Archive for the ‘1700s’ Category

Haiti was a land of the Tainos (Arawaks). But then one day in 1492 a white man named Columbus arrived from over the seas. He noticed they wore gold jewellery. He told them he would cut off the hands of any Taino over 13 who did not give him a certain amount of gold or cotton every three months. The Taino fled inland, but the Spanish followed, running them down with dogs and killing them, looking for the gold mines. They made girls into sex slaves. It got so bad that mothers were killing their own babies.

In two years half the Tainos were dead.  By 1555 they were all gone.

In 1505 Columbus’s son brought the first African slaves to the Americas, bringing them to Haiti. By 1519 there were already slave uprisings.

In 1697 France got Haiti from Spain and called it Saint-Domingue.

By 1789 Haiti produced three-fourths of all the sugar in the world, its black slaves producing more wealth than all of English-speaking North America. A third of slaves died within three years after arriving from Africa.

In the 1790s Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave uprising that in time overthrew the French, making Haiti independent in 1804. The slaves were freed and the land divided among them. The 3,300 remaining French were killed and white was taken out of the flag, leaving red and blue.

For its loss France demanded payment of a crushing debt. France, Britain and America cut it off from overseas trade until it agreed to pay the debt. It took till 1947 to pay it off.

Like the Roman Empire, Haiti had no peaceful means for power to change hands. Often the government would be overthrown every few years.

From 1849 to 1913 America sent warships into Haitian waters 24
times to “protect American lives and property.”

Haiti was under American military rule from 1915 to 1934. Major General Smedley D. Butler said he hunted the Haitians “like pigs” and made Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in.” American troops practised “indiscriminate killing of natives” while the American press called Haitians “a horde of naked niggers” in need of “energetic Anglo-Saxon influence”.

America rewrote Haiti’s laws so that Americans could buy up land. They sent 40% of Haiti’s income to American and French banks to pay back debts.

From 1957 t0 1986 Haiti was ruled by the Duvaliers: Papa Doc and Baby Doc. They ruled by terror through the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. America backed them and opened factories there.

Since the fall of Baby Doc, Haiti has gone back and forth between military rule and democracy, with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a country priest, as the star democrat. America sent in troops in 1994 to restore Aristide to power, but it seems likely they were behind his overthrow in 1991 and 2004.

Democracy was last restored in 2006. The government is backed by a UN force but it is still weak. On top of that Haiti was hit by hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008 that killed over a thousand and by an earthquake in 2010 that has killed 110,000 at last count.

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The following is based on part eight of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about the rise of industry:

In the late 1700s there were three revolutions: one in France, one in America and one in England. In France and America they overthrew their kings and said that all men are created equal and born with certain rights. In England they did not do that, they did something even better: through the rise of industry they gave the man in the street a degree of wealth and freedom that in the past belonged only to kings and other top people.

We are still in the middle of that Industrial Revolution – or we better be because there are still plenty of things to get right. But despite all of its evils, the old days were far worse: many died of the plague or childbirth, ordinary people did not have soap, cotton underwear or glass in their windows – things we take for granted. We feel we can make of our lives what we want of them – in the old days it was hard work from sunup to sundown. Where would most of us be if we were born before 1800?

The revolution was made by men who thought in just that way:

  • that life is what you make of it: we are not ruled by the stars or fate;
  • that inventions should be useful for the man in the street, not just playthings for the rich;
  • that science is not just about the truth, as it was for Newton and Galileo, but about making society better.

A man in America in those days who was just like that was Benjamin Franklin. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain and not, say, in France, because it had far more men who thought that way and acted on it. Men like Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who made china sets for queens and then made the very same thing (without the patterns) for the British midde-class.

These men did not go to Oxford and Cambridge. Partly because most of them could not: they did not belong to the Church of England. But also because the kind of men that Oxford and Cambridge produced did not think like that and would have never made an Industrial Revolution.

But the Industrial Revolution was more than just a certain way of thinking or even a bag of inventions, as important as they were. There were also changes in how people worked. For example, before 1760 craftsmen worked at home in villages at their own pace; after 1820 the common practice was to bring workers into a factory to make things there, working with machines.

It also led to a new view of nature that the Romantic poets wrote about. Wordsworth put it this way in 1798 in “Tintern Abbey”:

For nature then…
To me was all in all – I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion

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The Delaware in the 1640s.


