The Search for the Missing

Last week I wrote about bracelets worn for the the Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) during the Vietnam War. Some of the included links told of American remains identified long after the end of the war, which reminded me of a thriller I read in the 1990s. I can’t remember the title or the author, but the use of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) as a major plot point has stayed with me all these years.

Today part of the  Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), CILHI is the world’s largest forensic anthropology laboratory. It is one piece of this organization of dedicated military and civilian personnel whose mission it is to provide an accounting of all our missing service members. Click here to see their latest news about recent identifications.

Cpl. Rory Richardson, Australian Army, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, assists the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency with recovery operations in Numoiken, Papua New Guinea, March 5, 2016. The DPAA members are deployed as part of a recovery team in the search of two crew members of an A-20 Havoc aircraft lost during World War II. The DPAA deploys teams from its operation office based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD Photo by Staff Sgt. Erik Cardenas, USAF/Released) Unit: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

DPAA actively searches for tens of thousands of missing Americans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Finding American remains are the job of search and recovery teams made up of anthropologists, medics, photographers, linguists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians and any other experts required for a particular situation. They use known data about battle sites and crash sites, stories told by locals, new discoveries of airplane parts and personal effects to prioritize their missions.

The search and recovery teams generally work in places where there are hardships. Dangers include unexploded ordnance, extreme weather, poisonous reptiles and insects, disease, extreme terrain, local culture and national politics.

The current numbers of missing from the DPAA website:

  • There are more than 73,000 unaccounted Americans from World War II. The majority of those are presumed lost at sea and unrecoverable at the moment.
  • There are almost 8,000 still unaccounted from the Korean War. As you can imagine, we don’t get much help from North Korea and the U.S. stopped sending recovery teams there in 2005 due to security concerns.
  • More than 1,600 are still unaccounted from the Vietnam War. Search and recovery teams frequently work in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
  • The Cold War has126 unaccounted. Most of those were air crews and many are presumed lost at sea.

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) excavate a wet unit in the Xiangkhoang Province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, March 30, 2016. Members of DPAA deployed to the area in hopes of recovering the remains of a pilot unaccounted for during the Vietnam War era. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn Ford, USAF/RELEASED)

When remains are recovered and repatriated, the lab goes to work. The methods used for identification have changed over the years as technology has changed. One of their most powerful tools is the forensic odontologist. Teeth are one of the hardest surfaces in the human body and therefore the most likely to survive intact. Also, not everyone has the same dental work done the same way, meaning that teeth can be almost as individual as finger prints. And with teeth, dental records are often available, so the researchers are not simply relying on memories and stories from family and friends.

Another tool more recently available is DNA. The way I understand it, the only DNA you can get from bone is mitochondrial DNA, which goes through the mother’s line. This means it is sometimes difficult to find descendants for DNA to confirm identification.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Samantha Brenneman, a recovery noncommissioned officer augmented by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), left, works with local workers at an excavation site Tay Ninh province, Vietnam, Mar. 16, 2016. Brenneman is a mortuary affairs specialist assigned to the 2nd Brigade Support Brigade Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. She is part of a specialized team deployed by DPAA in search of two Service members lost in an L-19 aircraft crash in 1967. The DPAA mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Kathrine Dodd, USAF/RELEASED) Unit: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

Once an identification has been confirmed, the parent military service informs the next of kin. The family has the choice of having their loved one buried at Arlington National Cemetery or a cemetery closer to home. No matter which the family chooses, the no-longer-missing service member is buried with full military honors.

Although many have been found and identified, the work is not done. Bringing them home is a promise our country makes to our service members and their families. With dedication, and possibly some technology we can’t yet even imagine, more families can finally know the fate of their love ones.

The POW / MIA Bracelet

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I had a bracelet. It was a metal band engraved with the name, rank and date of loss for an American military member who was either a Prisoner of War (POW) or was Missing in Action (MIA) in Vietnam.

POW/MIA bracelets. Photo: From the Smithsonian The National Museum of American History. http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1273063

Approximately 5 million POW/MIA bracelets were sold from 1970 to 1976. Each bracelet represents a story and were a reminder that these men were more than just a statistic.

