Book Review of “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World” by Roger Crowley

The Mediterranean was perceived by many people in the 16th century as the “Center of the World.” A monumental struggle for control of the sea took place between the two great empires of that era: the Ottoman Turks, and the Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain, the leaders of which often held the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The mutual enmity of the two empires was stoked by religious differences as much as by dynastic incompatibility. The wily traders of Venice did business with both contestants, often trading sides in order to protect their commercial interests. (As might be expected, interpreters, or “dragomen” held crucial roles in international relations.)

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Roger Crowley has written a gripping tale of the ebb and flow of the interrelationships of the empires. In particular, he gives a vivid description of three parlous island sieges (Rhodes, Malta, and Cyprus) and several purely naval engagements, culminating in the hecatomb known as the Battle of Lepanto.

The Great Siege of Malta took place in 1565 when the Ottomans invaded the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller (a medieval Catholic military order). The Knights, with approximately 2,000 soldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. This victory helped contribute to the erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility.

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The Battle of Lepanto, which took place on October 7, 1571, pitted the Ottoman Empire against the “Holy League” – a coalition of nations (Spain, Venice, the Papal States,Genoa, and Malta) organized by Spanish King Philip II to stop Muslim encroachments upon the Italian and Spanish coasts.

This huge battle involved almost 400 vessels and more than 40,000 men, more than half of whom were killed in only a few hours. The ships employed cannons, arquebuses and other explosives such as “Granadoes,” small terra cotta pots filled with gunpowder or combustibles (pitch, turpentine, naphtha, or petroleum), that could be lit and thrown onto enemy ships. Savage hand-to-hand fighting also took place as enemy sailors boarded each others’ galleys.

Venetian galleas at the Battle of Lepanto, PX8356

Venetian galleas at the Battle of Lepanto, PX8356

At the battle’s conclusion, the Ottomans lost about 210 ships and some 25,000 men. The Holy League lost about 50 ships and 7,500 men.

The Ottoman’s losses proved pivotal; that many men were hard to replace.

Crowley’s descriptions are based on the accounts of the survivors of the battles. Occasionally, the participants showed some chivalry, as when the Ottomans allowed the few survivors of the siege of Rhodes to leave and take some of their possessions with them. Most of the time, however, no quarter was give by either side, and to lose usually meant that anyone who tried to surrender was likely to be tortured, beheaded, and/or skinned alive.

Battle of Lepanto, October 1571, unknown artist

Battle of Lepanto, October 1571, unknown artist

One might wonder who oared all those ships; it was not the soldiers. Galleys were more nimble than sailing ships, less dependent on the vagaries of the wind, and could change direction instantaneously at any time simply by rowing in a new direction. The problem was that not many men wanted the job of rower, and so the oarsmen were usually slaves, chained to their benches and incentivized more by whips than by salaries. Slavery was a common practice among both Christian and Muslim communities in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans and their co-religionists, the Barbary corsairs of the Maghreb, were more adept than the European Christians at finding large numbers of galley slaves. They routinely raided Mediterranean coastal towns, Sub-Saharan villages, and Balkan provinces, capturing and enslaving all the male infidels they didn’t kill. Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, spent some time chained to an oar before his parents ransomed him.

Miguel De Cervantes

Miguel De Cervantes

Crowley’s work is not confined to the description of medieval warfare. He also deftly handles the geopolitical aspects of the contest and describes the key participants and their intramural scuffling. In particular, he shows how Christendom was riven by three sources of internal discord: (1) Northern European Protestants vs. Mediterranean Catholics; (2) Venice vs. the Papacy; and (3) Roman Catholicism vs. Greek Orthodoxy. The Ottomans, by contrast, were generally united. Moreover, the Ottoman unity of command and purpose was a chief source of their strength.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known history about some earlier confrontations between Islam and Christianity, and thus very relevant to events of today. If you think Islam and the West don’t get along very well now, you should have seen the 16th century!

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Random House, 2008

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of this book, which was read competently by John Lee, who has a pleasant English accent. I am pretty familiar with the general geography of the area covered, but I would have benefitted from detailed maps of the particular siege sites.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (11 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008

The Knights of Malta marked its 900th birthday in February 2013 in St. Peter's Square, and with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, himself a member of the onetime chivalrous order drawn from Europe's nobility.

The Knights of Malta marked its 900th birthday in February 2013 in St. Peter’s Square, and with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, himself a member of the onetime chivalrous order drawn from Europe’s nobility.

