Archive for November, 2011

Remembering the original veterans of Veterans Day

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

November 11th is called Veterans Day in the United States, a federal holiday in honor of all military veterans, living and dead. It only became such in 1954, however. It started out as Armistice Day, a day to honor the fallen soldiers of World War I on the anniversary of the official cessation of hostilities when Germany signed an armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. Four days earlier King George V had declared November 11th would thenceforth be observed as Remembrance Day in honor of the members of the armed forces who had been killed in the Great War.

I’m going to kick it old school in today’s entry because I think it’s a shame the US doesn’t have a day set aside to remember all the lives lost in World War I. Our involvement came late and the battlefields were distant. As a nation we didn’t pay the same cost Europe did, although many Americans paid with life and limb, so once World War II eclipsed the horror of our first foray into global war, it was easier for us to forget. So here’s just a little bit of remembrance of the original veterans of Veterans Day.

The members of the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 in West Hartford, Connecticut, veterans all, were recently reminded of their forefathers who fought in World War I. Post commander Andrew Battistoni was trying to get the cornerstone of their original building to stop from wobbling on its display table. The old building had been demolished when a new retail and residential complex was built in 2007. They meant to install the original cornerstone in the new building, but that didn’t happen so instead they put it on display. While Battistoni was chipping away at some uneven concrete that was making the cornerstone wobble, a little copper box fell out. It was a World War I time capsule.

A newspaper clipping from The Hartford Courant gave a sense of how long the capsule rested, sealed in concrete. The article was dated June 15, 1929 — more than 82 years.

Along with the clipping were items from WWI veterans from West Hartford. For example, there was a cigarette lighter from Waldo C. Hayes and a watch that belonged to Francis B. Velhage — from whom the post draws its name. In all, 23 West Hartford soldiers lost their lives in WWI, and many of them were represented inside the copper box. There were Bibles and medals, donated by the families for inclusion in the capsule.

Neither Battistoni, a member of the American Legion post for 15 years, nor anyone else in the organization knew anything about it. The fact that they kept the cornerstone was a complete coincidence. The capsule won’t be forgotten now, though. It will go on display at the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 building on Veterans Day. After that, Battistoni plans to take the capsule and the artifacts it contained to local schools to teach them about West Hartford’s sons who fought in World War I.

Not everyone wants to be reminded of the horrors of that war. A team of French archaeologists is excavating the Killian Shelter, an underground tunnel near the town of Carspach in the Alsace-Lorraine region on the border with Germany. The 410-feet-long tunnel housed German soldiers from the 6th Company of the “Reserve Infanterie Regiment 94” and was destroyed by shelling in March of 1918. Only 13 of the 34 dead were retrieved at the time because it was too dangerous to go any further into the tunnel. The 21 remaining are still in there along with their gear and personal belongings.

When the battlefield at Fromelles was excavated in 2008 and the remains of 250 soldiers found, there was an avalanche of attention paid. People all over the Commonwealth volunteered DNA samples to help identify the remains. The dead of the Killian Shelter, on the other hand, have barely made the news at all in Germany.

“Britain, France and Belgium still refer to it as the Great War, but our memory of it is totally buried by World War II with the Holocaust, the expulsion from the east, the Allied bombardment,” Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German War Graves Commission, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “World War I plays only a minor role in the German national memory.”

The Commission is holding out little hope that it will be able to track down the families of the dead.

“We haven’t reached anyone yet and it will be very hard, as you can imagine, given the time that has lapsed,” said Kirchmeier. “It’s a difficult business that involves contacting local registry offices.”

It would not appear to be an insurmountable problem, though, if the public interest was there. The names and dates and places of birth of all the 21 soldiers are known. Their dog tags have been found. The soldiers include Musketeer Martin Heidrich from Schönfeld, aged 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, born Jan. 18, 1896 in Hamburg, and Lieutenant August Hütten from Aachen, aged 37.

A memorial stone bearing their names stands in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth. The Commission will rebury the bodies in the cemetery unless it manages to contact descendants and they decide to have the remains repatriated to Germany.

They don’t even need DNA, just a thorough records search and even that seems too exhausting a prospect. That saddens me. I would want to know if my grandfather’s remains were found.

