Sunday, November 17, 2019

Happy birthday Suez Canal

‘The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen.’ This is William Howard Russell, a well-known journalist of the day, describing the Suez Canal under construction. He was travelling with the Prince and Princess of Wales on their tour to the Middle East to see the Canal, and kept a diary of the journey. The Canal would open officially a few months after their visit, on 17 November 1869, 150 years ago today.

The Suez Canal, which extends 100 miles (163 km) from Port Said to the Gulf of Suez, connects the Red Sea with the eastern Mediterranean Sea, thus allowing vessels to sail directly between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. It was built by the French-owned Suez Canal Co, and completed in 1869 after a decade of construction. Its completion was a cause for considerable celebration: in Port Said there was a firework extravaganza and a ball attended by 6,000 people, including many heads of state. Two convoys of ships started from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia, half way along the canal, and the partying is said to have continued for weeks.

Because of external debts, the British government purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests in 1875, although France retained a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888, the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war. But Britain, which considered the Canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests, won the right (through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936) to maintain a defensive force along the canal zone.

This situation lasted until 1954, when demands by Egyptian nationalists led to a new agreement under which British troops would be withdrawn over a seven year period. Only two of those years passed before Egypt nationalised the Canal, and set up the Suez Canal Authority to run it. The seizure by Egypt led to Britain, France and Israel occupying the canal zone, and preparing a plan to invade the rest of the country. The Suez Crisis, as it is now known, was eventually resolved through the United Nations, which mandated its first peace-keeping force to ensure access to the canal. It was closed again in 1967, as a result of the Six-Day War, and remained inoperative until 1975.

The Suez Canal Authority today says the canal is one of the most heavily used shipping lanes, and one of the most important waterways in the world; and tolls paid by vessels ‘represent an important source of income for the Egyptian government’. The Authority’s website provides a lot of useful information about the canal today, as well as a good outline of its history.

For a first hand report of the Canal’s opening, it is worth visiting The Engineer’s website, and its archive copy of the magazine dating from 1869 wherein is a long dispatch by ‘a special correspondent’. There is, however, an interesting diary from that year, kept by a journalist, William Howard Russell, who travelled with the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on a tour to the Middle East specifically to inspect the Suez Canal.

Russell, born in 1820, was an Irish reporter with The Times. His dispatches by the newly-invented telegraph from the Crimea are considered to be among the first ‘live’ war reports, and are even thought by some to have prompted the resignation of the British government (by revealing the lacklustre nature of the British forces). In the 1869 General Election, Russell ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Chelsea. He did not retire, though, as a war correspondent until 1882, when he founded the Army and Navy Gazette. He was knighted in 1895, and died in 1907.

A short description of the royal tour is contained in The life of Sir William Howard Russell by John Black Atkins, published in 1911, and available at Internet Archive. Here is the relevant passage: ‘At the beginning of 1869 [Russell] had the honour of being invited to join the Prince and Princess of Wales in their tour in Egypt and the Near East. The Duke of Sutherland, Russell and others joined the Ariadne which was specially fitted out as a Royal yacht, at Trieste. Russell did not take part in the whole of the Prince’s journey up the Nile, but rejoined the Royal party about the middle of March at Cairo. Re-starting after a week in Cairo, the Prince and his friends were shown the Suez Canal by Lesseps. At that time the works were incomplete, but the Prince opened the sluices which filled the basin of the Bitter Lakes. From Alexandria the journey was continued in the Ariadne to Constantinople, and so on to Sebastopol. Only some 6,000 persons were living in the town which before the Crimean War had contained over 60,000. It may be imagined how Russell drew upon his memories to retell for the Prince and Princess the stories of the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, and to reconstruct the terror and the pity of the plateau. From the Black Sea the Ariadne steamed to Brindisi by way of Athens and Corfu.

And here are some passages from Russell’s diary of that journey, taken from A Diary in the East, During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales, published by Routledge in that same year, 1869. Originals of the book can be found on Abebooks, costing upwards of £50, but it is also freely available to view and download at Internet Archive (in two volumes).

