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They Paid their Taxes in Sons - the Devshirme in the Ottoman Empire

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Christians in the Balkans had to pay a peculiar tax to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  They had to give him their sons as his personal slaves.  Learn more about the devshirme system here.

More History of Ottoman Turkey
Asian History Spotlight10

When a Fad Becomes Life or Death

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Statue of Hachiko, the famously loyal Akita dog from Japan.

During the late 19th century in Japan, after the country opened to foreign trade and the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed, there was a craze for all things foreign.  This included pets - local dogs were out, and everyone wanted a St. Bernard, German Shepherd, or other European breed as a status symbol.

As a result, indigenous dogs like the Akita, which had roots in Japan's earliest history, nearly went extinct as a distinct genetic line.  They were mixed with more exotic types, or abandoned altogether because they weren't considered desirable pets.  In the end, it was the rise of Japanese nationalism and a new appreciation for all things Japanese that brought the Akita back from the brink of extinction.

Photo of a statue of Hachiko, the famously loyal Akita, by Mark Harris / Image Bank.

Yasukuni Shrine Controversy Flaring Once More

Saturday April 12, 2014

The controversial Shinto shrine, Yasukuni, which stands in Tokyo, Japan

Japan's internal affairs minister has visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to honor the country's war dead, much to the irritation of South Korea and China. Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, who visits the shrine often, is the grandson of Tadamichi Kuribayashi who commanded Japanese forces on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Shindo asserts that his visits are a private, family matter, not a topic for international discussion.  However, it is sure to spark ire in neighboring countries that suffered from Imperial Japan's aggression in the 20th century.  As the Korea Herald notes, Yasukuni stands "as a symbol of Japan's past militarism." This is particularly touchy at the moment, when Japan is rebuilding its military capabilities to counter Chinese and North Korean moves in the East China Sea.

Photo by Yakinik on Flickr.com.

Tambora's 1815 Eruption Linked to Opium, Cholera

Friday April 11, 2014

Mt. Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia erupts in 2013.

Mt. Tambora's super-colossal eruption (really, that's the scientific term) in 1815 is famous for causing the "Year Without a Summer" all around the northern hemisphere.  A recent article in Slate, however, points out a couple of the massive eruption's lesser known effects.

For one, the cataclysmic eruption in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) cooled the waters of the Bay of Bengal, off British India's coast, where the deadly cholera bacterium flourished. Under these new conditions, a novel strain of cholera emerged - one that people in India and across Asia had no resistance to. For the rest of the 19th century, medical science around the world struggled to contain a global cholera that would kill tens of millions of people. The bug wiped out 15,000 pilgrims to Mecca in 1846, 200,000 people in Mexico in 1849, and US President James K. Polk, also in 1849, among millions of others.

The second surprising effect of the Tambora eruption was the development of the famous "Golden Triangle" opium producing region in mainland Southeast Asia. Farmers in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China suffered rice crop failures for three years straight after the eruption; a terrible famine left people eating clay just to fill their stomachs.  Rather than rely on rice, which had let them down so badly, farmers there turned to a hardier cash crop - opium poppies.  Opium cultivation and processing then spread south into the mountains of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, and the region became known as the Golden Triangle.  Today, it is second only to Afghanistan in opium and heroin production, despite concerted efforts by local governments to crack down on the illicit trade.

The lesson we can take from the amazing effects of Mt. Tambora's eruption is that a temperature change of just a few degrees around the world will cause organisms - from bacteria to rice to people - to react, and the knock-on effects are completely unpredictable.

Photo of the 2013 Mt. Sinabung eruption on Sumatra (obviously a much smaller event) by Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images.

Sunken Portuguese Carrack Full of Stolen Gold Found?

Wednesday April 9, 2014

A treasure chest surrounded by gold

Legend holds that she is the richest shipwreck anywhere in the world. In November of 1511, the Portuguese carrack Flor de la Mar ("Flower of the Sea") sank off the coast of Sumatra, now in Indonesia. The ship was reputedly loaded with 60 tons of gold plundered from the Malacca Sultanate of what is now Malaysia. In addition, it bore exotic marvels like two life-sized brass lions with precious jewel inlays, and a magical bracelet taken from the Maharaja of Shahbandar, a Sindhi port city in present-day Pakistan.

Portuguese captain Alfonso de Albuquerque was trying to bring the creaky old ship back to Portugal in order to present the treasure to the court. The ship ran into a storm, however, and quickly sank, taking more than 400 sailors and the treasure to the depths. Albuquerque himself managed to make it to shore on a make-shift raft.

For hundreds of years since that fateful day, treasure hunters have been trying to locate the Flor de la Mar and her precious cargo. American Robert Marx announced in 1992 that he had found it, but then retracted that statement. On Monday, Malaysia's Star newspaper reported that the ship has been found by a drone, operated by some unnamed underwater exploration entity. If the Flor has indeed been located, prepare for major legal battles over the treasure, between the divers who bring it up, the Indonesian government within whose seas it rests, the Malaysians who were robbed of it in the first place, and the Portuguese, who owned the ship and did the robbing.

Photo by Image Bank via Getty Images.

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