To close with a more positive note of remembrance, Britain’s Imperial War Museum has an outstanding website dedicated to the upcoming centennial of the start of World War I. There are podcasts tracing each step of the war with interviews with veterans, updates on museum exhibits, World War I in the news and archaeological discoveries like the current excavation of the infamous Gallipoli battlefield in Turkey.

Now they’ve added a Flickr account called Faces of the First World War to help people put some faces to the names engraved on memorials and read off of casualty lists. The Imperial War Museum collected the pictures between 1917 and 1920 as part of its mission to keep a record of soldiers’ experiences of war. The pictures were donated by families. Sometimes it was the only picture of a fallen soldier the family had. Sometimes they came with letters telling the stories of the deceased. Sometimes there was only a name.

The first 100 photographs have already been uploaded to usher in the 11/11/11 Remembrance Day. More pictures and biographical information will be uploaded every weekday until August 2014, the centennial of the outbreak of war.


Art hoard worth millions found in Polish shed

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Two hundred works of art ranging from the High Renaissance to German Baroque to the Modern period have been discovered in the dirty backyard shed of a retired bricklayer in Szczecin, Poland. Only one work has been positively identified thus far, a 1903 lithograph by Jozef Czajkowski, and it provides a clue as to the provenance of the rest of the paintings: it is listed on the Art Loss Register as having been looted from the Silesia Museum in Katowice, southern Poland, during World War II. The oldest work, still not identified by name, dates to 1532.

The bricklayer, known only as Antoni M. since Polish law prohibits printing his family name at this juncture, is 92 years old and recently suffered a series of strokes. He cannot speak, so we don’t know how he got his hands on this collection. Preliminary investigations indicate that he found the art in the 60s while working on a construction site. He secreted it away and built a shed in his garden purposely to store the purloined paintings.

It’s not just a lean-to, either. According to police reports, the building looked like a bunker or a bomb shelter, with 30-inch-thick walls, a metal door and interior sliding walls. Unfortunately, he paid all that attention to security and none whatsoever to keeping conditions inside the bunker propitious for a massive art collection. The works were exposed to moisture and dust and are in very poor condition.

They’ve been transferred to the National Museum in Szczecin where Polish and Italian art historians are assessing the damage and working to identify each piece.

Antoni M. is under formal investigation for handling stolen art. Polish police are working closely with Interpol to trace the history of the works and figure out how they wound up in a backyard shed.

Here’s some raw footage of piles of art crammed into that filthy shed and then laid out in what looks like a conference room, maybe at the police station or in the museum.



The original dunce was actually brilliant

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

I learned something new today. The word “dunce” comes from one Johannes Duns Scotus, a 13th century Franciscan friar, philosopher, theologian and professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris, who in his own time was considered a brilliant man. He was born probably in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, around 1265. (Ireland and England also claim him as their own, but the strongest evidence suggests he was indeed a Scot, hence the “Scotus” cognomen.)

According to Luke Wadding, a 17th century Franciscan historian who cites earlier sources, young John was tending sheep for his father when two Franciscan friars came along begging for their keep, as was the wont of the mendicant orders. When they found that the boy didn’t know his proper prayers, they endeavored to teach him the Lord’s Prayer. He memorized it instantly after just hearing it once. Amazed at his intellectual gifts, the friars persuaded his father to let the boy go with them and be educated at their monastery in Dumfries.

Again according to Wadding’s sources, the novice friar was swept up in King Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in the early 1290s.

Hence it appears, that the Holy Virgin granted to Dunse innocence of life, modesty of manners, complete faith, continence, piety, and wisdom. That Paul might not be elated by great revelations, he suffered the blows of Satan; that the subtle doctor might not be inflated by the gifts of the mother of Christ, he was forced to suffer the tribulation of captivity, by a fierce enemy. Gold is tried by the furnace, and a just man by temptation. Edward I., king of England, called, from the length of his legs, Long Shanks, had cruelly invaded Scotland, leaving no monument of ancient majesty that he did not seize or destroy, leading to death, or to jail, the most noble and learned men of the country. Among them were twelve friars; and that he might experience the dreadful slaughter and bitter captivity of his country, John of Dunse suffered a miserable servitude; thus imitating the apostle in the graces of God, and the chains he endured.