A student organization, Voices in Vital America (VIVA), produced and distributed the bracelets to draw attention to the prisoners and the missing in Vietnam. It was also a way to support our military even if you didn’t support the politics of the war. The idea was that you would wear your bracelet until “your” serviceman came home. The program ended in 1976 as it appeared the public had lost interest in Vietnam.

I don’t know what happened to my bracelet, and sadly, don’t remember the name of the service member. I don’t know what happened to “my” POW/MIA. This can be attributed to my generally short attention span, but it’s more likely the fact that my father served in Vietnam meant I didn’t need a reminder that there was a war going on.

Here is a sampling of the many stories I found of people who wore their bracelets for decades.

  • This woman had worn her bracelet for 38 years when the remains of her Green Beret were found, identified and returned home for burial in 2011.
  • This LA Times article tells several stories, but focuses on a couple of men who made it home and the bracelets they have received over the years that bore their names. Make sure you read the second page, and be prepared for a few tears.
  • This woman found the family of her POW and in 2015 gave her bracelet to his grandson.
  • This woman wore her bracelet for 44 years before discovering that her MIA’s remains had been recovered between 1993 and 2000, and identified in 2006. She removed the bracelet and left it at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 2016.
  • And one final example, with thoughts from both the woman who wore the bracelet and the POW whose name she couldn’t forget.

You can purchase bracelets from The National League of POW/MIA Families. You can also find them on eBay.

How about my readers? Did you have, or do you still have, a bracelet? Do you know what happened to “your” POW/MIA?

Museum Pieces Help Us Understand History

For those of us who are visual learners, one of the easiest ways to retain information about history is through images. Whether those images are sepia-toned photos or medieval paintings, they are vital to many of us, enabling us to better viscerally understand history.

The Royal Acquaintances Memi and Sabu, ca. 2575-2465 BCE, made of limestone and paint. Dated using her hairstyle and their embrace. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

The objects found in museums vary depending upon the type of museum and the funding available. What you find at a local historical museum will differ from what is available at the Louvre. If the purpose of your visit is to learn something, then each experience will be valuable in its own way.

Lyre Guitar ca. 1805 France, possibly made by Joseph Pons. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.Some of the things you can find at museums are paintings, sketches, clothing, sculpture, shoes, furniture and jewelry. These items can all tell you something about the era in which it featured. The composition of a piece can tell us what tools and natural resources were available at that time. What the artist chooses to depict can teach us about their culture.

British Suit ca. 1760, made of wool and gilt metal. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Certain norms haven’t changed much over time. The rich had more stuff, and stuff that lasted longer, than did poor people. Therefore, many of the pieces that have survived are not indicative of all parts of society. We can’t change that, but we do need to be aware of existing biases.

The Faience Restorer by Paul-Narcisse Salieres (1818-1908) in 1848. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

One of the things I’ve always found interesting is the number of painted portraits available throughout history. This certainly makes sense in the time before cameras. These portraits were the selfies of their time, although they took a lot longer to complete and you had to sit or stand really still for a long time. Also, unlike selfies, the portrait artist may be required to use a little flattery in their portrayal of their subject.

French shoes ca. 1690-1700, made of silk and leather. These shoes are for men, which kind of makes me giggle. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Along with cameras for selfies, we can use new technologies to access museum inventories. Most museums have at least a portion of their inventory digitized and available online. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in February that they would not only digitize many of their works of art, but that they would also make about 375,000 of those images freely available to the public.

Cabinet created by Jean Brandely of France in 1867. Notice the war scene in the center. To each his own. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

For these images in the public domain, anyone can use them for any purpose (like I am using them in this blog post). This is a huge deal for teachers, writers and bloggers. You may spend hours to find just the right image you need, but those hours are time so well-spent.

Pectoral and necklace of Sithathoryunet with the name Senwosret II, from Egypt ca. 1887-1878 BCE. Made with gold, carnelia, lapis lazuli, turquoise, garnet and green feldspar. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

For someone like me, who uses art to understand history, I simply appreciate that these images are digitized and available to me. After all, not all of us have daily physical access to the Louvre. If you want to know about clothing, food, housing or transportation during a particular period in history, check out a museum online.

