of those “heathen” Lisus echoing up the valleys.”

This was originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.


The Myth of California

Posted: September 23, 2013 in History

AP_53090_BX02_00001_Riverside CaliforniaImage © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

California! What other state occupies such a mythical space in our imagination? Despite earthquakes that rumble and tech bubbles that burst, California still draws the restless and wild, just as it’s always done.

In 1848, J Ely Sherwood wrote “California”, a memoir of his trip out west available on Adam Matthew’s resource, American West. Sherwood describes how he first learned of California from a French trader named Roubideaux:

“His description of California was of the superlative degree favorable, so much so that I resolved if possible to see that wonderful land.”

Roubideaux described California as paradise, a land “of perennial spring and boundless fertility… [with] countless thousands of wild horses and cattle.” Asked whether they had fever out there, “he said there was but one man in California that had ever had a chill there, and it was a matter of so much, wonderment to the people of Monterey that they went eighteen miles into the country to see him shake.”

Graff_1347Image © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

California’s always been like this. It started life as fantasy, a mythical island of Amazons invented by 16th century Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The myth lived on for centuries, perpetuated by wandering storytellers like Roubideaux.

Captain David DeWolf also had the California bug. I discovered his “Diary of an Overland Trail” while indexing for American Indian Histories and Cultures. DeWolf left home in April 1849 to join thousands of others in the California Gold Rush. When he reached Sacramento it was full of cholera. Gold was hard to come by and diggers dropped like flies from disease. After several months, homesickness kicked in:

“If a man wants to learn the value of a Wife let him have one & leave her & come to California… Mother’s prediction is about true about me being sorry many times for leaving for California but I was like many others foolish enough to come to California & know I must make the best of it.”

Ayer_MS_237_00001Image © Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

DeWolf did make the best of it. He returned to Illinois via Panama and bought a farm with his gold. Many fools have since followed in his footsteps, defying parents and abandoning partners for intoxicating dreams of the Golden State. Most wake up with a sore head; few find riches. Yet the dream of California lives on, regardless of how hard the economy crashes or the San Andreas Fault shakes.

This was originally published on Adam Matthew’s Editor’s Choice blog.

(c) WikiCommons

(Originally published June 26, 2013)

One of America’s most famous battles concluded 137 years ago today. The battle saw an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, while almost half the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment was wiped out, including George Armstrong Custer. In the media fallout Custer was declared a hero, while the Sioux were described (by the New York Times, at least) as “cruel, cowardly robbers”.

What I find more interesting than the battle itself is the way America’s cultural memory of the Indian Wars has changed over the past 137 years. A good illustration of this is the media’s reaction to an earlier, less remembered conflict known as the Battle of Washita River.

Eight days before his 29th birthday in 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment into a surprise attack against the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s winter encampment. Between 13 and 150 Cheyenne men, women and children were killed (historical estimates range wildly), causing some people to call it “Washita Massacre”.

Newspapers of the day mourned the 21 American fatalities in the battle, which included Alexander Hamilton’s grandson, Louis McLane Hamilton. In his obituary, The New York Herald praised the “honourable” Hamilton who sacrificed his life for the “grand march of westward empire” which was “fiercely obstructed by mysteriously doomed aboriginal savages.”

This derogatory characterisation of Indians continued well into the 20th century. One of the earliest films about The Battle of Little Big Horn was Custer’s Last Fight (1912), a silent picture which opens on a close up of an Indian man called “Rain-in-the-face” killing two white men and then boasting about it. A year later, D. W. Griffith’s Battle at Elderbush Gulch depicts a battle which is started when a group of hungry Indians steal two dogs from white settlers with the intention of eating them.

Then the 1960s happened. The counterculture movement encouraged open distrust of America’s traditional storylines. Hollywood responded by creating revisionist Westerns such as Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman. Little Big Man depicted George Custer as a madman with a burning hatred of Indians. The Battle of Washita River also features in the film and is portrayed as a massacre similar to contemporary accounts of the Vietnam War.

The past 137 years has seen an enormous change in attitudes towards Americans Indians and the story of the American West. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the inclusion of Sitting Bull – Custer’s opponent at Little Big Horn – in Barack Obama’s list of thirteen “groundbreaking Americans”. It is hard to imagine any other period in American history where Sitting Bull, and not Custer, would be held in such high esteem by the President of the United States.

This was originally published on the blog of Adam Matthew.


“Chao Kung” (aka Trebitsch-Lincoln) in Shanghai, 1943. Image courtesy of

“I.T. Trebitsch-Lincoln came to see me this morning; he was dressed as a Buddhist monk, and now calls himself Chao Kung. He told me he had been a Buddhist for about 6 years, and was the first foreigner to become a monk, which gave him great influence in Buddhist circles.” British Consulate-General Shanghai, 1931.

So begins a document I discovered in Foreign Office Files for China about one of the most colourful, adventurous and deceitful men of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1943, Trebitsch-Lincoln had worked as a British Member of Parliament, a Protestant Missionary, an Anglican Priest, a spy, a revolutionary, a right-wing propagandist for Nazi Germany and Japan, and a Buddhist Abbot in China. Not bad for a Jewish boy from a small town in Hungary.