Who knows if it’s true that he was kidnapped to England, but we do know that he took his Holy Orders and was ordained a priest in 1291 in Northampton, England. After that he went to Merton College, Oxford, were he distinguished himself in all branches of study, especially mathematics and theology. By 1301 he was a professor of theology at Oxford. The next year he was lecturing at the University of Paris, although only briefly because he was expelled for taking the side of Pope Boniface VIII against King Philip IV on the pressing matter of the taxation of Church property. He was back and teaching again at the University of Paris in 1304.

Known as Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor) for his nuanced and complex dialectical approach to thorny theological questions, Duns Scotus made a name for himself defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that Christ’s mother was conceived without Original Sin) against the objections of Saint Thomas Aquinas and his Dominican followers. He is said to have rebutted 200 arguments against the Immaculate Conception one after the other while he was teaching in Paris. His school of thought was dubbed “Scotism” as opposed to Acquinas’ “Thomism.”

His reputation spread far and wide, attracting huge numbers of students — one doubtlessly apocryphal story says he had 30,000 students — to the university. His followers were called “Dunsmen” or “Dunces.” Even after his early death of “apoplexy” on November 8, 1308, his arguments continued to hold sway in Paris, so much so that by the end of the 14th century, the University made upholding the Scotist position on the Immaculate Conception a requirement for everyone who taught there.

Duns Scotus’ intellectual gifts continued to be held in high reverence until the rise of the humanists in 16th century. His dense, detailed, indirect reasoning was derided as sophistry and his followers hopelessly behind the times, incapable of understanding the “new learning” of Renaissance humanism. The Dunces, already saddled with a reputation for painful hair-splitting, now became synonymous with unrelenting, unteachable idiocy.

They even got their own accessory, the “dunce cap” donned by many an elementary school dolt in the era before timeouts. John Duns Scotus was an advocate of the conical hat, you see, because wizards were known to wear them and wizards are smart. The point symbolized knowledge and the funnel shape drove all that knowledge downward directly into the head. Once the dunces became associated with dumbness, the pointy hat became their symbol.

So now dunces and their hats are part of our collective cultural consciousness while the original Duns Scotus is widely forgotten. Not entirely, though. The Catholic Church still hearts him. John XXIII recommended him highly to theology students, and Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1993.


Rare Cultural Revolution propaganda found at U of M

Monday, November 7th, 2011

A staffer going through boxes in a storage room at the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies has discovered a complete set of 15 paper-cut propaganda posters from the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Carol Stepanchuk, the Center for Chinese Studies’s community outreach coordinator, fished them out of the clutter and showed them to faculty members who recognized them as rare artifacts to survive a turbulent era.

The posters were made using the ancient Chinese craft of paper-cut, decorative cuttings in red paper that are traditionally used as auspicious decoration for weddings, birthdays, Lunar New Year, and other celebrations. The detail and complexity of these posters make them superb examples of the art, but they are also of notable historical significance because they give a pictorial view of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of fairly autonomous local artists in the southern provinces, far from the center of power in Beijing where artists were directly controlled by Mao Zedong.

Associate history professor Wang Zheng said the collection was produced at a small, folk art institute in the southern province of Guangdong, and it most likely wasn’t commissioned by Communist Party leaders. She said it shows how young artists at the time understood and related to the decade-long Cultural Revolution, and she plans to use one of the images in a book she is writing.

“They did not have embedded interests in the establishment, and the Cultural Revolution was to smash the establishment,” Zheng said. “The young ones who didn’t have power … likely identified with it.”

Given the joyous depiction of the destruction of China’s cultural heritage, Zheng’s assessment seems spot on to me. One of the posters, for instance, is entitled Eliminating the “Four Olds”. Launched by Mao and General Lin Biao, Mao’s second-in-charge and designated successor, in a speech from the Tiananmen Rostrum on August 18, 1966, the Destruction of the Four Olds was one of the first campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. The “Four Olds” are Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas, and the poster shows a brigade of Red Guards sledge hammering, trampling, burning, burying Chinese literature, film, religious iconography and cultural artifacts emblematic of foreign imperialism and China’s feudal past. The large flag in the foreground with the image of Mao on it reads “Rebellion is justified.”

