If Wishes were Horses — Part Three

I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host
But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.

— Robert E. Howard

Last post brought us to the early Middle Ages and the rise of the armored knight. Early knights, of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, wore mail, not plate. Even partial plate armor only came in with the fourteenth century.

From the cataphracts (heavy cavalrymen) of Persia and East Rome onward, the bigger, more massive horses they rode had the main purpose of giving more weight and impetus to the charge. As the British cavalry leader Artos says in Rosemary Surtcliff’s splendid Sword at Sunset, “It is the weight that does it. The difference between a bare fist and once wearing the cestus.” First they impaled you on their lances and then crushed what was left before an avalanche of bone, muscle and hoof. There was the additional factor of bigger horses having greater endurance, being able to carry a knight in mail – and later, in a suit of plate – for a whole day if necessary. Not at high speed, of course. No horse can gallop for hours even with a small, unarmored man in the saddle.

To appreciate fully the difference having a horse makes, we might examine the disadvantages of not having them. Central Asia – China – the Middle East – Europe – all these regions had domesticated horses from an early time. Mesopotamia and China are generally thought to have been the cradles of the earliest civilizations. Egypt lacked horses in its first dynasties – and camels — though it possessed donkeys, but it was blessed with the Nile. Besides making the land fertile and productive, the great river served as a highway for water-borne traffic more efficient than carts or donkey caravans. When the Egyptians adopted the horse and the two-wheeled war chariot later, they also became masters of an empire for the first time.

Consider the Americas. The native North American horse became extinct along with many other large mammals, like the giant buffalo, at about the time men were crossing the Bering Straits (then dry land) from Siberia for the first time. Therefore, they were horseless in North and South America until the Spanish explorers introduced equines again. Stallions and mares lost from the early expeditions went wild on the plains, breeding into large feral herds. The Native Americans took to riding with enthusiasm. The horse changed their way of life, most of all on the prairies, between about 1600 and 1750. The result was the dramatic, warlike culture of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche. It lasted only a hundred and fifty years before they were conquered – by Europeans who had forged their own bickering tribes into large, disciplined nations, which the Native Americans weren’t granted time to do. Had they lived in proximity to horses for ten thousand years, they might have been the ones to come calling on Europe while my ancestors were still painting themselves blue and hunting heads over there.

We all know it didn’t work out that way. The Aztec Empire was able to rise – and to possess a capital city, Tenochtitlan, greater and better organized than any in Spain at the time – because they built it on a series of lakes from which they could obtain enough water to sustain the city, as well as creating floating produce gardens to provide food. They also proved tyrants to the tribes around them, making regular war to get sacrificial victims and exacting ruinous tribute. But they couldn’t extend their empire outside the Valley of Mexico without the horse to provide, among other things, swifter communication that runners on foot were capable of. When the Spaniards arrived, the subject tribes could be pardoned for taking their side in the belief that no masters could be worse than the Aztecs. It was a reasonable belief, but it turned out to be wrong, nevertheless.

A significant factor in the astounding Spanish conquest led by Cortez was that they possessed horses while the Aztecs didn’t – only a few dozen, but they still made a vast difference. The moral and superstitious effect was as great as the practical ability to cover ground with messages. Seeing horses for the first time, the Aztecs thought they were divine, and at first even believed the horse and rider were all one creature.

(That was probably the origin of the centaur legends in ancient Greece, too. “Centaur” derives from the Greek “Hoi Khentauroi” – “those who round up bulls”. Cowboys, in other words. They may have been Thracian cattle-herders of whom the Greeks further south heard only vaguely during the Early Bronze Age.)

Horse lovers may be outraged, but the truth is that the horse isn’t really the brightest of mammals. Dogs, pigs, and quite likely dolphins, are all more intelligent. At least they know when to stop eating. Leave a horse alone with a supply of grain and hay sufficient for weeks, and you’ll find on your return that you’ve made a mistake. Your equine genius will gorge, and gorge, until the food is gone and it founders with a distended belly. Then when it recovers from its binge, it will begin starving.