Review of “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Mochizuki for kids about the Japanese Internment

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 110,000 – 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its’ action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

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The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

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In 1988, the U.S. Government conceded it had been wrong. Although restitution payments were authorized to the survivors, as President Reagan admitted:

Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

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This book tells the story of a young Japanese-American internee nicknamed Shorty, who was trying to develop his own sense of honor even though they had been sent to a “camp” in the middle of nowhere behind a barbed-wire fence.

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He was keenly aware that they were not free:

Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there, and the man in the tower saw everything we did, no matter where we were.”

His dad organized the kids to make a baseball field, and moms used mattress covers to make the boys uniforms. Shorty wasn’t that good, but on one of the last games of the year he got motivated:

I glanced at the guardhouse behind the left field foul line and saw the man in the tower, leaning on the rail with the blinding sun glinting off his sunglasses. He was always watching, always staring. It suddenly made me mad. … I was gonna hit the ball past the guardhouse even if it killed me.”

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He succeeds, and is a hero for awhile, but when the family is released from the camp, things got bad again. Even though the war was over, no one would talk to him because he was Japanese. When baseball season came, he felt inadequate all over again, hearing people in the crowd yelling “Jap.”

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But he didn’t back down, and then, when he stepped up to the plate, he looked at the pitcher:

The sun glinted off his glasses as he stood on the mound, like the guard in the tower.”

You can guess what happens next: Shorty belts that ball with a solid whack, and once again, gains not only self-respect but the respect of others, who see that being Japanese doesn’t mean he won’t be as brave or as talented as the rest of them.

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The illustrations by Dom Lee are excellent, and were inspired in part by photographs taken by Ansel Adams at California’s Manzanar internment camp in 1943. Lee uses the bleak colors of the desert while the family is in the camp, adding color when they are finally back home.

Evaluation: This book has won a number of awards, and in my opinion, most definitely deserves them. It is important to remember that the focus of this story is on United States citizens. Thus, this is a highly recommended way to teach children critical thinking about political actions, and about the dire consequences of prejudice. Children will get a very good feel for what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes. Lee & Low provides an excellent guide for further discussion, here.

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Rating: 5/5

Winner, Parents’ Choice Award
Winner, Washington State Governor’s Writers Award
Best Multicultural Title, “Cuffies Award” – Publishers Weekly
“Editors’ Choice” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
“Pick of the Lists,” – American Bookseller
Washington State Children’s Choice Award Finalist 

Published by Lee & Low Books Inc., 1993

August 16, 2006 – KKK Found Responsible for Deaths of Civil Rights Activists Harry and Harriette Moore 55 Years After the Fact

Harry Moore was an African-American educator, a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, and founder of the first branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brevard County, Florida in 1934. He investigated lynchings, filed lawsuits against voter registration barriers and white primaries, and worked for equal pay for black teachers in public schools. Perhaps most objectionable to whites in the area, as Executive Secretary of the Progressive Voters League, Moore helped break down registration barriers and was responsible for the registration of tens of thousands of black Americans throughout Florida. In 1946 he and his wife were fired from the public school system because of his activism; he then worked full-time for the NAACP.

Family photo of Harry T. Moore, right, and wife Harriette, Ft. lauderdale, late 40’s.

On Christmas eve in 1951, which was also Harry and his wife Harriette’s 25th wedding anniversary, members of the Klan exploded a bomb in their home under their bedroom, killing them both.  No arrests were made.  Over the years, there were rumors that the notoriously racist Sheriff McCall was involved in the Moore bombing, but no evidence was ever found of that. This was the first killing of prominent civil rights leaders and it was one of the sparks igniting the modern civil rights movement.

The case was reopened three times: in 1978 by Brevard County, in 1991 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and in 2005 by then Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. In October 2006, three weeks before he won the Republican primary for governor, Crist held a press conference and claimed to have “resolved” the case. Although he admitted that his investigation found no new evidence, Crist named four dead Klansmen as the likely perpetrators.

“Charlie” Crist Jr. , now U.S. Rep for Florida’s 13th congressional district, and previously both Atty General and Governor of Florida

In the next few weeks, however, the Crist investigation was widely criticized by Moore scholars, FDLE investigators, and newspaper editorial boards, and was largely dismissed as a political attempt to win black votes.

In 1952, Moore was posthumously awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, for outstanding achievement by an African American.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote a ballad in honor of Harry Moore; you can read it here.

You can also order a copy of the PBS documentary on the legacy of Harry Moore, narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and featuring the music of Sweet Honey In The Rock and Toshi Reagon.

