irrational, a. 3. (Math.) Not capable of being exactly expressed by an integral number, or by a vulgar fraction. — Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
All entries © 2004-2005 by David Moles.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Anno Hegirae 446 (AD 1054)

Originally published in “Five Irrational Histories”, Rabid Transit #3: Petting Zoo, Velocity Press, May 2004.

Near Sijilmassa, Morocco — En route to the sacking of Audaghost, the army of the Almoravids wakes from a night of lascivious dreams to find itself surrounded, not by some enemy, or by the sands of the desert, but by a garden of soft grasses, broadleaved trees, perfumed flowers, whispering brooks. Their faqih, Abdullah ibn Yasin, believing he has found the Earthly Paradise, succumbs to a cerebral hemorrhage. His men, oblivious, have already wandered away, each man alone, each man thinking he has heard the crystal voice of a naiad or glimpsed the gamine limbs of a nymph.

The black kingdoms of Ghana and Mali go unconquered; their cities remain standing. Islam spreads there, but slowly: a tolerant, uniquely West African Islam, laced with syncretic elements of animism. When Vasco da Gama enters the Bight of Benin, he is met by gold-trimmed royal galleys, their indigo-dyed sails embroidered with verses from the Koran. The grandsons of Mansa Musa, the king who da Gama knows from legend as Prester John, feast him and his crew for forty days and nights before sending him on his way provisioned with yams, plantains, rice, the salted flesh of antelopes and giraffes.

The European view of the world is forever shaped by this encounter with an African nation at the height of its power, instilling a humility that is never fully lost. When Christian ships come to African and Asian ports it is as traders, not conquerors; even in the New World, where smallpox and other diseases still take their toll of the native population and create for the colonizers the illusion of empty lands, there is little taste for dominion.

The kingdoms of West Africa have no surplus of slaves. Without that source of manual labor the English colonies of North America and the Caribbean remain small and tenuously held, inhabited only by fishermen, tobacco traders, and nonconformist Christians. The agricultural potential of the American South goes unrealized until 1826, when an enterprising Cherokee plantation owner, taking advantage of a depression in the indigo market, begins to import landless laborers from Bengal and Bihar. After seven years’ indenture these ‘Indians’ are free to buy land of their own, or start businesses in the coastal cities.

The cross-pollination of cultures creates a new dynamism. The Anglo-Indian-Cherokee society of the colonies spreads west to the Mississippi, north to Hudson Bay. In 1854, an Act of Parliament grants the colonies independence in all but name. In 1923, Eleanor Marie Abji, of Charleston, South Carolina, becomes the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for her novel The Dream Forest


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