25 March 1869
‘The Royal party started at 9am, and ran down by rail to the pier, where the works of the Canal Company are being carried forward - a large dock, 420 feet long, being already completed. They went on board an English tug, and steamed round the Mole and as far up the Canal as they could. M de Lesseps, M Borel, and M La Pousse, who were of the party, explained the object of the principal works. The party returned in the tug at 10.30 to the Hotel to breakfast. At 11.30 they left and entered the special train for Ismailia; guards of honour turned out, military bands playing, salutes fired, and all Egyptian and European officials attending their Royal Highnesses to the carriages at the station.

The train arrived at Chalouf in about half-an-hour, where all alighted, and crossing the Sweetwater Canal on a ferry-platform, proceeded along the banks of the Maritime Canal for about two miles, the Princess and Mrs Grey in a pony-carriage with M de Lesseps, the rest on horses.

There is a deep cutting here, in which camels, asses, mules, and men are busily engaged removing the sand and debris. The Timsah lake and the other finished sections do not strike one so forcibly as the aspect of the uncompleted labours of the workmen. The parts of the Canal already fit for traffic have not very much to attract one in the way of sight-seeing. Labour shuns the work it has done; but here we can inspect the nature of the task which was set for those who grappled with the undertaking at the beginning.

The inspection lasted an hour; then the party continued the journey in the train, and at 1pm got out by the banks of the old Sweetwater Canal, where two small steam launches were waiting. They went on to Serapeum, where they were met on landing by Mme Charles de Lesseps, Mme and Mdlle Guichard, Mme Borel, Mdlle Voisin, M Lavalley, and others. They walked through the little town which is springing up here, to the Maritime Canal, where they embarked in steam launches, and started for the Great Dam, through the sluices of which the Mediterranean is being let into the Bitter Lakes.

The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen. The asses, poor little brutes, go in strings up and down the cutting at a quick step. The camel, on the contrary, paces up and down the declivities with immense gravity and aplomb. The ass stands whilst the Arabs are filling the sacks on his back. The camel kneels. The engineers calculate that a camel will carry one-fifth of a cubic metre of sand, and that he is only able to do the work of two asses, pompous and pretentious as he is.

Having inspected the Dam and the vast space to be inundated, some of the sluices were raised, to let in the water, which rushed rapidly into the bed of the Bitter Lakes; and the party having enjoyed the sight embarked, proceeded by the Canal to Lake Timsah (which they entered at 5.15pm), and reached Ismailia by 6 o’clock. At the landing-place there was a triumphal arch erected, and a crowd of all the colonists and troops lining the road. The Prince and Princess got into basket-carriages with large flat wheels and four horses - the rest of the party on horseback - and were escorted through the principal thoroughfares by a respectful cavalcade.

If the Suez Canal never produced any greater result, such an extraordinary city would be a remarkable development. Every one who takes the smallest interest in what is going on outside the limits of these islands, knows something about the general plan of the Suez Canal, but without a personal visit it is impossible to conceive how wonderful this little city really is. On the borders of the newly-created Lake, there lie stretched out magazines, storehouses, cafes, restaurants, boulevards, church, cemetery, set in a border of bright verdure fresh and blooming. The limits are sand and rock, the veritable Desert itself. Wood can be worked by Egyptian carpenters and French designers into pretty and fanciful outsides, and the necessity of procuring as much air as possible, and of keeping out sunshine and dust, conspire to the production of such fantastic contrivances in architecture, that, on the whole, the chalets are like nothing that I have ever seen. And then the gardens, where there are growing in their newly-found homes the banana, the orange, the cactus, and tropical plants in great abundance, form a charming ornament, and contribute to the light and graceful aspect of the town. Indeed, the houses on the Esplanade, facing the Sweetwater Canal, and looking out upon Lake Timsah and the water front, put one in mind of an exquisite bit of scenery on the stage, or one of those elaborate toys, in detached pieces, got up by cunning workmen for the amusement of the children of the great. The city has all the Desert around it to expatiate upon, and no one can say to what extent it may reach. On the map, its well-defined lines, with broad squares and streets, stretching out into mathematical points, which have no parts, look almost too grandiose. All of this - the town, the people who inhabit it, the trees, the grass - depend on one work - the Sweetwater Canal. Dry up that, and they wither and die. . .’

