Sunday, August 8, 2010

Former National Capitals

Some time back, we profiled a couple former state capitals: why they were declared capitals and how/why they had that designation taken away.

The flag counter indicates we don't just have an American audience. Primarily American, but not entirely. So today, let's do the logical thing and repeat the stunt on the global level. Just like there are former state capitals, there are former world capitals. The selection of a national capital is for obvious reasons going to tend to have more serious circumstances surrounding it. National capitals are much more likely to shift around via, oh, say, foreign invasion rendering the capital part of a completely different country. Capturing the capital is generally regarded as a signal that the capturing country has won a war.

Let's see if we can't pull three or four good stories out of this group.

Let's start with the runner-up on the flag counter, the United Kingdom.

Winchester, England

London hasn't always been the capital of England. It's been so for a long time, since 1066, but it took the title from Winchester. Winchester gained and lost capital status via the usual method of some invading force selecting a place they liked better than the current location.

It became capital on some time in the latter 600's AD when King Caedwalla of- where else- Wessex beat King Atwald of Wight, and selected Winchester over Dorchester-on-Thames, mainly because Winchester was closer to the area where Caedwalla wished to expand the kingdom. In 827, it was formalized as that era's king, King Egbert, called it the foremost city in his kingdom. In 1066, they lost capital status to the Norman Conquest, which sent it to London. William the Conqueror would have himself crowned in both cities, but it would, over the years, slowly slip from still-royal to unimportant to tourist site.

Florence, Italy

If you came into this world with total knowledge of everything about Italy except which city was the capital, you could make a number of very reasonable guesses. There's Rome, of course, but Turin and Naples and Milan and maybe even Genoa could plausibly stand in as capital.

And, of course, there's Florence, a city that has for centuries traded on their being one of if not THE most beautiful city on Earth, with its art, architecture, and architecture-as-art, set against some already-charming structures dating back to the Renaissance.

And if only they had actually remembered that, they might still be capital today. As the various city-states that today make up Italy were consolidating, they needed a capital. When Florence came on board, it replaced Turin, the original choice, in 1866. Florence, therefore, needed some government buildings. Florence got itself some government buildings.

They rather overzealously got themselves some government buildings. They knocked down some of those pretty medieval houses, as well as a beloved market, the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio. ...okay, that's not quite accurate. Citizen outrage, led by British and American expats, prevented a total destruction of the Piazza, though too late for most of it. Bad tastes were left in mouths all around, and the erasure of the market merely meant new markets had to force out other things in town. Part of the aim was to streamline traffic; the actions taken accomplished nothing.

When Rome became part of Italy in 1871, the capital moved in kind. All the expenditures and modernization had come to nothing; the city would quickly go bankrupt and shed 20,000 people in three years.

Florence could have stayed capital. They blew it.

Salalah, Oman

Salalah is and was the traditional home of the Sultan, which made it a natural place for Said bin Taimur to have a capital when he assumed power in 1932. Said bin Taimur was not particularly interested in using the sizable oil reserves under his command to enrich his people. Nor was he particularly interested in anything resembling modernity, as his policies included such things as public executions, black slavery, and restrictions on books, radios and eyeglasses.

He also kept his son, Qaboos bin Said, a much more progressive man, in house arrest in Salalah for a large chunk of his rulership. This lasted until 1970, when Qaboos, with the help of the British, overthrew his father in a palace coup. (Though if you ask Qaboos, he will claim it's an abdication.)

However, Salalah and Muscat, the two largest cities in the countries felt separate from each other. The country was even known as "Muscat and Oman". In 1970, Qaboos bin Said, decided to bring the country in line with itself, and as part of that, Muscat became the new capital. He would also start seriously drawing on the oil resources and put the money towards bringing the country up to speed. Over the years, Oman has quietly become a very respectable country with a very respectable ruler. There are still some policy issues- being gay is still illegal- but considering where Oman has come from since 1970, they've come a long way.

Bolama, Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau was formerly Portuguese Guinea, dating back to the 1400's. Bolama, an island close to the mainland, was claimed by the Portuguese in 1830, and nine years after fending off an annexation attempt by the British, they named Bolama the first capital of the country. (No, countries didn't always have capitals.)

This was fine for a while, as Bolama was an okay port, but there was one problem: Bolama was on an island and technically out in the Atlantic Ocean. This meant a lack of fresh water. Bissau, meanwhile, while coastal as well, sat on the estuary of the Geba River. It had Bolama's advantages without its disadvantages. In 1941, they pulled the trigger and put Bolama out of its misery.

And was it ever put out of its misery. As it turned out, the fact that it happened to be the capital was the only reason anyone was living in Bolama in the first place. When the government moved out, so did most of the residents, to the point where only a few thousand people remain, and Bolama has been largely reclaimed by the jungle.

Much of the details in Bolama's history, however, appear lost, as the town records were heavily damaged from a civil war in 1998-99.

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