Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Here Come the Men in Black

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Ā, upane! ka upane!
Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!
New Zealand 1820. The conflict known to posterity as the Musket Wars is in its early stages. This was an escalating cycle of increasingly bloody tribal warfare, fuelled by the arrival of Europeans who had revolutionised the traditional practice of raiding parties or taua through the introduction of both firearms and the humble potato. Better armed and better fed through these two innovations, obtained from European settlers, who had short-sightedly traded guns in exchange for land, the Maori had been able to launch ever more ambitious raids upon their neighbours.

A musket wielding Maori war party
It was whilst fleeing from one such bloody encounter on the North Island that the leader of a war party of the Ngati Toa tribe named Te Rauparaha sought to evade his pursuers by hiding in a food storage pit. He waited in the darkness and then at last the covering of the pit was pulled away. Blinking in the sunlight, Te Rauparaha did not know if it was a friend or an enemy who had discovered his hiding place. Were these his last moments or was he saved? It turned out that it was his ally who had found him, Te Whareangi; the hairy man. After clambering up gratefully into the sunlight to be greeted by his friend, Te Rauparaha decided to immortalise his deliverance in the words of a haka or ceremonial war dance, which are at the top of this post. It translates as:
It is death, it is death, it is life, it is life,
It is death, it is death, it is life, it is life,
It is the hairy man,
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine,
A step upwards, another step upwards,
A step upwards, another step upwards, the sun shines.

Fast forward to 1888 and the natives had developed a taste for rugby as well as guns and potatoes. There had been touring parties of rugby players to Australia endorsed by some or all of the New Zealand unions since 1883 but this latest undertaking was more ambitious in scope. After an eleven match warm up in New Zealand and Australia the 26 man squad, known as the 'Natives', comprising 21 players of Maori descent and 5 New Zealand born players of European descent, set out for Britain. On the way they played the first recorded match on Egyptian soil during a stop-over in Suez. The Natives seem to have been as much of a curiosity for the British spectators as a sporting spectacle.  Before each match the Maori were to perform a haka in their native dress for the entertainment of the crowd. The dressing up element was soon abandoned and the players instead performed the haka in their kit before getting stuck into the opposition. A tradition had been born. The Ka Mate haka is believed to have first been performed by an All Black side in 1906 and has been the favourite ever since with occasional variants.
1888 Natives XV in Queensland
The Natives' tour was a great success. They won 49 out of 74 games played on British soil including a victory over an Ireland national side, although they lost their matches against England and Wales and were also defeated by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. There was controversy in the match against England when the English player Andrew Stoddart lost his shorts. In the interests of decency the New Zealand players stopped playing whilst Stoddart recovered his attire, but an enterprising England player picked up the ball and ran in for a try. Three of the New Zealand players left the pitch in protest yet the referee, George Rowland Hill, who also happened to be the secretary of the RFU, so was not exactly impartial, both allowed the try and allowed play to continue whilst the three players were being persuaded to return. After leaving British shores, the Natives went on to win another 25 out of 32 matches played in Australia upon their return.
The Natives were not considered a true national team and so the first match considered to be a full international featuring a team representing New Zealand was played in 1903. The New Zealand team defeated the Australian national side 22-3 at Sydney cricket ground. Before the match the New Zealand team performed a haka with the words Tupoto koe, Kangaroo - Watch out Kangaroo! In the following year they inflicted a defeat on the Great Britain touring side in Wellington. See here for post on early Lions tours.
Punch cartoon 1905 - the unlicked cub
1905 saw the first true international New Zealand touring side set out for a grand tour of Europe and North America. Known simply as 'The Originals' their exploits have become the stuff of legend. It was this team who were the first to play in all black strip and so were quickly dubbed the 'All Blacks' by the British press. Arriving in Plymouth in September 1905 the New Zealanders first faced the Devon county side whom they swept aside in a 12 try demolition to win 55-4. Some of the stunned newspapers reported the score-line the wrong way around. The New Zealanders followed up with an 11 try 41-0 drubbing of Cornwall and then continued in the same vein as they toured the country, dishing out humiliation wherever they went. By the time they reached Scotland for their first international in mid November they had won 19 straight matches. 15 of these had been won without conceding a point. In Edinburgh they received a snooty reception from the gentlemen of the Scottish RFU who refused to socialise with the colonials. Un-phased, the All Blacks beat the Scots 12-7.
The superior professionalism of the New Zealanders; a dirty word amongst many in the British establishment, was the key to their success. They trained hard and they practiced their set piece drills. Unlike the British opposition, who simply piled in to the scrum in the order they arrived, each forward had a set position in the scrum. They scrummaged differently to the British teams who adopted the 8 man formation we are familiar with today. The All Blacks played with just 7 men in the scrum and only 2 players in the front row. This mismatch actually worked to the New Zealanders' advantage since by applying pressure to only one side of the scrum they were generally able to drive their opponents off the ball and this was an area in which they dominated. As well as being more organised, the All Blacks played with more attacking verve. The sight of the New Zealand full back actually counter-attacking rather than playing an entirely defensive role was considered highly novel. There was also much grumbling that the All Blacks played a little too rough, although there was less complaint amongst the workmanlike northern clubs than amongst the more genteel southern clubs.