Lin Biao’s presence is a key dating point. In September of 1971 he fled China after an apparent coup attempt only to die in a plane crash on his way to Russia. (Suspicious circumstances abound, needless to say.) That’s one of the things that makes this collection so rare, because even in China proper very few such posters survived since references to Lin Biao were destroyed after his death, and outside of China they’re even rarer.

According to Ena Schlorff, the Center for Chinese Studies’ program coordinator, the images were donated to the University of Michigan by U of M professor Michel Oksenberg who is thought to have secured the posters while doing research in Hong Kong in the early 70s. He joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1973 and he donated a large collection of materials, including these 15 pieces, when he left the university in 1991. Schlorff knew the posters were there — she had been Oksenberg’s secretary — so they weren’t lost, exactly, but it wasn’t until their rediscovery that the current faculty knew about them and recognized their particular importance.

Professor Wang plans to include one of the images in a book she’s writing about the Cultural Revolution. She’s also trying to track down the artists who did the painstaking cutout work to interview them about their experiences during the period.

The University of Michigan has no immediate plans to put the collection on display, but they have made me a very happy panda by digitizing all the posters and uploading high resolution scans of them for us all to marvel at the incredibly intricate work in extreme closeup.


The devil is in Giotto’s details

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

A restorer working on a fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi has discovered a the face of a devil hidden in the clouds. Medievalist and St. Francis expert Chiara Frugoni divined the demonic presence in fresco number 20 out of a series of 28 depicting the life of St. Francis as written by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure was the seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor and was commissioned by the Order to write the official biography of St. Francis in 1260. Fresco 20 is the death and ascension of St. Francis, painted by Giotto between 1296 and 1304.

St. Francis is shown lying on his death bier, surrounded by mourning friars while his soul is taken to heaven by a host of angels. Bonaventure described the scene in Chapter XIV of the hagiography: “In the hour of transit of the blessed Francis a friar saw his soul ascend to the heavens in the form of an enormously bright star.” The profile of the demon is on the right side of a cloud underneath the bright star, staring at the crotch of an angel.

“It’s a powerful portrait, with a hooked nose, sunken eyes and two dark horns,” Ms Frugoni said in an article in a forthcoming issue of the St Francis art history periodical.

“The significance of the image still needs to be delved into. In the Middle Ages it was believed that demons lived in the sky and that they could impede the ascension of human souls to Heaven.

“Until now it was thought that the first painter to use clouds in this way was Andrea Mantegna, with a painting of St Sebastian from 1460, in which high up in the sky there’s a cloud from which a knight on horseback emerges. Now we know that Giotto was the first (to use this technique).”

The figure hasn’t been seen until now because it’s almost impossible to spot looking up from the floor of the basilica. It took carefully examination of close-up photographs to find the little devil.

Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, notes that theology may not have been Giotto’s entire motivation. He could have included the demon as a private joke, perhaps to spite someone who had done him wrong, or perhaps just for the fun of having a hidden image in the clouds.

There are some more pictures — unfortunately all of them small — on the Franciscan website.


112-year-old Christmas pudding found in cupboard

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

112-year-old Christmas plum puddingWhat is probably the oldest Christmas plum pudding in the world, tinned 112 years ago in 1899, has been found at the back of a kitchen cupboard in Poole, Dorset and donated to the National Museum of the Royal Navy at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in Hampshire. It was donated by a woman who found it in her cupboard after her husband’s death. She knew nothing about it other than the date stamped on the can — 1900 — and that it had been in her husband’s family for years.

112-year-old Christmas plum pudding tin, backThe handsomely decorated tin marks it as “Peek, Frean & Co’s Teetotal Plum Pudding – London, High Class Ingredients Only.” Instructions on the bottom state “This pudding is ready for use but may be boiled for an hour if required hot.” Peek Frean was a cookies and confectionary company established in 1857. Within a few years they focused on making confections for export to distant locales like Australia and India, hence the sealed tins. The back of the container depicts children holding out plates, presumably to beg for more of that delicious teetotal plum pudding.

