New Internationalist

Curiosities

Issue 228

new internationalist
issue 228 - February 1992

Questions
...that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this,
your section, and be answered by other readers. Please address
your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

Was Beethoven black?

I don't know if Beethoven was black. I imagine some of his contemporaries might have noticed if he was. But I have heard that Michael Jackson was black.

B Misrahi,
London, UK

[image, unknown] The important question to start with is not 'was Beethoven black?' - but 'was he white?'. There is no evidence that he was white. But there is plenty of evidence he was black. The descriptions of him by his contemporaries for example. He was described as 'swarthy', with 'bristly hair' and a with a 'roundish nose and a blackish-brownish complexion'. He was known as the Black Spaniard in reference to his origins. Beethoven's family came not from Germany but from Louvain in Belgium - a country which was under the control of Spain for several centuries.

Within the Spanish army were large numbers of Moorish and black African soldiers. In 1878 Frederick Hertz (in Race and Civilization) traced in Beethoven 'Negroid traits'. Brunhold Springer in the New York Times, July 1, 1940 mentions Beethoven as one of the great Germans who was of 'Negro ancestry'. Beethoven's life mask at the age of 42 makes the point quite clearly; his death mask even more so. If anyone wants to find out more about historical figures we have been led to believe are white but who were in fact black, they can contact me at the address below for a list of books and places where such publications can be found. They could start with Sex and Race by JL Rogers and a more recent book called What they never taught you in history books.

Lance Lewis,
Peacock Centre, Peacock Close,
Gorton, Manchester Ml 8 BEG, UK.

Does anyone know the origin of the rickshaw?

Rickshaws were invented in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century by a European missionary. The name derives from the Japanese expression ji riki shaw which means literally 'vehicle propelled by man'. The first rickshaw appeared in India around 1880 on the avenues of Simla. Some 20 years later a few of these vehicles arrived in Calcutta, imported by Chinese traders who used them to transport goods.

In 1914 the same Chinese people applied for permission to use them to carry people and it wasn't long before rickshaws were to be found in many metropoli all over south-east Asia. For peasants migrating to the big cities the rickshaw offered a means of earning a living. No one knows exactly how many there are today in the streets of Calcutta - the city where there are most. Unofficial statistics suggest 50,000, providing employment for twice as many pullers. Their work provides food for their families, which means that over one million people look to the rickshaw for their daily bowl of rice. Economists have calculated that the economic value of rickshaws and their pulling is $6 million - a quarter of the budget of the whole urban transport system of a city like Paris.

Grace Jardine,
Christchurch, Aotearoa/NZ

Awaiting your answers...

Are large-scale eucalyptus planting programs a good or a bad thing for Third World countries?

Rebecca Hoist,
Toronto, Canada.

I've heard that someone has invented a car that runs off chicken manure. Is this true?

June Keen,
Perth, Australia.

Big Bad World by P J POLYP

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities,
New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK,
or to your local NI office (click here for addresses).

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