Stange Historical Oddities that Left their Mark on the Present

Jesuit Chinese world map from 1620 by Giulio Aleni

“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

-William Faulkner

It’s amazing to realize that the computer, tablet, or smartphone you are currently reading this on retrieved these words from some server in a warehouse miles away somewhere, and that I sent these words to that server from my own laptop in my room on a Tuesday morning. We are surrounded by so much modern technology that previous generations could only dream about, while books and TV specials about history are populated by black-and-white photos or paintings of people wearing silly clothes. It makes it easy to think of our history as something done and gone, having little bearing on our lives today.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The world we live in was shaped by the past, and its legacy lives on in some of the most unusual and surprising ways. Here are just a few of the historical oddities you can find all around you.

The Hudson’s Bay Company still exists

Hudsons Bay Company logo from Canadas First Peoples

In 1670, King Charles II of England gave a royal charter to start a fur trading company in the area around Hudson Bay in present-day Canada. Like other fur trading companies of the time, the company set up trading posts to exchange goods with the local Indians for animal furs that would be shipped back to Europe to be made into the latest fashions. Also like other fur trading companies of the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company effectively became an extension of its mother country’s imperial ambitions in the New World, engaging in colonial warfare against England’s rivals for power in the region. The company wound up as the government of English settlements in “Rupert’s Land”, as the region it operated in became known, and it sent out explorers on expeditions that traveled as far south as California. However, by the mid-19th century the company began to struggle as more and more settlers pushed into its lands and illegally competed with the company for furs. In 1870, the British Parliament made the company give up its land to Canada.

Usually, when one of these imperialistic trading companies that took over a country was forced to turn over its lands to a proper government authority, the company itself soon ceased to exist. Not the Hudson’s Bay Company, though. They continued to operate fur trading posts up to 1987, and in the meantime they began establishing ordinary retail shops to serve the new waves of settlers that were arriving in the late 19th century. After World War I, the company dabbled in the oil business for a few decades, but by the 1980s it had settled on retail department stores as its business model going forward.

Today, you can find Hudson’s Bay stores in seven Canadian provinces, selling clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, accessories, home decor, kitchenware, appliances, bed and bath products, and more. Basically, it’s like a Canadian Kohl’s or Sears. You can even visit its website here. Not only that, but the company owns other chains like Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Home Outfitters. The company even provides the Canadian Olympic team with their outfits and uniforms. The company’s ability to adapt and thrive into the modern age is quite the impressive achievement.

The Union Jack loves putting itself on other flags

Union Jack image from Wikipedia

While we are on the subject of the British Empire’s legacy in the modern age, this wouldn’t be Cat Flag if I didn’t mention the remarkable ability of the British national flag to appear on other flags across the globe. Many parts of the world that were once British colonies represent that part of their history on their flags with an image of the Union Jack. I’ve already discussed the flags of Australia and New Zealand:

Australian flag

New Zealand flag

There are two more countries in the South Pacific that also incorporate the British flag on their national flag. The first is Tuvalu, which gained its independence in 1978:

Flag of Tuvalu from Wikipedia

The nine stars on the flag represent the country’s nine islands, with the stars arranged geographically so that the top of the flag represents east.

The second is Fiji, which gained independence in 1970 and whose flag shows the Union Jack alongside the country’s coat of arms:

Flag of Fiji from Wikipedia

Having said that, the current government of Fiji has announced plans to adopt a new flag later this year. While that will reduce the number of national flags with the Union Jack on it, there are plenty of other, non-national flags that incorporate the British one.

For example, the Cook Islands and Niue are a pair of semi-independent countries in “free association” with New Zealand, meaning they let New Zealand handle their defense and foreign relations. Both have flags that recall their past as British colonies:

Flag of the Cook Islands from Wikipedia

Flag of Niue from Wikipedia

Then, there are the 14 “British Overseas Territories” – the last remnants of the British Empire that for one reason or another have decided against independence. Most of these are small islands in the Caribbean, like the British Virgin Islands:

Flag of the British Virgin Islands from Wikipedia

Or the Cayman Islands:

Flag of the Cayman Islands from Wikipedia

However, there are various other British Overseas Territories scattered across the globe, like the infamous Falkland Islands, that are claimed by Argentina, were the scene of a major war between the two countries in 1982, and continue to be a sore spot between the two countries to this day.

Flag of the Falkland Islands from Wikipedia

Then, of course, there’s Canada, which celebrates its historic ties to the United Kingdom with the flags of the provinces of Ontario:

Flag of Ontario from Wikipedia

Manitoba:

Flag of Manitoba from Wikipedia

and British Columbia:

Flag of British Columbia from Wikipedia

In fact, the Union Jack is so good at colonizing other places’ flags, it even appears on the flag of the U.S. state of Hawaii, even though Hawaii was never a part of the British Empire at all.

