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Consequences in Alternate History: The Garibaldi Problem

By Tom Anderson

I recently mentioned on social media that on this day (then November 4th) Túpac Amaru II had launched his uprising in Peru against Spanish rule in 1780. I mentioned this because in my “Look to the West” series of AH works, among many other things, his revolt is successful and spreads elsewhere in South America, ultimately leading to the breakaway United Provinces of South America.

Born José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, this Peruvian national hero came from royal Inca (Tahuantinsuya) blood and claimed to be the descendant of Túpac Amaru, the last Sapa Inca (emperor of the Inca Empire) who had been executed by the Spanish in 1572. He changed his name to Túpac Amaru II and launched a rebellion against oppressive Spanish rule under which the native peoples of Peru, descended from that same Inca Empire, were frequently enslaved in all but name. He captured and hanged the Governor of Tinta, Antonio de Arriagam, but ultimately failed to take the old Inca capital of Cuzco. The rebellion was defeated in the end and Túpac Amaru II was brutally tortured and executed by the Spanish colonial authorities in 1781, most of his family put to death along with him. Inca clothing and cultural traditions were banned by the authorities as a result. Nonetheless, Túpac Amaru II’s revolt was an important symbol, both in Peru and further beyond in Spanish America, of what a rebellion could achieve, especially one that emphasised the oppressed native peoples. A generation later, Spanish rule in what is now Latin America finally shattered and many former colonies, including Peru, became independent republics.

Tupac Amaru II. Not a rapper.

I’ve titled this article “The Garibaldi Problem” for reasons we’ll see later, but it could easily have been titled The Tupac Problem. Because there will be a lot of people reading this article who cannot help but look at the name given repeatedly above, perhaps even with the Spanish acute accent on the U, and not immediately have the subconscious association of “Haha, like the rapper”.

This isn’t a coincidence. Tupac Amaru Shakur (1971-1996), often referred to simply as Tupac or 2Pac, is today regarded as one of the most influential rappers of all time; as with figures in other genres of music, his early and tragic death only intensified his legend. His New York-based parents, Billy Garland and Alice Faye Williams (later Afeni Shakur) were both active in the Black Panther Party fighting for civil rights, sometimes by controversial means. He was born under the name Leane Parish Crooks, but at the age of one his mother Afeni renamed him after the great Peruvian revolutionary hero. She said ‘I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world. I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighbourhood.’

This is the Garibaldi Problem. Afeni Shakur named her son in honour of a prominent figure from the past, a man whom she presumably admired. But because that man is relatively obscure in the English-speaking world, whereas her son grew up to be a rapper whose name is known even to those uninterested in rap, we now cannot look at the former’s name without thinking of the latter. And the fact that the latter is associated with a far more modern, everyday setting means that it presses our internal subconscious ‘haha, that’s silly’ button in the same way it would if we saw Julius Caesar whip out an iPhone. So, paradoxically, Afeni Shakur has ensured that a historical figure she admired now gets less respect.

There are many, many examples of this occurring throughout history. One man even managed two at once. Cassius Clay (1810-1903), the so-called ‘Lion of White Hall’, was a Kentuckian abolitionist who worked hard for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Cassius Clay.

Coming from a southern planter background himself, his advocacy carried more weight with slavers than words from northerners from free states whom they could dismiss as outsiders. He was also appointed as US representative to Russia by Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, a fellow Kentuckian, an African-American born in 1912, was named in honour of that abolitionist hero of his state. When he grew up, he had a son with the same name, and this Cassius Clay went on to become perhaps the greatest boxer of all time (certainly in his own opinion, given his catchphrase ‘I am the greatest!’). Later, he converted to Islam and chose to take a Muslim name: Muhammad Ali. This, being the combination of the names of the Prophet of Islam and his cousin/son-in-law/Shi’ite successor Ali, is naturally a rather common combination among Muslims. However, before this time, most western scholars would first think of Muhammad Ali, Albanian-born Khedive of Egypt (1769-1849). Originally appointed to run Egypt by its Ottoman rulers, he broke away to found the modern nation of Egypt, conquering and expanding its borders, and would likely have gone even further if not halted by the diplomatic balance of the European powers at the time. His descendants would go on to rule Egypt until they were overthrown in 1952 Even in a country like Egypt which has perhaps the longest recorded history of anywhere in the world, he would stand out as a great ruler.