Australian bush poet “Banjo” Patterson, who knew his horses and loved them, was aware of it. In “Pardon the Son of Reprieve” he describes an effort by crooks to nobble the racehorse of the title. The owners, naive lads that they are, leave the stall unguarded.

You see, we were green, and we never
had even a thought of foul play –
No, never did dream that the clever
division might “put us away.

They got to his stall – it is sinful –
To think what such villains will do –
They gave him a regular skinful
Of barley, green barley, to chew.

He munched it all night, and we found him
Next morning as full as a hog.
The girths wouldn’t hardly meet round him;
He looked like an overfed frog.

Indian ponies, of course, seldom had to face the problem of being stuffed like Strasbourg geese. REH described the battles between white settlers and Comanches in Texas in the old days. The crucial effect of swift raids on horseback stands out in passages from his letters. In August 1931 he wrote to Lovecraft:

A student of early Texas history is struck by the fact that some of the most savage battles with the Indians were fought in the territory between the Brazos and Trinity rivers. A look at the country makes one realize why this was so … beyond the Trinity a new kind of country was encountered – bare, rugged hills, thickly timbered valleys, rocky soil that yielded scanty harvest, and was scantily watered. Here the Indians turned ferociously at bay and among those wild bare hills many a desperate war was fought out to a red finish. It took nearly forty years to win that country, and late into the [18]70s it was the scene of swift and bloody raids and forays – leaving their reservations above Red River and riding like fiends the Comanches would strike the cross-timber hills within twenty-four hours. Then it was touch and go! Much as one may hate the red devils one must almost admire their reckless courage – and it took courage to drive a raid across Red River in those days! They staked their lives against stolen horses and white men’s scalps.

Another letter to Lovecraft, of October in the same year, reads in part:

 [That] region between the Trinity and the Brazos saw many a red drama enacted. I remember … a Mrs. Crawford, whom I knew as a child, and who was one of the old settlers of the country. A gaunt, somber figure she was behind whose immobile countenance dreamed red memories. I remember the story she used to tell of the fate of her first husband, a Mr. Brown, in the year 1872 … Cow-bells jangled a devil’s tune as the mesquite bent and swayed and the riders swept in view – naked, painted men, riding hard, with cow-horns on their heads and cow-tails swinging grotesquely from their girdles. They drove with them a swarm of horses … at their saddle-bows swung fresh crimson scalps … the Comanches swept around the house, racing at full speed. They loosed their arrows … in barbaric defiance or contempt. They were riding hard, spurred on by the thought of avengers hot on their trail, light-eyed fighters, as ferocious as themselves. They were after horses – the Comanche’s everlasting need – they had lured the rancher to his doom with a tinkling horse-bell … Silent she stood and saw them round up all the horses on the ranch, except one in a stable they overlooked – and ride away like a whirlwind, to vanish as they had come – as the Comanches always rode … They swept in a wide half circle like a prairie fire, driving all the horses they found before them, and outracing the avengers, crossed Red River and gained their reservations and the protection of a benevolent Federal government.

Maybe, safe and secure today, we can afford to be righteous about descriptions of the Comanches as “red devils” and “barbaric”. Dee Brown’s account of the Native American side of history in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was long overdue, there’s no question of that, but it is only one side. It’s easy to turn old-time bloody warriors into romantic figures, whether they’re Comanches, barbarian Celts, Crusaders, or the Anglo-Scottish border reivers – as long as they aren’t alive here and now, charging at us with edged weapons, wild with the killing lust.

Or take this blogger’s part of the world – Australia. Once the first aborigines had reached it, forty thousand years ago, perhaps more, probably from southern India, they were effectively stranded there when the glaciers melted. In more ways than one. The southern continent had no horses, no camels, no bullocks, in fact no animals at all suited for draught or riding. You don’t get very far harnessing a wombat to a cart or saddling a kangaroo.