Burgonet with Falling Buffe, French helmet made of steel and gold ca. 1550, probably made for Henry II of France (reigned 1547-1559). Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art included in this post.

A Goldsmith in His Shop by Petrus Christus of Bruges in 1449, oil on oak panel. I think cool hats like these should become the new fashion. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

The Inquisition As A Primary Source: The Fournier Register

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know what a big deal it is for historians to have primary sources. These sources are important because they are created in the time that events happened. It’s reading the Gettysburg Address rather than reading a 21st century book analyzing what President Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address.

One primary source from the Inquisition is the Fournier Register, published in 1965. Composed of interrogations conducted from 1318-1325, this resource was just sitting in the Vatican Library waiting to be discovered. For anyone interested in history, imagine how happy we are to have interviews of 14th century residents of a village in France at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Interviews where the people of Montaillou discussed their thoughts, ideas and details of their daily lives.

Montaillou. Photo by Yann Gwilhoù via Wikimedia Commons

Why were the 200-250 residents of this village interviewed? During this time the Catholic Church was investigating what they believed was a heretical cult known as Catharism. I’m not going to go into how this differed from Catholicism because that information is widely available in books, articles and on the internet. For the purpose of this post, just know the Catholic Church was determined to stamp out this heresy.

Many Cathars ended up in the Languedoc region of France, which included the village of Montaillou. In these early years of the infamous Inquisition, the Bishop of Pamiers was sent to find and deal with the Cathars in the area. He hunted Cathars by talking with all the area inhabitants.

The Bishop of Pamiers was Jacques Fournier (c.1280s-1342). In 1334 he became Pope Benedict XII during the period when popes resided in Avignon, France. Being a historian and not a Catholic, in my view his greatest accomplishment is the Fournier Register, the result of 578 interrogations.

Portait of Pope Benedict XII in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. Via Wikimedia Commons

The value of the Fournier Register to historians and other social scientists is immense. It represents the best available resource for the study of early 14th-century rural life. Because the majority of people were illiterate, we don’t have a lot of diaries detailing daily life. During these interrogations, these ordinary people not only discussed their religious beliefs, but talked about their relationships, what they ate, how their families were structured, their attitudes about sex and death, what they thought about their neighbors and what they did in their day-to-day lives.

An amazing resource for anyone interested in history, but there are some things you want to keep in mind. Basically, everything they said was not necessarily true. The good and bad thing about primary sources in history is that people aren’t always completely self-aware or completely honest with themselves and others. Also, these interrogations were about identifying heretics. I would bet the villagers were not always completely honest with their interviewers. They could be burned at the stake for being heretics, and that is a mighty powerful reason to lie.

The book that brought the most attention to the data available in the Register was “Montaillou” by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie, published in French in 1975. The English translation by Barbara Bray, which I read a couple of times for various university courses, was published in 1978. This book is a good example of the issue of translation. The villagers spoke Occitan, a regional dialect, but the scribes translated that into Latin, the language of the Register. Le Roy Ladurie translated that into French and then Bray translated the French into English. So it’s not the same as speaking directly to a medieval villager, but it’s what we’ve got.

Church of Montaillou, Ariège, France. Photo by Xfigpower via Wikimedia Commons

No matter the reservations we may have about the Fournier Register as a primary research source, it is still amazing that it exists at all. Although there may always be disagreements among historians about translations or interpretations of the interrogations, seven hundred years later, this is truly remarkable data about medieval life in the 14th century. And did I mention, there’s lots of talk about sex? These are interesting, ordinary people. Check out some English translations.

Macrame Is About Much More Than 1970s Plant Hangers

My nephew was visiting last week, and because he is a big fan of Captain Jack Sparrow and all things tall ship, we visited the Maritime Museum of San Diego. You can walk through a variety of ships and submarines, all of which are listed on their website.

Besides being able to walk through all the ships at your own pace, the museum offers educational programs with instructors dressed in historically appropriate clothing, teaching various lessons about history and sailing. There are also exhibits about everything from emigration to tattoos to salmon fishing.

One display that caught my eye was about fancy knot work. I immediately flashed back to my tween years in the 1970s when I believed all homes should be decorated with macramé. Although since most of the macramé I remember were plant hangers, maybe I just liked the thought of all those plants.

