October 1, 2013
Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”
At the time, Koudounaris was working on a book called The Empire of Death, traveling the world to photograph church ossuaries and the like. He’d landed in this particular village near the Czech border to document a crypt full of skulls, but his interest was piqued by the dubious yet enticing promise of a bejeweled skeleton lurking behind the trees. “It sounded like something from the Brothers Grimm,” he recalls. “But I followed his directions—half thinking this guy was crazy or lying—and sure enough, I found this jeweled skeleton in the woods.”
The church—more of a small chapel, really—was in ruins, but still contained pews and altars, all dilapidated from years of neglect under East German Communist rule. He found the skeleton on a side aisle, peering out at him from behind some boards that had been nailed over its chamber. As he pried off the panels to get a better look, the thing watched him with big, red glass eyes wedged into its gaping sockets. It was propped upright, decked out in robes befitting a king, and holding out a glass vial, which Koudounaris later learned would have been believed to contain the skeleton’s own blood. He was struck by the silent figure’s dark beauty, but ultimately wrote it off as “some sort of one-off freakish thing, some local curiosity.”
But then it happened again. In another German church he visited some time later, hidden in a crypt corner, he found two more resplendent skeletons. “It was then that I realized there’s something much broader and more spectacular going on,” he says.
Koudounaris could not get the figures’ twinkling eyes and gold-adorned grins out of his mind. He began researching the enigmatic remains, even while working on Empire of Death. The skeletons, he learned, were the “catacomb saints,” once-revered holy objects regarded by 16th- and 17th-century Catholics as local protectors and personifications of the glory of the afterlife. Some of them still remain tucked away in certain churches, while others have been swept away by time, forever gone. Who they were in life is impossible to know. “That was part of this project’s appeal to me,” Koudounaris says. “The strange enigma that these skeletons could have been anyone, but they were pulled out of the ground and raised to the heights of glory.”
His pursuit of the bones soon turned into a book project, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, in which he documents the martyred bones’ journey from ancient Roman catacombs to hallowed altars to forgotten corners and back rooms. Though largely neglected by history, the skeletons, he found, had plenty to say.
Resurrecting the Dead
On May 31, 1578, local vineyard workers discovered that a hollow along Rome’s Via Salaria, a road traversing the boot of Italy, led to a catacomb. The subterranean chamber proved to be full of countless skeletal remains, presumably dating back to the first three centuries following Christianity’s emergence, when thousands were persecuted for practicing the still-outlawed religion. An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 souls—mostly Christians but including some pagans and Jews—found a final resting place in the sprawling Roman catacombs.
For hundreds of skeletons, however, that resting place would prove anything but final. The Catholic Church quickly learned of the discovery and believed it was a godsend, since many of the skeletons must have belonged to early Christian martyrs. In Northern Europe—especially in Germany, where anti-Catholic sentiment was most fervent—Catholic churches had suffered from plunderers and vandals during the Protestant Revolution over the past several decades. Those churches’ sacred relics had largely been lost or destroyed. The newly discovered holy remains, however, could restock the shelves and restore the morale of those parishes that had been ransacked.
The holy bodies became wildly sought-after treasures. Every Catholic church, no matter how small, wanted to have at least one, if not ten. The skeletons allowed the churches to make a “grandiose statement,” Koudounaris says, and were especially prized in southern Germany, the epicenter of “the battleground against the Protestants.” Wealthy families sought them for their private chapels, and guilds and fraternities would sometimes pool their resources to adopt a martyr, who would become the patron of cloth-makers, for example.
For a small church, the most effective means of obtaining a set of the coveted remains was a personal connection with someone in Rome, particularly one of the papal guards. Bribery helped, too. Once the Church confirmed an order, couriers—often monks who specialized in transporting relics—delivered the skeleton from Rome to the appropriate northern outpost.
At one point, Koudounaris attempted to estimate in dollar terms how profitable these ventures would have been for the deliverymen, but gave up after realizing that the conversion from extinct currencies to modern ones and the radically different framework for living prevented an accurate translation. “All I can say is that they made enough money to make it worthwhile,” he says.