The Delaware or, as they call themselves, the Lenape (leh-NAH-pay, meaning the “common or ordinary people”), were the Native Americans who lived in and near what is now New York and Philadelphia in the north-eastern US. They had lived there for at least a thousand years when Whites arrived.

Country facts (circa 1500):

  • Name: Lenapehoking;
  • Location: New Jersey and parts of neighbouring states;
  • Population: 30,000 to 85,000, maybe more;
  • Area: about 55,000 sq km;
  • Languages: Munsee in the north, Unami in the south, both Eastern Algonquian languages (related to those that Squanto and Pocahontas spoke);
  • Religion: ethnic;
  • Technology: Eastern Woodlands;
  • Government: decentralized, ruled by sachems (religious chiefs);
  • Currency: wampum, aka “glass beads”.


The Delaware grew maizebeans and squash, gathered strawberries and hunted deer (pictured), bear and elk. They lived in long houses, sometimes in towns of up to 300.  They were not the wandering bands of hunter-gatherers that most Whites imagine, much less “savages”.

Whites began arriving from Europe in number in the 1600s. Many Delaware died of White diseases, like smallpox, cholera and measles.

Whites got their land in three main ways:

  1. war, preferred by the Dutch but practised by Anglos too, like George Washington, who fought them.
  2. purchase, like when Manhattan was bought for $24 worth of trinkets and glass beads – a statement so misleading as to be a lie.
  3. court cases – where White judges upheld fine print, where the Delaware had few rights or protection. Preferred by Anglos.

Money: mostly wampum, shell beads on a string. Whites sometimes call it “glass beads”, which is like calling their money “pieces of paper”.

The Delaware knew how to fight in the woods better than most White men did, and they even had guns (which were too slow-loading till the 1800s to be much better than bows and arrows). But one thing they did not have were numbers. More and more Whites kept coming over the seas every year. And whatever land Whites could not get by sale or the small print of a contract, they took by force.

An excuse to fight the Delaware could always be found. Once it was because one of them took a peach. Small things like that grew into years of war. Even those who had taken on Western ways were killed. Even those who had become peaceful Moravian Christians were killed. Even women and children were killed. It did not matter to Whites.

lifeam1The Delaware who had lived through the White diseases and the White wars were pushed west bit by bit – through Pennsylvania in the 1600s and 1700s,  Ohio, Indiana and Kansas in the 1800s and so on till most of them came to Oklahoma by the 1860s. Some, though, wound up in Wisconsin, some in Ontario. By 2000 there were about 16,000. Unlike other Native Americans, few married Blacks.



Languages: They spoke Unami and Munsee.  In 2009, Munsee had seven or eight native speakers, Unami had none. You can still hear them in prayers and in place names, like Manhattan, the Poconos, Hackensack, Rockaway, Massapequa, Carnarsie, Parsippany, Minisink, Raritan and Jamaica (in Queens).


Mannahatta in 1609 | Manhattan in 2009. Image Mark Boyer WCS. Click to enlarge.

– Abagond, 2009, 2016.

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I have written quite a bit about white people lately. Here is the overview:

White people (1502- ) are those light-skinned people who come from Europe, the Middle East and parts nearby. Over the past 500 years they have settled in Australia, South Africa, North and South America.

Some say that Muslim and Latin American whites are not white, but if you are going to divide the world into five or so races, there is no physical reason to set them apart – only ones of history and religion.

Even so, in English when people say “white” they mainly mean the whites in North America and Britain. I do too.

Who counts as “white” in America has changed: the Irish and the Jews were not considered to be “white” at first. The same is true now for Latinos. About 40% of Americans who are part African pass for white.

On the world stage, whites are on top, but only since about 1800.

Northern Europe had been a backward corner of the world through most of history. As late as the 1400s Timbuktu, a black city in Africa, and Tenochtitlan, a brown city in Mexico, each had far more people than London, a white city in Europe.

Egypt and China, not Europe, have been the most advanced parts of the world through most of history. China still was as late as 1700 and likely will be again by 2030. Just look at who is studying engineering now.

Many whites think they are on top because they are just better than everyone else. Either because of their race, their way of life or their laws and customs.

