Remembering the Irish Potato Famine

Star of the sea: farewell to old Ireland by O'CONNOR ...


Star of the Sea: Farewell to Old Ireland

By Joseph O’Connor

Published by Secker and Warburg (2002)

Book Review

Although fiction, this novel is based on more than a dozen books and website documenting the Irish famine, as well five eye-witness accounts published between 1847 and 1850, and passenger manifests from the Irish and Canadian national archives.

The plot concerns a trip aboard the fictional Star of the Sea in December 1847. Passengers included 402 in steerage, fifteen in First Class staterooms and 37 crew. Among the steerage passengers were 239 Irish victims of the potato famine who could pay the £8 fare to emigrate from Liverpool to New York.

Although the failure of the potato crop (from blight) starting in 1845 is blamed for the famine leading a million Irish to die and more than 1 million to emigrate, the causes of the famine were complex. The grain crops Irish tenant farmers produced for export to England were probably sufficient to feed the entire starving peasantry. However as frequently happens, the preeminence of the export market, dramatically inflated the cost of food in local markets.

There was the added issue of landlords setting fire to the homes of farmers unable to pay rent (to replace them with sheep). In these instances, it was clearly the sudden loss of their land, not the potato blight, that caused their families to starve to death.

Only the First Class passengers received regular meals. Steerage passengers were provided with biscuits and water unless they brought their own food. With only two water closets for 402 of them, living conditions were extremely unhygienic and smelly.

During the Atlantic crossing, which took 26 days, an average of three to four steerage passengers died daily of starvation and starvation-related infectious disease.

When the Star of the Sea arrived in New York, it, like other ships with large numbers of Irish immigrants, was refused permission to dock, leading to additional deaths from starvation. First Class passengers were rowed to shore after eight days. Those in steerage remained on board for almost seven weeks, awaiting interview by police and health officials from the Office of Aliens.


The Hidden History of the Balfour Declaration and the State of Israel

The Hidden History of How the US Was Used to Create the State of Israel

Allison Weir (2014)

Film Review

This 2014 talk addresses two main topics: the obscenely biased MSM coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the role of the US Zionist lobby in embroiling the US in World War I.

Weir provides a detailed breakdown of Israeli and Palestinian deaths over the period 2000-2015. In every case Palestinian deaths from Israeli Defense Force bombing and shelling exceeds Israeli deaths by 200-fold or more.

One of the most interesting tables she displays relates to Israeli military actions against Gaza in 2001, which was five years before Hamas was elected or a single rocket fired. She also shows slides from her 2001 visit to Gaza. Together they provided a horrifying glimpse of the damage recent Israeli military strikes have wreaked on Palestinian buildings and homes, as well as olive and date orchards.

Her expose of the role the US Zionist lobby played in embroiling the US in World War I begins at 29.25min.

She begins by describing the demography of Palestine in the late 1800s when Zionist groups first began began organizing in the US. In 1900, Palestine was 80% Muslim, 15% Christian and 5% Jewish. Owing to concerns it would displace Palestinian Muslims and Christians, there was strong global opposition during this period to the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s close friend Louis Brandeis became chief of the world Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs. Although he stepped down in 1916 when Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court, he continued to play a major role in a secret Zionist group called the Parushim. In 1915, the latter had launched a major campaign to win Western support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

According to Weir, a number of scholarly Israeli sources credit Brandeis with convincing Wilson to enter World War I (as a British ally) in return for a formal British commitment (known as the Balfour Declaration*) to establish a Jewish state in Israel.

Prior to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, a preponderance of US statesmen and diplomat opposed the displacement of Palestine’s Arab population to establish a Jewish state. Dean Acheson** predicted it would endanger all Western interests in the Middle East. The CIA predicted it would lead to massive “bloodshed and chaos.”

*When the Balfour Declaration was written in November 1917, Palestine was still under control of the Ottoman Empire (who had entered World War I on the side of Germany). Palestine would become a British protectorate under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Balfour Declaration was actually a a letter British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour wrote to prominent Zionist Lionel Walter Rothschild promising British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

**Dean Acheson was Undersecretary in Truman’s State Department from 1945 to 1949, when he became Secretary of State.





How First Australians Domesticated Landscapes Instead of Plants and Animals

First Footprints Part 4

SBS (2013)

Film Review

In the most fascinating episode of this series, the filmmakers dispel the myth that the first Australians were simple hunter gatherers. Archeological evidence suggests they were exposed to agriculture via Torres Strait islanders and rejected it. Instead over thousands of years, 200 distinct nations and cultures created a complex land management system spanning the entire continent.