The Vatican sent out thousands of relics, though it’s difficult to determine exactly how many of those were fully articulated skeletons versus a single shinbone, skull or rib. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where the majority of the celebrated remains wound up, the church sent at least 2,000 complete skeletons, Koudounaris estimates.
For the Vatican, the process of ascertaining which of the thousands of skeletons belonged to a martyr was a nebulous one. If they found “M.” engraved next to a corpse, they took it to stand for “martyr,” ignoring the fact that the initial could also stand for “Marcus,” one of the most popular names in ancient Rome. If any vials of dehydrated sediment turned up with the bones, they assumed it must be a martyr’s blood rather than perfume, which the Romans often left on graves in the way we leave flowers today. The Church also believed that the bones of martyrs cast off a golden glow and a faintly sweet smell, and teams of psychics would journey through the corporeal tunnels, slip into a trance and point out skeletons from which they perceived a telling aura. After identifying a skeleton as holy, the Vatican then decided who was who and issued the title of martyr.
While there doubters within the Vatican, those on the receiving end of these relics never wavered in their faith. “This was such a dubious process, it’s understandable to ask if people really believed,” Koudounaris says. “The answer is, of course they did: These skeletons came in a package from the Vatican with proper seals signed by the cardinal vicar stating these remains belong to so-and-so. No one would question the Vatican.”
The Dirt and Blood Are Wiped Away
Each martyr’s skeleton represented the splendors that awaited the faithful in the afterlife. Before it could be presented to its congregation, it had to be outfitted in finery befitting a relic of its status. Skilled nuns, or occasionally monks, would prepare the skeleton for public appearance. It could take up to three years, depending on the size of the team at work.
Each convent would develop its own flair for enshrouding the bones in gold, gems and fine fabrics. The women and men who decorated the skeletons did so anonymously, for the most part. But as Koudounaris studied more and more bodies, he began recognizing the handiwork of particular convents or individuals. “Even if I couldn’t come up with the name of a specific decorator, I could look at certain relics and tie them stylistically to her handiwork,” he says.
Nuns were often renowned for their achievements in clothmaking. They spun fine mesh gauze, which they used to delicately wrap each bone. This prevented dust from settling on the fragile material and created a medium for attaching decorations. Local nobles often donated personal garments, which the nuns would lovingly slip onto the corpse and then cut out peepholes so people could see the bones beneath. Likewise, jewels and gold were often donated or paid for by a private enterprise. To add a personal touch, some sisters slipped their own rings onto a skeleton’s fingers.
One thing the nuns did lack, however, was formal training in anatomy. Koudounaris often found bones connected improperly, or noticed that a skeleton’s hand or foot was grossly missized. Some of the skeletons were outfitted with full wax faces, shaped into gaping grins or wise gazes. “That was done, ironically, to make them seem less creepy and more lively and appealing,” Koudounaris says. “But it has the opposite effect today. Now, those with the faces by far seem the creepiest of all.”
They are also ornately beautiful. In their splendor and grandeur, Koudounaris says, the skeletons may be considered baroque art, but their creators’ backgrounds paint a more complicated picture that situates the bones into a unique artistic subcategory. The nuns and monks “were incredible artisans but did not train in an artisan’s workshop, and they were not in formal dialogue with others doing similar things in other parts of Europe,” he says.
“From my perspective as someone who studies art history, the question of who the catacomb saints were in life becomes secondary to the achievement of creating them,” he continues. “That’s something I want to celebrate.”
In that vein, Koudounaris dedicated his book to those “anonymous hands” that constructed the bony treasures “out of love and faith.” His hope, he writes, is that “their beautiful work will not be forgotten.”
Fall from Grace
When a holy skeleton was finally introduced into the church, it marked a time of community rejoicing. The decorated bodies served as town patrons and “tended to be extremely popular because they were this very tangible and very appealing bridge to the supernatural,” Koudounaris explains.
Baptismal records reveal the extent of the skeletons’ allure. Inevitably, following a holy body’s arrival, the first child born would be baptized under its name—for example, Valentine for a boy, Valentina for a girl. In extreme cases, half the children born that year would possess the skeleton’s name.