Not quite.

Whites got on top because they had guns and ocean-going ships and industry first. Japan has shown these things are not “white”, so whites got them first only through an accident of history.

Whites, except for their power, are the same as everyone else. God did not make them special. God is not smiling on them. Hardly.

Starting in the 1600s in America they came with their guns and pushed the red man off his land and then with their wonderful ships (they were a wonder), they brought black men over the seas in chains to work that land. It is not what Jesus would have done, but it is what they did.

Deep down they knew it was wrong. So to live with themselves they had to believe a lie: whites are better than everyone else. A lie most of them still believe to this day.

Racism is not just some bad habit they fell into. It is built into their sense of who they are.

White American racism was open and naked down to the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. They have since changed. But it seems their words have changed far more than their hearts. They still think they are better than blacks, but their excuses are now a bit more subtle and carefully worded – not so much to hide their racism from the world but from themselves.

– Abagond, 2008. 

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Creoles, in the American sense of the word, are the French who founded New Orleans and Louisiana, whether they be white, black or mixed in colour. Many are part French, Spanish, African and Native American. Many light-skinned black Americans with French names are Creoles. Among other things, Creoles gave us jazz, zydeco, Mardi Gras, the paper bag test, the old New Orleans and creole cooking. Audubon was Creole. Beyonce is part Creole.

Creoles are not the same as Cajuns. The Cajuns are French too, but they came to Louisiana later, coming from Canada. They are whiter and more country.

Creole roots go back not to the four Englands that created America, but back to the Caribbean, France and even Senegal in Africa, back even to the Mali empire. They are Latin, not Anglo. That is why the old New Orleans is in some ways more like Havana or Rio than New York or Chicago. That is why it does not seem like such a grey place.

The Creoles were a separate people in the 1700s and 1800s. They were Catholic and spoke French, not English. But these days most have become ordinary Americans.

Where Americans came in two main colours – black and white – Creoles came in three colours: black, white and mixed. Like in Brazil, they did not follow the One Drop Rule. Between the white Creoles at the top and the dark-skinned slaves at the bottom was a broad middle made up of free people of colour.

Most mixed Creoles were not slaves but free. They were shopkeepers, dressmakers, silversmiths and traders. They owned houses and could read. Many had been sent to France to get an education. In war they fought under their own commanding officers. These are the people who would later give the world jazz music.

But they were not completely equal to whites: they could not vote or hold public office; they could not marry a white person or sit in the white part of the opera house.

There were not many white women in Louisiana in the old days. Yet white Creole men thought quadroon women, who were one-fourth black, were very beautiful. Often a white man in his 20s would take a quadroon lover, buy her a house, have children by her and support the family. This was known as plaçage (rhymes with massage). Later in his 30s he might marry white and have a second family. If he did not, then his wealth would go to his mixed children.

Creole law saw slaves as humans while American law saw them as property. Under Creole law a slave could take his master to court or even earn money and buy his freedom.

Napoleon sold Louisiana to America in 1803 to raise money for his wars. It was largely left alone till the late 1800s. Then white Americans started to take over. They brought in their One Drop Rule. Some Creoles stayed and became black Americans or Cajuns. Others moved away, especially to Texas, California and Chicago.

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Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) was a French taxman and scientist. He did for chemistry what Galileo did for physics: he made it a hard science by putting ideas to the test with hard numbers.

By the 1700s chemistry had come a long ways from the days when it was called alchemy and men tried to turn lead into gold. But it was still not a proper science. Lavoisier made it one.

Lavoisier loved school as a child. When he grew up he gathered taxes for the king. He was not the one who knocked on your door, he was higher up than that. But everyone knew who he was and knew how he got so rich. He married a beautiful 14-year-old girl.

With his riches he built an amazing laboratory where he worked on his chemistry with the help of his wife. Jefferson, Franklin and Priestley and other leading lights of science visited him there.

But more important than his beautiful laboratory or his beautiful wife was his approach to chemistry:

  1. An element is any substance that cannot be broken down into simpler substances. Lavoisier listed 32 of them.
  2. Every substance is itself an element or made up of elements.
  3. A chemical reaction is when one substance changes into another. This comes from a change in the number or proportion of the elements that make up the substance.
  4. The conservation of matter: matter is neither created nor destroyed – it just becomes a different sort of substance.
  5. Measure the weight of everything that goes into a chemical reaction and everything that comes out of it, even the air.

