A Trip Down History Lane: Reading My Way Through the Pandemic

By Dr. Michael Shire

The innocent question asked by grandchildren to their grandparents, ‘What did you do during the war…?’ will now be applied to everyone describing their time during the COVID19 lockdowns and quarantines! What did we actually do? For me, it was a feast of reading and listening that transported me to historical times and places through the books, webinars and podcasts that could all be accessed without even leaving my doorstep. Whether it was immersing myself in a book and reading late into the night because I didn’t have to drive to work in the morning or going for those long walks just to get out of the house with earphones and a good podcast or zoom recording, it was the silver lining to the pandemic’s impact.  Looking back on 15 months’ worth of reading, here are some highlights that actually begin to form a picture all together about the beginnings of the American Nation. It was not planned but somehow all those hours were not only enjoyable but also provide a historical picture that I hadn’t seen before.

My journey begins with Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads which was a fascinating and brilliant read covering a huge swathe of history from the Vikings to 911. We may think that Western Civilization is the centre of our historical consciousness, but Frankopan makes a good case for why we keep being pulled East towards Arabia, India and China, the so-called Silk Roads. What was new for me was his contention that sending Columbus on his ‘discoveries’ in 1492 were part of a larger strategic plan of Christian Europe to thwart the perceived threat of Islam at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean.  If Columbus could get to China and convert them to Christianity, then the Muslim world would be surrounded. Little did they know that there was a new world to be uncovered inbetween. However, lest anyone think Columbus ‘discovered’ anything, Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange is a lively read about everyone who trod the earth of North America before any Brits even landed on Plymouth Rock. 200 years at least of explorers, gold hunters, freed slaves and Priests were roaming the entire North American continent before 1620. I don’t think I am the only one who is surprised at the number of explorers and range of their travels right through the Southwest (Coronado), Texas (De Vaca and freed slave Estevanico), Florida to North Carolina and then back to the Mississippi (De Soto). Horwitz is such a great storyteller and explorer himself as he takes us on a journey to all these places. Sadly, he died in this past pandemic year.

Of course, the Europeans were arriving at a crucial moment in the history of the native peoples as described in David Silverman’s strongly worded book This Land is their Land. The question often asked is whether it was inevitable that Native peoples would be swept away by the massive European influx into Massachusetts and the Eastern seaboard. Silverman gives us a nuanced picture that demonstrates strong strategic political leadership in leaders such as Ousamequin (Massasoit). He held a peace between settlers and natives for 50 years, ironically enabling Europeans to take a foothold en masse, that did then inevitably result in King Philip’s war (Massasoit’s son) in 1675. All the opportunities lost and trust betrayed time and again by the settlers made the inevitable come about. Not easy reading and yet a timely reminder that there is much to learn about the history of Native peoples and their place on this land.

I thought that I would then take a break from all things North American by reading a new biography of a 17th century Dutch rabbi called Manasseh ben Israel. He is famous for having authored a humble petition in 1656 to Oliver Cromwell requesting that the new Republican government in England re-admit Jews to their land after almost 400 hundred years of exile. Manasseh travelled to England to deliver his petition in person and was graciously received in Westminster. This biography written by Steven Nadler however then turned my attention back to the New World in that one of the justifications for Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel’s petition is that it was reported in Amsterdam in 1644 that Jewish tribes had been discovered in the New World (Ecuador) claiming to be of the biblical tribe of Reuben, speaking in Hebrew and reciting the Shema prayer. The Puritans of England knew their Bible as Isaiah 43:5 predicts that the Messiah will come when the twelve tribes of Israel are dispersed throughout all countries and eventually reunited to become part of the Fifth Monarchy in Jerusalem. For Oliver Cromwell and his Millenarian colleagues, this was just the kind of vision they had for their model new society requiring them to re-admit Jews before the Messiah arrives! However, the Protectorate came to end before anything could be decided, and it was Charles II at the Restoration who finally readmitted Jews to live in England. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel had backed the wrong horse but Messiah or no Messiah, Jewish life in England flourished once again.

The Dutch, who I hadn’t paid attention to before, suddenly seem very important in our American story as I am currently reading The First Salute by Barbara Tuchman. She expertly describes the crucial involvement of the Dutch West India Company who are the main suppliers of arms and materiel to the the American Revolutionaries from their island bases in the Caribbean. Sympathetic to a similar federated republic with Protestant leanings and at loggerheads with the British for North Atlantic trade routes, the Dutch couldn’t have been more important to the military success of the Revolution.

This journey through historical time made my self -isolating and quarantining go a lot faster. Coupled with walking Battle Road between Lexington and Concord a couple of times with a fellow reader, I can truly say it’s been a trip down history lane!


The Books:

Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A new history of the world, Vintage Books, New York, 2017.

Tony Horwitz, A Voyage Long and Strange: on the trail of Vikings, conquistadors, lost colonists and other adventurers in early America, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008.

David J. Silverman, This Land is Their Land; The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the troubled history of Thanksgiving, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2019.

Steven Nadler, Manasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2018.

Barbara Tuchman, The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution, Random House, New York, 2014.