Communities believed that their patron skeleton protected them from harm, and credited it for any seeming miracle or positive event that occurred after it was installed. Churches kept “miracle books,” which acted as ledgers for archiving the patron’s good deeds. Shortly after Saint Felix arrived at Gars am Inn, for example, records indicate that a fire broke out in the German town. Just as the flames approached the marketplace—the town’s economic heart—a great wind came and blew them back. The town showered Felix with adoration; even today, around 100 ex-votos—tiny paintings depicting and expressing gratitude for a miracle, such as healing a sick man—are strewn about St. Felix’s body in the small, defunct chapel housing him.
As the world modernized, however, the heavenly bodies’ gilt began to fade for those in power. Quoting Voltaire, Koudounaris writes that the corpses were seen as reflection of “our ages of barbarity,” appealing only to “the vulgar: feudal lords and their imbecile wives, and their brutish vassals.”
In the late 18th century, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, a man of the Enlightenment, was determined to dispel superstitious objects from his territory. He issued an edict that all relics lacking a definite provenance should be tossed out. The skeletons certainly lacked that. Stripped of their status, they were torn down from their posts, locked away in boxes or cellars, or plundered for their jewels.
For local communities, this was traumatic. These saints had been instilled in people’s lives for more than a century, and those humble worshipers had yet to receive the Enlightenment memo. Pilgrimages to see the skeletons were abruptly outlawed. Local people would often weep and follow their patron skeleton as it was taken from its revered position and dismembered by the nobles. “The sad thing is that their faith had not waned when this was going on,” Koudounaris says. “People still believed in these skeletons.”
The Second Coming
Not all of the holy skeletons were lost during the 18th-entury purges, however. Some are still intact and on display, such as the 10 fully preserved bodies in the Waldsassen Basilica (“the Sistine Chapel of Death,” Koudounaris calls it) in Bavaria, which holds the largest collection remaining today. Likewise, the delicate Saint Munditia still reclines on her velvet throne at St. Peter’s Church in Munich.
In Koudounaris’ hunt, however, many proved more elusive. When he returned to that original German village several years later, for example, he found that a salvage company had torn down the forest church. Beyond that, none of the villagers could tell him what had happened to its contents, or to the body. For every 10 bodies that disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, Koudounaris estimates, nine are gone.
In other cases, leads—which he gathered through traveler’s accounts, parish archives and even Protestant writings about the Catholic “necromancers”—did pan out. He found one skeleton in the back of a parking-garage storage unit in Switzerland. Another had been wrapped in cloth and stuck in a box in a German church, likely untouched for 200 years.
After examining around 250 of these skeletons, Koudounaris concluded, “They’re the finest pieces of art ever created in human bone.” Though today many of the heavenly bodies suffer from pests burrowing through their bones and dust gathering on their faded silk robes, in Koudounaris’ photos they shine once more, provoking thoughts of the people they once were, the hands that once adorned them and the worshipers who once fell at their feet. But ultimately, they are works of art. “Whoever they may have been as people, whatever purpose they served rightly or wrongly as items, they are incredible achievements,” he says. “My main objective in writing the book is to present and re-contextualize these things as outstanding works of art.”
Accomplishing that was no small task. Nearly all the skeletons he visited and uncovered were still in their original 400-year-old glass tombs. To disassemble those cases, Koudounaris thought, would “amount to destroying them.” Instead, a bottle of Windex and a rag became staples of his photography kit, and he sometimes spent upward of an hour and a half meticulously examining the relic for a clear window through which he might shoot. Still, many of the skeletons he visited could not be included in the book because the glass was too warped to warrant a clear shot.
For Koudounaris, however, it’s not enough to simply document them in a book. He wants to bring the treasures back into the world, and see those in disrepair restored. Some of the church members agreed with Koudounaris’ wish to restore the skeletons, not so much as devotional items but as pieces of local history. The cost of undertaking such a project, however, seems prohibitive. One local parish priest told Koudounaris he had consulted with a restoration specialist, but that the specialist “gave a price so incredibly high that there was no way the church could afford it.”
Still, Koudounaris envisions a permanent museum installation or perhaps a traveling exhibit in which the bones could be judged on their artistic merits. “We live in an age where we’re more in tune with wanting to preserve the past and have a dialogue with the past,” he says. “I think some of them will eventually come out of hiding.”