Much of this is now common sense, but it was not in the 1700s. It was Lavoisier who made it so.

With this approach Lavoisier was able to tell which ideas were true and which were false.

One of these false ideas was phlogiston. For over a hundred years science said that things burned because they had phlogiston. Wood is full of phlogiston, which is why it burns so easily. The ash that is left over after the wood is burned has no phlogiston. It has been all used up. That is why you cannot burn ashes.

Lavoisier disproved phlogiston. He heated different kinds of metal inside closed containers until they started to burn and change. When he measured the weight of the containers before and after, there was no change. But the burned metal was now heavier. Instead of losing phlogiston, whatever that is, something from the air must have been added to the metal.

For most this put an end to the idea of phlogiston.

In 1789 he came out with his “Elements of Chemistry”, one of the great works of science.

But that year the king was overthrown and the country went mad, wanting to kill all the king’s men. Lavoisier was one of the king’s men. In 1794 they sent him to the guillotine and cut off his head.

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Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a British scientist, discovered oxygen. He was the first to make and drink soda water, which soft drinks are now made from, and the first to call that stuff that comes from inside trees in South America “rubber” (because he rubbed out pencil marks with it).

He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and later moved to America where spent the last ten years of his life. There he became friends with Thomas Jefferson.

The Americans claim him as one of their own and France made him a citizen, but he did all his best work while still in Britain.

He favoured both the Americans and the French in overthrowing their kings. This made him hated in Britain, which still believed in kings. His house was burned down once. He was very forgiving about the whole thing, but thought it best to spend his old age in America.

As part of the Lunar Society, which met on the night of the full moon, he knew James Watt and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. He also belonged to the French Academy of Sciences even before he discovered oxygen.

He discovered oxygen in 1775. He was not the first: as he later found out, Scheele in Germany had beat him by a few months. But Priestley gets the credit because he made it public first.

He made oxygen by burning mercury till it turned into a red powder and then heated the powder till it turned back into mercury. The stuff that came out of the red powder into the air made wood burn brighter and made mice move and jump more. He found out the same stuff was coming from plants.

Priestley thought that breathing oxygen would become a fashionable vice among the rich.

Priestley did not call it oxygen, a name we get from Lavoisier. He called it dephlogisticated air because it had no phlogiston.

For over a hundred years science said that things burned because they had phlogiston. Wood is full of phlogiston, so it burns easily. Dephlogisticated air, said Priestley, lacked phlogiston and so took it up readily from things that were burning. This made them burn more strongly.

Priestley did not make a living from science. No one did before the late 1800s when German universities started hiring scientists. Science was just something he did on the side. He worked as a Unitarian minister.

Unitarians are Christians who do not believe in the Holy Trinity. They follow the teachings of Jesus but do not think he is divine. It was the latest thinking in those days and some thought that America would become Unitarian by 1900.

It suited Priestley who thought for himself and was up on all the newest ideas.

Priestley never studied science at university: he studied philosophy and languages. He knew Hebrew and Arabic. It was Benjamin Franklin who later got him interested in science. Franklin was in Britain trying to prevent the coming war between America and Britain.

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Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) was a German-born British scientist who discovered Uranus, the first planet discovered since ancient times. He also discovered two moons of Uranus (Oberon and Titania) and two moons of Saturn (Mimas and Enceladus).

We take new discoveries in science for granted. We expect to read about a new one every few months in the newspaper. But in the 1700s people thought Newton was the last word in science, that everything had been discovered already. Uranus was a breath of fresh air.

Herschel was the greatest astronomer of his day. He became that by making the best telescopes in the world and studying every single part of the night sky with them, not knowing what he would find there.

He came to England from Germany at age 19, not wanting to fight in the German wars, even though his father was in the army. Instead he taught music in the English town of Bath.

He taught himself Latin and Italian and read Newton’s book on optics, about how glass lenses bend light. He started making lenses of his own and then, in the 1770s, telescopes. He brought over his sister Caroline from Germany and she helped him.

One by one he looked at each star in the sky with his telescope. Then in 1781 he came upon a star that was not a star. It was a small little circle of light.