But now, everyone in the West thinks of the boxer before they think of either the abolitionist or the Egyptian ruler. Two historical figures have been overshadowed by a modern association.

There are other examples. Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, remains well known for his military victories over Napoleon’s forces in the Napoleonic Wars, although his later political career is much less well known. His popularity in his lifetime meant that both Wellington boots and the dish Beef Wellington were named after him. But now, to many people (especially in the United States) they think of those things before the man himself, and now cannot take the idea of there being a person called ‘Wellington’ seriously.

I’ll conclude this article with just one more example (we may cover others in a future continuation). Specifically, the figure who has lent his name to this phenomenon. Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general and revolutionary hero who fought for the unification of Italy. An adventurer with many colourful and thrilling adventures, he had previously fought for various rebel and revolutionary movements in South America. Though the ideas of Italian unification stemmed from Giuseppe Mazzini and his allies, it was Garibaldi’s command on the battlefield and charismatic leadership of his fighters which resulted in the unification of Italy in his lifetime. To this day, it is rare to find a town or city in Italy without a Via Garibaldi.

Guiseppe Garibaldi in a red shirt

Garibaldi was a hugely popular leader internationally, admired by Abraham Lincoln among many others. As a symbol of the rights of the common man, he was enthusiastically received by the people of Tyneside in the UK on a visit in 1854. His supporters were known as Redshirts (which began on an earlier campaign in Uruguay) and the colour red became associated with him. Nottingham Forest Football Club, founded in 1865, decided to buy ‘Garibaldi Red’ caps to distinguish themselves, and the colours they still wear to this day were born. Twenty years later, Arsenal were founded in London, and Nottingham Forest made a charitable donation towards them, which was recognised by Arsenal also choosing Garibaldi Red as their colours. Thanks to a decision made at this time, those football teams are still playing under those colours a century and a half later.

But the Garibaldi Problem stems from another way in which British admirers chose to commemorate Garibaldi. In 1861 the Bermondsey-based biscuit company Peek Freans decided to make a new biscuit containing currants, and they chose to either honour or cash in on memories of Garibaldi’s visit a few years ago; 1861 was also the year that all Italy except Rome and Venetia was finally united. The Garibaldi biscuit, a dense layer of currants packed between two thin oblongs of biscuit dough for a chewy result, was a hit. It survives to this day, albeit no longer made by the original manufacturer. Garibaldis are also popularly nicknamed ‘squashed fly biscuits’ due to the currants resembling them.

And this is the Garibaldi Problem. In the modern UK, few people who are not students of history or Italophiles know who Giuseppe Garibaldi is. Yet everyone knows a Garibaldi as a kind of biscuit, which means the British people simply cannot take his name seriously—even though the biscuit was intended to honour him.

This is not the case in other countries, as was illustrated by the groundbreaking science fiction TV series “Babylon 5” by Polish-American screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. Looking for a name for the head of security on the eponymous space station, JMS decided to pull off a clever and subtle pun. In the original “Star Trek”, to which all other TV sci-fi is inevitably compared, the Enterprise’s security men wore red shirts, and it was almost a running joke that one of them would be killed by the alien of the week and have their body discovered by Dr McCoy: “He’s dead, Jim”. This had escalated among the fandom into the idea that ‘redshirts’ were dead men walking, and the term had entered common use (to the point that many people today will also not be able to take seriously the name ‘Redshirts’ as used by Garibaldi’s supporters). JMS seized on this connection, and (even though “Babylon 5” uniforms aren’t red) named the head of security “Michael Garibaldi” as the “leader of the Redshirts”.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the only response was ‘haha he has the name of a biscuit’.

The moral of the story is: be careful when naming something in someone’s honour, or you might end up having the opposite effect!



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