August 19, 2013
It was only a small shop in an unfashionable part of London, but it had a most peculiar clientele. From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, and its only visitors were schoolboys who came to gaze through the windows at the marvels crammed inside. But on Saturday afternoons the shop was opened by its owner—a “genial frog” of a man, as one acquaintance called him, small, pouched, wheezy, permanently smiling and with the habit of puffing out his cheeks when he talked. Settling himself behind the counter, the shopkeeper would light a cheap cigar and then wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. He waited at the counter many years—from roughly 1895 until his death in 1939—and in that time accumulated such a hoard of valuables that he supplied the museums of London with more than 15,000 ancient artifacts and still had plenty left to stock his premises at 7 West Hill, Wandsworth.
“It is,” the journalist H.V. Morton assured his readers in 1928,
perhaps the strangest shop in London. The shop sign over the door is a weather-worn Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins…
There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… [and] all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.
This higgledy-piggledy collection was the property of George Fabian Lawrence, an antiquary born in the Barbican area of London in 1861—though to say that Lawrence owned it is to stretch a point, for much of his stock was acquired by shadowy means, and on more than one occasion an embarrassed museum had to surrender an item it had bought from him.
For the better part of half a century, however, august institutions from the British Museum down winked at his hazy provenances and his suspect business methods, for the shop on West Hill supplied items that could not be found elsewhere. Among the major museum pieces that Lawrence obtained and sold were the head of an ancient ocean god, which remains a cornerstone of the Roman collection at the Museum of London; a spectacular curse tablet in the British Museum, and the magnificent Cheapside Hoard: a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar shortly before the First World War. It was the chief triumph of Lawrence’s career that he could salvage the Hoard, which still comprises the greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed.
June 20, 2013
There has always been something otherworldly about Hokkaido. It is the most northerly of the four great land masses that make up Japan, and although separated from the mainland, Honshu, by a strait only a few miles wide, the island remains geologically and geographically distinct. Spiked with mountains, thick with forests, and never more than sparsely populated, it has a stark and wintry beauty that sets it apart from the more temperate landscapes to the south.
Hokkaido is such a familiar feature on maps of Japan that it is easy to forget what a recent addition it is to both the nation and the state. It does not appear in Japanese chronicles until around 1450, and was not formally incorporated into greater Japan until 1869. As late as 1650, the island was known as “Ezo,” and was a distant frontier zone, only tenuously controlled from Edo (modern Tokyo). Even in the 1740s, Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes, maps of the region still showed it “disappearing over the horizon and petering out in a splash of unconvincing islands.” And while it seems always to have possessed a small population of Japanese hunters and merchants, Hokkaido was home to, and for the most part run by, a significantly larger group of indigenous tribes known collectively as the Ainu.
It was not until the 1660s that Japan asserted its dominance over Hokkaido, and when it did it was as a result of one of the most self-evidently doomed rebellions known to history. Shakushain’s revolt, they called it, after the octogenerian Ainu chief who led it, pitting 30,000 or so ill-organized tribesmen against a nation of 25 million, and stone age military technology against the modern firearms of Japan. He lost, of course; just one Japanese soldier died fighting the rebels, and Shakushain himself was ruthlessly assassinated as soon as a peace treaty was signed. But while the Ainu suffered in the short term–enduring an influx of Japanese onto their island, and ever harsher terms of trade–it no longer seems quite so clear who the real victors were in the long run. Today, Shakushain has become an inspiration to new generations of Ainu nationalists.
The roots of Shakushain’s revolt lie buried in Japan’s prehistory. The Ainu–the word means “most humanly beings”–are a people of obscure origins whose closest links are with the natives of Siberia. Yet at some point in the distant past there must have been wars between the Ainu and the Japanese, which the Ainu lost. There is evidence, in the form of place-names, that their range once extended deep into the mainland, perhaps even as far south as the latitude of Tokyo itself–but by the first years of the 17th century they were confined to Hokkaido and the Kuril chain, and found themselves under increasing pressure to yield what remained of their commerce to the merchants and the warriors of Japan.
