Vacation dream spot.

Back in April 2008 a New York Times writer sang the praises of an as-yet under-touristed destination. There one could find an “ancient way of life that is still largely intact.” It was but the latest of the-next-place-to-be-discovered.[1] Contemporary society—or some sub-set of it—places a premium on rare and new experiences. Probably they are a form of status possession. Globalization in all its forms (standardization of products world-wide; cheap jet fares; the idea of taking a gap year or sabbatical at some point in your life; wealthy leisure-based societies) has created a huge market for experiences that once were the realm of misfits.[2] Now college graduates with Business degrees fight forest fires and work at ski resorts; academically-inclined college students seek berths on merchant ships, future school teachers spend a few years trying to surf all the best breaks in the Pacific; and bed-and-breakfast inn-keepers in New England spend the off-season buying textiles in Bali.[3] What are they after? Something different from the Burberry-Ralph Lauren-Tommy Hilfiger knock-off possessions that jam the stores? Some contact with challenging and “authentic” experience? Hence the search for new places.

Where was this wonderland? Yemen.[4] There, “every prospect pleases”[5]: remarkable traditional architecture un-sullied by the golden arches of McDonald’s and a combination of mountain with desert. In the Old City section of the capital, visitors are literally walking back into the Middle Ages in a way that is not true of the hordes trudging around Notre Dame in Paris. There are street markets that look and smell (of khat and persimmons) much as they must have when Mohammed was contemplating a career change. Striking out from the capital, visitors could explore the mountain-top village of Al Hajjara,[6] a sort of cactus-strewn Muslim Orvieto, which is not much changed from the time of its original construction in the 11th Century. Then there is the Wadi Hadhramaut, an Arabian valley in which things will actually grow. Frankincense first of all, but also senna and cocoanut.

Well, understandably, things have deteriorated since that description of actual adventure tourism.[7] “Only man is vile.”[8] Even in 2008 the US Department of State issued scary “travel advisories” for those thinking of a trip to Yemen. Now the country is home to a lot of al Qaeda people, there’s a savage civil war going on, and Saudi Arabia and Iran are using it as a proxy battlefield in the same way that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia used Spain in the late Thirties.

That doesn’t mean that things will stay this bad forever. Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din (or Imam Yahya) (1869-1948) ruled the country after the First World. He reined-in, if he could not entirely put a stop to, the endemic feuds and banditry. So, perhaps one day trekkers will return to Al Hajjara and the Hydramaut valley.

[1] See: Alex Garland, The Beach (1996); William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003); and David Simon, producer, “The Wire” (2002-2008) for various observations on modern society’s relentless drive to “step on the package.” Anyway, that’s how I read them.

[2] See, for one example:

[3] Just to list some people I know.

[4] “This week’s dream: Yemen’s secret world.” The Week, 4 April 2008, p. 30.

[5] Reginald Heber, “From Greenland’s mighty mountain” (1819).

[6] Lonely Planet used to publish a guide-book to Yemen. It noted that Al Hajjara served as the jumping-off point for people hiking into the wilderness. I wonder if Anwar al-Awlaki had a copy?

[7] As opposed to merely working up a sweat being led around places by NOLS teams or having a five-star dinner in the open on a dude ranch.

[8] Heber again.

Tales of the South Atlantic 1.

While a great deal of attention has focused on the “Mayflower Compact” as a foundational text in American government, historians have paid much less attention to the many pirate compacts.[1] In the first half of the 18th Century, there were an estimated 2,500 pirates at work in the Atlantic and Caribbean at any given time. Most were single men in their twenties who had “run” from a conventional merchant ship or the Royal Navy.[2] At the beginning of any voyage, the pirates drew up agreed terms of service. These defined who had what authority, how the profits of a voyage would be divided, and how discipline would be enforced. As piracy became more dangerous and less profitable as the 18th Century wore on, it seems likely that many men drifted back into the conventional merchant marine. The seaports of British North America—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—were filled with sailors who resented hierarchy and hated the “press gangs” of the Royal Navy. Did the experience of some of these men with drafting agreements for an egalitarian management of a “wooden world”[3] filter into the rhetoric of shore-bound pamphleteers and tavern table-pounders?

People trying to escape oppression are easy to understand. It’s a little more difficult to comprehend those who find themselves hunted by liberty. Nevertheless, such people do exist. His beliefs made Zephaniah Kingsley, Sr. an outcast in his adopted land, America.[4] A merchant who had migrated from England to Charleston, South Carolina, Kingsley was both a Quaker and a Tory. When the American Revolution ended in British defeat, Kingsley and his family rebuilt their lives in Canada. Eventually, his son, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. (1765-1843) took command of the family merchant ship trading to the Caribbean. In 1802 the experienced merchant captain embarked on the slave trade. This turned out to be a very dodgy decision. In addition to the perils of disease to be encountered on the African coast, Europe was at war. French or Spanish navy ships or privateers savaged the British merchant navy. Slaves were a precious cargo, for they might be sold as readily in Haiti or Cuba as in Jamaica. Once the Napoleonic Wars had ended, British reformers began to press for an end to the slave trade. Kingsley took refuge in Spanish Florida, where both slavery and the slave trade remained legal.

Along the way, Kingsley bought an attractive Senegalese slave named Anna Jai, freed her, and made her his common-law wife. Kingsley recognized her intelligence and ability, so she became his business partner as well as life partner. They added plantations to their other trade and prospered.

However, in 1821 Spain transferred Florida to the United States. As a Tory refugee turned Spanish Catholic, Kingsley didn’t like his prospects. American laws would not recognize his children’s rights of inheritance. Moreover, Kingsley, while a slave trader and slave owner, was not a racist. He criticized segregation laws for imposing “degradation on account of complexion.” In the 1830s he founded a colony in Haiti, the only free black country in the Americas and a source of terror to American slave-owners. He sent manumitted slaves to start the colony and employed indentured free workers.

Like many another thing in Haitian history, Kingsley’s colony came to a bad end. He died before it had taken root. His son died at sea. The Civil War ended slavery.

[1] Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Slaves, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (2014).

[2] See B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Perception of Evil in the 17th Century Caribbean (1983).

[3] I stole the phrase from N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986).

[4] Daniel L. Schafer, Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and the Atlantic World: Slave Trader, Plantation Owner, Emancipator (2014).