This particular pudding was also destined for faraway lands, South Africa specifically. It’s a teetoal pudding because it was a special issue, commissioned by Victorian philanthropist and superintendent of the Royal Naval Temperance Society Agnes “Aggie” Weston. She ordered 1000 tins of brandyless Christmas plum pudding to be sent to Royal Navy sailors fighting in the Boer War. There’s a message from her on the tin as well: “For the Naval Brigade, In the Front, With Miss Weston’s Best Christmas & New Year, 1900, Wishes.” As far as we know, this is the only surviving tin of the 1000.

Agnes "Aggie" WestonThe daughter of a lawyer, Agnes Weston received a religious education and was involved in missionary work and the temperance movement from an early age. While still in her 20s she opened a café (liquor-free, of course) for soldiers. When some of her regulars were posted overseas, she wrote to them. One of her correspondents shared her letter with a ship’s steward who wished he could get so nice a letter. Agnes heard about it and started to write to him. From then on, she was a warm benefactress of the Royal Navy.

Still advocating temperance, Agnes was allowed on board ships to give lectures on the virtues of sobriety. Surprisingly, this did not make her unpopular. Quite the opposite, in fact. She and her friend and partner in philanthropy Sophia Wintz raised money and eventually founded four hostels for sailors called “Sailor’s Rests.” Any sailor could get a clean bed and meal in the Rests. The Rests also provided baths and recreational facilities, and although there were temperance lectures and obviously none of the meals came with beer, anybody was welcome. They didn’t have to be sober. The idea was that sailors who had a nice place to sleep, enough to eat and wholesome activities to do wouldn’t be out barhopping and carousing.

Because of her genuine care and affection for the sailors (and her endless nagging about their drinking habits), she became known as Mother Weston or the Mother of the Navy. The success of the Rests didn’t keep her from supporting the sailors overseas. In addition to her copious personal correspondence, Agnes also printed a monthly newsletter and a journal for distribution to sailors on board ships.

In 1909 she published a book about her life’s work with the sailors of the Royal Navy, My Life Among the Bluejackets, in which she describes the great pudding caper of Ought Ought.

As Christmas drew near it occurred to one of us that a Christmas pudding for each man of the Naval Brigade would be a nice little present. Messrs. Peak, Frean & Co. carried out the order, and the puddings went off, each in its tin, “With Miss Weston’s good wishes,” in time to reach the front. They were passed on and were not hung up anywhere. A bronzed bluejacket on his return said to me:

“Directly Ladysmith was relieved you were outside the gates, and those puddings they were just splendid after living so long on mealies and mule flesh. We said, ‘Mother is here, and knows just what we want.’ They made the same remark as tobacco and other gifts were served out.”

In recognition of her lifetime of dedication to the health and welfare of Royal Navy sailors, Agnes Weston was made Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She died that same year and was buried with full naval honors. During World War II, a frigate named after Somerset beach town Weston-Super-Mare became known colloquially in the navy as “Aggie-on-Horseback” after the Weston who was still beloved by sailors even 22 years after her death.

The tin is not on display at the museum yet. It’s in need of some conservation first. It will briefly go on display in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s upcoming Victorian Festival of Christmas between November 25th and 27th, along with rations from both World Wars.


Tour wreck of Titanic by submersible for $66,257

Friday, November 4th, 2011

Next year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, luxury travel company Horizon & Co. is offering submersible diving tours of the wreck of the famous ocean liner.

For a mere $66,257 per person (double occupancy required), you can board an expedition dive ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that will take you to the wreck site where you and an expert will dive 12,500 feet under the icy North Atlantic waters in a Russian Mir submersible to tour the remains of Titanic. The dive to the bottom of the ocean takes about 2.5 hours. The submersible will then wind its way through the immense debris field before taking you through the ship itself — the bow section, the grand staircase, the bridge and the promenade deck — as your expert guide explains what you’re seeing. You’ll also get close-up views of the ship’s giant boilers and propellers, conditions permitting.

The trip lasts 15 days and is packed with lectures, films and presentations by historians, oceanographers and Titanic experts. A maximum of 20 passengers per expedition will ensure each person gets individualized attention, and even though the ship is no luxury cruiser but rather a working expedition ship meant to withstand severe weather conditions, you still get five-star cuisine served thrice daily included in the (exorbitant) price. Also there’s a gym.