Into the bargain, Australia was largely desert, and even the big river basins like the Murray-Darling catchment had no food plants like maize or oats that could nourish settled populations of any size. Settled numbers are one of the basic requirements for technological advancement. You only get enough new ideas and inventions per community to make advancement possible if there are more than a few hundred in the community. Yet I’ve read turn-of-last-century books that solemnly declare the Australian aborigines had “a low order of intelligence” because they never invented the wheel. The pundits don’t consider that without the horse, the wheel is of little use. Besides, it’s a bit hard to believe that people who were able to invent the boomerang and the spear-launcher or woomera, would not have been able to invent the wheel if there’d been great advantage in it. The boomerang was invented independently in a number of places, including ancient Egypt, but the oldest ones known in Australia date from about ten thousand years ago.

(In passing, I discovered in a post by Barbara Barrett that REH’s weapons collection included a boomerang.)

As with the Native Americans, once the aborigines were introduced to the horse and the camel, they were well able to appreciate both. Without the cheap labor of aboriginal stockmen (cowboys), the north Australian cattle industry wouldn’t have been established, though you don’t see that in movies. Rather, you didn’t until Baz Luhrmann came out with Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Wolverine – excuse me, Hugh Jackman. Stories similar to those in Australia occurred in New Guinea, New Zealand and Hawaii.

It’s a little ironic that a mammal which isn’t really all that bright served as a justification for racial prejudice, on the grounds that advancement or lack of it ipso facto proved something about racial intelligence.

Turning to Africa, the situation with regard to the horse was more complex. Still, these animals were often lacking, or the uses which could made of them limited by circumstances – such as terrain and disease. That made technological advancement, and swift communication, difficult in many regions of the so-called Dark Continent. Again, those who preferred to see African peoples as incapable of civilization or advancement through lack of intelligence, could do it – and disregard the lack of horses.

They were not introduced to southern Africa until the early or mid-1600s. They didn’t do well there, either. Nor did cattle, because of the devastating disease spread by the tsetse fly. (After the pest was eradicated in Zanzibar, milk production there tripled and beef production doubled.) Sleeping sickness, spread by the tsetse fly, is still a major problem in other sub-Saharan areas.

Horses suffer badly in those regions from African Horse Sickness as well. Highly infectious and deadly, it infects horses, mules, donkeys and even zebras. Midges, mosquitoes and some species of ticks all spread it.

North Africa is much more salubrious for horses. The domesticated horse was probably introduced there by the Phoenicians, whose trade network covered the Mediterranean and whose sailors founded Carthage. Certainly horses were a fixture in North Africa when the Roman Empire controlled it, and the Vandals, a race of steppe-dwelling horsemen who became a naval power in the fifth century under their King Gaiseric, would have brought many war-horses across from Spain with them. When the Muslims swept across North Africa in the seventh century, they rode their famous Arabian horses in their swift conquest.

REH was a Texan born in 1906 whose sympathies lay with the Confederacy. His own forebear, he said himself, had lit out for Texas after the Civil War, taking his black slaves with him, and used their labor without telling them they were now legally free. REH knew that the slaves exported to the U.S.A. chiefly came from West Africa, and in most ways he seemed to detest the slave trade with its obscene cruelties. (See Barbara Barrett’s excellent series of posts “Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism” on this blog.) But he also appeared to see West Africa as a hell-hole of unclean cultures, if we go by a letter of his to H.P. Lovecraft written in October 1930.

The linking of distant coasts by trade and exploration is a fascinating thought, anyway. The names and phrases: Slave Coast, Old Calabar, Bonney, Ashanti, Dahomey, Black Ivory, Bight of Benin, have always touched responsive chords in me. And consider the contrast – clean-cut clipper ships, manned by hardheaded, clear-eyed Yankee sailors, racing from the high, pure wind-swept coasts of New England, to the sullen, dank, devil-haunted swamps of the Slave Coast, with its abhorrent secrets, night-black jungles, squalling, teeming life, where fires flared and tom-toms thundered through the thick, musky night and black naked figures leaped and howled before blood-stained idols.

