Jay Foreman’s back with a long-awaited tenth episode of Unfinished London. This one follows up on Why does London have 32 boroughs? and looks deeper into the complexities of the partially-devolved local government of London.
Possibly CGP Grey‘s best video yet: starting with the usual lighthearted and slightly silly look into an interesting piece of history, it quickly diverges from a straightforward path through the Forest of All Knowledge (remember No Flag Northern Ireland?) and becomes an epic adventure into fact-checking, healthy scepticism, and demonstrable information literacy. Speaking admittedly as somebody who genuinely loved the Summer of Grey Tesla Road Trip series of vlogs, this more-human-than-average Grey adventure is well-worth watching to the end.
If the different land uses of the UK were divided up into their percentage-ratio blocks, what would a 100-second tour of the country (with each second covering a single percent of the land usage) look like?
Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales by January 1, 2026. The British Isles have been walked for a long time. They have been mapped, and mapped again, for centuries. But that does not mean that everything adds up, or makes sense. Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree. In 2004, a government project, named Discovering Lost Ways, was given a fifteen-million-pound budget to solve the problem. It ended four years later, overwhelmed. “Lost Footpaths to Stay Lost,” the Daily Telegraph reported. Since then, despite the apparent impossibility of the task, the 2026 cutoff has remained on the statute books, leaving the job of finding and logging the nation’s forgotten paths to walkers, horse people, and other obsessives who can’t abide the muddled situation.
A couple of days into the New Year, with the deadline now only seven years off, I met Bob Fraser, a retired highway engineer, in a parking lot a few miles outside Truro, in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Fraser grew up in Cornwall and returned about thirty years ago, which is when he noticed that many footpaths were inaccessible or ended for no reason. “I suppose that got me interested in trying to get the problem sorted out,” he said. Since he retired, seven years ago, Fraser has been researching and walking more or less full time; in the past three years, he has applied to reinstate sixteen lost paths.
As well additional land around our familiar coastlines, the lower sea level reveals a low lying 9,000 square mile landmass called Doggerland – named after Dogger Bank, the large sandbank which currently sits in a shallow area of the North Sea off the east coast of England (dogger being an old Dutch word for fishing boat).
Doggerland had a rich landscape of hills, rivers and lakes and a coastline comprising lagoons, marshes and beaches. It had woodlands of oak, elm, birch, willow, alder, hazel and pine. It was home to horses, aurochs, deer, elks and wild pigs. Waterfowl, otters and beavers abounded in wetland areas and the seas, lakes and rivers teemed with fish. It was probably the richest hunting and fishing ground in Europe at the time and had an important influence on the course of prehistory in northwestern Europe as maritime and river-based societies adapted to this environment.
I love a bit of alternative history fiction, and this is a big one, going all the way back to prehistoric times. What if the period of global warming that took place thousands of years ago, “sinking” Doggerland and separating the formerly-connected British Isles from one another and from the European mainland? The potential impact is massive, affecting geography, history, and politics indefinitely, and it’s fun to think – and read – about.
There’s been a lot of talk about the missionary killed by the natives of North Sentinel Island. They’re probably so aggressive because of this weirdo, Maurice Vidal Portman. So here’s a big thread about this creep and some facts from my decade-long obsession with the island.
The Sentinelese are often described as “uncontacted,” but this not strictly true. They had a very significant contact in 1880 with Commander Portman.
Portman, the black sheep third son of some minor noble, was assigned by the English Royal Navy to administer and pacify the Andaman Islands, a job he pursued from 1880-1900 with the full measure of his own perversity.
Portman was erotically obsessed with the Andamanese, and he indulged his passion for photography by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions.
During his 20 years in a sexualized heart of darkness, Portman measured and cataloged every inch of his prisoner’s bodies, with an obsessive focus on genitals.
Just imagine being a Neolithic person spending a few weeks in this guy’s rotating menagerie.
Portman spent most of his time in the greater Andaman Islands, but in 1880, he landed on North Sentinel. The natives fled, and his party ventured inland to find a settlement which had been abandoned in haste.
But they located an elderly couple and a few children they were able to abduct. The couple quickly died, likely from ailments to which they had no immunity.
The children spent a few weeks with Portman doing god knows what, after which he returned them to the island. Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time.
The story related by the children was certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island, and even today, Portman’s fatal kidnapping is just beyond a human lifetime.
So when the Indian government attempted contact with anthropologists in the 1960s and 70s, the Sentinelese were understandably hostile to outsiders. The Indian government soon gave up.
In 1981, a cargo ship named The Primrose ran aground on the coral reef surrounding North Sentinel. The crew radioed for assistance and settled in for a long wait. But in the morning they saw 50 men with bows on the beach, building makeshift boats.
The crew called for an emergency airlift and were evacuated, and not a moment too soon. Rough waves had thwarted the Sentinelese in their attempts to board, but the weather was clearing.
The ship and its cargo were left at the island, awaiting discovery by Neolithic eyes. Today you can still see the gutted remains on The Primrose on Google Earth.
Imagine climbing on board that ship. A completely alien vessel filled with alien things. Imagine seeing simple machines for the first time. A hinge. A latch. A wheel. Things that would instantly make sense in a satisfying way. Others would be so incomprehensible to avoid notice.
I have never been able to find out what cargo was on The Primrose in all my years of reading. There was about 100 tons of some sort of consumer product on board, and I’m curious what it was. But even absent the cargo, think about all the things that must have been on that ship.
In the 1990s, when anthropologists returned to the island to make new attempts at contact, they were met with a different attitude. Not friendly, exactly. But they were willing to accept gifts. Many would wade into the water with smiles to accept coconuts.
Here is a video of one of those encounters:
And in those videos, you can see that these pre-iron age people now had metal weapons, like the knife carried by this man. They had scavenged metal from the Primrose and cold-forged it into tools.