At first he thought it was a comet, but when he and Laplace worked out its orbit, they found out it circled the sun beyond Saturn. It was a planet like Saturn!

You can see it with the naked eye if you know where to look. It looks like a very faint star and had been appearing on star maps, but it moved so slowly no one knew it was a planet. Not till Herschel.

He named it George’s Star, after the king. Others called it Herschel. Someone else named it Uranus, after Saturn’s father. That is the name that caught on.

Herschel thought there was life on the other planets, even on the sun. He did not think the sun was a huge ball of fire like we do: he thought its clouds were on fire, that sunspots were holes through the clouds where you could see a world below.

He tried to find out how far away the stars were but had no luck. But he did find out that the sun is moving among the stars. It is headed for the constellation of Hercules.

He also found out that the sun is in a huge wheel made of stars, what we now call the Milky Way Galaxy. He saw other such wheels of stars through his telescope, other galaxies, very far away.

Uranus takes 84 years to go round the sun. When it returned to the place where it was when Herschel was born, he died.

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The Portuguese empire (1415-1999) was the first and the last of the empires of western Europe. It sold black pepper from the Spice Islands and black men from Africa. It helped to spread the Catholic faith, especially to Africa and Asia, and made Portuguese a language spoken by more people than French. The empire gave birth to Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and other countries.

At one time or other Portugal ruled parts or all of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Indonesia, East Timor, Bahrain, Barbados, Nagasaki in Japan, Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Morocco, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Goa in India and Macao in China, among others.

From 1000 to 1300 the Portuguese Christians took over what is now Portugal from the Moors. But in a sense they never stopped: in the 1400s they kept on going, down the coast of Africa. By 1498 they had reached India, by 1571, Japan. They had ports and outposts all along the coasts of Africa and Asia, from Lisbon to Nagasaki. The empire was at its height – not in land, but in power, trade and wealth.

Treaty of Tordesillas: The groundwork for this was laid in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered the Americas. The pope divided the world outside Europe in half between Portugal and Spain. In effect Portugal got Brazil and all of Africa and Asia except the Philippines.

The agreement held long enough among European powers to shape both empires. Portuguese power in its half of the world was not challenged till the 1600s by the Dutch. In 1500 the Portuguese had the best ships in the world, but by 1600 it was the Dutch.

The Dutch fought the Portuguese everywhere, even in Brazil. Portugal managed to hold onto Brazil, but lost Ceylon and the Spice Islands (Sri Lanka and Indonesia). Worse than mere land, they lost control of trade from the East. The glory days of the empire were over.

In the 1700s Brazil became the jewel of the empire. Brazil had sugar, gold, diamonds, cacao and tobacco. Black slaves worked the land. With the growth of Brazil inland, the empire reached its height in terms of land.

Extensão máxima do Império Português no século XVII.

The early 1800s brought the wars of Napoleon. The king fled to Brazil. Rio, not Lisbon, was the seat of the empire for a while. But after the wars Portugal was no longer strong enough to hold onto Brazil. It became independent in 1825.

This was a huge shock. To make up for its loss, Portugal turned its attention to its possessions in Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique.

In the late 1900s the empire came to an end.

In 1974 Salazar fell from power in Portugal and nearly all of the remaining countries of the empire were freed: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe and East Timor. Some of these sank into wars of succession, particularly Angola and Mozambique. Indonesia took over East Timor, killing a third of its people.

But even then Portugal still had Macao near Hong Kong. That was given back to China in 1999, the last bit of the empire to go.

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Kilwa (900s to 1700s), also called Quiloa or Kilwa Kisiwani, was the richest city in eastern Africa from 1000 to 1500. Today no one lives there. It is just some broken down buildings in a nearly forgotten corner of Africa.

Kilwa stood on an island on the coast of what is now south-eastern Tanzania. Then it was in the land of the Zanj. Only the old buildings remain. Even the book that once told its story, the Kilwa Chronicle, is lost (though parts of it appear elsewhere). But the society of Kilwa has lived on, becoming the pattern for Swahili-speaking Africa.

Kilwa was the first city in eastern Africa to have a domed building, the city’s great mosque. It also had its largest stone building, the palace of Husuni Kubwa with a hundred rooms.