As for the causes of Shakushain’s revolt: There can be no doubt that trade–specifically, Japan’s determination to ensure it got the best of every deal made in Hokkaido–was the trigger. But as tensions on the island rose, threats were made by the outnumbered local Japanese that amounted to promises of genocide. For that reason, the main dispute between historians who study this little-noticed episode revolves around a single question: Is the Ainu’s struggle best be seen as an economic or a racial conflict–or even as a war of independence?
It does not help that the centuries separating the development of an Ainu culture in Hokkaido after 660 from Shakushain’s rebellion in 1669 are only sketchily illuminated, more so by anthropology and archaeology than by the historian’s craft. But it is now generally agreed that the Ainu moshir–”Ainu-land”–remained culturally distinct throughout this period. The Ainu were hunters, not gatherers; they fished for salmon and tracked bear and deer. Religious life centered on shamans and an annual bear festival, during which (it was believed) the divine spirit of a captured bear was freed by sacrificing it. The main exports of Ainu-land were hawks, bears’ livers and dried fish, which were exchanged for metalware, lacquer bowls, sake and the rice that was so hard to grow in northern latitudes. Meanwhile, the Japanese presence on Hokkaido remained almost entirely confined to a tiny enclave on the island’s southernmost promontory.
It was only after 1600 that relations between the Ainu and the Japanese reached a tipping point, and Japan became distinctly the senior partner in both diplomacy and trade. The change coincided with momentous events in Honshu. The Tokugawa shogunate, established in 1603, restored peace, stability and unity to the country after more than a century of war and civil war; the new ruling family shifted the capital to Edo (now Tokyo), thoroughly reorganized the feudal system, and suppressed Christianity. The mid-1630s saw the introduction of the policy of sakoku–which may be roughly translated as “locking the country”–under which practically all trade with the outside world was prohibited, foreigners were expelled from Japan, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese were not permitted to leave, and trade with the outside world was permitted only through four “gateways.” One of these was Nagasaki, where Chinese vessels were cautiously admitted and the Dutch were permitted to unload a handful of vessels annually on an artificial island in the harbor. Another, on Tsushima, conducted business with Korea; a third was located in the Ryukyu Islands. The fourth gateway was the Japanese enclave on Hokkaido, where trade was permitted with Ainu-land.
Sakoku, the historian Donald Keene notes, exacerbated a Japanese tendency
to see foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s tongues.”
The Ainu, likewise, were objects of suspicion. They were typically shorter and stockier than most Japanese, and had considerably more body hair. Ainu men cultivated long beards, a most un-Japanese trait. They were also not disposed to yield to increasing pressure from the south. There was fighting between the Ainu and the Japanese in 1456-57 (an outbreak known as “Koshamain’s rebellion“), from 1512 until 1515, and again in 1528-31 and 1643. In each case, the issue was trade. And each time, the Ainu lost.
This growing imbalance of power accelerated after 1600. By then, the Japanese had firearms in the shape of matchlock muskets, which they had acquired from the Portuguese, while the Ainu still depended on spears and bows and arrows. Japan had also become a unified state at a time when the people of Hokkaido still lived in warring tribal groupings, lacking (Shinʼichirō Takakura notes) an economy large enough to support any “permanent political organization”–or, indeed, a standing army. The largest Ainu polity of the 17th century was only 300 people strong.
The shogun’s authority, admittedly, was not absolute. Rather, it was exercised through several hundred daimyo–feudal lords who lived in castles, collected taxes and maintained order in their districts with the help of samurai. For the most part, the daimyo maintained a sort of semi-independence that became more entrenched the further from the capital they were based. Certainly Japan’s representatives in the northernmost parts of Honshu, the Matsumae clan, were reluctant to invite interference from Edo, and a missionary who visited their territory in 1618 was curtly informed that “Matsumae is not Japan.”