Plant and animal domestication in greater Australia first arose in the New Guinea highlands (which was attached to the continent until rising sea levels separated the land masses 8,000 years ago). This highlands culture was unique, however, as one of the only instances in which agriculture (mainly cultivation of bananas, taro and sugar cane) didn’t give rise to city-states.

People on the Torres Strait islands adopted this style of agriculture. Yet despite robust trade that developed between these islands and northern Australia, indigenous Australians preferred their own methods of domesticating landscapes to domesticating individual plants and animals.

The filmmakers begin by exploring a permanent system of aquaculture, involving artificial canals and woven fish traps developed by the Gunditjmara in Southeastern Australia. The resulting abundance of fish and eels supported a fairly dense population that lived in permanent stone houses.

Elsewhere in Australia, most of the 200 nations used controlled burning to increase the amount of food they produced. The controlled fire setting accomplished differing purposes in different areas. Examples include

  • To help hunters ambush panicked kangaroos
  • To create grassy runs to lure kangaroos out of eucalypt forests
  • To stimulate new growth (eg berries and lizard habitat) in desert areas

The most interesting segment of part 4 concerns the first contacts of indigenous Australians with the outside world. Makassan fishermen from Indonesia, the first to visit the continent in the early 1600s, set up a robust trading system with the aboriginals.First Australians caught sea cucumbers, which they traded to China (via the Makassans) in exchange for dugout canoes with sails, detachable harpoons, tobacco pipes and brightly colored fabrics.

In 1606, sailors from the Dutch East India Company visited Australia (and as per company policy) kidnapped an indigenous woman to make her tell them where the gold was. After several men were killed on both sides, the Dutch decided Australia didn’t have any gold and sailed away. Although other Dutch ships were seen offshore for the next 200 years, none of them tried to land.

Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour would arrive in Botany Bay in 1770. Although members of the Eora nation threatened them with spears, they ran away when Cook’s crew began shooting at them. It would be 18 years later that 11 ships arrived with over 1000 passengers to set up a permanent penal colony.


The 200 Nations of First Australians Comprising Prehistoric Australia

First Footprints : ABC TV

First Footprints Part 3

SBS (2013)

Film Review

Part 3 begins as the Australian ice age ended around 13,000 BC. This was followed by 130 meter sea level rise that swallowed up over 1/4 of the continent. The encroaching sea forced coastal First Australians to move inland, leading to competition over food and water with inland tribes.

There is a marked change in the cave drawings around this time, with richly adorned human figures leisurely engaged in ceremony replaced with armed stick figures in detailed battle scenes (the oldest anywhere in the world).

This episode profiles specific cultures that grew up around Sydney, and in Tasmania and the Kimberley, as the continent was divided up into more than 200 discrete nations.

My favorite part of the film concerns invention of the boomerang, which is unique to Australia. The oldest boomerang (its wood preserved in a peat swamp) is 9,000 years old. They were used mainly to drive waterfowl (who mistook the weapon for a hawk) into a waiting net. They were also used in battle, for butchering, for digging out fire pits and for making music.

Although Part 3 can’t be embedded, it can be viewed free in New Zealand at

And in Australia at

It can be rented from

Australia’s Ice Age: How Indigenous Australians Survived

First Footprints Part 2

SBS (2013)

Film Review

The second episode covers Australia’s ice age between 25,000  and 13,000 BC. Unlike prehistoric Europeans, who migrated to south during their ice age, indigenous Australians found ingenious ways to survive both the cold and the most severe drought in human history.

Both cave paintings and fossil remains indicate that indigenous Australians were hunting gigantic megafauna (massive kangaroos twice the size of humans and giant crocodiles, lizards and marsupial bears) prior to the Australian ice age. Scientists believe it was more likely the ice age that wiped them out than early aborigines.

Although temperatures reached as low as 20 degrees below zero, up until 15,000 BC early Australians (and the prey they hunted) accessed water via lakes from from glacial melt. After the lakes dried up, they compiled an extensive record (referred to as “the law” or “dreaming*” and transmitted orally and via cave drawings) of where to locate underground water in the desert and when it would be there.

Fossil records suggest indigenous Australians underwent a major dietary change during their ice age, shifting from from fruit and macropods (kangaroos, wallabies and related mammals) to reptiles, bush tomatoes and a kind of bread they made from grinding grass seed.

*Dreaming refers to a complex cultural phenomena in which aboriginals connect with their Spirit Ancestors though stories, ceremony and art to preserve the essential knowledge they need to survive.

Indigenous Australians: a 60,000 Year-Old Culture

First Footprints Part 1 Super Nomads

SBS (2013)

Film Review

This is an amazingly beautiful documentary series about the early 60,000 year old culture of indigenous Australians. According to archeologists, indigenous Australians were the first people to leave Africa 70,000 years ago. They traveled along the coast of Asia and presumably reached Australia around 60,000 years ago. The remains of Mungo Man, discovered in New South Wales in 1969, was determined by carbon dating to be 42,000 years old. This makes it the oldest human skeleton discovered outside of Africa.