Kilwa grew rich by trading the gold, iron and men of Africa for the riches of the east: the cloth and jewels of India, the porcelain of China and the spices of the Indies.

It was a beautiful city built of stone and coral. Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Arab world, arrived there in 1331. He was amazed by its beauty.

The people were black Muslims who spoke Swahili. But by the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500 half the people were Christians from India and Abyssinia.

The city was founded by Ali bin al Hasan. He came in the 900s on a ship from Shiraz (south-western Persia).

Kilwa was as far south as Arab traders would go. Like Timbuktu, Kilwa got rich by controlling the trade between the Arabs and its part of Africa.

Its glory days came to an end in 1500 when the Portuguese arrived. It was Cabral who first came, on the same voyage in which he discovered Brazil. Two years later Vasco da Gama arrived and asked for tribute. In 1505 Francisco de Almeida came and destroyed the city, taking it outright. He built Gereza, a fort that later became a prison.

Some years later the Portuguese lost Kilwa to the Arabs. Later it was ruled by Zanzibar. But the city never recovered: the Portuguese had taken control of trade with the east.

In the 1700s Kilwa did see something of its old wealth return by selling slaves to Brazil. But then in the early 1800s the British brought an end to even that. Kilwa died. There was no reason to go there any more.

You can still see the remains of the mosque, the Kubwa palace, the old Portuguese fort and some other buildings. They are falling apart with the wind and the rain and the years.

It is not a tourist attraction, though the curious do show up from time to time.

In 1981 UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site, one of the several hundred places in the world worth preserving – not that UNESCO has any money to save what is left of Kilwa.

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1 mètre d'horizon The metric system (1791- ) is the system of weights and measures used by almost the entire world. Everyone learns it in school, even the Americans, who still use English weights and measures.

The metric system has dozens of units of measure, most of them used only in science. Here are the units that come up most often in everyday life:

  • second (s) for time. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day. That makes 86,400 seconds in a day. Most people speak at a rate of two or three words a second.
  • metre (m) for length. By definition, light goes 300 million metres a second. My father was almost two metres, which is tall.
  • litre (L) for an amount of space. A thousand litres are in a space that is one metre long, one metre high and one metre deep. Most bottles hold about a half litre, a cup a quarter litre.
  • gram (g) for mass or weight. A litre of water has 1000 grams. An apple has a weight of about 115 grams, a small copper coin is a few grams.
  • Celsius (C) for how warm it is. Water becomes ice at 0 C and boils away at 100 C. If it gets much below 15, you will want to put on a coat before you go outside.
  • are (a) for land area. An are is an area that is ten metres wide and ten metres long or 100 square metres. No one uses are by itself, but hectares (100 ares) instead – an area that is 100 metres by 100 metres. A football field is about three-quarters of a hectare; an American football field is half of a hectare.

Americans write metre as “meter” and litre as “liter”, just as they write theatre as “theater”.

The metric system uses prefixes to make these units larger or smaller. Here are the most commonly used prefixes:

  • kilo (k): 1000
  • hecto (h): 100
  • centi (c): 1/100th
  • milli (m): 1/1000th

So a kilometre (kilo + metre) is 1000 metres. A milligram (milli + gram) is a thousandth of a gram. And so on.

Just from the most common bits that I have presented so far, we have 30 possible units, but in practice only these are used:

  • second (s)
  • millisecond (ms)
  • kilometre (km)
  • metre (m)
  • centimetre (cm)
  • millimetre (mm)
  • litre (l)
  • millilitre (ml), also called cc for cubic centimetre
  • kilogram (kg), also called a kilo
  • gram (g)
  • milligram (mg)
  • Celsius (C), sometimes called centigrade
  • hectare (ha)

A thousand kilograms is also known as a metric ton.

The “kg” and “mm” and so on are used when you do not want to write out the whole name: “I am 1.8 m tall.”

Years, days, hours and minutes are not part of the metric system, but people still use them freely.

The metric system was invented by the French in the late 1700s soon after they had overthrown their king and were remaking the world along more rational lines. It was designed to be simpler than any existing system.

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David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment who pushed Locke’s and Berkeley’s school of empiricism to the breaking point, resulting in scepticism.

Hume wanted to be a great writer and saw himself as a moral philosopher, but today we read Hume mostly for his theory of knowledge in his book “Human Understanding” (1748).

