Thursday, August 15, 2019

The war at the end of the world

Died one hundred and ten years ago this day, did Euclides da Cunha, a Brazilian engineer and political writer - shot dead by his wife’s lover. In 1897, he was commissioned by a São Paulo newspaper to report on the war being fought by the government against a large group of rebellious peasants which had established a settlement, called Canudos, in the remote northeast. His dispatches were in the form of a daily diary, and these are available online (in the original Portuguese). Da Cunha went on to write a book about the conflict, which became a bestseller; to this day it remains a cornerstone of Brazilian political literature. In 1981, the world famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa based his novel, The War of the End of the World, on the events surrounding Canudos, and included da Cunha as a prominent character.

Euclides da Cunha was born in Cantaglo, some 140km northeast of Rio de Janeiro city, in early 1866. His mother died when he was three years old, and he went to live with relatives in Teresopolis and then Rio. In 1883, he started at Aquino College, where he first encountered Benjamin Constant, an influential military and political thinker, and in 1885, he joined the Polytechnic School. The following year, he signed up for the Military School of Praia Vermelha, where he again found himself being taught by Constant. He was expelled in 1888, for protesting during a visit of the Brazilian war minister, and took up journalism, working for the prestigious A Província de São Paulo. However, he was readmitted to the military school in 1889, and then entered the Brazilian war school (Escola de Guerra) in 1891. He graduated the following year with a degree in civil engineering. Around 1890, he married Ana Emília, daughter of Major Solon Ribeiro, and their first child (of three) was born in 1893.

That same year, in 1893, da Cunha moved to São Paulo to work in the administration for the railway organisation, but then, during the so-called Naval Revolts, he was called to serve for the Directorate of Military Works, and was sent to Minas Gerais to build barracks. Subsequently, he was appointed Superintendent of Public Works of São Paulo. In 1894, da Cunha published two influential articles in the Gazeta de Notícias, suggesting a comparison between the French Revolution and the ongoing revolts in Brazil. When a new conflict arose, with the government trying to crush a large communal settlement, named Canudos, in the northeastern state of Bahia, da Cunha was commissioned, in 1897, as a war correspondent, to personally witness events as they unfolded. Returning from Canudos, later the same year, he went to São José do Rio Pardo, in São Paulo, to manage the construction of a bridge. Around this time, he started writing Os Sertões, a work he would finish in 1900, and publish in 1902 (later translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands). In the book, da Cunha, influenced by theories of positivism and social Darwinism, used the story of the Canudos conflict to argue for political change. Eighty years later, Vargas Llosa fictionalised the events that Da Cunha had witnessed and written about for his novel The War of the End of the World - which he dedicated to da Cunha.

Os Sertões was enthusiastically received by critics and became a best-seller in Brazil. Its success guaranteed Cunha membership of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which he joined in 1903, and also opened up opportunities to work with the government. In 1906, after returning from an official trip to the Amazon, where he chaired a committee to survey the borders of northwestern Brazil, Cunha began to write a report that became his next most important book, Contrastes e confrontos (Contrasts and Comparisons), published in 1907. He spent the last two years of his life working on his third book, À margem da história (On the Margin of History), which was published posthumously. In 1909, he was named chair of logic at Colegio Pedro II. However, at this time, difficulties in his personal life came to a climax. His wife had been having an affair for years with a much younger man, and had even born him two children (one had been accepted by da Cunha as his own, the other had died). On 15 August, he went to his wife’s lovers house intent on murder, but instead was shot dead himself. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia (though the Portuguese entry is more detailed) or Encyclopedia.com

During the time that da Cunha spent observing the situation in Canudos, he wrote a daily diary which was published in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Some forty years later, the diary was edited by Gilberto Freyre and published as Canudos: diário de uma expedição (José Olympio, 1939). The diary can be found online at Literatura Brasileira (though only in Portuguese).

I have used Google Translate (with a handful of edits) for this (crude and fault-full) English translation of one entry.