Fancy Knot Work display at Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

I’ve always known that ships are full of ropes, but I never thought about sailors through the centuries having free time. Combine free time, expert knowledge of knots and lots of rope, and it makes sense that they spent time knotting ropes to makes items both practical and decorative. Historically, they created a lot of floor mats to prevent slipping, covers for bottles to prevent breaking, covers for knife handles for a safer grip, and hammocks for sleeping.

Ropes and knots everywhere! HMS Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

On boats, different functions are served by different knots. If a sailor went to a new boat, or a boat from another region, they may need to either learn knots that are new to them, or teach others to create the knots from their repertoire. Some knotters, then and now, kept knot boards, which display their skills and knowledge. After all, the safety of the ship and the crew depended upon the sailors’ skills with ropes and knots.

Various types of knots, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, Author: Andrey Belenko of Moscow, Russia

The first manual for seamen written in English was A Sea Grammar written by Captain John Smith and published in 1627. (Yes, that’s the same John Smith from the Pocahontas stories.) This book was mostly about sailing and living a life at sea, but included a section about splicing rope and tying knots.

Almost 400 years later, there have been many manuals written about knot-tying, most including illustrations to show how to tie each of the knots. The definitive reference is The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley, published in 1944. It includes entries for over 3,800 knots. An alternate source of all things knots is the International Guild of Knot Tyers.

If you’re interested in creating your own decorative or practical items, or just learning how to tie various knots, there are many workshops and online tutorials available. If you like the nautical look of these items, but don’t want to make them yourself, there are plenty of places to buy items made by experts in the field.

Now, if we could only get Captain Jack Sparrow to lead a workshop about knot-tying.

How Do You Feel About Zoos?

My sister and nephew are visiting me in SoCal this week from Washington State and one of the items on our agenda is the San Diego Zoo. Although my sister and I visited many zoos in our travels as military brats, the San Diego Zoo is regularly ranked as one of the top zoos in the world.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But before zoos, there were menageries. The history of menageries goes back to the ancient world in Greece and Rome, when royal leaders had menageries of animals that included diplomatic gifts from leaders of other countries. Those menageries were generally not open to the public, but were only available to the rich and powerful. Seeing a variety of exotic animals was just one more status symbol.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

In the late 18th century, the purpose of zoos changed. With the Age of Enlightenment came the idea that these animals should be studied scientifically and medically. And with some of these zoos located in large population areas it seemed an obvious idea to open them to the public for entertainment purposes.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

The San Diego Zoo first opened in 1916, so it has a 100-year history. It is operated by a not-for-profit organization which is the largest zoological membership association in the world. Located on 100 acres in Balboa Park, the zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals of more than 650 species. It is also home to more than 700,000 exotic plants, which was what I noticed when I first visited.

Like many people, I’m ambivalent about zoos. I like to see animals we don’t get to see in the city, and I like to watch the way they interact with each other. Our zoo makes the effort to create areas that are close to the animals’ natural habitats.

There are huge benefits to a well-run zoo, including scientific study, educating the public, breeding programs, protecting endangered species, and yes, entertainment. They also raise awareness and funds for research.

San Diego Zoo. They have a new koala area now that I’m very excited to see. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But.

Not all zoos are well-run. There are way too many stories about cruelty to the animals, whether from management, staff or the public. Most habitats cannot be exactly replicated, leading the animals to experience stress and behavior problems. But some zoos don’t even make the effort and still use cages or small concrete pens. And ultimately, prison is prison no matter how well they treat you.

As with many things in life, we are left to balance to bad with the good. So I’ll go to the zoo this week and trust that there is more good than bad. I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to watch lemurs and koala bears and giraffes and sloths. I love sloths! And I’ll spend some time wishing the world wasn’t such a dangerous place for these amazing animals.

Pals. Photo: Cathy Hanson

What about you? Are you for or against zoos? Do you have a most memorable zoo experience?

Historical Fashion: Amusing or Just Odd?

I’m helping a friend move tonight, so here’s a short piece about historical fashion. To move furniture and boxes, I’m wearing sweats, a far cry from the panniers pictured below.