Hume, as everyone knew, did not believe in God, not even when he was dying. He was the first famous deathbed atheist in the West. His housekeeper, however, said he did not die with peace of mind.

Hume doubted not just God, but everything – even the existence of the mind, self and the material world. Although he believed the sun would rise tomorrow, he saw it as just that: a belief, nothing more. You cannot prove it. Much of our knowledge is just like that: physical laws are just another way of saying what always seems to happen. So are cause and effect: we suppose that cause leads to effect, but there is no way to prove it. It is just what seems to happen, but we really do not know why.

Ideas and words are the same: they can only be about those things that always seem to go together. They are just names we stick on things, there is no inner truth to them.

We think of the world as being predictable and based on rules, but that is just the bit of reality that we can understand. Reality goes far beyond that.

Hume argued against the existence of miracles. Miracles by definition are highly improbable events. Which only means that it is more probable that any report of a miracle is a lie or an error than that the miracle really took place.

Hume said that religion and theology are not based on reason.

Hume’s moral theory was based not on God or religion but on the pleasing and useful consequences of our actions. This was later developed by Bentham in his philosophy of utilitarianism. It was Bentham who said “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Hume’s ideas also influenced John Stuart Mill, Comte and others. The philosophy of Kant was partly in answer to Hume.

Hume received his education in Edinburgh in the 1730s, but soon after moved to Paris, where he spent much of his life. There he became friends with Rousseau, whom he later helped to flee to Britain with some money to live on. Rousseau was not grateful.

Hume’s history of Britain was the top book on the subject for many years. His facts were not always right, but his writing was wonderful.

Hume’s science writing is among the best in the English language. It is as clear as glass, uncoloured by his emotions.

Some say he wrote to shock in order to become a famous writer. Still his thought does hold together and is not easy to overthrow.

If you wonder about the truth of religion, science or atheism, then read Hume.

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Sally Hemings

sallySally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave woman of Thomas Jefferson, the third American president. She was a maid at Monticello, his estate. It seems she had at least one of his children, but probably as many as six.

This was going on while he was president. Although it happened after his wife died, marriage was out of the question in those days: he was a white European, she was one-fourth black African.

Why it seems likely:

  • Her children believed it. They looked like him.
  • Jefferson freed them. He freed only six of his 267 slaves. Four were her children.
  • Jefferson was away from Monticello two-thirds of the time and yet was always at Monticello at just the right time when her children were conceived.
  • DNA tests show that at least one of her sons was a blood relation of the Jeffersons, most likely (though not necessarily) of  Thomas Jefferson himself.

Reasons for doubt:

  • The story was first planted in newspapers by his political enemies when he was president.
  • His white children said it was impossible.
  • Jefferson made no clear reference to Sally Hemings as anything other than a slave. He never freed her.

Jefferson himself never said whether it was true or false.

A year after he died Sally Hemings was valued at $50 (40 crowns). A year later his daughter Martha gave Hemings “her time”. She was free in all but name.

We have no pictures of Sally Hemings.

  • One slave said she was “mighty near white, very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”
  • Jefferson’s grandson said she was “light coloured and decidedly good-looking.”

She may have looked like Jefferson’s wife: some say the two were half-sisters.

She was three-quarters white. Her mother’s mother came from Africa as a slave. It seems her other three grandparents were white. Her name comes from her mother’s father, an English sea captain named Hemings.

She looked after Jefferson’s two daughters, Mary and Martha. This brought her overseas when Jefferson was in France.

She was in France with Jefferson from 1787 to 1789, from about age 14 to 16. She learned French, the harpsichord and probably needlework. Some say this was when it all started.

In France she was free: the law did not allow Jefferson to keep slaves. She became a paid servant, as did her brother, who became a good French cook. They both came back to America with Jefferson.

Her children:

  • 1790: Tom, boy – not in Jefferson’s records!
  • 1795: Harriet, girl – died at two
  • 1796: Edy, girl – died as a baby
  • 1798: Beverly, boy
  • 1801: Harriet, girl
  • 1805: Madison, boy
  • 1808: Eston, boy

Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809.

In 1998 DNA tests were done on Tom’s and Eston’s descendants. Tom is not a blood relation of the Jeffersons (even though he looked like one), but Eston is. 