Surprisingly, it’s only in the last decade that archeologists have been studying the culture in which Mungo Man lived. They have only recently discovered cave paintings of flightless birds that became extinct 40,000 years ago, as well as enormous stone shelters carved out by his contemporaries and ground edge knives and axes.*

They have also discovered a network of cave maps extending more than 1000 meters (through the Australian desert) depicting the location of hidden underground water holes. It appears these networks were used for trade, arranged marriages and settling disputes between neighboring tribal groups.

This archeological evidence suggests that by 30,000 BC indigenous Australians had expanded right across the Australian continent with a a well developed kinship system and cosmology of religious beliefs.

*This technology only appeared in Europe 10,000 years ago.

Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

These Are the Worst Military Leaders of the Civil War ...

Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?

Mark Stoler PhD

A Skeptic’s Look at American History (2012)

Film Review

This lecture is the eighth in the Kanopy American History course The Skeptic’s Guide to American History. My initial reaction is that Stoler probably isn’t nearly skeptical enough. The South, which still refers to the Civil War as the War Between the States, sees states rights as the primary cause of the war.

Unfortunately Stoler doesn’t really resolve this controversy. However he rightly points out that the immediate cause for Lincoln’s declaration of war was not to end slavery, but to “preserve the union.”

However he never addresses why the union needed to be preserved, ie how did preserving the union protect the democratic interests of the American people? I personally suspect that “preserving the union,” mainly protected the interests of the merchants, bankers and early industrialists, just as preserving the European Union protects the interests of merchants, bankers and industrialists. Similar ultra-national unions will always reduce the input ordinary people have into major decisions that  affect their lives.

Stoler begins by talking about the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s following the passage of the deeply unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, which created the states of Kansas and Nebraska. deferred the decision to the states whether to allow slavery or not. From the 1850s on, the newly created Republican Party, which committed to end slavery everywhere, would be America’s second major party.

Although Lincoln, a Republican, only received 39.8% of the popular vote in 1860, his strong support in northern states mean he won a majority of the electoral college. Lincoln campaigned on a platform of allowing slavery to continue in states where it was legal but preventing its spread to western states as they joined the Union.

Stoler also reminds us that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves in the states that had seceded) didn’t take effect until January 1883 and didn’t free slaves in any of the Union states.*

By early February 1861 (a month before Lincoln’s inauguration), seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) had seceded.

After Union forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina (April 1861), four border states (North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee) also seceded. Four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) remained in the Union.

Stoler denies that conflict over states rights caused the war, arguing that various Northern states also lobbied for for states rights at different times (eg when they opposed the war the US launched against Mexico in 1846). I fail to see the logic of this argument. Just because the North agitates strongly for states rights over specific issues doesn’t mean the South can’t do so as well.

He also denies that a profound difference in their respective economies (with the South being primarily agrarian and the North being mainly industrial) was the root cause of the war. He argues this difference had been present since colonial times without leading to war.

He also poo-poos the distinct difference their respective cultures (with the South possessing an aristocratic planter class not present in the North) as the main cause of war. Here he points out that the North was just as racist as the South and hardly more democratic for the average worker.

*In Stoler’s view, Lincoln’s main goal with the Emancipation Proclamation was to buoy up Northern support for the war, despite massive numbers of casualties, and to open the Union army to extremely motivated ex-slaves. In his next lecture he also identifies dissuading the UK (where the population strongly opposed slavery) from entering the Civil War on the Southern side as a primary motivation.

The series can be viewed free on Kanopy.

How the Fall of Rome Led to the Global Explosion of Slavery

Slavery Routes: A Short History of Human Trafficking

Part 1 476 AD -1375 AD: Beyond the Desert

DW (2020)

This series explores slave trading that followed the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD. Although debt and conquest-related slavery clearly occur in ancient Greece and prehistoric civilizations, wholesale slave trafficking to remote locations only began after the fall of Rome.

Following the fall of Rome, the barbarian societies that replaced Roman civilization (the Goths, Visigoths, Slavs in the Northeast, Byzantine Empire, Berbers and Nubian and Arab tribes). For several centuries Slavs from Eurasia were the preferred slaves. This would cause their ethnic label to be confused with the Greek word for slave.

As Arab armies began expanding into Egypt after 641, the economy and demand for slaves increased exponentially. As oil wouldn’t be discovered for another 1200 years, slaves would serve as an essential source of energy for territorial and economic expansion.

