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Second Decade

A historical show examining the fascinating events and people of the second decade of the 19th century (the 1810s), hosted by historian Sean Munger.
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Now displaying: 2016
Dec 21, 2016

Second Decade wishes you happy holidays with this Christmas-themed episode. Of all the Christmases of the 1810s, the year 1814 stands out as especially significant. The world was celebrating its first holiday season in over two decades in the midst of general peace, except for one last pesky war that wouldn’t quite die. While the crowned heads at the Congress of Vienna—supposedly working for world peace but in reality boozing and partying like there was no tomorrow—were exposed to the highly flammable new holiday tradition known as the Christmas tree, a team of diplomats including future U.S. President John Quincy Adams were actually putting the Yuletide greeting “peace on earth” into practice. A convoluted and sometimes disheartening round of negotiations between two unequally-matched teams of statesmen yielded the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 despite consciously avoiding resolution of all the major issues that caused the war in the first place. Now that’s diplomacy!

Historian Sean Munger begins this episode with a colorful look at the Christmas traditions being practiced in 1814, from a special kind of Christmas meat made from some very uncomfortable pigs, to the horrifying pyromaniacal English drinking game known as “Snapdragon.” Then he segues into the fascinating story of the Treaty of Ghent, why it almost didn’t happen and how the chrome-domed, short-tempered John Quincy Adams earned his chops as one of America’s most gifted diplomats.

Dec 12, 2016

On the island of Sumbawa, in what is now Indonesia but was previously called the East Indies, there is a collapsed, sunken shell of a volcano that was once a mighty peak taller than Mt. Fuji in Japan. On a warm spring night in 1815 this mountain, Tambora, exploded with a force so powerful that it can scarcely be measured in terms intelligible to humans. In addition to being an environmental disaster of staggering proportions that killed over 100,000 people and changed the world’s climate, the eruption of Mt. Tambora occurred at an unusual moment of transition for the people of the East Indies. The British, having brieftly wrested the spice-rich Indies from the control of French-allied Holland during the Napoleonic Wars, were struggling to leave a permanent political and strategic mark on the islands before returning them to Dutch rule. Lost in the geopolitical shuffle for colonial possessions were the people of the islands themselves, at once opaque to history but who also left behind haunting clues of their lives that were cut short by this incredible disaster.

Armed with numerous eyewitness accounts of the Tambora disaster and its aftermath, Sean Munger tries to put you on the ground at the epicenter of one of the most dramatic and powerful events in environmental history. Additionally, you’ll get a taste of old-school European colonialism in Southeast Asia, a profile of British Java’s quirky governor Thomas Stamford Raffles, and a look at the hidden history that was buried ten feet under volcanic rock and only rediscovered in the 21st century.

Subscribers to Sean’s Patreon campaign will get access to a members-only video, a companion piece to this episode, that explains why Tambora is much less well-known than the similar 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and how the two disasters are linked.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Dec 5, 2016

When Thomas Jefferson retired from public life in 1809 after serving two terms as U.S. President, he thought his retirement years at Monticello, his Virginia plantation, would be peaceful, quiet and relaxing. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Utterly broke as a result of his out-of-control spending sprees while in the White House, Jefferson returned home to his farm just as a series of environmental disasters made it almost impossible to earn a living from his sole remaining source of income: farming. What was more, Jefferson suddenly had to support his grown daughter, her alcoholic husband and their eleven children as well as lay out the red carpet for the steady streams of visitors and well-wishers who descended on Monticello. And that’s to say nothing of Jefferson’s own unacknowledged children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings. Add to this a war, a crippling drought and a boneheaded financial move, the 1810s proved to be nothing less than the very long winter(s) of Jefferson’s discontent.

Sean Munger not only tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s difficult retirement during the decade of the 1810s, but also provides some historical context for understanding one of the most contradictory and controversial figures of Early America. Unpacking Jefferson’s challenges at Monticello involves everything from volcanoes in Indonesia to the passionate desires that led him into one of history’s most famous and scandalous love affairs. While we cannot hope to “solve” the enigma of Thomas Jefferson, the story of how the vaunted Sage of Monticello descended into the tragedy of his twilight years might just help us understand some of the challenges and preoccupations that shaped the personality of this extraordinary man.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Nov 28, 2016

This is the story of Charles Barnard, a real-life Robinson Crusoe who spent nearly two years marooned in one of the most forbidding and desolate landscapes on Earth: the Falkland Islands, far south in the Atlantic, near Antarctica. It happened in 1813 as a result of war between the United States and Great Britain, and after a dizzying series of double-crosses, table-turns and stabs-in-the-back that wouldn’t be out of place on the modern TV show Lost. Barnard is forced to find shelter, food, fuel and clothing in a landscape so barren that the only vegetation that will grow is tussock grass, and in which humans are decidedly unwelcome. In addition, Barnard must stay one step ahead of the surly and treacherous British sailor Sam Ansel, who makes the war a very personal affair.