What a black and bloody land the West Coast of Africa is! The chronicles of the fleeting black empires read like nightmares. I tried, in “Red Shadows” to create a slight sense of the bestial inhumanness of the country, but failed utterly. It must be something that a man must see in order to get a complete idea of it. Some day I intend to go and see it at first-hand.

If climatic and topographical conditions had been different, I wonder what the result would have been; for the majority of our negro slaves were of a comparatively low order of being. Living in the swamps and jungles they could not have been otherwise. I believe that if the American negro was a descendent of the more advanced Kaffir tribes of the south and east, his progress since emancipation would have been much more rapid.

This concept of the African and of Africa itself is relevant to REH’s often-discussed racism. A lot of us today don’t realize how entrenched, how taken for granted, how respectable, racist ideas and convictions were, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The pseudo-science of eugenics was considered fact by many – qualified scientists included. Professional archaeologists in some cases dismissed out of hand the idea that the fine bronze-working of the West African Yoruba was the work of negroes. They put forward as a serious theory that refugees from Atlantis had originated it instead. Down in southern Africa, white colonists were hostile to the idea that the stone structures of Great Zimbabwe had been created by blacks. The government – not isolated extremist cranks – actively discouraged the idea and tried to suppress it. They didn’t want to believe, or want anybody to know, that African blacks were capable of a construction feat so impressive.

If REH had been able to read Frank Yerby’s The Dahomean (published in 1971), he might have found it presented a more accurate viecrovwpoint. Not that Yerby, a superb historical writer and an Afro-American himself, saw the kingdom of Dahomey under the monarch Gezo as a paradise. He dryly wrote in his introduction that he didn’t expect either bigots who despised African cultures, or liberal enthusiasts for the same, to find much comfort in his novel. The Dahomean treats its characters as fully human and complex, but Yerby made it thoroughly clear that the people of Dahomey lived under a tyrannical absolute monarchy and were taxed into the ground to support a huge royal clan of worthless parasites. The arrival of royal messengers (the Half Heads) was dreaded by all, because their coming invariably meant bad trouble.

The hero, Hwesu, is a magnificent one. His enemies, a debauched, worthless prince of the royal clan, and his boyhood acquaintance, the craven, devious Gbochi, are satisfactorily disgusting villains. They finally manage to get rid of Hwesu by abducting him and selling him to slavers on the coast, setting the stage for the sequel, concerning his life as a slave in the U.S.A. and final escape to freedom, A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979). This too is historically accurate. Most slaves taken from West Africa to the U.S.A. had been obtained by black kings in tribal wars, or traded as human livestock for no greater crime than falling into debt. Sometimes rivals who wanted an inheritance sold their own relatives into the barracoons.

In addition, the horse was a significant factor in the failure of any slave revolt in the U.S.A. to succeed. None except Nat Turner’s ever got significantly started. The slave patrols, the dreaded “pattyrollers” were everywhere, always on the lookout for darkies travelling or meeting without authority. They were mounted, of course, while slaves leaving their quarters on the sly had to walk, unless they risked stealing a horse. If discovered their chances were zero.

In fairness to REH, in some ways his reference to “bestial inhumanness” isn’t so far off target. In Dahomey, for example, mass human sacrifices to the spirits of the royal ancestors were a custom that might not be ignored or scanted. Yerby describes that without flinching, too. But REH’s beloved, noble and manly ancient Celts also went in for human sacrifice on a big scale, and hunted heads with an ardor that verged on obsession. Those “clear-eyed Yankee sailors racing from the high pure windswept coasts of New England” that he describes so flatteringly were in many cases stinking dirty and rotten with clap.

REH appears to respect “the Kaffir tribes of the south and east” more, especially the Zulus. I’m not sure he really knew much about the “fleeting black empires” of West Africa, Mali, Ashanti, and Songhai. Not that it would have been easy for him to find out. There wasn’t much solidly informative literature on African cultures available in the 1930s.