Japan’s feudal system helped to shape the course of Shakushain’s revolt. Matsumae was the smallest and the weakest of all Japan’s lordships. It could muster only 80 samurai, and, uniquely among all the daimyo, lived by trade rather than agriculture. Matsumae imported the rice it needed from the south, and the Ainu were, thus, vital to its survival; the trade in hawks alone–sold on to other daimyo further to the south–accounted for half the clan’s annual revenues. It was the urgent need to make money that led Matsumae to carve out an enclave north of the Tsugaru Strait, which was ruled from Fukuyama Castle. The creation of this small sliver of Japan in Hokkaido was, in turn, the proximate cause of the Ainu rebellion, and had Shakushain confronted only Matsumae, it is possible that his people might have triumphed by sheer weight of numbers. As it was, however, the shogunate was unwilling to tolerate the possibility of military defeat. Two neighbouring daimyo were ordered to go the Matsumae’s aid, and it is thanks to the records kept by one of them that we have a tolerably independent account of what transpired on Hokkaido in the 1660s.
As late as the 1590s, Hokkaido’s natives had retained almost complete control over the resources of their island; they caught hawks, speared fish, shot deer and trapped bears, paddled their canoes to Japanese ports, and there chose the merchants to whom they were prepared to sell their salmon, furs and birds of prey. The trade was quite profitable. “Many Ainu families,” Morris-Suzuki says, “acquired collections of lacquer-ware and Japanese swords which would have been far beyond the reach of the average Japanese farmer.”
All this changed, though, in the 17th century. First gold was discovered on Hokkaido in 1631, leading to a rapid influx of Japanese miners and the establishment of mining camps in the island’s interior–the first time that any Japanese had settled there. These incomers were not policed by Matsumae, and behaved toward the Ainu as they pleased. Then, in 1644, the shogunate granted Matsumae a monopoly over all trade with Hokkaido. This was a catastrophic decision from the Ainu point of view, since–by dealing selectively with several daimyo–they had hitherto managed to keep the prices of their products high. Matsumae wasted no time in exploiting its new rights; after 1644, Ainu canoes were forbidden to call at Japanese ports. Instead, Matsumae merchants began setting up fortified trading bases on Hokkaido itself, from which they made take-it-or-leave-it offers to buy what they wanted.
Some Ainu resisted, advocating a retreat to the interior and a return to their traditional way of life. But the lure of imported rice and metal was too much. Trade therefore continued on the new terms, and it was not long before the situation deteriorated further. Matsumae began netting the mouths of rivers, catching salmon before they could ascend to the spawning grounds where the Ainu speared them. The islanders were also angered to discover that Matsumae had unilaterally changed the exchange rate for their goods. As one chieftain complained:
Trading conditions were one sack of rice containing two to [10 gallons] for five bundles of dried salmon [100 fish]. Recently they have started giving us only seven or eight sho [4 gallons] of rice for the same amount of fish. Since we people have no power of refusal we are obliged to do as they please.
This combination of lower prices and fewer resources quickly caused a crisis in Ainu-land. By the 1650s, tribes along Hokkaido’s eastern coast, where most of Matsumae’s trading forts were located, had begun to turn upon one another. This sporadic warfare encouraged dozens of small communities scattered along the banks of Hokkaido’s rivers to coalesce. By 1660 there were several powerful chieftains on the island, and of these, the two greatest were Onibishi (who led a confederation known as the Hae) and Shakushain, who as early as 1653 ruled over the Shibuchari. The two men lived in villages only eight miles apart, and there had been rivalry between them for years; Onibishi’s father had fought with Shakushain’s, and Shakushain’s immediate predecessor had been killed by Onibishi. Shakushain’s tribe was the larger, but gold had been found on Onibishi’s land, and Matsumae thus favored the Hae.
Little is known of Shakushain himself. The one Japanese eyewitness to describe him wrote that he was “about 80 years old, and a really big man, about the size of three ordinary men.” But most historians of the period trace the origins of his revolt to sporadic conflict between the Hae Ainu and the Shibuchari that began as early as 1648 and came to a head in 1666, when Shakushain’s tribe committed the unforgivable sin of refusing to provide a cub for sacrifice by the Hae during the annual bear festival. The plea that Onibishi made on this occasion reflects decades of gradually worsening economic prospects: “My land is very unhappy, as we have not been able to capture even one bear.”
The increasing scarcity of resources probably explains the determination of both Ainu tribes to prevent poaching on their territory, and this escalated the conflict. In the summer of 1667, a Hae Ainu hunter related to Onibishi ventured onto Shakushain’s land and trapped a valuable crane. When the trespass was discovered, the hunter was killed, and when Onibishi demanded 300 tsugunai (compensatory gifts), Shakushain sent a miserly 11.
