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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Echoes of the past

    Crimea. War. Globalization. Epidemics. Human trafficking. Religious wars. Biological warfare. Inflation. All of these have been hot topics in news lately.

    Which just goes to show that everything old is déjà vu all over again.

    I admit it, I avidly consume the news about the war in Ukraine. Crimea, which has been recognized by the U.S. as part of Ukraine but remains occupied by Russia, sits on the Black Sea. In eastern Crimea, there is a resort and tourist town called Feodosiya.

    Though overlooked, Feodosiya has played one of the most significant roles in the history of humanity. And it all has to do with war, globalization, epidemic, human trafficking, the very first ever documented case of biological warfare, and inflation.

    In the year 1345, Feodosiya was called Caffa. It was a very busy, rich colony of the Republic of Genoa, and Genoese merchants established a thriving trading port city there. There was trade in lumber that flowed down the Don River to the Sea of Azov. There was trade in textiles and furs. But the most lucrative trade of all was the trade in human slaves trafficked from Eastern Europeans and the Caucasus Mountains.

    The Muslim Mongols had sold Kaffa to the Christian Genoese some time earlier in that century. The two formed a mutually beneficial relationship that enriched both the Mongols and the Genoese. But, as things tend to happen, jealousies and disputes arose. Religious differences became more acute. Differences led to hatred. Hatred to war. War between the Genovese and the Mongols started early in the decade and then again in 1345 when the Mongols renewed their siege of the city. Instead of simply bringing siege equipment, this time they brought a mysterious illness. As the siege got underway, the Mongol army began to die off in massive numbers.

    We now know that the Mongols were infected with a disease that had been acquired either in Asia or along the Steppes. The disease was from a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, or more commonly, the bubonic plague.

    The collapsing Mongol army loaded their trebuchets with and catapulted bodies of their infected dead over the walls and into the city of Caffa. When the Genoese starting dying off, they got into their boats and fled back to Italy. At every port they went to resupply — Constantinople, Alexandria, Messina, and then up the entire coast of Italy — they brought the infection to those cities.

    The war between the Mongols and the Genovese no longer seemed so important because the world was now on fire with the Black Death. Some estimates say that the city of Florence, Italy, lost 90% of its population. Paris lost 1/3 of its population. London may have lost half of its population. Europe lost 30-60% of its population, and China lost 50% of its population. The French and English took a short pause from their 100-years war during the worst of the Black Death of 1348.

    Afterwards, supply chain shortages, and labor shortages led to inflation, which stalled the recovery.

    I have often wondered why historians spend more time on the history of wars, kings and queens than on the epidemics that wiped out swaths of common peoples. One reason, I suspect, is that epidemics — like the viral infections that annihilated 95% of the pre-Columbian population of North and South America — tend to kill the people who would normally take notice and record them.

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