20 August 1897
‘Still awaiting, awkwardly, the next departure for the backcountry, I walk - unknown and lonely - like an ancient Greek in the streets of Byzantium the old streets of this great capital, in a persistent inquiry about its beautiful traditions and retaining its interesting old-town features coming almost intact from the past to these hectic days.

And I regret that the capital and exclusive purpose of this trip prevents me from studying it better and transmitting the impressions received.

Because this cross current of strange and diverse sensations is really inevitable, irresistibly invading the subject and pre-established programs.

In one hour sometimes the most mismatched impressions assail me.

Visiting the São Bento Monastery recently, for example, where the arriving wounded now accumulate, after traversing through extensive rows of constricted beds, I descended to the lower floor.

I crossed the long aisles cautiously, with calculated steps, my eyes fixed on the ground, trying not to tread on the grave limbs on which all devotees tread indifferently and where they still read, half-erased by the persistent friction of boots, names among them - oldest in our history. And stripping me of all the purpose that led me there - bending over the slabs that appear as the undiscovered palimpsest of marble in the remotest days, I remained long, absorbed.

What a huge transition in just five minutes, in this insensitive and quick passing, as I descended a staircase, from a busy, noisy present to the silent gloom of the indefinite past.

Fortunately, as I went on, I senselessly struck the wide doorway and as I passed through it, I suddenly turned back to the present.

Assomava, forced uphill and into Castro Alves Square, in a beam of glittering bayonets, the 4th infantry battalion. It comes from far, from the south - it's the last one we wait for.

With it are twenty-five battalions of line, to which are added the police corps here, of Sao Paulo, Pará, Amazonas and contingents of Artillery and Cavalry.

I calculate with a reasonable approximation of at least 10,000 men the troop that will fight the rebellion in the backlands.

And in the face of this armed multitude, it haunts me more than the natural dangers of war, the incalculable sum of efforts to feed it through regions almost impractical by the sharp unevenness of the roads that straighten into the mountains and narrow into long gorges.

A quick calculation shows us that this 10,000-necked minotaur will be sick, fasting almost one hundred and fifty sacks of flour and two tons of meat a day.

And this excludes elementary foodstuffs that constitute a luxury under the strict conditions of war.

This fact expresses one of the most serious and difficult conditions of the campaign: it is the tenacious, inglorious and frightening combat to an enemy who dies and revives every day, involving in the same trances friends and adversaries - hunger.

The natural conditions of the terrain, making it difficult to transport quickly, creating all sorts of stumbling, have already determined, as is well known, the appearance of that in our army - living forces at the mercy of chance, from imbu roots, or damp stalks of mandacarus sap, or hunting the scapegoats of the plateaus, in bold mounts in the caatingas.

Now this unfortunate situation is only attenuated today and every train that arrives deceives it for only one day.

Imagine now the series of difficulties that will come with the greatest accumulation of men.

In addition to slow marches, the lack of freighters makes the ammunition carried very small. Because, we must say frankly, what lies beyond Monte Santo, and even beyond Queimadas, is the desert in the meaning of the term - arid, harsh, unpopulated.

The scattered surrounding populations were lost far away, hiding in the woods, populating the most remote camps, abandoning houses and possessions, terrified by the terrifying scarecrow of war. Yes, you're right.

The narrative of the journey of those who have come, however free from the primitive ambushes, striking across the roads that radiate from Monte Santo, unfold through the absolutely empty and monotonous backcountry.

Only at one point and another as a sinister variant: for a refinement of satanic wickedness the jagunços arranged serially on the two sides of the road the bones of the dead from previous expeditions.

Uniforms, caps, gallons, talines, glittering red trousers, broad cloaks, ragged shirts, saddles, and blankets, hanging from the tree limbs, sway gloomily over the head of the grounded traveler passing through two rows of arranged skulls, lined at the sides.

It is a dreadful picture, capable of disturbing the most robust soul.

The unsuccessful Colonel Tamarindo - an old jovial soldier as there were few - was recognised by his uniform in this fantastic setting; without a head, stuck in a dry branch of Angico and having on his bare shoulders, hung like a hanger, and down the skeleton, down the skeleton.

The whole first column passed in amazement at the formidable spectre of the old commander.