The result was what amounted to a blood feud. The Shibuchari raided their neighbors, killing two of Onibishi’s brothers; soon, Onibishi and his remaining men were surrounded in a Japanese mining camp. Shakushain gave the order to attack, and Onibishi was killed and the camp burned to the ground. The Hae retaliated in kind, but in July 1668 their main fortress fell and the Ainu’s civil war was over.
Shakushain must have realized that by attacking a Matsumae mining camp he was in effect declaring war on Japan, but his defeat of the Hae opened up fresh possibilities. The Shibuchari followed up their victory by assembling a coalition of other Ainu tribes that they hoped would be strong enough to resist the inevitable counterattack. Many Ainu were feeling so desperate by the late 1660s that the members of 19 eastern tribes were willing to set aside their differences and form a formidable coalition that probably mustered at least 3,000 fighting men.
What set Shakushain apart from other Ainu rebels is what he did with the force he had assembled. Ainu resistance hitherto had been almost entirely defensive; the odd arrogant merchant might be ambushed and killed, but the Ainu seem to have recognized the likely futility of launching an all-out attack on the Japanese. In June 1669, however, Shakushain decided to ignore the lessons of history. He ordered an attack on all the isolated mining camps, Matsumae trading forts and Japanese merchant ships in Hokkaido–and it says much for the Ainu’s improving organization, and his own standing as a leader, that the result was a well coordinated assault that rained down destruction all along Hokkaido’s coasts.
More than 270 Japanese died in the attacks, and 19 merchant ships were destroyed. Half the coast was devastated, and only about 20 of the Japanese living outside Matsumae’s enclave on Hokkaido survived the massacres. Once word got out, officials at Fukuyama Castle were faced with general panic among the merchants and civilians living in the enclave.
It was only at this point that Matsumae seems to have realized that things were getting out of hand in Ainu-land. The destruction of the mining camp was not only a blow to trade and a direct challenge to the clan’s assumed supremacy in Hokkaido; the mustering of a substantial Ainu army also represented a genuine threat to its security. That Matsumae was forced–albeit reluctantly–to report the disasters of 1669 to Edo and accept help from the neighboring daimyo seems proof that the position was considered serious. The first preparations for war, moreover, show how uncertain the Japanese were of their position; a good deal of effort was plowed into the construction of defensive positions, and there seems to have been no thought yet of taking the offensive.
Meanwhile, Shakushain did his best to retain the initiative. An Ainu army advanced south and covered about half the distance to Fukuyama Castle before it encountered an advance guard of Japanese troops near Etomo. A few days later the two forces met further south, at Kunnui, but poor weather and high rivers dented the Ainu assault. When Shakushain’s men came under sustained musket fire from the Matsumae’s samurai, they were forced to retreat. This skirmish proved to be the main engagement of the war.
The Japanese army was not large; at first it was only 80 strong, and even after reinforcements arrived from other daimyo in northern Honshu it numbered no more than 700. In terms of arms and armor, though, Matsumae’s advantage was decisive. As “peasants,” the Ainu had no right to bear arms in feudal Japan. Their most effective weapons were aconite-tipped poison arrows, which they made by dipping arrowheads first in fir resin and then in a bowl of dried, ground wolfsbane. These arrows had long caused consternation among the Japanese, who expended significant effort, unsuccessfully, to uncover the secret of their manufacture. In action, however, they proved ineffective, since the Ainu’s under-powered bows were unable to penetrate samurai armor, or even the cotton-wadded jackets worn by ordinary foot-soldiers.
With Shakushain now in retreat, the revolt was ended a month or so later by the arrival of substantial reinforcements from Honshu. Counterattacks burned a large number of Ainu forts and canoes, and by October, Shakushain had been surrounded; at the end of that month, he surrendered. The Ainu threat was ended shortly thereafter when, at a drinking party held to celebrate peace, an old Matsumae samurai named Sato Ganza’emon arranged the murder of the unarmed Shakushain and three other Ainu generals. “Being unable to fight back,” an eyewitness reported, “Shakushain arose [and] gave a big glare in all directions, shouting loudly, ‘Ganza’emon, you deceived me! What a dirty trick you pulled.’ [He then] squatted on the ground like a statue. Keeping this posture, Shakushain was killed without moving his hands.” The Shibuchari’s main fortress was then burned down.
