In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”
As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.
Supposedly, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is about an English knight who sets out for the Holy Land in the 1330s. However, the journey to Jerusalem and the surrounding environs are only a small part of a larger narrative that involves fantastical creatures, foreign kingdoms, and wonders both inspiring and gross. During the first part of his journey Mandeville describes the life and religion of the Greeks (including their opinions on beards), a woman who was turned into a dragon (and the knights who failed to save her) and the temple of the Pheonix. That’s only the beginning, though. Next week, we’ll stay with Sir John Mandeville as he ventures further into the unknown and into even more bizarre foreign lands.
Among the pseudohistory of Mandeville’s travelogue is the theory that the pyramids were meant to store grain, pictured below.
The religious state persisted for approximately a decade and a half but after that the British, eager to solidify their influence and control in the region, brought the country to heel. Egypt had never recognized Sudanese independence, and thought of the new country as little more than a renegade province. Under British control and influence, the Anglo-Egyptian forces crushed the independent Sudanese state, making short work of the armed forces. The key to their victory was a new technology: The machine gun.
After the British victory the military and cultural foundations of the Mahdist state were destroyed, and Sudan was soon in the same state of repression that it had previously been in, though instead of dealing with the Ottoman boot, now it suffered under the British.
After successfully defeating the Ottoman-Egyptian and British forces at Khartoum, Sudan formed an independent government based around Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or “expected one.” Unfortunately for Sudan, though, Ahmad died of Typhus only six months after the birth of the new state, and Mahdist Sudan was almost immediately faced with a succession crisis.
It would only be the first of many trials for the new state. Regional rebellions and border skirmishes, a war with neighboring Ethiopia, and economic isolation and famine would all take their toll on Sudan, and over the lifetime of the Mahdist state, millions of Sudanese citizens would die as a result of violence and privation.
In the early 1880s Sudan suffered under the heel of the Ottoman empire. Military occupation and heavy taxes led to widespread discontent that eventually led to a religiously-infused rebellion. Muhammad Ahmad styled himself as the Mahdi or “expected one,” a prophesized Islamic figure, and drawing on discontent, Ahmad led a rebellion throughout the country.
The British officer Charles George Gordon (pictured below) was put in charge of evacuating Egyptians and other foreigners from the Sudan. But, because of his poor relations with the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian governments, Gordon ended up holed up in Khartoum, under siege by the rebel forces, and eventually dead at the hands of the Sudanese. The Mahdi had successfully defeated the foreign occupiers, and a new state formed under his religiously-inspired revolutionary power.
For years, mummies were a commodity. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans used mummy dust (as in real, actual, ground-up human corpse) as a medication to cure just about everything, and the pigment mummy brown was the color of dry, dusty corpses because it was literally made of dried, dusty corpses. Despite being an extraordinarily macabre commodity, there was still demand for mummy dust, so much so that a trade in counterfeit mummies (that is, bodies that had been dried out and treated with bitumen) sprung up, and the recently dead sold alongside ancient corpses.
As a pigment, mummy brown was easy to work with, but prone to fading and cracking. It remained available until the 20th century, and modern versions of the color are made of minerals rather than corpses. Mummy dust and mummy parts also remained available for purchase until the middle twentieth century, though mostly in curiosity and oddity shops. The photo below shows a mummy seller in 1875, when mummy brown and medicinal mummy dust would have been on the wane.
One of the most high-profile maritime disasters in French history also inspired a famous, and gigantic work of art. In 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground in the Bay of Arguin. The captain and several officers escaped on life boats, but 147 people were abandoned on a hastily built raft. For almost two weeks the raft-goers suffered from starvation, dehydration, and malnutrition. The desperate survivors descended into violence and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued (by chance) by another vessel. Of the 147 people abandoned on the raft, ten survived.
A few years later, in 1819, the 25-year-old Romantic painter Theodore Gericault painted a gigantic, larger-than-life painting entitled The Raft of the Medusa. To compose his masterpiece, Gericault sought out dead and decayed bodies, contacted survivors, and memorialized the tragedy like a man possessed.
The British Empire and other colonial powers did a lot of things wrong, and they famously ignored actual human patterns when drawing borders of Africa. In 1899, the British drew a border between Egypt and Sudan that simply ran in a straight line across the 22nd parallel, ignoring how people in the area moved and identified. A few years later, in 1902, they corrected their mistake and re-drew the boundary.
The result has led to a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan where Egypt claims the 1899 border, and Sudan the 1902 border. This dispute means that a small patch of desert, Bir Tawil, is not claimed by either nation. In 2014 a man from the United States attempted to claim the land and declare it to be the Kingdom of North Sudan. Why? So his daughter could be a princess, of course.
The image below shows Bir Tawil on Google Maps, with the pin in its location. Next to it is the Hala’ib Triangle, which both countries claim.
You can do a lot of things with wealth. You can buy stuff, make things happen, bribe officials, give to the poor… Or, if you’re Mansa Musa of Mali (one of the richest people in the history of the world) you can give away so much gold that you single-handedly cause inflation in Cairo.
The small image below is a detail from the Catalan Atlas, a 1375 Spanish map with a small detail that depicts Mansa Musa in the approximate location of Mali.
The Anglo-Zanzibar war comes up all the time on lists of curiosities, records, weird things, etc., as the shortest war in recorded history. It certainly is a historical curiosity, but it was still an actual, real war, with stakes and politics behind it. This week’s episode gets into a few details about the shortest war in history, and why (for Zanzibar at least) it was more than just a curiosity.
The photograph below shows a part of the Sultan’s palace complex after the war which, depending on which source you read, lasted either 38, 40, or 45 minutes.
Maps used to have blank spots. California used to be drawn as an island. The Mercator projection makes Greenland look fat. One of the biggest and strangest cartographic errors of all time, though, has to be the Mountains of Kong, a nonexistent continent-spanning mountain range that Europeans kept putting on African maps all the way until the late 1800s.