Of cabbages and kings

OK, I took a deep breath after the last post and I’m going to take a crack at how the discussion of Nzinga Mbemba’s letter to the King of Portugal went in my two gen ed World History classes today.

So, we had about twenty minutes in both sections. I asked them to read the first paragraph of the letter, which took most of them a few minutes. Then I asked them to do me a favor and read it again. Here’s the paragraph:

Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that it is convenient to provide for the necessary remedy, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well.

I asked what would happen if I said ‘Discuss’. Lots of them smiled. So I said ‘Discuss’. They looked at each other and shifted around in their seats. Then they started saying things. In each group, I prompted with the discussion rubric that answers may be right or wrong, but more often they are better or worse, more or less complete. So we’re building toward better, more complete answers.

Here are some things they figured out:

*Mbemba had less power in his own kingdom than the King of Portugal.

*Mbemba was pretty upset about that.

*Mbemba couldn’t say so directly because he was in no position to make his feelings the issue.

*Congo was overrun with attractive foreign goodies.

*Mbemba did not control the distribution of these goodies.

*This was a problem for Mbemba because his authority was based on monopoly and selective distribution of attractive goodies.

*Mbemba was unable to use military power to restore order.

*This was perhaps because the Portuguese had his military power in check; but more importantly, his military power derived from the loyalty of his vassals, and it was exactly that which was being disrupted by the new channels of goodie access.

*Having no power of command in the situation, Mbemba was strategizing secondary assets like kingly kinship, presumptions of reciprocity, and religious obligation.

I’m pretty happy with that as a start. I expect from long experience that what seven or eight of us in each section did in that discussion was followed actively by a similar number of silent partners; was completely mysterious and unreproducible for another five or six; and bored or infuriated a couple more who just want to get on with getting their perseverence certificate.



  1. Pingback: Conditions of work | Attention Surplus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s