The Patrimony

In politics, everything is relatives

Tag: kings

Stranger kings

by fpman

It’s that time of the year when one can (have the time to) think of things like… stranger kings. No, not the “Three Kings.” Just kings (or leaders) who are strangers to the land they rule (or used to rule, back in the day). I could as well be thinking about “What’s the purpose of Stonehenge?” (but I listen to it instead). The subject of stranger kings is nevertheless definitely closer to the subject area we are covering on this blog so I’ll spare you of some off-topic blogging.

If you think about it, the topic of stranger kings is actually even a bit of a paradoxical subject from the point of view of the Patrimony. Someone who was originally an alien to the people and the land under one’s rule by definition did not have family ties at birth that helped him/her into position. Those ties could of course be built up on the go, and they indeed were, in most cases, with the affinal ties that resulted being one of the key resources a stranger could use and rely on to get to rule… and to rule.

But some further literature which I am reading at the moment reveals that there may have been other resources, too. Or other reasons, rather, for a stranger becoming the king of the land.

David Henley: Conflict, Justice, and the Stranger-King Indigenous Roots of Colonial Rule in Indonesia and Elsewhere. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2004), pp. 85–144. LINK

Marshall Sahlins: The Stranger King or Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life. Indonesia and the Malay World, Vol. 36, No. 105, July 2008, pp. 177–199.

As it may transpire from these sources, picking a stranger to be king could mitigate conflict between an ethnic group’s competing sub-units – Henley explains the emergence of colonial rule in some places with this as a key mechanism. Sahlins ponders how stranger kings often represented the “foreign” that is both desired and feared, and how the choice of an alien to rule one’s land worked similarly to the affinal tie of marriage on the personal level (through which many stranger kings have historically come to power, actually). The choice of a stranger both as king and as spouse led to constructive renewal (which, as we know from the science on consanguineal marriages, is even biologically/genetically necessary, to avoid too much in-breeding).

This is all fascinating. But the examples considered from the world of ancient communities from Greece to the Southeast Asian islands and Melanesia, and from the colonial era, seem remote. This begs the question: are stranger kings extinct by today? Has, as a result of nationalism, citizenship (and the requirement thereof) emerged as a must-have bond to a political community that pre-determines that a certain degree of strangeness cannot be overcome to get to rule a certain land? Knowing that citizenship (where the notion exists) actually does not work in a universal and homogeneous manner (just like rule of law and human rights don’t, either) this is an intriguing question…

Interesting contemporary examples jump to mind, too, from the Hashemite dynasty ruling Jordan today in the person of Abdullah II (a dynasty hailing from the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula) to Sonia Gandhi in India (the Italian lady who met then-future Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, UK, and is now pulling the strings within the Indian National Congress party)…

Having thought through this, for strangers to be truly strangers one should also have a strong difference between internal and external that is not there so much, and certainly not universally there, in today’s increasingly transnationalizing world… which some people refer to as a “neo-medieval” order of sorts, implying that once we were there already, in the past…

Alright, no more paragraphs ending with ellipses today!

All quiet in the House of Saud?

by fpman

Gerald Butt, writing for the BBC, is warning us (in my words from here) that the situation past peak production of oil is not the only concern we should have related to Saudi Arabia: being past peak production of the “Sudairi sons” may be similarly concerning, prospectively. The Sudairi sons, or the “Sudairi Seven” are seven sons of the late Saudi king Ibn Saud from Hassa al-Sudairi, a favourite among the late king’s many wives. Currently this line of the family provides the oil kingdom with its succession of rulers.

Below is the relevant part of the family tree from Butt’s article, also giving you suggestions as to who in the next generation could follow once Abdullah, Salman and Muqrin will no longer be there.

Now, we don’t have to have a PhD in Gender Studies to be able to tell that there’s something wrong with how the family tree is visualised there. And no, it’s not that it is indicated that King Ibn Saud had “approximately” forty-five sons even though that indicates some potentially interesting things, too. On a more superficial level, the obvious problem is that women apparently are not supposed to belong in a scheme of this kind. It’s just the men who are shown. Hassa al-Sudairi has done her service as the mother of seven royal heirs but that doesn’t earn her a place there.

SaudiRoyalLineageAn overview of le royal with ease

At the risk of saying “at the risk of stating the obvious,” we may add that the absence of women is of course reflective of the general understanding of the role of women in Saudi Arabia. It is the men who deal with the important problems, such as that of which of them should take the throne. Back to Butt’s article:

“A meeting of the Allegiance Council, a body consisting of sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud to resolve succession issues, was held in March 2014 and endorsed King Abdullah’s elevation of Prince Muqrin – with the proviso that this appointment could not be overturned.”

At the end of the day, however, I don’t actually have to have a PhD in Geopolitical Studies to be able to tell you that this of course is not necessarily the foremost concern from the point of view of the world economy right now, and that in fact a succession of well-educated royal heirs to the throne may be much better in this respect than a bunch of AK-wielding shura members electing their caliphs (opportunity cost, damn it).

Auctioning off some Russian foreign affairs correspondence

by fpman

This letter, from 1762, is going to be auctioned on November 19 in Paris. In it, the Russian Empress Catherine II (actually a lady of German origin) is writing to her lover, Stanisław August Poniatowski, who would be King of Poland as Stanisław II only two years later. Catherine has just inherited the Russian throne and is in a precarious situation. She is sending some vital instructions to Stanisław to avoid unnecessary trouble. As quoted here (at the end of the article in question):

“You read my letters with very little attention. I’ve told you and repeated that I risk being assaulted from all sides if you put one foot back in Russia.”

Life was to become only more complicated later on…

CatherineIIWords of discontent in the letter…

For about 10 to 12 thousand Euros you may have the rest of the letter as well. And here you find the rest of the private letters written by famous women that will be auctioned on the same day, if you have some more money to spend…

But I wish to stop by the story of Catherine and Stanisław because theirs is a particularly interesting historical case with a view to the role of personal relationships in politics.

It was Catherine’s hope, and of those around her in St. Petersburg, that they would be in control of Stanisław just like they were in control of many other key figures in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth who were their paid clients at the time, including the Hetmans or the Commanders of the Polish and Lithuanian Armies. Palace intrigue played a role in why Catherine and Stanisław came together back in 1755, but they felt genuine attraction towards one another and would eventually consider marrying each other, before the idea became inconvenient (once Catherine had become ruler of Russia). And Anna Petrovna, Catherine’s second child, was possibly their daughter. In 1764, when Stanisław would be elected as King of the Polish noble republic, Russia spent a lot of money on getting him there and even positioned their troops near the site of the election assembly to make sure they got the result they wanted.

In the end, however,

“Stanisław-August, despite his links with the Empress Catherine, was the leader of Reform in Poland: the Empress, despite her links with the Enlightenment, was the paymistress of Poland’s conservative establishment.” (Davies, 2001: 270)

In other words: Stanisław II was independent-minded and attempted to carry out major reform of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including some very progressive and liberal policies, at the same time as he sought to strengthen the autonomy of his state. He was, after all, one out of only four Polish kings out of the eleven elected Kings of the Polish noble republic (the others were foreigners). Yet he was to be the last one.

It was his quest for highly timely reform that resulted in the end in the Partition of Poland. Russia considered the reforms a threat to its control over what it saw as a client state and a useful buffer zone against threats from the West: Prussia and Austria. Russia thus intervened, and once it did so it was forced by the logic of power politics to enter into talks over Poland’s future, resulting in the three-stage, three-way partition of the country at the end of which nothing was left of it, by 1795.


Norman Davies: Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.