All of these causes justify the indescribable panic that is currently raging in the backcountry and the disorderly ebb of entire populations to the remotest points.

The army is now raging in a desert of thirty lightning bolts, and it is absolutely necessary that the action of this expedition - which will be the last - be swift and fulminating in spite of all necessary sacrifices.

I believe we leave after all these days. I will then judge, in situ, what I have known so far through narratives that do not always fit the same conclusions.

And may that wild but interesting nature, that barbaric nook of our land, under the persistent attraction of its still unknown aspect, make light and quick these hours of longing that I cannot define.’

Saturday, August 10, 2019

First circumnavigation of the globe

Half a millennium ago this very day, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan launched a Spanish expedition that would complete the first ever circumnavigation of the world - it is, thus, one of the most famous exploration voyages in history. Magellan himself, however, was killed in a battle with native Philippines, and four of the expeditions five ships, along with most of their crews, were lost. Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar and explorer, kept a journal of the entire journey. Although the original was lost, four manuscript copies - one in Italian and three in French - survived. Of these, one held by Yale University is considered the most complete and handsomely produced. Digital images of this are freely available online, as are texts of the journal in English.

On 10 August 1519, Magellan set sail with 270 men and five ships - the Armada de Molucca - from Seville, descending the Guadalquivir River to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the river, where they remained more than five weeks before finally setting sail on 20 September. The main goal of the expedition - largely financed by King Charles I of Spain - was to find a western route to the Moluccas or Spice Islands (as the eastern route was controlled by Portugal under the terms of a treaty). The expedition crossed the Atlantic and discovered the strait that bears Magellan’s name, allowing it to pass South America into the Pacific Ocean (which Magellan named).

The fleet reached the Philippines, where it remained for some while, engaging frequently with the local indigenous people, some of whom were friendly and some not. Magellan was murdered in a battle on 27 April 1521, as were many others. Within a few weeks, the fleet was reduced to two ships, with Juan Sebastián Elcano eventually captaining the Victoria. By November, the expedition had reached the Moluccas - completing its mission. The following month, Elcano sailed for Europe, but the other ship - Trinidad - remained behind for repairs, and was eventually captured by the Portuguese then wrecked in a storm. After numerous other hardships during the three years, not least mutinies, starvation, scurvy, storms, only 18 men and the one ship (the Victoria) completed the return trip to Spain, arriving at Seville on 8 September 1922. Further details are available at Wikipedia.

One of the 18 survivors of the voyage was the Italian Pigafetta (see The Diary Junction) whose detailed journal has become the most important primary source of information about the expedition. He was born into a rich family in Vicenza in northeast Italy, around 1480-1491 (his exact birthdate being unknown). He studied astronomy, geography and cartography before serving the Knights of Rhodes on board their vessels. Until 1519, he accompanied the papal nuncio, Monsignor Francesco Chieregati, to Spain. He was in Seville when he heard of Magellan’s forthcoming expedition and was taken on as a supernumerary with a modest salary. He was wounded in the same skirmish as Magellan was killed, but survived the expedition, and returned to the Republic of Venice where he wrote up his journal, and made handwritten copies for distribution to European monarchs. He died around 1531.

Although the original journal kept by Pigafetta has long since been lost, four hand-written copies of the manuscript have survived into modern times - three in French and one in Italian. At least one of these can be viewed online at the World Digital Library, which says of it: ‘This version, in French, is from the library of Yale University, and is the most complete and handsomely produced of the four surviving manuscripts. It includes 23 beautifully drawn and illuminated maps.’

Published versions of Pigafetta’s journal have appeared over the years in various forms. An English translation (by Lord Stanley of Alderley) was issued by the Hakluyt Society in 1874 - see Internet Archive. But in 1906, a more rigorous edition was published by The Arthur H. Clark Company as Magellan’s Voyage Around the World (also available at Internet Archive). This was translated, edited and extensively annotated by James Alexander Robertson, who says: ‘The present edition first gives the English reader access to a translation of the true text of Pigafetta [. . .] together with the original Italian of Pigafetta [. . .] (the oldest and most complete of the four existing manuscripts).’ For more on the 500th anniversary of the Magellan voyage see The Magellan Project, España Global, VCentenario or The Daily Beast

Meanwhile here is an extract - detailing the death of Magellan - from the 1906 edition in English of Pigafetta’s text.