If you’re a Titanic buff who prefers not to dive 12,500 feet in a Russian diving vessel on account of abject terror, you can still participate in the cruise for the bargain price of $12,498 per person, again based on double occupancy. There’s certainly plenty to do even for non-divers. The trip begins with a day in Halifax, the closest major port to the 1912 sinking, where your own personal tour guide and driver will take you everywhere in town that bears any kind of connection to Titanic. You’ll visit the pier from which the rescue ships departed to pick up victims, temporary morgues that were set up to deal with the bodies, and tour Fairview Lawn Cemetery where 121 victims of the disaster are buried.

You’ll also see the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic which has an extensive permanent exhibit on the tragedy, including the only intact Titanic deck chair in the world.

Once you’re at sea, you’ll have the opportunity to engage with explorers, scientists, divers and to board the Mirs for an orientation session before you plunge into the depths. The ship will remain at the wreck site for a full week to allow everyone the chance to take their four hour underwater tour of Titanic.

Tours depart June 30th, July 12th, July 27th and August 6th, 2012. I suspect tickets will go fast because let’s face it, getting to see Titanic in a Mir is just insanely cool and well worth even so crazy a price.


Dr. Livingstone’s original field diary revealed

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"Last year, a team of researchers from UCLA, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Birkbeck, University of London used spectral imaging to decipher the long-faded letters Dr. David Livingstone wrote with makeshift paper and ink to his friend Horace Waller while he was stranded in the Congo in 1871. Livingstone was low on supplies and had run out of notebooks and iron gall ink by this point. Abed, an Arab trader of slaves and sundries and Livingstone’s right hand man, made him some ink from the seeds of a plant called Zingifure, a brick-red dye the locals used as face paint and cloth dye.

Livingstone created a field diary out of a single eight-page copy of The Standard newspaper and wrote in it using the berry seed ink. The oppressively hot and humid conditions, the delicate natural dye and the forceful news type made the original journal entries fade over time until they became entirely unreadable. When New York Herald reporter Henry Stanley found the long-missing explorer in October of 1871, he supplied him with fresh paper so Livingstone was able to rewrite his journal entries over the next year.

Livingstone's massacre entry, natural lightHis rewrites weren’t transcriptions, though. Livingstone left out uncomfortable facts and opinions he had written in his original diary. The prose is self-conscious, reading more like a news article than an in-the-moment description. When Horace Waller published the Last Journals of David Livingstone in 1874, a year after Livingstone’s death, he did a little cleanup of his own to ensure his friend’s reputation as an abolitionist hero and intrepid explorer would remain unsullied by reality.

Livingstone's massacre entry processed with spectral imagingIt’s only now, after 18 months of painstaking spectral imaging work that we can see the unvarnished words of David Livingstone in the moment. The truth is the intrepid explorer was sick, frustrated, depressed. You know conditions are rough when you look forward to your hemorrhoids bleeding:

When worried by these untoward circumstances the bowels plague me too and discharges of blood relieve headache and are as safety valves to the system which I should not have had if I had allowed Mr Syme to operate on me. Sir Roderick told me that his father was operated upon by the famous John Hunter and died at the early age of forty in consequence. He himself spoiled his saddles when a soldier by frequent discharges from the Piles but would never submit to an operation and he is now eighty years of age.

The abolitionist hero was deeply compromised by his dependence on slave traders to keep him supplied and exploring and had a strongly negative opinion of the manumitted slaves who worked for him.

Livingstone on the freed slaves in his employ:

Confused reports come of the traders [trader’s] men two days distant but on the other side. Have remained two months – though sent for a few days. Went to fight, got between two rivers the bridges of which were cut and several were killed in the water. No dependance can be placed on any one. I refused to send my slaves because they would only add to the confusion and murder. If they go anywhere I must go with them or murder is certain.

The Nyangwe massacreThen there’s the question of the Nyangwe massacre. On 15 July 1871, Livingstone witnessed a massacre of local Africans, most of them women in town for the market, by Arab slave traders from Zanzibar. Stanley carried his re-written account of the massacre back to England where it was published in 1872 to great outcry. Within a year of its publication, the British consul persuaded the Sultan of Zanzibar to shut down the island’s slave market which as East Africa’s main slave-trading port saw 50,000 slaves passing through each year.