Sean Munger brings you this true story from the 1810s, chronicled in Barnard’s own memoirs documenting his amazing and dangerous around-the-world journey and his incredible feat of survival against seemingly impossible odds. In this episode you’ll not only meet Barnard and the villian Sam Ansel, but an untrustworthy British sea captain, a hardy African-American whaler from New Bedford who’s also stranded on the island, Barnard’s long-suffering wife and three kids who assume he’s dead, and various species of wild boars, albatrosses and penguins, all of whom wind up on Barnard’s survival rations menu at one time or another. This story, worthy of a Hollywood movie, actually happened, proving once again that truth is usually stranger than fiction.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Nov 21, 2016

Hawaii, known to Westerners in the Second Decade as “the Sandwich Islands,” was a rich and vibrant place, and the 1810s were arguably the most exciting time in its history. In 1810 Kamehameha, a nobleman from the Big Island, completed his 30-year struggle to unify Hawaii under his own rule, initiating an era of somewhat fragile peace. But there were fractures beneath the surface of Hawaiian society which led to a cultural and religious upheaval in 1819—at the exact same time that a group of ambitious New England evangelicals were, for unrelated reasons, preparing to settle in Hawaii and establish Christian missions.

Sean Munger sets the stage for the story of this cultural collision by exploring both the background and context of the American missionaries who arrived at the end of the decade, and the rapidly changing country of Hawaii in which they suddenly found themselves. In this episode you’ll not only meet Kamehameha, his arch-rival Kaumuali’i and his unlucky rum-guzzling advisor Isaac Davis, but also the bewildered royal heir Liholiho, the ambitious feminist Ka’ahumanu, a reluctant bride named Lucy Goodale, a vomiting clergyman called Hiram Bingham, and the famous Henry Obookiah, whose round-trip from Hawaii to Connecticut and back took an astonishing 186 years.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Nov 14, 2016

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...both were true in the winter of 1813-14, one of the most brutal winters in the history of Britain and Ireland. Thanks to global cooling, a murderous series of cold snaps, freezing fog and snowstorms reduced London and other cities to an urban wasteland like something out of The Walking Dead...except a lot colder. Yet at the same time, as the people of London were at wit’s end, the freezing of the Thames created the opportunity for a magical winter festival that only happened a few times a century and has never happened again since 1814: the last of the legendary “Frost Fairs.”

Historian Sean Munger explains the historical and environmental background of the festival, and how Frost Fairs have resonated in English literature since the times of Shakespeare. In this episode you’ll encounter the mysterious “Mountain X,” greedy coach drivers, desperate ferrymen, bear-baiters and prostitutes, a bewildered Prince Regent, a drunken King Charles II, “Lapland Mutton,” and you’ll find out what Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman and Virginia Woolf have to do with the second decade of the 19th century. Join us for a very chilly trip into the past!

For this episode, special thanks is due to the members of the University of Oregon “Glacier Lab” for their comments and contributions on the script.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Nov 7, 2016

This episode presents two mysterious tales from the Second Decade, both from Caribbean islands. An oft-told account of coffins moving about by themselves in a sealed burial vault in Barbados between 1812 and 1820 has left many people reaching for paranormal explanations like telekinesis or voodoo. But did it really happen? And who was the unidentified woman who washed up in a coffin full of tea on Nevis in 1809?

Sean Munger presents these mysteries in historical context, with a glimpse at the seething hell that was the British West Indies in the 1810s, before the abolition of slavery. As you'll learn from this episode, pretty islands of white sand beaches and gently swaying palm trees have a lot of dark secrets lurking under the surface.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Oct 30, 2016

This episode, the inaugural episode of the Second Decade podcast, details the bizarre (by modern standards) political situation Americans faced in 1816. The Democratic-Republican Party, hoping to score its fifth Presidential election win in a row, ran yet another Virginian, James Monroe. It looked to be a cakewalk, considering that the opposition party, the Federalists, was in full meltdown mode after they insisted on showing the country just how much they hated the War of 1812 with a disastrous and ill-advised confab in Hartford. But the dull Presidential race wasn't the real political story in 1816. There was an epic disaster in the making at the Congressional level, and voters rose in revolt like no other time in American history.

In this episode you'll meet James Monroe, college drop-out and heir apparent to the Virginia dynasty; Rufus King, the last man to wear pantyhose on the floor of the U.S. Senate; and you'll learn why getting sloshed on the Fourth of July was, in 1816, every American's patriotic duty.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

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