All Blacks vs England 1905 - note the NZ scrummaging

The All Black steamroller continued. Ireland and England were both beaten 15-0. It was down to Wales to salvage some British pride. The Welsh had been doing their homework on the New Zealanders' unique scrummage and had come up with an innovation of their own. When the two sides met in Cardiff the Welsh also formed up with a seven man scrum but with four men in the front row. Only three would engage however and the spare man would then run around the back of the scrum and join in the second row on the loose head side, (explained better in the link at the bottom). The All Blacks were beaten at their own game and the Welsh dominated the scrum throughout. The only score of the game was a brilliantly worked try for Wales and the All Blacks suffered their only defeat of the tour. An equalising score by New Zealand was judged to have been short of the line and controversy continues to this day. The history books record however that it was Wales 3 New Zealand 0.

1906 Cartoon by NZ artist Trevor Lloyd celebrating the success of the All Blacks

That one loss was the only defeat in an otherwise incredible run of success. The All Blacks won their remaining four games on British soil, crossed the channel to crush France 38-0 and then crossed the Atlantic to tour America before heading home in triumph to a heroes' welcome. And they have never really looked back have they? No doubt we can look forward to some more of the same as the Rugby World Cup rolls into Blighty, albeit with less diverse tactics. Hopefully someone can give them a run for their money.

The Natives and the Originals - all the stats

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Harun al Rashid Part Two - Fall of the Barmakids

In the stories of the Arabian Nights, which are providing my current bedtime reading, the Caliph Harun al Rashid has a mischievous streak. He delights in going out incognito into the streets of Baghdad to join in the revels of others before revealing himself as the Commander of the Faithful and delivering justice or generosity to his unsuspecting subjects. In these adventures he is invariably accompanied by his best friend and closest advisor, Jaffar the Barmakid. Jaffar had grown up with Harun in the city of Rayy. His father Yahya had been the caliph’s tutor. He was tutor in turn to Harun’s son Mamun. He had served as governor of Syria for Harun and been the keeper of his royal seal. Along with his father and brother Fadl, Jaffar had administered the affairs of the caliphate efficiently. He had amassed great personal wealth whilst doing so, much of it in the form of personal gifts from the caliph. He had spent many, many nights in Harun’s company, enjoying all the finest things in life; talking long into the night, eating, drinking and gaming, listening to music and poetry and watching dancing girls. He was a good, close and loyal friend to the caliph, who owed a great deal to Jaffar and his family. Perhaps too much. Towards the end their relationship cooled, but that end when it came was shocking in its sudden ruthlessness.
Jaffar holding court

In Baghdad on a January night in 803, having parted from the caliph on good terms and returned to his home, Jaffar the Barmakid found himself summoned once more to the palace. Whilst he awaited Harun’s pleasure he was seized and his head was struck off. On Harun’s orders his body was then mutilated by being cut in two. The three parts of his body were ordered to be displayed on the bridges of Baghdad. They would rot there for the next two years until they were taken down and burned; a dire warning to all passers-by of the fickleness of absolute rulers and the dangers of flying too close to the sun. Following the execution of Jaffar, Yahya, his surviving sons and his brother were all thrown into prison. All of their vast wealth and property was confiscated.

What was their crime? No charges were ever made. Yahya and Fadl both died in prison. Fadl was possibly tortured to death in an attempt to make him reveal the location of hidden assets. The Barmakids had perhaps presumed too much for too long as they had wielded power in the caliph’s name, making decisions without asking his opinion. Old Yahya had perhaps been too familiar with the caliph, playing the father figure long after the son had grown up. Harun had not made a secret of his irritation. Yahya had seemed to be losing the caliph’s favour in recent times, having been repeatedly and pointedly insulted in the caliph’s presence by subtle means that were lost on no-one, whilst Fadl had seen his responsibilities given to men hostile to his family. The warning signs were there. They had enemies aplenty of course; jealous rivals, most notably the chamberlain Fadl ibn Rabi, son of Hadi’s murdered vizier, who capitalised on the Barmakid’s downfall to take their place. It is likely that he and others poured poison into the caliph’s ears against his former favourites.
The Barmakids display their wealth - Akhbar i Barmakyan