26-27 April 1521
‘On Friday, April twenty-six, Zula, a chief of the island of Matan [Mactan, and island in the Philippines] sent one of his sons to present two goats to the captain-general, and to say that he would send him all that he had promised, but that he had not been able to send it to him because of the other chief Cilapulapu, who refused to obey the king of Spagnia. He requested the captain to send him only one boatload of men on the next night, so that they might help him and fight against the other chief. The captain-general decided to go thither with three boatloads. We begged him repeatedly not to go, but he, like a good shepherd, refused to abandon his flock. At midnight, sixty men of us set out armed with corselets and helmets, together with the Christian king, the prince, some of the chief men, and twenty or thirty balanguais. We reached Matan three hours before dawn. The captain did not wish to fight then, but sent a message to the natives by the Moro to the effect that if they would obey the king of Spagnia, recognize the Christian king as their sovereign, and pay us our tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see how our lances wounded. They replied that if we had lances they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire. [They asked us] not to proceed to attack them at once, but to wait until morning, so that they might have more men. They said that in order to induce us to go in search of them; for they had dug certain pitholes between the houses in order that we might fall into them. When morning came forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two crossbow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, two divisions on our flanks and the other on our front. When the captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we begin to fight. The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, “Cease firing! cease firing!” but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves. Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to flight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain. The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away. So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off. The Christian king would have aided us, but the captain charged him before we landed, not to leave his balanghai, but to stay to see how we fought. When the king learned that the captain was dead, he wept. Had it not been for that unfortunate captain, not a single one of us would have been saved in the boats, for while he was fighting the others retired to the boats. I hope through [the efforts of] your most illustrious Lordship that the fame of so noble a captain will not become effaced in our times. Among the other virtues which he possessed, he was more constant than ever any one else in the greatest of adversity. He endured hunger better than all the others, and more accurately than any man in the world did he understand sea charts and navigation. And that this was the truth was seen openly, for no other had had so much natural talent nor the boldness to learn how to circumnavigate the world, as he had almost done. That battle was fought on Saturday, April twenty-seven, 1521. The captain desired to fight on Saturday, because it was the day especially holy to him. Eight of our men were killed with him in that battle, and four Indians, who had become Christians and who had come afterward to aid us were killed by the mortars of the boats. Of the enemy, only fifteen were killed, while many of us were wounded.

In the afternoon the Christian king sent a message with our consent to the people of Matan, to the effect that if they would give us the captain and the other men who had been killed, we would give them as much merchandise as they wished. They answered that they would not give up such a man, as we imagined [they would do], and that they would not give him for all the riches in the world, but that they intended to keep him as a memorial.’

Snake chief doesn’t like horse

‘While we were eating, we were visited by a Snake chief, a large and powerful man, of a peculiarly dignified aspect and manner. He was naked, with the exception of a small blanket which covered his shoulders, and descended to the middle of the back, being fastened around the neck with a silver skewer. As it was pudding time with us, our visitor was of course invited to sit and eat; [. . .] He had not eaten long, however, before we perceived a sudden and inexplicable change in his countenance, which was instantly followed by a violent ejectment of a huge mouthful of our luxurious fare. The man rose slowly, and with great dignity, to his feet, and pronouncing the single word “shekum,” (horse,) in a tone of mingled anger and disgust, stalked rapidly out of the camp, not even wishing us a good evening.’ This is from the diaries of John Kirk Townsend, an ornithologist and doctor, written while on an expedition to explore Oregon. During the journey, Townsend, born 210 years ago today, discovered and collected many new bird species which he later gave to John James Audubon who painted them for his famous Birds of America.