26 March 1869
‘. . . The Suez Canal is not made. There is a considerable amount of work still to be done. But the conception of M de Lesseps is raised out of the limbo of possibilities. The project for the junction of two seas is already in a condition to admit of a probability that the remaining part, being the easier portion, will be completed by the 11th of October.* The commercial success can only be determined by the experience of a term of years after the canal has been opened. No opinion can be safely offered on the point. If the route be conducive to the interests of commerce, no national jealousies or private interests can prevent its stream flowing through the canal at a great profit to the shareholders. The freight which the Company proposes to charge is at the rate of 10f a ton transit duty on all actual cargo, excluding provisions for the crew, dead weight, stores, &c; and the sum saved on a voyage to the East Indies would be equivalent to the total insurance on the ship, without counting the time saved, cost of the crew in food and wages, and wear and tear of material. It may be said, and with some truth, that it is too early for any speculation until the canal is open; but it is not too early to remark how complete has been the failure of sinister prophecies. . .’  * The footnote reads: ‘The opening, as the world knows, is now fixed for 17th November.’

Happy birthday Suez Canal!

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 17 November 2009.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Toast, joints, mulberry trees

Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish explorer and botanist, died 140 years ago today. He’s best known for being one of Carolus Linnaeus’s students, and for spending several years in North America seeking out seeds and plants - not least the red mulberry - to bring back and improve agricultural possibilities in his home land.

Kalm was born in 1716, in Sweden, where his Finnish parents had taken refuge during the Great Northern War. His father died weeks after Kalm was born; and a few years later his mother and he returned to Finland (but academics argue over Kalm’s exact nationality). He studied sciences at the universities in Turku and Uppsala, and was a student of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (dubbed the ‘father of modern taxonomy’). Kalm became much interested in the useful application of botany in agriculture and industry.

During the mid-1740s, Kalm was engaged in field research in Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. Then, in 1747 he was appointed Professor of Economic Natural History at the University of Åbo in Turku. Very soon after, though, he set off on a mission, planned by Linnaeus, to collect economically-useful plants - particularly red mulberry for silk worms - in North America.

On his journey, Kalm spent six months in England, before arriving in Pennsylvania in 1748 where he met the leading American naturalists. He made the Swedish-Finnish community of Raccoon (now Swedesboro in New Jersey) his base of operations. There, he acted as a substitute pastor in the local church, and even married the widow of the former pastor. Two major trips took him north, firstly to New York, Albany, Lake Champlain, and Canada, and, secondly, to Canada again.

Kalm returned to Turku in May 1751, where he remained for the rest of his life, teaching and writing. He died on 16 November 1779. Wikipedia has a good short summary of his life, as does one found at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Here is how the latter concludes: ‘Kalm was one of the outstanding utilitarian Linnaean botanists, one genus and 90 species of plants being named for him. His major legacy, his book, stimulated natural history in Sweden and provided Europeans with an accurate and wide-ranging account of North American conditions and customs. Kalm’s descriptions of Canadian life and mores are among the best found in travel literature concerning the country.’

Kalm’s diary of his journey was first published in Stockholm in the 1750s as En Resa til Norra America. This was translated into English by John Reinhold Forster and sold in England in three volumes in the early 1770s. The full English title reads: Travels into North America; containing its natural history, and a circumstantial account of its plantations and agriculture in general, with the civil, ecclesiastical and commercial state of the country, the manners of the inhabitants, and several curious and important remarks on various subjects.

