On Black Swans

For over a thousand years Europeans took for granted that black swans were mythological beings, like unicorns and mermaids. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote in his Satires that the ideal wife was “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” or, “a rare bird on earth, like a black swan.” Black swans were assumed not to exist because no one had ever seen a black swan. After Dutch explorers reached Western Australia, in 1697, Europeans learned that black swans are real and the conventional wisdom was forced to change. Thus, today, a “black swan event” is a metaphor to describe an occurrence that results in transformational change but is so rare that most people never live through one making it impossible to predict if or when one might happen. Elizabeth II was the longest reigning sovereign in British history, as well as the longest serving female head of state ever, making her death and the extravagant series of ritualized events it has triggered a veritable flock of Black Swans.

The end of any nonagenarian’s life is hardly a black swan event in itself. However, the Queen’s demise has brought about a multitude of carefully orchestrated public events with black swan potentialities. In retrospect it can be argued all of this was predictable, the Queen herself planned her own funeral in minute detail. Her coffin shall be drawn from London up to Windsor Castle by Sailors of the Royal Navy following a tradition that began with a black swan event during the funeral of William IV in 1837. No one had predicted that the horse-drawn carriage bearing the King’s coffin would breakdown approaching Windsor, requiring Sailors marching with the funeral procession to come forward and pull the carriage by hand the rest of the way up the hill. Black Swan theory proposes that the best safeguard against statistically unpredictable events is to have robust risk management protocols already in place to prevent disasters resulting from black swan events.

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was an exceptionally rare event, but it was expected and planned for well in advance. The Queen’s mother had lived to age 101, and Her Majesty was active and healthy throughout her life. By the time the celebrations around the Jubilee had come and gone, nothing surprising had occurred to bring about significant change. Technically, the probability anyone will die increases the longer they are alive, so even the fact that the Queen died so soon after her Jubilee is not all that surprising. However, black swan events aren’t just exceptionally rare, transformative, and unpredictable, they are also defined by the tendency to retroactively rationalize that they were predictable.

Heads of state and other dignitaries converged upon London to join the new King in paying respects to the late Queen by attending her funeral. This solemn gathering of world leaders presents a profound challenge to the agencies responsible for the personal safety of these individuals. When it comes to applications of Black Swan theory among security professionals, this funeral is the ultimate black swan event. With over 1 million people expected to turn out to witness the final procession to Windsor, simply controlling the crowds shall pose difficulties; on top of which, the risk of a terrorist attack leaves zero room for error on the part of those charged with protecting King and commoner alike in this moment of collective grief.

In 17th Century London the phrase “like a black swan” meant something which was impossible, but a century later the revelation that black swans do exist caused the meaning of the expression to change to something real but very rare. When she was born, Princess Elizabeth Windsor existed in a world where the Sun would never set upon the British Empire and the very notion that it could was seen as an impossibility. Before she had even ascended to the throne the British Raj had come to an end, and the decline of the empire had become an inevitability. As Queen she was a “rara avis” among monarchs, taking an active hand in transforming her role on the world stage to adapt to the changing realities of the late 20th Century. The social and political pressures of the 21st Century have made the survival of the British monarchy increasingly unlikely. Yet, the House of Windsor have themselves become a rare unpredictable phenomena with the potential to change the world, a family of Black Swans stridently defying and redefining the parameters of what is possible.

4 thoughts on “On Black Swans”

  1. The historian in me is very impressed with the detailed and succinct summary of these historical events. The linguist in me is so ashamed right now that I have never heard the term ‘black swan event’ and the phrase ‘like a black swan’. I have never come across such metaphors, so I am proud to say that I learned something new today.

        1. On further thought, I worry that this will once again put the monarchy vs republic debate back in the spotlight in AUS. The last thing we need is a president.

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