It has been called the Garbage Heap of Tamriel, to where everything rotten and despoiled eventually flows. Its borderlands and coasts have been ravaged by civilization after civilization, but its heart is inviolate, for so poisonous is its air, ground, and water, its mysteries are secure. Detractors long ago called the southeastern swampland of Tamriel "Black Marsh," but to its admirers, of whom there are a few, it is Argonia.
Every Province of Tamriel has its secret histories, but no land in the Empire is as undocumented and unexplored as Black Marsh. We know that Topal the Pilot and other early Aldmeri explorers passed through the "fetid, evil swamp lands and their human lizards," suggesting an early primitive species that might be related to the modern day Argonians. By the phrasing of the poet's words, it is also clear that Black Marsh had begun its long tradition of being a place no one would want to live in, man or mer, which it maintains into the present day.
Yet people did live there, and people did move there. Compared to much of Tamriel, there have been a large variety of cultures that have live in Black Marsh at different points in the past. Most surprisingly from a modern perspective, we hear of few wars or conflicts between these cultures until well into the Second Era.
In additional to the reptilian Argonians, who are today Black Marsh's most visible denizen, there were once tribes of men - Kothringi, Orma, Yespest, Horwalli - and tribes of mer - the Barsaebic Ayleids and the Cantemiric Velothi - and even a tribe who may have been related to the Khajiit of Elsweyr, the vulpine Lilmothiit. Some were sent to Black Marsh as refugees of prisoners, other settled along the coastal waterways and adapted to its strange and usually insalubrious environment.
The cities of Stormhold and Gideon were originally founded by the Ayleids (their Ayleid names are unknown), but were so far removed from their culture in the heartland that they never were attacked by the Alessian army when it rose in revolt. The southern coastal regions, not surprisingly, were the realms of the Lilmothiit, though they were a nomadic group and left few enduring signs of their existence that were not covered up by later civilizations. The Black Marsh elves settled in the eastern regions near present-day Archon, Arnesia, and Thorn.
The origin of the species associated with the name "Argonian" is the stuff of myth, not history. We know they were spoken of in various terms by the early non-reptilian inhabitants of Black Marsh, as everything from funny curiosities that would wander in from the misty, mephitic inland bayous for short times, to noble heroes who saver the innocent from horrors of the swamps, to savage monsters who terrorized communities.
The historian Brendan the Persistent writes, "The Argonian people have, throughout Temrielic history, been perhaps the most misunderstood, vilified, and reviled of all the sentient races. Yet, those who have taken the time to experience Argonian culture have gained a greater appreciation for this noble and beautiful people." It should be noted that the historian disappeared during his final expedition into the deeper swamps of Black Marsh.
Rumors and speculation also abound regarding the Hist, a species of giant spore tree growing in the innermost swamps of Argonia. Some have maintained that natives worship the trees; others claim the trees are, in fact, a sentient race, more ancient than all the races of man and mer. No reliable accounts of expeditions into central Argonia exist to lend credence to these claims, and modern Argonians are reticent to speak of the mysterious trees.
The Argonians, as they came to be called, only occasionally left their homeland, though we find individuals in other parts of Tamriel in the early years of the First Era. The expatriates from Black Marsh did no offer any great insight into the tribal customs of their people, preferring to assimilate into the larger Tamrielic culture. Certainly, outside experience with the natives of Black Marsh in their own folkways, at least in any official capacity, was sporadic until middle of the First Era.
A very successful enterprise of bandits and thieves had long been exploiting the swampland of southeastern Tamriel, a convenient location to the riches of the Empire, where one could disappear without recourse. The coastline along the east of Topal Bay had become notorious for acts of piracy, and in 1E 1033, the Empress Hestra demanded the head of the most infamous of the brigadiers, "Red" Bramman.
After many an unsuccessful battle in the Bay, the Imperial Navy discovered the pirate-king's means of escaping capture: a narrow, winding river which emptied into the Bay near Soulrest, its mouth screen by dense thickets of mangroves. The Imperial Fleet followed the course deeper into the heart of Black Marsh than any non-Argonian had ever been before. They eventually caught Bramman in his bandit kingdom not far from what is no called Blackrose, and took his head for the Empress. More importantly, they provided the first reliable accounts of the true culture of Black Marsh.