Robe à la française or open gown with stomacher, 1740s, England (textiles produced in Holland or Germany), Silk, linen, pigment. Photo by Claire H. via Wikimedia Commons

Panniers are associated with the 18th century, and I can’t imagine they were terribly comfortable. But historically, fashion is almost always about image rather than comfort. And I’m pretty sure the women of wealth and status who wore this fashionable clothing were probably not moving their own furniture.

Easier to walk in panniers outside rather than inside. Painting by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure if it was a bug or a feature, but the fact that the panniers at the side of the skirt could extend several feet allowed a large empty canvas across the front of the dress. I remember reading somewhere that the fineness of the embroidery across that expanse was a sign of an individual’s status.

Replica of Catherine II’s wedding dress (1745) by MKhT school-studio 01. Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The thought of maneuvering through a house in one of these dresses is mind-boggling.  Although maybe the focus required to keep from running into everything would be good for me.

Sweats instead of panniers are one more reason to be glad we live in the 21st century.

Eurovision Song Contest

When Donald Trump alluded on Saturday to some horrible event that had happened in Sweden the previous day, you can imagine the tweets in response. One response came from @sweden, the official Twitter account for the country. They stated that the only thing that happened on Friday was the competition to choose the Swedish entrant for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest.

This is not a big deal in the United States, but I remember when we lived in England in the late 1970s, this was must-watch television. So here’s some stuff you may or may not know about this competition.

  • This annual competition began in 1956, partly because Europeans felt the need for something fun that would pull them together after the devastation of World War II.
  • The winner that was most successful after their win was ABBA, from Sweden. They won in 1974 for “Waterloo”. You can see their winning Eurovision performance here. That’s some happy music!
  • The competition is not open to all European countries, but to all members of the European Broadcasting Union. This has changed over the last 60 years as some countries are created or are swallowed up by larger countries.
  • The first Eurovision Song Contest included only seven countries. In 2016, 42 countries competed.
  • For all my Lakenheath friends from England, you probably already know that Katrina and the Waves won for the United Kingdom in 1997, singing “Love Shine a Light“. For those of you not from Lakenheath, you probably know this band, who attended Lakenheath American High School, for the song “Walking on Sunshine“.
  • The first Eurovision was held in Lugano, Switzerland, and after that, the country that wins the competition becomes the host for the contest the next year. This can be used as an opportunity to promote their country as a tourist destination, but there have been times when the host country has declined due to the expense. In those cases, another host (usually the BBC in the United Kingdom) steps up to take over. In May of this year the competition will be held in Kyiv, Ukraine.
  • There are lots of rules about everything from the number of artists allowed onstage to language requirements. But many of the rules change through the years, so you have to give them credit for flexibility due to growth and change.
  • Voting for the winners has also changed. At the moment, the voting is split 50/50 between juries and voting by the public, either by phone or online. The problem with the public aspect is one of scale. Like our electoral college, where my California vote counts less than the vote of someone from Wyoming, the public vote from small countries outweighs the vote from much larger countries.
  • Women have dominated, being a part of 50 of the 64 winning acts through 2016.
  • Sometimes politics rears its ugly head. Certain blocs of countries may vote together and some countries may vote for or against another country based on whatever is happening at the time. Annoyed with your neighbor? Hurt them with music.
  • Ireland has won the most contests, with seven.

Have you ever watched this contest? Can you listen to “Walking on Sunshine” without dancing even a little bit?

Protesting the Salt Tax

I’ve been thinking lately about protests, for obvious reasons. There are many types of protests and demonstrations. The concept is not specific to any culture or desired result, but exists globally. It’s also not specific to a particular era and you can find examples throughout history.

During the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, India was under British rule from 1858 until 1947. But India wanted self-rule and they found a leader for this nationalist movement in Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).

Gandhi and other Indians took a strategic and long-term route to breaking from the British. This wasn’t about one demonstration or protest, but there is just one that I want to share.

The British controlled, among other things, the production and distribution of salt. It was illegal for the Indian population to produce or manufacture their own salt. They were required to purchase more expensive and heavily taxed salt from the British government. This salt tax affected Indians of all classes, but was especially a burden on the poor.