Even so, it took three years for Matsumae to complete the pacification of Ainu-land, and although the outcome was scarcely in doubt, it was nonetheless a compromise. The peace treaty bound the Ainu to swear allegiance to Matsumae and to trade solely with the Japanese. There was a considerable expansion in the Japanese presence in the far north, and soon 60 new Matsumae trading posts were operating in Hokkaido, driving such hard bargains that several Ainu settlements were reported to be on the verge of starvation. On the other hand, the Ainu retained formal autonomy through most of their island, and even won some important concessions on the rice-fish exchange rate that had sparked the uprising in the first place.
Why, though, murder Shakushain? His forces had been defeated; it was clear that, even united, the Ainu were no match for the armies of the northern daimyo, much less a threat to Japan itself. The answer seems to lie in the shogunate’s sketchy knowledge of the outside world–a problem that must surely have been exacerbated by the sakoku edits of the 1630s. Brett Walker explains that the Japanese were swayed by fantastic rumors that the Ainu had established an alliance with a much more dangerous “barbarian” kingdom, the Tatars of Orankai, who wielded power in southern Manchuria; for a while there seemed to be a threat that they and the Jurchens might combine forces and lead an invasion of Japan that would succeed where Kublai Khan had failed four centuries earlier. For Edo, this must have seemed no empty threat; another northern people, the Manchus, had only recently completed their conquest of China, overthrowing the Ming dynasty.
Certainly relations between Japan and Ainu-land shifted fundamentally after 1669. Thenceforth, while the Ainu retained much of their old de facto independence, it was rendered increasingly worthless by the de jure peace settlement they had signed. ”What is clear from the historical record,” writes Danika Medak-Saltzman, “is that what was once a relationship of mutual exchange…turned into a system of tribute and then into a trade monopoly.” The Ainu were compelled to sell what they had–both goods and labor–at prices determined by the Japanese. Their canoes no longer appeared in Honshu ports, and those unable to support themselves by hunting were compelled to work as what amounted to forced labor in fish-processing plants on the mainland at about a seventh of the rate paid to Japanese.
The thing that made the greatest difference, though, was the ever-widening gap between Japan’s perception of the Ainu and its perception of itself. After 1854, Medak-Saltzman notes–when Japan was forced by a U.S. Navy squadron to reopen its frontiers–its government was prone to see Hokkaido as the Japanese equivalent of the American Wild West, complete with its own “Indian problem.” It took only the few weeks of Shakushain’s revolt to cement this reputation; it has taken the best part of two more centuries to dispel it, and for Ainu history to be perceived as something worth studying in its own right.
Stuart Eldridge. “On the arrow poison in use among the Ainos of Yezo.” In Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 4 (1888); David Howell. Capitalism From Within: Economy, Society and the State in a Japanese Fishery. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Kiyama Hideaki. “Shakushain’s Revolt of 1669: A Study of a War between the Ainu and the Japanese.” In Bulletin of the College of Foreign Studies I (1979); Donald Keene. The Japanese Discovery of Europe: 1720-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969; Danika Fawn Medak-Saltzman. Staging Empire: The Display and Erasure of of Indigenous Peoples in Japanese and American Nation-Building Projects (1860-1904). Unpublished University of California, Berkeley PhD dissertation, 2008; Tessa Morris-Suzuki. “Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan’s Far North.” In East Asian History 7 (1994; Sir George Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958 Richard Siddle. Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan. London: Routledge, 1996; Tom Svensson. “The Ainu.” In Richard B. Lee and Richard Daly (eds). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: CUP, 1999; Shinʼichirō Takakura. “The Ainu of northern Japan: a study in conquest and acculturation.” In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 50 (1960); Brett Walker. The Conquest of the Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; Brett Walker, “Foreign affairs and frontiers in early modern Japan: a historiographical essay.” In Foreign Affairs & Frontiers, 2002.
January 28, 2013
Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.
When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.
Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.
It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.
The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”
As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,
beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.
The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’
The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’
January 2, 2013
Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.
“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.