Townsend was born on 10 August 1809 into a Quaker family in Philadelphia. He attended the Friends’ Boarding School at Westtown in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The school had a reputation for science, and while there he became interested in ornithology. He trained as a physician and pharmacist. In 1833, he joined the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society. The following year he took part in Nathaniel Wyeth’s second expedition across the Rocky Mountains to Oregon, and is credited with discovering several new species of birds and mammals. On arriving at Fort Vancouver, he was invited to stay, and for six months served as the fort’s surgeon. While there, he explored the surrounding area, often depending on Native Americans to capture elusive specimens. He later described their cultural practices; however, he also known to have robbed Indian graves of skulls.

Townsend left Oregon in 1836 for Hawaii. From there he traveled back to Philadelphia via Cape Horn. After his return in 1837, he sold almost 100 (preserved) birds to John James Audubon, the famous American ornithologist and painter, who described them in his exquisitely illustrated Birds of America (originals of which are now among the most expensive books ever sold). Townsend was hired as curator of the collections of both the Academy of Natural Sciences and the National Institute for the Promotion of Science in Washington, D.C., but he also tried his hand at dentistry. He died aged only 42 in 1851, a victim of cumulative arsenic poisoning (arsenic powder being commonly used in the preservation of mammal and bird skins). Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, The Oregon History Project, National Park Service or Linda Hall Library.

In 1939, Townsend published his Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and a Visit to the Sandwich Islands, Chilli etc. with a Scientific Appendix. This is freely available at Internet Archive. Here are two typical diary entries form the narrative.

20 August 1833
‘At about daylight this morning, having charge of the last guard of the night, I observed a beautiful, sleek little colt, of about four months old, trot into the camp, whinnying with great apparent pleasure, and dancing and curvetting gaily amongst our sober and sedate band. I had no doubt that he had strayed from Indians, who were probably in the neighborhood; but as here, every animal that comes near us is fair game, and as we were hungry, not having eaten any thing of consequence since yesterday morning, I thought the little stranger would make a good breakfast for us. Concluding, however, that it would be best to act advisedly in the matter, I put my head into Captain W.’s tent, and telling him the news, made the proposition which had occurred to me. The captain’s reply was encouraging enough, “Down with him, if you please, Mr. T., it is the Lord’s doing; let us have him for breakfast.” In five minutes afterwards, a bullet sealed the fate of the unfortunate visitor, and my men were set to work making fires, and rummaging out the long-neglected stew-pans, while I engaged myself in flaying the little animal, and cutting up his body in readiness for the pots. 

When the camp was aroused, about an hour after, the savory steam of the cookery was rising and saluting the nostrils of our hungry people with its fragrance, who, rubbing their hands with delight, sat themselves down upon the ground, waiting with what patience they might, for the unexpected repast which was preparing for them.

It was to me almost equal to a good breakfast, to witness the pleasure and satisfaction which I had been the means of diffusing through the camp.

The repast was ready at length, and we did full justice to it; every man ate until he was filled, and all pronounced it one of the most delicious meals they had ever assisted in demolishing. When our breakfast was concluded, but little of the colt remained; that little was, however, carefully packed up, and deposited on one of the horses, to furnish, at least, a portion of another meal.

The route, this morning, lay along Boisée. For an hour, the travelling was toilsome and difficult, the Indian trail, leading along the high bank of the river, steep and rocky, making our progress very slow and laborious. We then came to a wide plain, interrupted only by occasional high banks of earth, some of them of considerable extent, across which ran the path. Towards mid-day, we lost sight of these banks, the whole country appearing level, with the exception of some distant hills in the south-west, which we suppose indicate the vicinity of some part of Snake river.

We have all been disappointed in the distance to this river, and the length of time required to reach it. Not a man in our camp has ever travelled this route before, and all we have known about it has been the general course.
In the afternoon, we observed a number of Indians on the opposite side of the river, engaged in fishing for salmon. Captain W. and two men immediately crossed over to them, carrying with them a few small articles to exchange for fish. We congratulated ourselves upon our good fortune in seeing these Indians, and were anticipating a plentiful meal, when Captain W. and his companions returned, bringing only three small salmon. The Indians had been unsuccessful in fishing, not having caught enough for themselves, and even the offer of exorbitant sums was not sufficient to induce them to part with more.