Because the salt tax affected everyone, it was the perfect protest to gather support among Indians. In 1930, Gandhi began a march to the Indian Ocean to commit an act of non-violent civil disobedience. In less than a month, he and his followers walked about 240 miles. Each night when they stopped, they drew crowds and spoke about what they were doing, and why it was important.

Gandhi at Dandi, South Gujarat, picking salt on the beach at the end of the Salt March, 5 April 1930. Behind him is his second son Manilal Gandhi and Mithuben Petit. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Finally they reached the coast and picked up some salt, which was an illegal act. Although no one was arrested that day, the illegal acts continued. Eventually, Gandhi and others were arrested, but that wasn’t enough to stop this protest. In time, as the protests continued, about 60,000 Indians were arrested and jailed for illegally producing salt.

As you can imagine, taking care of 60,000 new prisoners was a bit of a hassle for the British jailers. It also didn’t help the British that the march and subsequent acts of civil disobedience drew international press attention. It was clear that, just as the Boston Tea Party was not about tea, this was not just about salt.

Gandhi meets with Charlie Chaplin at the home of Dr. Kaitial in Canning Town, London, September 22, 1931. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about protests is that there are two sides and the actions of both sides are often illuminating about deeper issues. Both the protesters and those being protested against want something, and how they each act determines the results of the protest.

In this case, the result was the 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Gandhi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, agreed that Gandhi would stop his salt protests and the British authorities would release all who had been imprisoned for salt offenses and would also allow Indians to produce their own salt for domestic use.

Depending upon your personality, you could call this either a win-win or lose-lose situation. The British lost some tax revenue and the protesters didn’t get their ultimate goal of self-rule, at least not that day. That didn’t happen for another sixteen years. But this protest, the sense of unity shared by the Indian people working toward a common goal, was one of the building blocks that led to that final result.

Breaking News: The Georgian Papers Programme

Currently our news cycles are stuffed full of BREAKING NEWS. I love that there can be breaking news in history, even if it isn’t urgent enough to require ALL CAPS. This particular news will probably have a wide-ranging and long-lasting effect on historical research and will fill historians and enthusiasts with anticipation about what they might find.

In April of 2015, Queen Elizabeth II launched the Georgian Papers Programme, releasing more than 350,000 pieces of paper from the years 1714-1837, which will be digitized for availability to anyone interested. This time period includes the reigns of several monarchs, but because George III was king for almost 60 years, much of the material is directly from him.

The digitized papers will be searchable, making them an incredible primary research resource in many different subject areas. George III (1738-1820) was king during the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, so you can imagine the information just on those issues. The papers include letters between the king and queen, an assortment of other letters, essays, bills, notes, menus and even a draft letter of abdication which was never completed.

King George III (in coronation robes), painted by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you ask many Americans about George III, they will mention that he was crazy or that he was a tyrant. After all, he had to be bad enough that the American Colonies would fight to leave and become our own country.

King George III at Windsor Castle, painted by Peter Edward Stroehling. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

But labels are easy and negate the fact that we are all human beings with varying opinions and flaws. The harder truth is that George III did have some form of mental illness, although historians and others are still debating the exact parameters of that illness, and that one man’s tyrant is another man’s protector.

George III was greatly interested in science in all forms and was generally intellectually curious. He was a husband who reportedly never took a mistress despite the norms for men of his status during his time. He was father to 15 children. Probably mad, possibly a tyrant, but like most of us, he was also much more than that.

George III and Queen Charlotte with their thirteen children, painted by John Murphy. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So why is this release of papers important? Why are historians so excited by this?

  • Primary resources allow us to learn about people in their own words. If we want to know why George III did one thing rather than another, we may find that information in one of these letters.
  • Because these resources will be searchable, information about any subject relating to the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century may be found here. Interested in gardening, medicine, astronomy or spies? Any of those may be found in these papers.
  • Opinions about George III have varied over the years depending on the writer and the time when they were writing. This collection of papers allows today’s writers to get past speculation and to interpret a primary resource.
  • Ultimately, more data usually leads to better analysis. This is a lot of data about a lot of subjects. I imagine this incredible resource will lead to many new journal articles.

The digitization is expected to be completed in 2020. If you want a sneak preview, check out this special from BBC Two “George III – The Genius of the Mad King“.