After collecting gifts for a few minutes, a few members of the tribe would approach and make menacing gestures, signaling that it was time for the outsiders to leave. They have never lost their desire for isolation, despite the gifts.
And they remained consistent in their intolerance against intruders. In 2006, two fishermen were killed after drifting into the island when their anchor detached while they were sleeping.
The Sentinelese are lucky they were so effective at preventing contact. The neighboring Jawara weren’t so fortunate. The tribe went from 9,000 to a couple hundred from lack of genetic immunity and only forestalled annihilation due to aggressive segregation. Their future is bleak.
Yet on North Sentinel, they’ve maintained a small community for 60,000 years which is by all indications happy. There is no way to integrate them into the modern world without wiping out nearly every member of their tribe.
And their aggressiveness is not the mark of savagery. It just that their conception of outsiders is mostly framed by some foot-faced English pervert who murdered some old people and did weird things to their kids. So let’s do them a favor and leave them alone.
The history of the organisation known as OS is not merely that of a group of earnest blokes with a penchant for triangulation and an ever-present soundtrack of rustling cagoules.
From its roots in military strategy to its current incarnation as producer of the rambler’s navigational aid, the government-owned company has been checking and rechecking all 243,241 sq km (93,916 sq miles) of Great Britain for 227 years. Here are some of the more peculiar elements in the past of the famous map-makers.
When Portugese explorers landed in the area of South America we now call Brazil in the year 1500, they discovered the caesalpinia echinata tree growing there. They noticed that this tree had a similar red-coloured wood as the related Sappanwood (caesalpinia sappan) tree, native to Asia, and that a similarly-useful red dye could be extracted from this wood, so they gave the newly-discovered species the same name that they used to describe its Asian relative: pau-brasil. Pau means ‘wood’ and brasil probably derives from brasa, the Portugese word for “ember”, so pau-brasil best translates as “emberwood”. The colour of its wood was clearly known to the natives, too, who called it ibirapitanga – Tupi for, literally, “red wood”.
At this time, the Portugese called the area Ilha de Vera Cruz (“Island of the True Cross”), after the holy day on which the Portugese captain Pedro Álvares Cabral landed there. On his return trip, he discovered that Brazil was not an island but connected to a much larger continent, and renamed it Terra de Santa Cruz (“Land of the Holy Cross”). Another common name in the years that followed was come up with by Italian merchants who met with members of Cabral’s crew – Terra di Papaga (“Land of Parrots”) – which I personally think would have been an awesome name for the country.
Anyway: a group of merchants moved over to the new Portugese colony in the first decade of the 16th century in order to harvest the wood of the caesalpinia echinata trees. You see, it turned out to be even better as a source of red dye than the previously commercially-exploited caesalpinia sappan. Prior to this time, this particular kind of red dye was very popular in Europe, and could only be imported via India (which was very expensive). By being able to produce an even higher-quality dye at lower cost made the colonial Portugese merchants very rich.
The Portugese had a habit at the time of coming to name their colonies after the commercial product they exploited there: see, for example, the Ilha da Madeira, or “Maderia Island”, which literally translates as “Island of Wood”. This habit continued in their new colony too: the São Francisco River (the longest river whose entire length is in Brazil and the fourth-longest in South America) was labelled on a 1502 map as Rio D Brasil (“River of Brasil”), which was clearly a reference to the great quantity of pau-brasil trees that could be found there. By 1509, the general term for the land had become terra do Brasil daleem do mar Ociano (“land of Brazil beyond the Ocean sea”), and in 1516 the name received official recognition with the appointment by the Portugese king of the first “governor of Brasil”.
A clue to this history appears today in the name of inhabitants of Brazil, who call themselves Brasileiro: the -eiro suffix means ‘worker’, similar to putting -er on the end of an English word to get e.g. baker or hunter – clearly this refers to the use of the Tupi tribes by the Portugese as woodcutters during their colonial era (the usual Portugese suffix for ‘person who lives in’ is not -eiro but -ano).
So there you have it: the nation of Brazil is almost certainly named after a type of tree, and is the only nation in the world for which this is the case. Hope you enjoyed your history lesson, and that you continue to enjoy your stay in /r/MegaLoungeBrazil!
tl;dr: 16th century Portugese colonists and subsequent merchants named Brazil after pau-brazil, the name they gave to a type of tree that grew there, which was in turn named after a related Asian tree of the same name. When this new tree became economically valuable, they began referring to the whole area by that name, as was Portugese tradition at the time.
While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:
Which is the odd-one out: gypsies, turkeys, french fries, or the Kings of Leon?
In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:
Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.
Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:
The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.
Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.
When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.
Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.
Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.
As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.
So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.
The Kings of Leon
For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).
The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.
The Odd One Out
The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.
The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).
And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.
Comparative map showing the distribution of Andamanese tribes in the Andaman Islands – early 1800s versus in 2004. Notably:
(a) Rapid depopulation of the original southeastern Jarawa homeland in the 1789–1793 period
(b) Onge (in blue) and Great Andamanese shrinkage to isolated settlements
(c) Complete Jangil extinction by 1931
(d) Jarawa move to occupy depopulated former west coast homeland of the Great Andamanese, and
(e) Only the Sentinelese zone is somewhat intact
The population is estimated at 40 to 500. In 2001, Census of India officials recorded 21 males and 18 females. This survey was conducted from a distance and may not be accurate for the population which ranges over the 59.67 km2 (14,700 acres) island. The 2011 Census of India recorded 12 males and three females. Any effect from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami is not known, other than the confirmation obtained that they had survived the immediate aftermath.
Author Heinrich Harrer described one man as being 1.6 metres (5 ft 3 in) tall and apparently left handed.