The Mali or Mandingo Empire stretched from the Atlantic coast of West Africa all the way to Timbuktu and Goa, and lasted about from 1230 CE until 1600. That’s much longer than the Zulu “empire” built by Shaka lasted. The Songhai Empire, which succeeded Mali, was one of the largest Islamic empires in history. While it wasn’t as lasting as Mali, still it flourished for 120 years – again, longer than Shaka’s.

Both Mali and Songhai lay within and depended on the Sahel – a transition zone that runs across Africa, east to west, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. It consists mostly of grasslands and savannahs. Its kingdoms and empires became rich through trade across the desert, particularly slave and salt trades with the Islamic world. They were able to keep their large empires under control, again, because they had the services of the horse – and the camel, in that region. Further south, in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Benin – the notorious Slave Coast – that wasn’t possible. There, in the homeland of the Ashanti, the Yoruba and the Dahomeans, mounted warriors were almost useless in the thick jungles, while the essential horses suffered badly from the heat and diseases. So also did camels.

That is probably what REH meant by “the bestial inhumanness of the country” and the people there exemplifying “a comparatively low order of being”. I’ve read, however, that slaver captains were averse to buying Ashanti because they believed them to be dangerous cargo because of their aggressiveness and intelligence. Certainly they were warlike, and well organized militarily.

The diseases that devastate horse herds in southern Africa have been described above. Thus native South African tribes were unable to become horse warriors, and Shaka’s Zulus imposed his reign of terror on foot, under their king’s merciless discipline. A Zulu regiment or impi was expected to cover fifty miles in a day and fight a battle at the end of it. Those who fell behind in training were instantly killed.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard described Shaka – I think with fairness – as “a colossal genius and most evil man”. He slaughtered all who opposed him on a scale that might have made Genghis Khan blink. If he’d possessed the Khan’s horsemen and mobility, or his white contemporary Napoleon’s technological advantages, God knows what he’d have done. Even without them, he largely depopulated southern Africa before he was done. He was said to have filled an entire ravine with the corpses of a tribe that resisted him, and once to have ordered his warriors – merely on whim, to impress a missionary – to stamp out a great roaring fire in the center of the kraal. They obeyed, though some hundreds of them were incinerated doing it.

When the Boers arrived, they had the advantages of firearms and horses, though they needed civilized veterinary skills for the latter to survive. They also had the advantage of taking over country that Shaka had to a great extent left empty, without the people who might have resisted the invaders more effectively otherwise. Verses of REH’s about the Zulu king include the lines:

But Shaka the king was a man of war and his hands with blood were red,
And never a girl could thrill his heart as the sight of the spear-rent dead.

Accurate enough. White people later called Shaka “the Black Napoleon”, and maybe some of them even meant it as a compliment. As this blogger sees it, the comparison is a fitting one on the grounds that the Corsican didn’t give a damn for the men who bled and died to implement his purposes. He murdered an army of 600,000 Frenchmen in his effort to invade Russia, and his comment was, “Small change, small change. A few nights in Paris will soon make up these losses.” We might call Shaka the Black Napoleon, certainly – or Napoleon the White Shaka.

It’s probably superfluous by now to observe that there weren’t many horses in the areas inhabited by Eskimos, either. Like Australian aborigines, they were limited to hunting and gathering until members of other races with the advantages given them by the services of the horse began encroaching on them. After that, guns, bad whiskey and tuberculosis all played their part in the subsequent conquest.

It’s ironic, in a way. Pontificating pundits from the European imperial powers were quick to spin theories about inborn racial traits and the essential inferiority of the conquered. They accounted for it with every cause from the Bible to Evolution to Atlantis. They rarely if ever gave credit for their own people’s ascendancy to their having domesticated the horse before others had – or when, as in Africa south of the Sahel, the horse wasn’t able to flourish and confer its vast advantages. It wasn’t the only factor in the advancement of civilization, of course, but it almost looks as though entire populations had determinedly shut their eyes to its having been a factor at all.

I stood at a shrine and Chiron died,
A woman laughed from the purple roofs,
And he burned and lived and rose in his pride,
And shattered the tiles with clanging hoofs.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part 4a, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5a, Part 5b, Part 6