The account Livingstone wrote in his field diary, however, suggests that his later recreation may have omitted his own questionable behavior and the potential involvement of his men in the massacre.

“Livingstone’s party might have been involved in the massacre,” said Adrian Wisnicki of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who directed the project. But he advised caution: “We’re only beginning to analyze the evidence.”[…]

The field diary makes clear that Livingstone – an ardent abolitionist – was horrified by the moral character of the freed slaves sent to reinforce his expedition. He describes them as “senseless slaves with no honor.”

In Livingstone’s account, they emerge as rebellious and violent – at one point he confides that “if they go anywhere I must go with them or murder is certain.” In another passage, dated May 18, Livingstone says the slaves have mutinied and bought guns with his money.

Those passages were either sanitized or excised from Livingstone’s 1872 journal. Wisnicki claimed that the edits, combined with discrepancies between the field diary and the journal’s descriptions of the massacre, suggest Livingstone may have had something to hide about the bloody incident.

Livingstone expert Tim Jeal thinks it unlikely that Livingstone, a devout missionary, would have covered up the involvement of his men in the massacre. You can tell from the journal entry that Livingstone was worried he’d be blamed, though. In the days leading up the massacre he writes that the Arab slavers were spreading lies about him being a killer to the locals. Given that he himself described his men (the freed Banian slaves) as undependable, murderous, mutinous and honorless, perhaps the Arab traders weren’t really lying after all.

That’s not to say that Livingstone was involved in any killings personally, but at best he had little control over his employees. There is more than one entry in which he describes his men coming back from a trip talking about all the murders they’d committed.

Livingstone on the massacre at the Nyangwe chitoka (market):

The reports of guns on the other side of Lualaba tell of Dugumbe’s men murdering Kimburu and another for slaves — Manilla is in it again — and it is said that Kimburu gave him 3 slaves to sack the ten villages we saw in flames. He is meeting his doom in spite of mixing blood and giving nine slaves for the operation — Moenemgunga was his victim — & so it goes on making me fear to go with Dugumbe’s people to be partakers in their blood guiltiness. Chitoka about 1500 people came though many villages were burning before us. I saw three of Dugumbe[‘s] people with guns in the market place with wonder but thought it ignorance and retired – when 50 yards off two guns were fired and a general flight took place. Goods thrown away in terror firing on the helpless canoes took place. A long line of heads in the water shewed the numbers that would perish for they could not swim two miles. Shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives — great numbers died — and a worthless Moslem asserted that all was done by the people of the English. This will spread though the murderers are on the other side plundering and shooting. It is awful – terrible a dreadful world this. As I write shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain. Oh let thy kindom come.

The canoes were all jammed in a creek at the bottom of the market place and the owners could not get them out. Women threw away their produce and scrambled for dear life. Men left their paddles in dread as the merciless fire was rained upon them by other men who must have been cognisant of the plan of Murder. The women soon sank into their watery graves. I counted 33 canoes afloat + 19 still in the creek, one capsized – some overcrowded so as to be logged in the stream without paddles. One long canoe that could have held 30 was occupied by one man who seemed to have lost his head. Others paddled fast to save the sinking till in danger of swamping. No one will ever know how many perished in this bright summer morning.

After the massacre, Livingstone left Nyangwe and made his way back to Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. He arrived on October 27th. On October 28th, Stanley found him there.


The story of Shackleton’s whisky on TV

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

It’s Expedition Week on the National Geographic Channel. To mark the occasion with proper entertainingness, the cable channel will air a new documentary about explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition to the South Pole, the crate of whisky he left behind, the story of its discovery and recreation. Expedition Whisky debuts on Thursday, November 3rd at 8PM EST.

Using rare archival material and the only remaining film footage of Shackleton and his crew, the special tells the story of Shackleton’s poorly supplied and ill-planned but ultimately rather successful expedition. He didn’t quite reach the South Pole but he got within 100 miles of it, farther south than anyone had gone before him. That’s damn impressive considering that he brought no dog teams in favor of Mongolian ponies that sank in the snow up to their chests so his team ended up having to drag sleds themselves. (The ponies ended up dinner.)