In less than a century, the Islamic Empire would occupy the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean. When Baghdad became its capital (762 AD) thousands of slaves were needed to remove the coating of salt* that covered the soil around Basra to enable cultivation. It was during this period Muslims first began using African slaves. Under Islamic law, only non-Muslims could serve as slaves. Slaves who converted to Islam had to be freed.

Over the eighth century, the Islamic Empire expanded into the Caucasus, the Balkans, Turkey and Russia.

After Cairo became the new capitol of the Islamic Empire in the tenth century, Berber slaves taught their Muslim masters how to use camels for transportation. This enabled  military and political leaders to cross the Sahara Desert for the first time to the rich capitol of the  the Mali Empire Timbuktu. The Mali emperor employed more than 12,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to work his gold mines – representing, at the time, the world’s largest gold reserves.

Once he he declared Islam the official religion, more than 1000 slaves would leave Mali every year for distant outposts of the Islamic World. Mali rulers also enslaved more than 12,000 natives of sub-Saharan Africa to work the emperor’s goldmines.

By the end of the Middle Ages, there were six main trading routes for exporting sub-Saharan slaves to territories north of the Mediterranean and in some cases as far as China and Japan. Between the 7th and 14th century (when Europe entered the slave trade), it’s estimated a total of 3.5 million Africans were captured and sold into slavery by Islamic traders.

Ironically in the 21st century, light skinned Tuaregs in North Africa still enslave sub-Saharan Africans who become prey to traffickers trying to flee economic oppression and violence in southern Africa.

The 5,000 Year History of Information Technology

The Power and Story of Information

Spark (2019)

Film Review

This documentary looks at the importance of language, symbols and coding in enabling human ideas to endure over time. The narrator, physicist Jim Al-Khalili begins 5,000 years ago when written language first developed in Mesopotamia.

According to Al-Khalili, writing was the only form of “information technology” until 1804 when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a mechanical loom. The latter used a primitive system replicate intricate patterns in weaving silk brocade.

This would be followed, in 1840, by the invention of Morse code and the electrical telegraph. These two inventions enabled rapid transmission of information nearly anywhere in the world.

Next would be the computer, first conceptualized in 1936 by Alan Turning, in his paper  “On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem”*

Turing was trying to discover whether it was possible to create a set of rules to carry out complex mathematical operations. He was trying to test his theory that rules-based calculations could be carried out by machine.

Claude Shanon of Bell Labs would develop the technology (computer code) for communicating these “rules” to modern computers. All computer coding is based on complex strings of 1’s and 0’s (originally designating the on-off status of an electrical signal). These are known as binary digits or “bits.” 

*The Entscheidungsproblem (German, “decision problem”) is a famous problem of mathematics formulated by David Hilbert in 1928: Is there an algorithm that will take a formal language and a logical statement in that language outputting “True” or “False” depending on the truth value of the statement?




Stranger than Fiction: The Odd Tale of Antiviral Software Inventor John McAfee

From Millionaire to Madmen: The Story of John McAfee

Directed by J Aubrey (2020)

Film Review

This documentary recounts the bizarre story of John McAfee, multimillionaire inventor of the world’s first commercial anti-viral software. Free McAfee software (currently owned by Intel) is everywhere. In fact I can recall inadvertently downloading and having to remove it from my hard drive at least four times. McAfee himself has made an X-rated YouTube video explaining how to uninstall it:

He founded the software company McAfee Associates in 1987 and ran it until 1994, when he resigned. After writing some self-help books and starting a yoga institute, he moved to Belize to avoid a string of lawsuits.

While in Belize, he built a lab for an American microbiologist who was researching the antibiotic properties of a local plant.

Embarking on a heavy drug and alcohol spree, he became noticeably manic and paranoid. Complaining that the regular entourage of Belizean prostitutes he engaged  were plotting to kill him, he built a police station for his small village of Carmelita and hired a police force to staff it.

His paranoia only increased after the Belize Gang Suppression Unit raided His property based on an allegation a hit man he hired had kidnapped and beat up a local gang member. McAfee was also arrested on a charge of manufacturing methamphetamine and released due to lack of evidence.

In 2010, the microbiologist he was financing fled the country claiming McAfee had drugged and raped her.

When the Belize government charged him with having his next door neighbor killed In 2012, McAfee fled the country for Guatemala. Following his arrest by Interpol, he faked a heart attack and was flown to Florida.

Although McAfee never faced criminal prosecution for his neighbor’s death, the family sued him in US court, which ordered McAfee to pay them $25 million for wrongful death.

He left the US once again to avoid this and other civil judgements against him. In 2020 he campaigned from international waters to become the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate.

In October 2020, he was arrested in Spain for US tax evasion. According to the Guardian, he has been in prison for nine months awaiting an extradition hearing. See