Flag of Hawaii from Wikipedia

The reason for this comes from the early history of the Kingdom of Hawaii, founded by King Kamehameha I in 1795. One of the ways Kamehameha unified the Hawaiian islands and defeated the rival chiefs was by being on friendly terms with European explorers and visitors, who provided him with weapons. According to a popular legend, British explorer George Vancouver gave him a British flag as a gift, and Kamehameha would fly it proudly until someone said that people could misinterpret him and think he was a British ally, putting his new kingdom in danger of an attack by Britain’s enemies. Later, he flew an American flag instead, but during the War of 1812 British officers complained to him about this. Frustrated, Kamehameha decided to just make his own darn flag, and created a hybrid between the American and British flags that would have eight stripes representing the eight main islands of Hawaii.

The Dutch Reformed Church no longer exists in the Netherlands (but still exists in South Africa)

Church Interior image by Andrew McMillan from Public Domain Images

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the Dutch Reformed Church was a very important part of the national culture of the Netherlands, setting the country firmly in the Protestant camp of the religious conflicts of the age. This church, whose teachings were taken from the ideas of early Protestant leader John Calvin, was the church of the Dutch government leaders and merchant elites. To be clear, it wasn’t the official religion of the Netherlands – the country nominally had freedom of worship for everyone except Roman Catholics – but it enjoyed a special, privileged status.

It may surprise you, then, to learn that if you travel to the Netherlands today, you won’t find any Dutch Reformed churches. In the wake of World War II, after a century of using a system of religious segregation known as “pillarization”, the Netherlands finally adopted true freedom of religion of the sort we Americans enjoy. It turned out that without state support, the church simply couldn’t survive, shrinking rapidly as more and more Dutch citizens became nonreligious or atheists. Today, only 39% of the Netherlands’ population is religious. What was left of the Dutch Reformed Church merged with two other Protestant churches to become the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.

However, while the Dutch Reformed Church no longer exists in the country where it was born, that’s not the end of the story. When Dutch explorers and settlers traveled around the world and set up Dutch Colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they brought the Dutch Reformed Church with them. In Indonesia, there are many religious denominations that sprang up from the Dutch Reformed tradition. The Reformed Church in America evolved from the Dutch Reformed congregations of early Dutch settlers in New York.

Not only that, but you can still find churches that proudly place the name “Dutch Reformed Church” on their signs. You just have to go to South Africa to find them.

South Africa was colonized by the Dutch East India Company as a way-station between the mother country and the company’s lands in Indonesia. Then, in 1795, the British conquered and occupied South Africa, formally annexing the colony in 1806. This meant that the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was cut off from its mother church in the Netherlands, but it continued to use the same name and serve the Dutch colonists and their descendants.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, there are actually two churches that use the name “Dutch Reformed Church” in South Africa. The original church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, was soon taken over by the British authorities, who sent Scottish Presbyterian ministers to preach to its congregations. This, combined with a number of other conflicts between the British authorities and Dutch population, led many so-called “Boers” (farmers) to make their way out of British-held regions and set up their own communities on the African savanna, as well as their own, not-British-controlled church, the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk. Both names translate in English to “Dutch Reformed Church”, so usually they are differentiated by referring to them as the “Dutch Reformed Church – NGK” and “Dutch Reformed Church – NHK”. Both of these churches still operate today, and you can see their websites here and here (though neither is in English, I’m afraid).

The big one: Guantanamo Bay

Aerial view of Guantanamo Bay from Wikipedia

Most of you have probably heard of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because it is the location of the highly controversial detention center where people suspected of terrorism have been held in a legal limbo for years, with many of those cleared of all charges having nowhere to go when released. What many of you have probably wondered amid all the headlines and protests and arguments is why the United States built this detention center in a previously little-known harbor in Cuba, of all places. Isn’t Cuba, you know, not friends with Uncle Sam?

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain to help Cuba win its independence, as I’ve covered on this blog before. In the aftermath of the war, the United States adopted the Platt Amendment, a clause in the treaty granting Cuba its independence that gave the United States some special rights in the country. One of those clauses granted the U.S. Navy to build a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, paying Cuba an annual lease for the right to the land the base would be built on.

The naval base is still in use by the U.S. Navy, much to the frustration of the Cuban government. In 1959, Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries took control of Cuba, and quickly aligned with America’s Cold War enemies. The new Cuban government refused to accept the continued American military presence on their island, and refused to honor the lease. However, Cuba has nowhere near the military strength to dislodge the Americans. As a result, the United States continues to send those lease payments to the Cuban government every year, and the Cuban government refuses to accept them. In fact, Fidel Castro keeps America’s checks stuffed in a desk drawer.

That’s why it’s so important to learn about our history. It isn’t just some events we recall to hear a good story or learn a lesson. The past is still influencing and shaping our lives and our world today.

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