In the afternoon, a grouse and a beaver were killed, which, added to the remains of the colt, and our three little salmon, made us a tolerable supper. While we were eating, we were visited by a Snake chief, a large and powerful man, of a peculiarly dignified aspect and manner. He was naked, with the exception of a small blanket which covered his shoulders, and descended to the middle of the back, being fastened around the neck with a silver skewer. As it was pudding time with us, our visitor was of course invited to sit and eat; and he, nothing loath, deposited himself at once upon the ground, and made a remarkably vigorous assault upon the mixed contents of the dish. He had not eaten long, however, before we perceived a sudden and inexplicable change in his countenance, which was instantly followed by a violent ejectment of a huge mouthful of our luxurious fare. The man rose slowly, and with great dignity, to his feet, and pronouncing the single word “shekum,” (horse,) in a tone of mingled anger and disgust, stalked rapidly out of the camp, not even wishing us a good evening. It struck me as a singular instance of accuracy and discrimination in the organs of taste. We had been eating of the multifarious compound without being able to recognise, by the taste, a single ingredient which it contained; a stranger came amongst us, who did not know, when he commenced eating, that the dish was formed of more than one item, 
and yet in less than five minutes he discovered one of the very least of its component parts.

It would seem from this circumstance that the Indians, or it may be the particular tribe to which this man belongs, are opposed to the eating of horse flesh, and yet, the natural supposition would be, that in the gameless country inhabited by them they would often be reduced to such shifts, and thus readily conquer any natural reluctance which they might feel to partake of such food. I did not think until after he left us, that if the chief knew how the horse meat he so much detested was procured, and where, he might probably have expressed even more indignation, for it is not at all unlikely that the colt had strayed from his own band.’

9 September 1833
‘The character of the country has changed considerably since we left Walla-walla. The river has become gradually more narrow, until it is now but about two hundred yards in width, and completely hemmed in by enormous rocks on both sides. Many of these extend for considerable distances into the stream in perpendicular columns, and the water dashes and breaks against them until all around is foam. The current is here very swift, probably six or seven miles to the hour; and the Indian canoes in passing down, seem literally to fly along its surface. The road to-day has been rugged to the very last degree. We have passed over continuous masses of sharp rock for hours together, sometimes picking our way along the very edge of the river, several hundred feet above it; again, gaining the back land, by passing through any casual chasm or opening in the rocks, where we were compelled to dismount, and lead our horses.

This evening, we are surrounded by a large company of Chinook Indians, of both sexes, whose temporary wig-wams are on the bank of the river. Many of the squaws have young children sewed up in the usual Indian fashion, wrapped in a skin, and tied firmly to a board, so that nothing but the head of the little individual is seen.

These Indians are very peaceable and friendly. They have no weapons except bows, and these are used more for amusement and exercise, than as a means of procuring them sustenance, their sole dependence being fish and beaver, with perhaps a few hares and grouse, which are taken in traps. We traded with these people for a few fish and beaver skins, and some roots, and before we retired for the night, arranged the men in a circle, and gave them a smoke in token of our friendship.’

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Nothing but snow and icy wind

‘Finally reach Camp 3 at 6 a.m., almost totally exhausted. While the others prepare something to eat. I massage Canali’s feet. The pains begin to lessen. Outside the tent there is nothing but snow and icy wind, and so it remains for the entire day. We stay in the tent for just so long and then decide to continue our descent. To remain much longer at this height would be extremely dangerous, especially for Canali. Yet, as we attempt to go a few paces beyond the tent, we are soon driven back, convinced that to descend under such conditions is tantamount to suicide.’ This is from a dramatic diary kept by Riccardo Cassin, one of the most famous mountaineers of the mid-20th century, on the descent from a pioneering a climb - now called Cassin Ridge - on Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Cassin died 10 years ago today, having reached the ripe old age of 100.