There is enough there perhaps to understand the Barmakids’ downfall, but why was Jaffar, who Harun had loved best of all, so savagely treated? Two particular accusations are levelled at Jaffar. One is that he protected the Alid rebel ibn Abdullah and lied to the caliph about his whereabouts. Certainly the Barmakids were more conciliatory towards the Alids in general than the caliph wished them to be, for he suspected that they plotted against him, but a lot of time had passed in the interim and it seems a long time to bear a grudge. Another story told is that Jaffar had an illicit affair with the caliph’s sister and that a child was born of the affair and was smuggled away to Mecca. When Harun discovered the truth he had the child killed and his sister buried alive and then took his revenge on Jaffar. This perhaps is too fanciful to be true but of all the reasons given it is the only one which seems to come close to providing Harun with a strong enough motive for his actions against Jaffar.

The timing of their downfall suggests there may have been another factor in Harun’s decision to take down the Barmakids. Just a month before turning against the Barmakids, Harun had publically settled his plans for the succession in a solemn ceremony at Mecca during the Hajj. Harun had children by twenty different mothers and like his father before him he had marked out two of them to be groomed for the succession. His eldest son was Abd Allah, known by the honorific title Mamun. He was the son of a Persian slave girl who had died in childbirth but as the caliph’s first born he enjoyed his father’s affection and showed great promise, with Jaffar as his mentor. His second son was named Mohammad, known by the title Amin and was his son by his favourite wife Zubayda. His education had been entrusted to Fadl the Barmakid. Younger and less academically gifted than Mamun he may have been but his superior pedigree ensured that Amin was the heir apparent.
A later medieval depiction of the Hajj

It seems odd given his own experiences with his elder brother Hadi, that Harun should seek to engineer precisely the same situation in the next generation that had led to bad blood and murder before his own accession. This however was what he did. Both sons had received the oaths of loyalty as boys but now Harun would have their oaths to each other. At Mecca he read out and had displayed on the walls of the Kabaa, the terms of the succession to which the two brothers swore before the assembled great men of the caliphate. Amin would succeed his father as caliph. He would have direct control over the western portion of Harun’s empire. His brother would be his heir and could not be supplanted by any sons born to Amin. Furthermore, Mamun would have complete control over Khurasan and the other eastern provinces of the caliphate; a vast and powerful territory. Mamun would appoint his own officials and have control over his own armies, which were substantial. Most critically he would not be required to send any tax revenues to his brother, to whom he would pledge his loyalty but little else. Harun had effectively divided the empire and set up an almost inevitable conflict between his two sons. He hoped that the public taking of oaths within the sacred enclosure of Mecca and their continuing display  upon the walls of the Kabaa would awe his sons into keeping the peace. In this assumption he would be proved hopelessly naive.
Many ordinary folk, we are told in admittedly hindsight filled accounts, shook their heads and declared that a disaster had been stored up for the future and it didn’t take a prophet or a genius to see the likely outcome of Harun’s arrangement. Being as they were first rate political manoeuvrers, no doubt the Barmakids could see the writing on the wall and they surely cannot have thought Harun’s plans for the succession to be a good idea. Perhaps they gave voice to those doubts. Perhaps they decided that when the time came, they would make arrangements of their own and defy the caliph’s wishes. Perhaps the caliph knew of or suspected this. Perhaps Fadl ibn Rabi whispered in his ear that the Barmakids plotted to undermine his plan and when he returned to Baghdad he resolved at last to bring about their demise. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...

The Kabaa in Mecca was the scene for the oath taking
Scarcely had Jaffar’s gruesome remains been spitted on the bridges of Baghdad then the caliph left the city once more for Raqqa. Here he received a letter from the new Emperor of the Romans Nicephorus I which sent him into a towering rage. Nicephorus, a onetime treasury official,  having deposed the empress Irene, had set about reversing her ruinous policies, revoking the generous tax breaks she had given to the church and earning himself a truly diabolical write up from the monastic chroniclers of Byzantine history in the process. He also sought to reverse the flow of gold to the caliphate, ending the tribute payments that Irene had been making to the caliph since his campaign of 797. He had written to Harun to explain his position, framing his argument in an analogy through the common language of chess. Irene, Nicephorus explained, had behaved as if she were a mere pawn, paying out tribute to Harun, whom he described as a rook, when really Harun should have been paying tribute to her. The assertion was clear enough. If Harun was a mere rook then Nicephorus to whom he should be paying tribute was a king and Harun’s superior. The caliph contemptuously wrote his response on the back of Nicephorus’ letter.