Harry T. Moore circa 1934

Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Vietnam War” by Chris McNab

Like the analogously named books about World War I and World War II, this small book on the Vietnam War is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.

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As the author writes:

The Vietnam War was one of the longest conflicts in the history of the United States. America began sending small numbers of military advisors to the war in the 1950s, but by 1968 there were more than 500,000 soldiers in South Vietnam. The very last Americans did not leave there until 1975, by which time 58,286 U.S. troops were dead. But the war was far more devastating to Vietnam and its people. In total, the war may have cost up to one and a half million Vietnamese lives.”

I was pleased to see that the author included an explanation of “The Domino Theory” that was used to justify intervention in the region, although a bit more could have been said about why the U.S. found communism to be so abhorrent.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was central to the escalation of the war, but here quite underplayed. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted by Congress on August 7, 1964 in response to an alleged attack by the North Vietnamese Navy. The act gave President Lyndon Johnson authorization to do whatever he thought necessary in Vietnam. A report in 2005 admitted that no attack happened. But the big text on the page in this book makes it appear as if the provocations were genuine. It is only in a small box in the corner that we get an intimation that nothing really happened, and no indication whatsoever that Johnson knew this but disseminated the false “intelligence” in order to be able to send ground troops to fight in Vietnam.

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The use of napalm bombing is also glossed over. Napalm is liquid fire, a sort of jellied gasoline, that melts the flesh upon human contact. In Vietnam, the first televised war, viewers began to see horrific images of the civilian casualties – especially those of children – caused by napalm bombs, and these photos were brandished by students who protested the war.

To the author’s credit, there is at least a little box on the deleterious health effects of Agent Orange (herbicide defoliants sprayed by American aircraft over South and North Vietnam), but no mention of the fact that the use of Agent Orange was later determined to be in violation of the Geneva Convention.

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During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, US warplanes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in an operation code-named Ranch Hand. By the end of the war, nearly five million Vietnamese had been exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities and a half million children born with birth defects, according to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report for the National Cancer Institute. [Agent Orange manufacturer Dow Chemical Company knew as early as 1965 that the dioxin contaminant in the defoliant was “one of the most toxic materials known …” ] This information also was excluded, as was information on the effects U.S. Veterans suffered as well. (See, for example, this story from the New York Times.)

There is also a small box on the My Lai Massacre, in which between 300 to 500 mostly unarmed women, children, and elderly were massacred by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968. None of the victims were members of the enemy forces. Not included in the very little blurb was the fact that infants were among the victims; that some of the women were gang-raped by the Americans and their bodies mutilated; and that Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the leader of the platoon who ordered the action, was convicted but served only three and a half years under house arrest. None of the other military men initially charged were ever convicted. [For almost 16 months after the incident at My Lai, the American public remained unaware of what had happened until reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story in 30 U.S. newspapers.]

There is hardly anything about General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968 and is regarded by many to be “The General Who Lost Vietnam.”

And in a shocking omission, there is not one word about The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a 2-acre national memorial in Washington, DC. The beautiful memorial, designed by American architect Maya Lin, receives around 3 million visitors each year.

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Nevertheless, there are lots of positives about this book. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject and a lot of information on the military hardware used during the war. Importantly, given the mix of pictures, text boxes, and maps, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of the Vietnam War to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

August 12, 1952 – Night of the Murdered Poets

On this night in history, thirteen Soviet Jews were taken from the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and executed. They had been arrested in 1948 and 1949 after Stalin had launched a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” – by which he meant Jews – and falsely accused of espionage and treason.

Half of these Jews were celebrated Yiddish writers and artists including David Bergelson, David Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Itzik Fefer and Benjamin Zuskin. All of the defendants endured incessant interrogations which, for everyone except Itzik Fefer, were coupled with beatings and torture. Fefer was a friend of both Einstein and Paul Robeson, with Robeson requesting a meeting with Fefer when Robeson visited the Soviet Union in 1949.

(Unfortunately Robeson could not be granted a visit with his other friend Solomon Mikhoels, a Soviet Jewish actor and the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. In 1948, Mikhoels was murdered on the orders of Stalin and his body was run over to create the impression of a traffic accident.)

Stalin’s police brought Feffer out of prison, put him the care of doctors, and began fattening him up for the visit. When Robeson and Fefer met, Fefer silently indicated they were under surveillance, and Fefer drew his finger across his throat. That was of course the last time Robeson saw him.