Cassin was born in 1909 in the village of San Vito al Tagliamento, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now part of Italy, 80km northwest of Trieste. When only three, his father emigrated to Canada where he died within a short time. Cassin left school at the age of 12 to work for a blacksmith; aged 17 he moved to Lecco where he took a job at the steel factory. Although he was interested in boxing for a while, he turned to climbing in his early 20s, and by 1935 had made the first ascent of Piccolissima of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites. He started climbing on the granite of the Western Alps in 1937, and the following year made one of his most celebrated ascents, Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif. He became one of the leading mountaineers of the inter-war period, making a total of 2,500 ascents, of which over 100 were first ascents. In 1940, he married Irma with whom he had three sons.

During the war, Cassin fought with the partisans against the German occupiers, being decorated for his actions in the partisan campaign during the years 1943-45. From 1947 or so, he started designing and producing mountaineering equipment, pitons, ice aces, caribiners and harnesses. In 1954, Cassin felt slighted by Ardito Desio, the chief expedition leader for the Italian Alpine Club, who left him out of the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in 1954; thereafter, he concentrated on organising and leading expeditions himself. In 1961, he planned the expedition that made the first ascent of (what is now known as) Cassin Ridge on Mount McKinley in Alaska, an achievement that earned him a telegram of congratulation from President Kennedy. In 1967, Cassin’s production firm became a limited company, and, in 1997, the Cassin brand was bought by CAMP, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of equipment for climbing and associated activities. Cassin lived to be 100 years old, dying a few months later on 6 August 2009.

The Guardian obituary has this assessment: ‘Tough, warm and good-humoured, Cassin had an obstinate, down-to-earth approach to the practicalities of climbing, underpinned by shrewd intelligence and an artist’s eye for the most beautiful routes up the most difficult peaks. Cassin’s legacy is a series of new climbs completed around the world before and after the second world war, climbs that still dominate the sport's consciousness as immutable landmarks.’ Further biographical information can also be found at Wikipedia, Summit Post, or in obituaries at The Independent and The New York Times.

Cassin kept a diary of the Mount McKinley expedition in 1961, and filled it in with some notes afterward. The diary was published within a few weeks by Life magazine (25 August 1961), and this is freely available at Googlebooks. Here are a few extracts.

17 July 1961
‘The weather is bad from early morning on; the air is thick with snow and the wind threatens to carry away everything at Camp 1. To the right and to the left of us there are almost sheer walls and we remain tied together at all times. Beneath us awaits 6,000 feet of nothing.

Toward 5 p.m. the snow stops and the storm calms down a bit. We don’t lose a minute. All of us leave at once for Camp 2, carrying food and equipment. We climb on two separate ropes for three hours, three men to each rope.’

18 July 1961
‘We leave very early, carrying two tents, food and other supplies. At about 7 p.m. we finally arrive at the site selected for Camp 3. We set up the tents in the face of freezing winds.’

19 July 1961
‘It’s decided that today we'll set out for no less than the summit. Canali and I are tied together. From the spur we pass slightly leftward to the mouth of a couloir [gorge] filled with snow and ice where we are able to climb more swiftly. It is no longer snowing, but strong winds attack us from the west without respite and make every forward step a torture. Icicles bristle from the rocks on either side and cut our faces. By 10 p.m. we have finally reached the base of the rocks that stand between ourselves and the summit.

We are exhausted and numb from the cold. The temperature is down to 30-40 below zero.

Our crampons [spiked boot-attachments] and boots are frozen together into a single mass, and for the first time Canali complains that his feet are cold.

It is Zucchi now who takes the lead; he struggles desperately and nothing can stand in his way. The summit cannot be far away now. Canali does the best he can to reactivate the circulation in his feet which he knows are little by little freezing up.

The summit is close and an unconquerable will takes hold of us and aids us tremendously in our progress. Finally at 11 p.m. and almost in darkness we reach the mighty summit. Filled with emotion, we throw our arms about each other. The icy wind prevents us from opening our mouths to speak, even for a moment; but in our eyes is written anything that our lips might speak.

But we cannot wait, we must descend again directly. Alippi, I, Canali, Perego, Airoldi and Zucchi, in this order, take leave of the summit after spending barely 15 minutes atop it.

Canali is not well. I ask him what’s wrong and he fails to answer. He begins to vomit, although he has had nothing to eat for 17 hours.

