May 03 2017125 Italian Fascism Part Fourteen, The Fall of Fascism

After the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini was a prisoner. But, during a German invasion of Northern Italy, he was sprung from his cell by German commandos and put in charge of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state. Mussolini’s new assignment would prove to be short-lived. In less than two years the former dictator would be executed, and his body ripped apart by an angry mob.

Feb 23 2017117 Italian Fascism Part Six, Church and State

Italian fascism came to power (and solidified power) by co-opting existing political organizations and interests in Italy. That included the Catholic Church. Since Italian Unification the Church had been at odds with liberal Italy, and for fifty-nine years pope did not even set foot outside the Vatican. In 1929, though Mussolini offered the papacy a way out, with the creation of Vatican City as an independent state. Unfortunately, this would not go entirely well for the church.

Jan 12 2017112 Italian Fascism Part One: The Idea of Italy

Fascism is the most malignant of the major political ideologies, and one of the least understood. For fascism, the nation (and therefore state) are paramount. Considerations for the needs of social classes or individuals are subordinate to the state, if they are considered at all. While Germany is easily the most famous fascist state, this ideology had its origins in Italy following WWI.

Prior to 1870 the term “Italy” was a geographic designation, referring to a collection of kingdoms, city-states, and papal states that happened to share a boot-shaped peninsula. Curiously, this collection of disparate elements would form not only a national identity, but a particularly violent, extreme one. One that would form the basis of probably the most destructive ideology of the past one hundred years.


Mar 17 201672 There’s No Such Thing As Lemuria

You’ve probably heard to Atlantis, but that’s not the hypothetical lost continent out there. There’s a whole subgenre of supposed submerged continents, with Atlantis being only the most prominent example. Other mythical lands include Mu and Lemuria.

Anymore, Lemuria is now associated with new age pseudohistory, but as an idea it was first posited by an actual scientist. In 1864 Philip Sclater was trying to puzzle out why there were lemurs in both Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East. If the animals had migrated from one of those regions to the next, then it stood to reason that there would also be lemur populations between them. To solve this problem, Sclater proposed that there was once a large mass of land in the India Ocean he called “Lemuria” that would have allowed lemurs (and, presumably, other fauna) to migrate from India to Madagascar and back again.

Sclater’s idea was eventually rendered obsolete by plate tectonics, but the idea of a lost continent was seized upon by occultists such as Helena Blavatsky. Charlatans such as Blavatsky claimed to have received special knowledge of humanity’s origin from the lost continent, and a whole subgenre of fake history was born.


Feb 25 201669 Kingdom of the Mahdi, Part Three

Mahdist Sudan died violently.

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.


Feb 18 201668 Kingdom of the Mahdi, Part Two

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.


Map via.

Feb 11 201667 Kingdom of the Mahdi, Part One

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.


Jul 30 201541 His Majesty Gregor MacGregor, King of Con-Men and Cacique of Poyais

In 1820 a Scotsman named Gregor MacGregor pulled off one of the most audacious cons of all time. MacGregor claimed to be descendant of Rob Roy and ancient kings of Scotland, and also claimed to have been granted a certain amount of land in what is now modern day Honduras. Calling his new (and entirely fictional) country “Poyais,” MacGregor began to solicit investments for his new, up-and-coming Central American country.

The image below is a landscape of the supposed country of Poyais, taken from Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, a book that MacGregor penned under the pseudonym Thomas Strangeways. MacGregor promised that his land in the New World was filled with libraries, cathedrals, and a native population who were eager to welcome Europeans. There was nothing of the sort, and when colonists showed up in what is now modern day Honduras, they found nothing.


Related Links:

For more on Scotland’s failure to have Central American colonies, check out Episode 20, The Lost Empire of Scotland.

Read Sketch of the Mosquito Shore by “Thomas Strangeways.”

The Economist article cited in the episode, on why MacGregor’s investors could have been so credulous.

May 21 201531 The Kingdom of North Sudan

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.

bir tawil


















Related Links:

Bir Tawil on Atlas Obscura.

An opinion piece about Jerimiah Heaton and his micronation over at the the Independent. The author points out, with cause, how bad it looks for a white westerner to suddenly be claiming to own a chunk of Africa.

A piece about Disney’s Princess of North Sudan on Deadline Hollywood.

The official website for the Kingdom of North Sudan.

May 07 201529 The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, Part One

In the 1850s a man who styled himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ led China into a bloody rebellion. China in the early 1800s was ravaged by famine, natural disasters, and British meddling that introduced opium (and the Opium Wars) to the population. The country was ripe for rebellion against the Qing Dynasty who, being Manchurian, were often perceived as foreigners by many of China’s Han population. Into all of this chaos and discontent came a man called Hong Xiuquan who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong founded an organization called the God Worshipping Society, and he and his Christian rebels would attempt to destroy not only the Qing Dynasty, but also prevailing Chinese ideas of religion and civilization.

This week’s show tracks the reasons behind China’s Taiping Rebellion, and gives a bit of background about Hong himself. Next week’s show will focus on the war itself, and the eventual fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The image below (made some time after the Taiping rebellion in 1886) shows Chinese Imperial soldiers retaking a provincial capital from Taiping rebels.

