April 06, 2023

#ThrowbackThursday – 6 April

Did you know that there was once a beard tax in Russia? Or that there’s a child out there with three parents? Or maybe you’re wondering how Cape Town came to be?

To find out more, observe these three events that went down in history on 6 April:

1652 – The Arrival of Van Riebeeck

Three hundred and seventy-one years ago, the first European settlement was founded in what is now known as Cape Town in the Republic of South Africa.

In December 1651, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) tasked one of its colonial administrators, Jan van Riebeeck, to establish an outpost at the Cape of Good Hope. Here, VOC ships could be supplied with fresh fruit, vegetables and food supplies while en-route to Asia. He was also entrusted with establishing a defence fort against the native Khoikhoi, as well as against European rivals who competed against the VOC for shipping and land rights.

Four months later, Van Riebeeck arrived at his destination. On 6 April 1652, the Drommedaris and two other ships arrived at the Cape’s Table Bay area. Starting with a simple wooden and timber structure to act as a fort, the Dutch settlers were slow to start growing crops, with the result that many of their food supplies were transported from the Netherlands. They were soon given permission by the VOC to acquire land near the fort and establish their own vegetable plots.

As the decade went by, expansion grew and grew, with more and more settlers spreading throughout the Cape to establish their own settlements and farms. This created tension with the Khoikhoi, who were losing their pastures (and even their cattle) to the foreigners, resulting in the first Khoi-Dutch war from 1659 to 1660.

As for the fort, this was replaced by a bastion fort in 1666: the Castle of Good Hope. It was meant to be used as a means of defence against the French and the British, who were displaying interest in settling in the Cape, but it was never attacked.

Until the early 1800s, the Dutch had firm control over the Cape Colony, which makes one wonder what could have happened if Van Riebeeck hadn’t sailed down from the Netherlands to it.

1772 – Beard Tax, A Burden No More

Beards aren’t for everyone. Some don’t like rocking them, while others simply don’t like seeing people rocking them. Between 1698 and 1772 in Russia, the subject of beards was … a little hairy, to say the least.

In 1698, Tsar Peter the Great imposed a “beard tax”. Yes, he actually taxed beard-wearers.

But why? Because, after travelling around Europe for two years, he believed that Russia had to step up its efforts to become a global, modern superpower in the same vein as Britain, Austria and France. This meant reforming the country’s economy, government, religion, culture … and fashion sense.

Since beards were apparently out of vogue with his European neighbours, Tsar Peter wanted every man to shave off their beards so that they could fit the image of the “modern man” (he set an example for this by shaving off his own facial hair at his welcome-back reception). For those who refused to pursue the clean-shaven route, they were to be taxed accordingly: merchants and members of the Russian nobility were to pay 100 rubles annually while commoners had to pay one kopek.

Failure to adhere to the beard tax resulted in one’s beard being forcibly shaved off by Russian guards. So, for those who did pay, it was pretty important to carry on their persons “beard tokens” (silver for merchants/nobility, copper for commoners), proof that they had paid for the right to wear beards.

Naturally, the beard tax was not popular, especially with the Russian Orthodox Church, who required its clergymen and laymen to grow beards; to shave them off would be a sin, according to their teachings.

Thankfully, on 6 April 1772 – nearly 100 years after the beard tax was introduced – Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, abolished it. Since then, beard-wearers have been able to wear their facial hair in Russia with pride!

2016 – Three Parents and a Baby

Conception methods have evolved over the years: stronger fertility treatments, insemination, in-vitro fertilisation, surrogacy, and so on. Another method was used as recently as 2016, although it raised many eyebrows around the world due to its controversial nature. 

On 6 April in New York City, New York, a baby boy was born with not just two parents, but THREE.

See, the baby’s parents, who hailed from Jordan, suffered four miscarriages and lost two other infants to Leigh syndrome, which badly affects the central nervous system. The mother was a carrier of a gene for the disease – housed in the mitochondria cells of her DNA – which meant that any children she had would likely be born with it (and die from it). To prevent this, they approached US reproductive specialists, who used a very contentious technique known as spindle nuclear transfer.

Per The New York Times: “The technique that led to the healthy birth was to move the DNA from an egg of the mother, who had mutated mitochondria, and place it in the egg of a healthy egg donor – after first removing the healthy donor’s nuclear DNA from her egg cell. Then that egg, with its healthy mitochondria and the mother’s DNA, could be fertilised.”

In other words, the donor’s genetic material was mixed with that of the parents, resulting in a unique two-mother, one-father situation.

The baby’s birth was the first of its kind: until that moment, there had never been an instance when a child was born as a result of two eggs and a sperm. Nevertheless, the great takeaway from this is that, months after his birth, he did not show any signs of Leigh syndrome at all.

Successful though it was, spindle nuclear transfer has yet to be legalised in the USA (which was why this first instance was done across the border in Mexico). But who knows? It might be a common conception method in the years to come.