Once off the rocks immediately beneath the summit, we descend the steep couloir, all roped together.

Suddenly I hear sounds of scuffling behind me. I turn about and see Canali falling down the couloir. In an instant I plunge my ice ax into the hard snow, whip the rope once quickly around it and rapidly bring Canali to a halt. I begin to wonder whether he can proceed much further. For safety’s sake I change our order on the rope. I remain last with Canali close to me so as to keep a better eye on him. Several times during the descent of this very steep couloir, I must take pains to prevent him from slipping.

We reach the base of the couloir and begin the traverse to Camp 3. I try to give Canali a couple of vitamin tablets but he refuses them and continues to complain of the terrible cold in his feet.

The wind continues to harangue us without respite and the snow begins to fall again. But we keep on descending as the storm becomes more and more violent.’

20 July 1961
‘Finally reach Camp 3 at 6 a.m., almost totally exhausted. While the others prepare something to eat. I massage Canali’s feet. The pains begin to lessen. Outside the tent there is nothing but snow and icy wind, and so it remains for the entire day. We stay in the tent for just so long and then decide to continue our descent. To remain much longer at this height would be extremely dangerous, especially for Canali. Yet, as we attempt to go a few paces beyond the tent, we are soon driven back, convinced that to descend under such conditions is tantamount to suicide.’

21 July 1961
‘Until 11 a.m. the weather continues to be unspeakable, but then calms down a bit and we set out. But though the wind is no longer tormenting us, the snow begins to fall more and more thickly.

Canali can no longer get into his shoes. There is now no alternative for Canali but to change to a pair of boots lined with reindeer fur; but it is impossible to attach crampons to such boots. They are too soft and the toe folds up, rendering the crampons useless.

Both for Canali and for his companions on the same rope, it is extremely difficult to go on in this manner. Yet there is no other way. Canali’s own efforts at this point are superhuman and heroic, and even Zucchi and myself seem to exceed our own capacity in assisting him.

In this way we finally reach the glacier halfway down the wall.

Alippi, who has given his reindeerskin boots to Canali, is now shod in four pairs of woolen socks, and he too, unable to use crampons, must submit to a continuous martyrdom.

At one point I was standing close to Perego in an effort to ease Alippi down a slope when suddenly the latter slipped and all but dragged the three of us down the wall. Fortunately he fell onto a stretch of soft snow.

We reach Camp 2. Perego, Alippi and Airoldi prefer to bivouac there. But Canali's condition has me greatly worried. Visibility is still zero and, to make matters worse, all of our tracks upward are now concealed by fresh snow.

At this point the spur is extremely narrow and steep, and on both sides the slope falls off perpendicularly. We are forced to grope for foot and handholds under the snow. Fortunately these suffice. The effort is killing. At long last we arrive at Camp 1, completely done in. We know that Base Camp means salvation, yet Canali’s condition is such that we cannot proceed a step further at the moment.

Yet even here our difficulties are not over. None of the provisions left at this camp can be eaten without being heated first, and our stoves no longer function. After a great while we succeed in melting a liter of snow, but nothing else.

I set to work massaging Canali’s feet. The drugs that I’ve given him begin to work. Zucchi and I are despondent at being unable to do more for him. At Base Camp we have everything, but we are too exhausted to get there. We attempt to sleep, but Canali moans throughout the night and we remain awake.’

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Diary briefs

Hangman’s diary sells at auction - BBC, The Sun

The world’s oldest diary? - Daily Express, Wikipedia

War journalist’s diary to be auctioned - Hansons, The Times

Diary of journalist with Custer - State Historical Society of North Dakota, The Jamestown Sun

Diary of the first Israeli astronaut - Israel21c

Diary of C18th Maltese priest - Times of Malta

Diary may shed light on story of Deborah Sampson - The Smithsonian

Elton John diary extract goes viral - The Independent

Great escape prison diary - The Sun, Mail Online

Dr Nigel Rusted’s diaries online - Memorial University of Newfoundland

Historic diary of a student - Seton Hall University

Moshe Sharett’s struggle for peace - Indiana University Press, Googlebooks