Regaining the Provincial Capital of Ruizhou

Related Links:

A website all about the Taiping Rebellion with a fairly obvious URL.

A timeline for the Taiping Rebellion.

BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time (one of my all-time favorite shows) on the Taiping Rebellion.

Apr 23 201527 King of Jewels and Centaurs

One of the most persistent myths of the Middle Ages was that of Prester John, a mythical Christian king whose supposed domain was located beyond the eastern Muslim regions. Probably the most vivid portion of the myth is a letter received by the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1165 claiming to be from the monarch. The letter (ostensibly written from one king to another, but with an arrogant, bragging tone that glorifies Prester John’s position relative to that of Byzantium) details a kingdom flowing with milk and honey, populated by fantastical animals such as centaurs and fauns, and featuring such wonders as Mount Olympus and the Fountain of Youth.

Some writers, most notably Marco Polo, identified Prester John with the Mongols, and later versions of the story would move his kingdom to Ethiopia. Below is a 15th century painting depicting Ong Khan, a rival to Genghis Khan, as the legendary king Prester John.


Related Links:

Prester John is profiled in chapter three of S. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages from 1867.

Prester John and Europe’s Discovery of East Asia from East Asian History, June, 1996.

This YouTube video by a medieval studies grad student nicely illustrates the legend of Prester John with action figures. I have a serious amount of admiration for that kind of thing.

Mar 05 201520 The Lost Empire of Scotland

In the late 1600s Scotland, in an attempt to start an international trade empire, founded a small settlement in what is now modern Panama. The venture was frustrated at every turn by the English, who did not want their northern neighbor competing on the international scene, and the Panamanian jungle proved to be an inhospitable environment. The settlers were plagued by starvation and malaria, and eventually the Scots were ousted by the Spanish.

The dramatic failure of the colony led to the end of Scottish independence, and a few years later 1707 that country would permanently join with England. Had the colony succeeded, the map of Europe and Central America could look very different today, but as it is Scottish ambitions and independence vanished hundreds of years ago in the jungles of Central America.

New Caledonia in Darien

Related Links:

The BBC on the Darien Scheme.

A look at the Darien Chest, the object that held the money and papers for the Darien Scheme.

One settler’s account of this history of Darien.


Dec 18 201409 The Habsburg and Juarez, Part One

One of the most definitive and dramatic struggles against European monarchy happened in Mexico. France attempted to install Maximilian, a member of Austrian royal family as a puppet emperor of Mexico in the 1860s. The would-be emperor, though, was resisted by one of Mexico’s most successful and well-known presidents, Benito Juarez. The liberal leader led an opposition government, fought against both foreign powers and Mexican conservatives, and destroyed the Second Mexican Empire.

The 1867 painting beleow by Cesare Dell’Acqua, depicts Maximilian accepting the Mexican throne in Trieste, Italy.

Dell'Acqua Ernennung Maximilians zum Kaiser Mexikos

Related Links:
Political Legitimation and Maximilian’s Second Empire in Mexico, 1864-1867

Embracing a Sutable Past: Independence Celebrations Under Mexico’s Second Empire, 1864-6

Maximilian and His Mexican Empire

Some images of the flag and coat of arms of Maximilian’s Mexico

Dec 11 201408 Sealand

Defining what is and is not a country, state, or nation can sometimes be sort of difficult. China, obviously, is a country. So are Brazil and Morocco. Some states, like Kosovo, East Timor, and Vatican City, are independent and sovereign on paper, yet don’t seem to have the ephemeral legitimacy of an established state, the kind of undefinable real-ness that Frank Zappa alluded to when he said that “you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

And then there are some states which just declare independence and call it good. Like Sealand, for example, an ostensible principality off the coast of Britain that has endured as one of the world’s most successful micronations.


Related Links:

Sealand’s official website, where you can become a lord, lady, baron, or baroness, depending on your preferences.

Sealand The Mystery Solved is a four-part YouTube series about the micronation. It was made in cooperation with the principality, so, in a way, it is official Sealand government propaganda. Of a sort.

Fettes Brot, a German hip-hop group, shot the music video for their song Echo at (on? in? what is the proper preposition for a fort/micronation?) Sealand.


Nov 20 201405 The Puppet Kingdom

Before and during World War II Japan (just like Britain, France, and the United States) had a considerable empire. The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere encompassed the Korean peninsula, several Pacific Islands, and holdings in China. Probably the strangest part of the Japan’s empire was Manchukuo, an artificial country in northern China that Japan made by (among other things) bombing a train and kidnapping the former Chinese emperor.

Manchukuo map 1939

Related Links:

This 1937 pro-Japanese propaganda film presents a laughably glowing vision of Manchuria under Japanese control.

Listen to Manchukuo’s national anthem! It sounds like lots of other national anthems.

The New Imperialism and Post Colonial Development State: Manchukuo in Comparative Perspective is one of the better scholarly essays I read about this topic in preparation for this episode.