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

A show trial was held in May, 1852 at which many of the defendants “confessed.” One defendant, Joseph Yuzefovich, told the court at the trial, “I was ready to confess that I was the pope’s own nephew and that I was acting on his direct personal orders” after a beating.

Thirteen prisoners were sentenced to death by execution but two others were not. Solomon Bregman collapsed and was placed in the prison infirmary, remaining unconscious until his death. The defendant Lina Stern, who had done pioneering work on the blood–brain barrier, was sentenced (she was then 74) to three and a half years in a correctional labor camp and five years of exile, but after Stalin’s death she was able to return to her home and continue her studies. During the trial, she was determined to be “no less guilty” than the other defendants but was considered important to the state because of her research.

Lina Stern

Lina Stern

After the execution of the other defendants, the trial and its results were kept secret. Family members did not learn about the fates of the executed until November, 1955.

In the meantime, Stalin continued his targeting of Jews with the Doctors’ Plot, in which a group of prominent Moscow doctors was accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. Many doctors, officials and others, both Jews and non-Jews, were promptly dismissed from their jobs and arrested. Fortunately, Stalin died during this process, and the new Soviet leadership stated a lack of evidence and the case was dropped. On November 22, 1955, the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR determined that there was “no substance to the charges” against the defendants and closed the case.

Review of History Book for Kids – “Steamboat School” by Deborah Hopkinson

This book, inspired by a true story, tells the story in free verse of the Reverend John Berry Meachum (born in 1789), through the eyes of a young boy, James, who attends the school Reverend Meachum started to educate African Americans.

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Meachum himself was a former slave. He not only worked and saved to buy his own freedom, but later bought the freedom of his wife and children. He even purchased slaves himself, only to free them and then hire them to work for him until they’d paid him back.

Meachum was ordained in 1825, and became the leader of an African American congregation in St. Louis, where he established a school in the church’s basement. In 1847, however, Missouri passed a law outlawing “the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing, in this State.”

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Undeterred, Meachum moved his school to a steamboat in the Mississippi River, which was considered federal property.

The story ends showing James as a man, declaring:

“I’ve written it out like Mama asked,
but I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
For I’ve made up my mind to go to school
till I’m old enough to row the other
children out,
and teach the little ones to read.

I won’t forget,
because now I know that being brave
can sometimes be a small thing,
like lighting a candle, opening a book,
or dipping an oar into still, deep water.”

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The only sad part of the story is revealed in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in which one discovers that Reverend Meachum died in 1854, too soon to see black emancipation. The author tells us that in May 1855, Meachum’s widow, Mary, was arrested for her work with the so-called Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to the North. In 2001, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing became the first site in Missouri to be recognized as part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

For further exploration, some web sites and a short bibliography are also included. If you are interested, you can read about Meachum’s life in his own words, in his “Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States” from 1846, and online here.

The illustrations are done by Ron Husband, who was the first African American animator at Walt Disney Studios. On his blog, he describes his technique, and how he employed “the philosophy of storytelling I gleaned from my years in feature animation.” He explains: “In animation you tell a story in a series of drawings, in illustration, a story is told in a single drawing with communication as the goal.” He uses a limited palette of sepia color schemes which helps convey the historic nature of the story.

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Evaluation: This is an excellent story with the message that ingenuity, dedication, and hard work can help overcome obstacles.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2016

August 7, 1782 – George Washington Creates the Badge of Military Merit, Which Became the Purple Heart

On this day in history, George Washington issued an order to create the Badge of Military Merit to recognize meritorious action.

“… The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.”

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783 Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783
Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

There are only three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit, all from the American Revolutionary War: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons, later the 2nd Legionary Corps; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment, and Sergeant Daniel Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry (later Colonel of the 5th Infantry).

Once the American Revolution ended, the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.

In 1932 army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur revived the badge renaming it the Purple Heart. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award:

“…By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.

By order of the Secretary of War:
Douglas MacArthur
General, Chief of Staff”

MacArthur himself was the first recipient, on the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1932.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

The medal is primarily designed to recognize meritorious service. The Purple Heart is also given to soldiers wounded or killed in battle.

In April of 1942 the military allowed posthumous awards of Purple Hearts, and in September 1942 the War Department designated the award to be given exclusively for wounds or deaths in combat.

John F. Kennedy, wounded in action in August of 1943, is the only U.S. president to have received the honor.

Various rulings in recent years have ruled out frostbite, heat stroke, and PTSD as eligible injuries.

In 1996 the regulations were amended to allow prisoners of war to receive the Purple Heart.