Original copies are available through Abebooks costing hundreds or thousands of pounds, but a 1970s reprint can by bought much cheaper. However, the full texts are freely available at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts taken from volume two of Kalm’s original volumes as found at Internet Archive. (These are relatively short diary entries though most are much longer with detailed descriptions of the flora/fauna, culture and society he finds).

14 April 1749
‘This morning I went down to Chester: in several places on the road are saw-mills; but those which I saw today had no more than one saw. I likewise perceived that the woods and forests of these parts had been very roughly treated. It is customary here, when they erect saw-mills, wind-mills, or iron-works, to lead the water a good way lower, in case the ground near a fall in the river is not convenient for building upon.’


24 April 1749
‘To-day the Cherry-trees began to fhew their bloffoms; they had already pretty large leaves. The Apple-trees likewife began to bloffom; however the Cherry-trees were more forward: They likewife got a greenifh hue from their leaves. The Mulberry-trees were yet quite naked and I was forry to find that this tree is one of the lateft in getting leaves, and one of the firft which gets fruit.’

6 May 1749
‘The Mulberry-trees (Morus rubra) about this time began to bloffom, but their leaves were yet very fmall. The people divided them into male and female trees or flowers; and faid that thofe which never bore any fruit were males, and thofe which did, females.’



22 May 1749
‘The locusts began to creep out of their holes in the ground last night, and continued to do so to-day. As soon as their wings were dry, they began their song, which is almost sufficient to make one deaf, when travelling through the woods. This year there was an immense number of them.’

‘4 June 1749
I found vines in several gardens, got from the old countries. They bear annually a quantity of excellent grapes. When the winters are very severe, they are killed by the frost, and die quite to the ground; but the next spring new shoots spring up from the root.’ 


This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 16 November 2009. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Diary briefs

Chiang Ching-kuo’s diaries to be published - Taiwan News

Channon’s diaries to be published in full - The Bookseller, The Guardian

Highsmith’s diaries to be published - SwissInfo, The Independent (see also My guiding darkness)

The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan - Nightboat Books, Pink News

Diary left by mental home suicide - The Mirror

War Diaries of Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Barne - Pen & Sword Books

War-time diaries of Miksa Fenyő - Helena History Press, National Review

Chilling diary entries of family killer - Daily Mail, The Mirror

Sontag: Her Life and Work - HarperCollins, Los Angeles Times

Extracts from Joanna Drew’s diaries - Skira, Hyperallergic

Dutch war diarist given medal - US Army, DVIDS

Tortured girl’s heartbreaking diary - The Mirror

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Hogsheads and puncheons

‘Yesterday arrived, the Continental Schooner Wasp, Captain Baldwin; brought with her a large Guinea ship bound from Jamaica for Liverpool, having on board three hundred and five hogsheads of Sugar, fifty-one puncheons of rum and other goods.’ This is Christopher Marshall, born 310 years ago in Ireland, who emigrated to America, ran a successful pharmacy business in Philadelphia, and was a staunch advocate of American independence. His diaries, which were published several times in the 19th century, are considered to offer ‘interesting insights’ into the revolutionary war era.

Marshall was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 6 November 1709. He was educated in England but emigrated - without his parents permission - to America in the 1720s; by 1729, he had established a pharmacy shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He married Sarah Thompson in 1736 and the couple had three sons. He became committed to American independence, but was disowned by the Society of Friends, to which he had been very attached, because of the active part that he took in the revolutionary war. Sarah died, and in 1774 he married Abigail Fisher Cooper. Around the same time he retired from business and took up various public offices.

In 1776, Marshall became a delegate to the Philadelphia Provincial Council, and he was twice appointed to the Continental Committee of Council and Safety. In 1777, he relocated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to improve his health and avoid the British armies. With the war over, he moved back to Philadelphia where he died in 1797. Brief further details are available at Famous Americans or The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

From 1774 until 1795, Marshall kept diaries, making near daily entries in some periods. A detailed breakdown of these diaries is provided by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which holds the Marshall Papers, including diaries, notebooks and various transcripts and copies made subsequently. The Society says ‘regardless of form, Marshall’s diaries provide interesting insights from a local merchant into Revolutionary War-era Philadelphia, as well as first-hand accounts of events leading up to the war.’ Extracts from Marshall’s diaries in 1774, 1775 and 1776 were first edited (by William Duane) and published in 1839, under the title Marshall’s Remembrancer - available at Internet Archive. A subsequent edition dated 1849 includes diary entries from 1777 as well. Some 30 years or so later, a further edition - Extracts from the Diary of Christopher Marshall kept in Philadelphia and Lancaster during the American Revolution - includes extracts from 1774 through to 1781.