To Nicephorus the Roman Dog, I have read your letter. Oh disloyal son. My answer will reach you sooner than you wish.

It was fighting talk and the caliph followed it up with an immediate invasion which Nicephorus was in no position to do anything about. The troops of the Anatolian themes were in revolt against him having declared their commander Bardanes Turcus as a rival emperor. Turcus himself claimed to be fighting on behalf of Irene and on news of her death he desisted in his revolt and voluntarily entered a monastery but a year later was blinded. Harun meanwhile had taken advantage of the chaos to pillage and burn his way through Cilicia. Nicephorus was left with little choice but to agree to a humiliating resumption of Irene’s tribute payments in order to secure a truce. Harun could have asked for nothing better. Hostilities were resumed the following year and resulted in a defeat for Nicephorus when he was ambushed and barely escaped with his life at the battle of Krasos thanks to the efforts of his officers.
Chess - a perfect analogy for diplomacy?

Now however it was the caliph’s turn to be distracted by internal dissent at the far end of his empire. Complaints reached Harun concerning the conduct of his governor of Khurasan Ali ibn Isa, an incompetent extortionist he had appointed in place of Fadl the Barmakid predominantly because he was a rival of the family. Harun decided to visit the province in person to discover the truth and he agreed a truce with Nicephorus in exchange for more tribute. In 805 he set out for Rayy. Here he met with Ali and found himself persuaded by rich gifts and sweet words that all was well. He confirmed his governor in his post and then found himself hitting the roof once more when news arrived that Nicephorus had taken advantage of his absence to breach the peace and had sacked the city of Tarsus as well as besieging Melitene and invading neutral Cyprus.

The following summer Harun led a massive invasion force reputed to be some 130,000 strong, an exaggeration to be sure but clearly the largest force sent across the border in living memory. Elements of the army advanced north as far as Ancyra whilst Harun settled down to besiege the fortified town of Heraclea in Cilicia, which proved to be a tough nut to crack. After two weeks of bombardment the town’s fortifications were still holding strong. On the seventeenth day a champion was sent out from Heraclea to challenge the Muslims to single combat and was defeated by an undistinguished volunteer from the ranks. Harun now resolved to terrorise the town into submission and rained flaming missiles down on the buildings within the walls. On the thirtieth day the populace abandoned their burning houses, threw open the gates and surrendered. The populace of Heraclea were taken away to be resettled as subjects of the caliph whilst the town was plundered and burned. Nicephorus meanwhile did no more than skirmish with isolated elements of the caliph’s forces and was overawed by the size of the army that the caliph had at his disposal. With the threat of further trouble on his western frontier from the Bulgars, Nicephorus had no choice but to make peace. He sent a deputation of churchmen to negotiate with the caliph who agreed to withdraw on resumption of an annual tribute of thirty thousand gold pieces, a promise not to rebuild Heraclea and a personal payment of the jizya poll tax of four gold pieces from the emperor himself, symbolic of his personal submission to the authority of the caliph. Nicephorus paid up. It was checkmate to Harun al Rashid.

Nicephorus found himself handing over plenty of these

Having humbled the Byzantines, Harun once more turned his attention to Khurasan where a full scale revolt had now broken out against his governor Ali ibn Isa. The trouble had started in Samarkand when a local aristocrat was imprisoned for perfectly legitimate reasons but escaped and then whipped up a revolt in order to evade justice. The rebellion spread like wildfire through Transoxania and an army sent to restore order was defeated and the governor’s son killed. Harun dispatched an army from Baghdad to restore order under his most trusted general Harthama with orders to seize and depose the governor. This was done but the rebels still refused to return to the fold.

On receiving this news Harun decided to once more set out for the east himself. He charged his younger son Qasim with keeping an eye on the Byzantines from Raqqa and left his son Amin in charge in Baghdad. He then set out accompanied by Fadl ibn Rabi and his son Mamun, who was to take charge of his province, along with a vast entourage, making his slow progress towards Merv. The caliph was suffering from terrible stomach pains and knew that his days were numbered. By the time he reached Rayy it seemed unlikely that he would complete the journey. Mamun was sent on to Merv where his inheritance awaited and where he would reimpose control. Harun reached the town of Tus in northern Iran in March 809 and could go no further. Here on 24th March he died, aged forty three. He left his empire primed for chaos and when that chaos subsided nothing would quite be the same. In the centuries to follow, men would look back on his reign as an era of comparative peace and stability that would take on a golden hue and his reputation would attain that of a ruler of greatness. Was he truly great though, Dear Reader? I, for one, remain unconvinced.