Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Global commerce has surely ground to a halt as people the world over are hunched in front of their computers, tantalized by the World Cup and paralyzed by indecision over which fist to shake in righteous slightly xenophobic sports anger (ergonomists would say to alternate except when you need double-barreled fist shaking action for particularly odious soccer-playing nations). The World Cup is by far the world's greatest sporting event, with the possible exception of September Northwestern games against uncomfortably plucky FCS teams under the watchful eyes of dozens of fans disguised cleverly as more than 17,000 by the Northwestern Ministry of Comical Soviet Statistics.

Comparison of Northwestern's reported home attendance for the
Towson game versus other important world phenomena. Note
that the Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling Competition and Wake
was canceled last year due to overcrowding after local officials
literally begged people not to attend. An unauthorized cheese
rolling took place to a crowd of only 500 rebellious cheese rolling

The Cup has provided plenty of drama so far, with late goals and goal differentials deciding who advances past the knockout stages while the rest of us hold our breath for a breathtaking FIFA lot-drawing ritual. The most entertaining part of the World Cup so far has been the Shakespearean collapse of the French team featuring a brooding madman, insults that are much funnier when comically translated into clumsy English (although nothing can top "I prefer the whore that is your sister" for inelegantly transcribed soccer-related zingers), the always crowd-pleasing division of the team into opposing camps, and the occult mystery of astrology.

The FFF has been blamed in keeping the despised Domenech around
because he carried the burden of the glorious French mustache
throughout his playing days. His reign bears certain similarities
to the also gloriously-mustachioed French President Jean Casimir-Perier,
who lasted only six months as president in 1894 before resigning, claiming
that he had been marginalized by the ministers who taunted him with
unnecessarily mean-spirited legislation such as "resolved: this legislature
moves to level the President's comically lopsided head"

Casimir-Perier only took the reigns of office because of the horrific assassination of Carnot, who I will venture to guess was the last modern head of state that was actually stabbed to death. Carnot found himself enmeshed in an endless whirlwind of anarchist vengeance. The whole episode stems from the guillotining of anarchist bomber Ravochol, which prompted a retaliatory bombing from another anarchist named Auguste Vaillant, who was then executed and avenged by bomber Émile Henry whose death along with Vaillant prompted Sainte Geronimo Caserio to take a dagger to President Carnot in an act of brutal simplicity that would have immensely frustrated a nineteenth century French version of Frederick Forsyth.


It is time to turn from the depressing notion of anachronistic assassination techniques and turn to the far more exciting world of botanical piracy. In 1876, Henry Wickham returned from the Amazon with an unheralded find that would eventually give Britain control of the world's rubber supply and destroy the Brazilian economy. That find was 70,000 seeds of the hevea brasiliensis plant, the world's most bountiful rubber tree.

Joe Jackson's The Thief at the End of the World describes Wickham as a sort of bumbling over-eager botanical agent working for a sinister Kew Gardens hell-bent on gaining control over valuable plants the world over (of course, as far as I'm aware, Kew is no longer an international center of botanical intrigue; the only piracy there is the ridiculous demand of £13 just to get in the place). Jackson excellently evokes the Amazon as a vast cornucopia of horrible tropical illnesses and incessant attacks from tiny organisms that live only to attack or lay eggs in the last places that a human would ever want eggs planted by anything. Wickham's act of piracy itself involved a rather disappointing lack of swashbuckling, as he managed to successfully secret the seeds onto a fortuitously empty freighter-- unlike the gloriously apocryphal Robert Louis Stevenson pirates who menaced people with an eighteenth century Cockney argot or even submarine-using South American drug navies, Wickham's theft involved a lot more monitoring of moisture levels than the futuristic Johnny Mnemonic theatrics that the term "biopiracy" would suggest.

It would in fact be even more shocking if a
nineteenth century person who gained notoriety
for practicing devious botany did not have a
spectacular mustache

Wickham never gained much financially from transporting rubber trees and spent his life moving increasingly to the fringes of the British Empire in a perpetual state of financial ruin. The seeds he brought back eventually became forests in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), while any attempts to tame the rubber tree in the Amazon fell into ruin. The most amazing attempt came from Henry Ford, who purchased 2.5 million acres of rainforest in order to create a massive rubber plantation that he humbly named Fordlandia. In typical Ford fashion, he sought not only to turn the chaos of the Amazon into an efficient natural factory, but also make it a vast city where he could mold workers into his idea of moral and model employees. Inspired by its vast success in the United States, Ford instituted prohibition in his borders; workers and locals cleverly circumvented this by erecting a series of taverns, brothels, and other houses of vice just outside Ford's jurisdiction and hilariously named it the Island of Innocence.

However, the best part of the book is a barely mentioned aside discussing Wickham's family. His great-grandfather, a minor aristocrat, lost his estate due to royal treachery. The comically villainous George IV, who spent most of his adult life as the Prince of Wales fending off his father's bouts of insanity and iron will to live, dealt with his position by becoming a bloated, gout-ridden pox on British society. In this case, the Wickham ancestor foolishly made a wager with the Prince on a horse, in a time when horse racing was so spectacularly crooked that skill in picking the ponies more often than not corresponded directly to skill in hiring unsavory underlings that could most successfully cheat. The Prince's men put weights in the jockey's pockets; even though the cheating was discovered before the race, the hapless punter was done in by either misfortune or, as I would wager, some other sort of undiscovered skulduggery such oat manipulation or using horse psychiatry to rob the horse of its equine self-confidence. The details of the race were published in Gentleman's Magazine, a publication that no doubt prided itself on showing different ways to cheat at horseracing until two people were forced to shoot each other in the most dignified and civilized way possible.

Both George Cruikshank (left) and James Gillroy portrayed George IV as
a corpulent, scheming Jabba the Hutt-like figure, with the title of
Gillroy's painting effective eulogizing the hefty monarch as "A
voluptuary in the horrors of digestion"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Oddly not the last head of state stabbed to death.


even later

and weirdly this is guy I was thinking of, but he wasn't a head of state, so I guess he doesn't count:

Still crazy though