Trebitsch-Lincoln was born in 1879 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He showed an interest in acting early on, enrolling in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art as soon as he left school. His theatrical training came in handy when he absconded to England and managed to befriend the Archbishop of Canterbury, talk leading British industrialist Seebohm Rowntree into giving him a job, and stand for MP in Darlington despite being a Hungarian citizen. After being deported from the UK for trying to spy for Germany during WWI (and then selling his story to the press), he infiltrated the extreme right-wing of Weimar Germany. He even met Adolf Hitler during the Kapp Putsch – a failed coup attempt which forced him to flee to Austria and finally China.

By the time Trebitsch-Lincoln visited the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in 1931 he was famous around the world. When he applied for permission to visit the UK he sparked a flurry of correspondence between Shanghai and Whitehall. One file contains a detailed chronology of his global travels. Between 1923 and 1930 he circumnavigated the earth, travelling under six different names and three different nationalities.

While he undoubtedly succumbed to the myth of his own mystery, he also became weary of his constant deceiving. “I could easily have forged a passport but all this lying is against the principles of Buddhism,” he wrote to the Foreign Office. Do we believe him? The Foreign Office didn’t. I imagine even Trebitsch-Lincoln had doubts. When you live a dozen lives it must difficult to know your own name, let alone your principles.

This was originally posted on the blog of Adam Matthew:

Of Machines and Men

Posted: January 21, 2010 in History, Work

The story of Frederick Winslow Taylor and how humans came to be treated like machines.

There are times during my shifts at Domino’s Pizza when I can almost feel him breathing down my neck. It is just my imagination, of course. He’s been dead for almost 100 years. Yet his influence remains so strong that I can feel his legacy trapping me in his narrow ideology. “Piss off Fred,” I feel like saying.

I am not alone in this. If you have ever had a job then you have probably met him too. If you have worked in a factory, a call centre, a restaurant or even an office then you have almost certainly experienced the legacy of a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor, and his enduring idea of scientific management.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an American engineer who devoted his life to making industry efficient. Born in 1856, Taylor grew up during a time when machines were on the rise. A popular folktale of the day told the story of John Henry, a railroad worker who won a race against a steam powered hammer, only to die with his hammer in his hand. The message seems pretty clear: you can give your best, but machines always win in the end.

Taylor was fascinated with the efficiency of machines. He believed that if factory workers were managed in the same way that a worker operates a machine – with technical precision – then a business could dramatically improve its efficiency.

The application of his ideas met with outstanding results. In 1881, Taylor managed to cut the number of workers at the Bethlehem Steel Works from 500 to 140, while increasing output by 200%! But while his management innovations often met with success, there was an agenda with Taylor that sought to undermine the human element of work.

In Herd, Mark Earls describes how Tayor was concerned with “reducing the variable human element of factory work.” He saw humans as unpredictable, lazy, and much less reliable than machines. Taylor used scientific methods to specify tasks for each individual, so that they could work with the same efficiency as machines.

Taylor’s ‘scientific’ method – outlined in Principles of Scientific Management – included the following key principles:

  1. Breaking down the work of employees into specific tasks, according to precise instructions.
  2. The development – through scientific means – of a ‘best-practise’ instruction for each person’s job.
  3. The recruitment, training and development of workers to fit the job specified, rather than allowing workers to choose their jobs and training.
  4. Functions are more important than people. Clerks should monitor, report and control the performance of tasks.

Through Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor laid the groundwork for the technocratic management style which dominates the world today. Efficiency is the primary goal, and workers must strive to achieve this. Factory workers once decided how to manage work among themselves. Taylor’s philosophy replaced this with a management – worker monologue.

I often make mistakes at Domino’s Pizza. I put the wrong toppings on without thinking. Ten minutes later, when the pizza is cooked, I hear the Assistant Manager shout out – “Who made this pizza?” It was the same story in all my other jobs – call centre, restaurant etc. I used to think it was because I am absent-minded, but now I believe there’s more to it.

Mark Earls believes that one of the most enduring delusions of Taylor’s management innovation is “the goal of machine-like efficiency – and the possibility that it can be achieved.” There is a persisting belief that workers can and should be as fast, efficient and accurate as a machine. Mistakes are generally not tolerated.

Mistakes are uncomfortable reminders of how completely unlike machines humans actually are. This is especially so in a job which involves doing the same thing over and over again. A machine can perform the same task – say, putting toppings on a pizza – a thousand times without making a mistake. Humans on the other hand tend to get bored, become distracted, or go insane.

It is unsurprising that Taylor’s ideas were highly influential on industrialists like Henry Ford. The father of modern assembly lines, Ford once complained that “every time I ask for a pair of hands it comes with a brain attached”. What Ford really wanted was a robot.

It seems obvious to us that humans are not like machines, and that the idea of basing a management ‘science’ on such a tenet is absurd. Yet this assumption continues to dominate working life. From offices to factories, Taylor’s emphasis on efficiency traps the hapless workers of the world on a daily basis.

It seems strange that so many of us – whether we are workers or managers – are trapped in the ideas of a man who lived over a hundred years ago. The first step to overcoming this is to recognise the falsity of the ideas. The next step is to resist behaviour which has been created by these ideas.

If you are a factory/office worker, and you find yourself worrying about making mistakes, try to remember Frederick W. Taylor. I find that it really puts things into context. I realise that worrying about something which is inevitable – due to our nature – is absurd.

If you are a manager and you find yourself expecting your employees to behave in a machine-like way, do as above. Resist the urge to manage them ‘scientifically’ or to view them as pairs of hands that happen to have brains. Start treating people like humans and you might receive some surprising benefits. After all,  humans can do a lot of things that machines can’t.