Jefferson freed her last four children, so Madison, Harriet and Beverly are probably his too. All but Madison moved far away and passed into white society.

We do not know if she could write. “The Diary of Sally Hemings” has yet to be discovered…

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the third American president, being in office during the time of Napoleon. He also wrote the Declaration of Independence. It declared America to be independent of Britain. Among other things it says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson goes on to say that governments rule only by consent of the governed. That gives the governed the right to overthrow the government in serious cases. Which is just what Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did when they overthrew British rule in America.

Jefferson was an intellectual, a child of the Enlightenment who was up on all the latest ideas. Most of his political ideas came from John Locke. He called Locke, Bacon and Newton the three greatest men who ever lived. He had a picture of each one on his wall.

When Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he owned 175 black slaves. By 1822 he had 92 more: 267. He only freed 8 of them.

But there is more: after his wife died, Jefferson seems to have had six children by one of his slave women, Sally Hemings, possibly the black half-sister of his dead white wife.

While most consider George Washington and Abraham Lincoln better presidents and better men, Jefferson would make almost anyone’s short list of American presidents. He is on the money and you can see his face on the side of Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln, Washington and Teddy Roosevelt.

When he was president he doubled the size of the country: Napoleon, needing quick money for his wars, sold Louisiana to America. Louisiana in those days was not just a little state next to Texas like it is now: it was all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky mountains (except for Texas).

Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a three-year journey to find out what was out there. On the way they met Sacajawea.

Jefferson had a vast curiosity. He got every book he could find on America and wrote a book about his own state of Virginia.

He loved inventions. When he saw something new, he figured out how it worked and made one of his own. He invented a new sort of plough and was serious about making and selling nails.

Jefferson designed and built his own house, the Monticello.

Sometimes his intellectual pride got the best of him: He believed in God but not in miracles. Therefore he wrote his own gospel about Jesus without miracles.

Later in life Jefferson was deep in debt. When the British burned down the Library of Congress, Jefferson sold his books to Congress to start a new library.

Both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th birthday of the country, July 4th 1826. They were the last two of the Founding Fathers to die. That was the summer Lincoln was 17.

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Monticello (1768- ) is the house of Thomas Jefferson, the third American president. It is in Virginia near Charlottesville on the top of a “little mountain” (what Monticello means in Italian). It is the house you see on the back of nickels (the American five-cent coin). What you do not see on the nickel is the wonderful view it has.

Jefferson and his friend Dabney Carr went to the top of the mountain as boys. They promised each other that they would be buried under an oak tree there (they were). Jefferson liked the place so much that he built his house there, amid the oaks.

Jefferson designed the house in 1768. From then till 1809 he, his white workers and black slaves worked on it. It seems he was always working on it. When Jefferson left for Europe in 1784 the house was more or less done, but his five years in Europe gave him new ideas. When he got back he tore down a lot of it and rebuilt it.

The house is Italian on the outside in the style of Palladio and English on the inside. The cooking was French.

Apart from the windows from Europe, the house is mostly built from materials from the mountain itself.

The estate had about 2000 hectares and 150 slaves, including Sally Hemings.

The dome, the rounded part of the roof, was not added till 1800. It is a lot more evident on the nickel than it is in real life when you are on the ground looking up at it. When you enter the house you have no idea that it is there. (I was there in 2006.)

When you walk in you come into a waiting area. Above the door is a clock that tells not only the hour and minute but also the day of the week. While you wait you can look at the bones of monstrous creatures that once lived there in a lost age.

His book room held thousands of books. Most of the books you see are copies of the books it once had. The originals were sold off long ago to help settle Jefferson’s debts. A few books, though, are left: the Don Quixote that he learned Spanish from, his Ariosto, Virgil, Plutarch and some others. He has a lot of law books and books in French.

Next to his library is his office and next to that his bed, which seems too short (as do others from that period).

There is an eight-sided room where James Madison and his wife often slept. The bed is set in the wall in the French style of the time.

The house is full of paintings, clocks, fireplaces and windows – but not many curtains! On the wall of his living room are paintings of his three heroes: Newton, Bacon and Locke.

The steps going up to the second floor are very narrow – to save space in the house. They let people see the second floor only two nights a week. You have to sign up on the Internet for it.

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