The Argonians in the interior swamps of Black Marsh were skittish and little wonder, as the contact they had with men from the outside was from the like of Bramman and other brigands. Imperial civilization was, to them, rape, pillage and slavery. As the Cyrodiils pushed deeper into their land, trying to settle it along the pirate routes, they encountered stronger and more violent resistance with each incursion. Once the pirate menace was dealt with, the First Empire was generally content to leave Black Marsh to its native inhabitants.
It was not until the time of the Second Empire that Black Marsh was first "conquered", at least in name. In 1E 2811, at the Battle of Argonia, the last organized army of reptilians in Black Marsh's history was defeated, and they retreated to Helstrom, into the impenetrable center of the Province where the men and mer wouldn't follow. The followind year, Black Marsh was officially incorporated into the Cyrodilic Empire.
The coastal areas and some parts of the interior where it was safe to travel received Imperial leaders to rule in the emperor's name. The land that had once been the home of freedom for Tamriel's criminals became its greatest prison state. Anyone considered too dangerous to hold in "civilized" dungeons in other Provinces was sent to Black Marsh. Its most famouse convicts include the notorious axe murderer Nai, the heretic Devir-Mir, and Tavia, the wife of the last emperor of the First Era, who was sent to Gideon in 1E 2899, accused of treason. The worst of the dungeons was constructed in the following era by Potentate Versidue-Shaie on the ruins of the Lilmothiit community called Blackrose. The Rose, as it is called, is still the most secure and notorious prison of our own time, where Jagar Tharn's associates who were not executed await their final end.
In the chaos of the Second Era, banditry returned to Black Marsh in force. Slave traders from Morrowind were freer than ever to exploit their southern neighbor, and entire tribes of Argonians were dragged in chains to the Dunmer land. Former Imperial officials founded warlord dynasties which earned a reputation for tyranny even in that dark time.
Whether the terrible Khahaten Flu arose from natural causes, or was created by an Argonian shaman in retaliation for his people's oppression, is still a matter of debate. But its result was clear. The plague began in Stormhold in 2E 560, and quickly spread to every corner of Black Marsh, killing all those not reptilian stock. For over forty years, it held the Province in its grip, decimating entire cultures (notably, the Kothringi) and driving outsiders from the land.
Even when the land became inhabitable again, fear of the disease kept most outsiders away. House Dres of Morrowind continued to send slavers into the north, but few others saw any reason to trouble themselves with the land. Even Tiber Septim, it was said, thought twice before conquering Black Marsh for his new Empire. The borders of the province fell easily to his forces, but he wisely decided to avoid strategically unimportant inner swamps, and thus met with little resistance.
Black Marsh's position in the Third Era has been much the same as it has been throughout the other times in history. The Empire finds strategic benefit in holding the coasts, and keeps its most dangerous criminals in Black rose and other dungeons closer to its interior. The heart of Black Marsh remains the sole province of the reptilian Argonians, and any further annexation of this area by Imperial forces seems unlikely.
Black Marsh continues to be a "backward" land economically by Imperial standards. Most of the agriculture is grown by subsistence farmers, though recently more has been shipped abroad, of Tamriel. Banditry appears to be on the decline in recent years, with most criminal acts being perpetrated not by outsiders, but by natives, such as the "Naga" thugs of Argonian stock. Rumors persists of gangs such as these smuggling powerful drugs across the borders of Black Marsh, but this has remained unproven to this day. Still, the Emperor's fleet guards the Topal Bay carefully, protecting merchants from the pirates who have never truly been eliminated.
Imperials continue to rule in the Empire's name along the coastal cities of the Province, but most have native Argonians as advisors. These Archeins also act as governors in the rural areas that still make up the majority of Black Marsh. Beyond the reach of the Empire, there is little supervision of the inner swamplands, and it is unknown whether or not these areas even recognize Imperial rule of the Province.
Since the abolishment of slavery, Black Marsh's relationship with its northern neighbor Morrowind has been much improved, though border clashes continue as Argonians have begun to reclaim land conquered during the Arnesian War. There have also been reports of minor skirmishes with Imperial troops along the coastal regions, but it is not believed that there is any threat posed by these isolated incidents.
More troubling is the recent prison break at the formidable Blackrose Prison. Though it has since been sealed and its weak points mended, some of the worst murderers, thieves, and political revolutionaries had already escaped into the swamps. It is believed unlikely that any of them could have survived the cruel, dangerous lands of inner Black Marsh.
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