Realizing that they were all going to die if he insisted on going those last 97 miles to the South Pole, Shackleton reluctantly turned his crew around went back to base camp at Cape Royds on Ross Island near McMurdo Sound. The picture on the left, taken upon their return to Cape Royds, shows you what a toll the adventure took on them. Shackleton, second from the left, is the oldest of the four at 33 years old. Frank Wild was a mere baby at 23. They all look easily 20 years older than they are.

The daring expedition made a splash in the Edwardian press, despite its failure, and Shackleton was knighted after his return to England. The three crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky left behind under the base camp hut — possibly intentionally hidden by provisions master and known alcoholic Frank Wild for his private tippling — were frozen in the permafrost. That’s where they were discovered in 2006 by restorers from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Expedition Whisky then follows the story of the whisky itself, how it was thawed in New Zealand, how three bottles were flown to Scotland via private plane so they could be analyzed by the corporate descendant of Mackinlay’s. The bottles traveled in high style, chained to the wrist of Whyte & Mackay’s master blender Richard Paterson whose nose was once insured at Lloyd’s of London for $2.4 million. Here’s a clip showing Paterson and James Pryde, biochemist, cell biologist and Whyte & Mackay’s chief chemist, carefully extracting a giant syringe-full of precious whisky from one of the bottles.

On a related note, I tried to secure a bottle of the Shackleton whisky replica via my local purveyor of wine and spirits but was brutally rebuffed. Thankfully there’s the Internets, so if you have 150 bucks burning a hole in your pocket (plus ten or so for shipping), you too can sip on Whyte & Mackay’s recreation of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky.


17th c. Chinese coin found in Canadian Yukon

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Archaeologists doing a heritage impact assessment on the site of a future gold mine northwest of Carmacks, Yukon, have unearthed a Chinese coin from the 17th century. Although old Chinese coins are fairly common finds along the northwest coast of Canada and the United States, this is only the third one ever found in the interior Yukon. It was discovered in July but only announced publicly a couple of days ago after months of fact-checking and research.

According to James Mooney, cultural resource specialist with Ecofor Consulting Limited, the archaeological firm hired by Western Copper and Gold Corporation to do the heritage impact assessment, all three of the Yukon Chinese coins were found in an archaeological setting. No later historical materials were found along with them, indicating that the coins were traded into the interior before the Klondike Gold Rush via the First Nations coastal trade with Europeans rather than by Europeans traipsing into the interior themselves.

The Chinese characters mark the coin as one minted during the reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. He was the longest-reigning Chinese emperor in history, ruling from 1662 to 1722, but this particular coin was minted between 1667 and 1671. We know this because it is number six in a series of coins known as “poem coins” minted by Kangxi who was famous for his poetry. There were 20 different “poem coins” minted over the years. If placed in a certain order, the characters on each coin form a poem. The coins were considered good luck charms and once people collected all 20 in the series, they often wore them on a chain for good luck.

In addition to the Chinese characters and a square hole in the middle, the coin also has four small holes poked along the edge across from each corner of the square hole. The extra holes could have been made in China or by the First Nations in Canada. A Chinese tradition held that coins nailed to gates and doorways brought good luck, and First Nations were known to attach coins to their clothes as decoration or to create a kind of rudimentary plate armor out of a network of overlapping coins.

The area where the coin was discovered was a promontory overlooking a river on the ancient Dyea to Fort Selkirk trade route. It would have made a good camping spot for a traveler following the trade route. The first written accounts of European traders, mainly Russian fur traders, doing business in northwest Canada date from mid-1700s, although there is evidence of earlier trade, perhaps even as early as the 15th century. The Russian traders exchanged goods like silk, weapons, tobacco, clothing for sea otter, seal, beaver pelts with the coastal Tlingit peoples. The Russians would then trade the furs with the Chinese.

The Tlingit had the monopoly on direct trade with the Russians. They controlled the Chilkoot Pass through the mountains to the interior regions and they would trade coastal goods and European goods for copper and fur with the Yukon First Nations.

Given the importance of this discovery, Ecofor is recommending that the road Western Copper and Gold planned to built where the coin was found be built elsewhere so the site can continue to be studied.





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