Here are several extracts from the 1849 edition.

9 September 1776
‘A number of the troops, it’s said, from the country, went out of town yesterday. Those gentlemen, delegates, mentioned to go out on the Seventh, to converse with Lord and General Howe, did not go till this morning. It was General Sullivan that went thenabouts, from this City.’

13 September 1776
‘Went to [the] Committee Room at Philosophical Hall, where William Wild appeared in support of his Memorial. Upon being interrogated respecting the money, [which,] he had said, belonged to the merchants in England, he now declared otherwise, and that the whole sum was his own private property, and in order to prove that, said his letter and cash books would shew it, which he could fetch in one quarter of an hour, if requested. Upon this he was desired to fetch them, and the Committee would wait. In about that space of time he returned and declared he had destroyed his letter and cash book and every other book, about ten days ago, which might publicly bring his employers into trouble. Referred to next meeting.’

16 October 1776
‘Yesterday arrived, the Continental Schooner Wasp, Captain Baldwin; brought with her a large Guinea ship bound from Jamaica for Liverpool, having on board three hundred and five hogsheads of Sugar, fifty-one puncheons of rum and other goods. Letter from Harlem, where our companies [are], of the Thirteenth instant, says most of Howe’s forces are got about six miles above King’s Bridge, and were landed in order if possible to surround our camp, so that a general engagement may be hourly expected to be heard of.’

6 September 1777
‘This afternoon, the two thieves, who stole Col. White’s cash and trunk, were marched about a mile and a half out of town, in order, it’s said, to be hanged, but upon the Colonel’s lady’s intercession, it’s said, they were pardoned from death, but received two or three hundred lashes each, well laid on their backs and buttocks. A great number of spectators, it’s said, were assembled.’

11 September 1777
‘News was that the enemy advanced towards the Concord road to Philadelphia; that part of our army was gone to Chad’s Ford; that several deserters were gone for Philadelphia; some, very few, come here; that some of the Virginia forces coming to our assistance had crossed [the] Susquehannah to the amount of one thousand; others on the road. From Fort Pitt that one or two persons were apprehended, coming there from Detroit, on one of them were found some papers, particularly one with the list of names of those in the fort and in the neighbourhood, who had declared their allegiance to George the Third. One of the persons, by name Wm. Gallaher, formerly a pedler, had made his escape, for whom a reward of six hundred dollars is offered.’

16 September 1777
‘I am informed that yesterday were brought to this jail, three or four persons from Chester County, two of them named Hunter, who, by receipts found upon them, appear to have been as suppliers of Howe’s army with sheep, cattle, &c. The others are called Temple, who appear to have been concerned as directors of the roads to Howe’s army, and informing against sundry persons to him as good friends to the United States, and other inimical practices.’

6 October 1777
‘Went into town; spent chief [part] of the afternoon there in conversation, respecting public occurrences, as the express had just come in; brought account of a parcel of our army’s moving in three divisions last Sixth Day night, eight or nine miles, and [that they] attacked our enemy near five next morning near Chestnut Hill; threw them into disorder and drove their grenadiers with others into Germantown, where they took refuge in churches, houses and meetings, with their cannon (of which our people had brought none with them) and as the main body of the enemy advanced our little party retreated back to their former ground in good order, taking one piece of cannon with them, and all their wounded. Accounts say that we had killed, wounded and prisoners on our side about four hundred, and that the enemy had nearly fifteen hundred in killed, wounded and prisoners.’