Saturday, January 31, 2009

On sheer emptiness

Happy birthday Ken Wilber, 60 today. Author of several books mostly published by Shambhala - including A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything - Wilber has also published a diary he wrote throughout 1997. It starts with a brief meditation on sunlight and sheer emptiness.

Wilber’s entry on Wikipedia says he was born 31 January 1949 - 60 years ago today - in Oklahoma City. In 1967, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Duke University, ‘and almost immediately experienced a disillusionment with what science had to offer’. He became inspired, Wikipedia says, ‘like many thousands of others of that generation, by Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching, which catalysed his interest in Buddhism’. He left Duke, but completed a science degree at the University of Nebraska.

Wilber’s first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, was published in 1977 by Quest Books. The following year, he helped launch the journal ReVision. Nearly twenty years later came Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which Wikipedia calls ‘the massive first volume of a proposed Kosmos Trilogy’. After that, he published, among other things, A Brief History of Everything; The Eye of Spirit (a compilation of articles for ReVision on the relationship between science and religion); and A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Throughout 1997, Kimber wrote a journal of his personal experiences, and this was published in 1999 as One Taste - Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality.

Wilber’s books are published by Shambhala Publications, an independent company based in Boston, Massachusetts. Many of its books deal with Buddhism or related topics which, it says, ‘present creative and conscious ways of transforming the individual, the society, and the planet’. The term Shambhala, it adds, refers to ‘a mystical kingdom hidden somewhere beyond the snowpeaks of the Himalayas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition’.

Shambhala promotes Ken Wilber as the leading theorist in the field of integral psychology, a subject which ‘naturally arouses the curiosity of his numerous readers’. It has published One Taste, it explains, ‘in response to this curiosity’. The one-year diary ‘not only offers an unprecedented entrée into [Wilber’s] private world, but offers an introduction to his essential thought’. Wilber himself says, ‘If there is a theme to this journal, it is that body, mind, and the luminosities of the soul - all are perfect expressions of the Radiant Spirit that alone inhabits the universe, sublime gestures of that Great Perfection that alone outshines the world’.

More information can be found about One Taste from Shambhala’s website, and from Integral World, which has summaries of many Wilber books.

A Library Journal review is a little more critical: ‘Wilber devotees will, no doubt, find this record of a year in his life essential reading. For most readers, however, distracting and largely uninteresting details of Wilber’s life (he’s dating a swell girl), cliched passages describing various states of spiritual awe, often opaque theoretical discussions, and a thinly veiled general tone of self-aggrandisement will tend to obscure the many highly original and thought-provoking passages scattered throughout. A frustrating book by a controversial thinker; only for collections with a demonstrated interest in this author.’

Reader reviews and a few pages can be read on Here is the journal’s first entry.

Thursday 2 January 1997
‘Worked all morning, research and reading, while watching the sunlight play through the falling snow. The sun in not yellow today, it is white, like the snow, so I am surrounded by white on white, alone on alone. Sheer Emptiness, soft clear light, is what it all looks like, shimmering to itself in melancholy murmurs. I am released into that Emptiness, and all is radiant on this clear light day.’

Roggeveen and Easter Island

Jacob Roggeveen, the Dutch explorer credited with discovering Easter Island, was baptised exactly 350 years ago tomorrow, and died 280 years ago today. He kept a journal, although this was not published in English until 1970. A couple of extracts are available online, including one about the day he sighted Easter Island.

Wikipedia, The Diary Junction and the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) website all have some biographical information about Roggeveen. His birth date is not known, but he was baptised on 1 February 1659, three and a half centuries ago. He trained as a notary in Middelburg, Holland, and studied law at University of Harderwijk. Between 1707 and 1714, he was a Council Lord of Justice at Batavia (now Djakarta), in the Dutch East Indies. On returning to Holland, he became involved in a religious controversy, and the first part of a tract he published in 1718 was confiscated by the city council and burned. He fled Middelburg, and eventually established himself in Arnemuiden, where he published further parts of the tract.

In August 1721, though, he took over the preparation of an expedition, initially devised by his father, for the Dutch West India Company, to seek Terra Australis. He sailed around Cape Horn and to the Pacific Ocean, visited Juan Fernandez Islands, and is credited with discovering Easter Island in 1722. Subsequently, he was arrested because he had, apparently, violated the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company. He was later released and compensated. He returned to the Netherlands in 1723 and published a final part of his tract. He died on 31 January 1729, 280 years ago today.

The Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, originally printed in Dutch in 1838, wasn’t published in English until Clarendon Press brought out an edition in 1970, translated and edited by Andrew Sharpe. Here are Roggeveen’s own words on the discovery of Easter Island, taken from the journal, and made available online thanks to The Internet Sacred Text Archive.

‘When we approached nearer the land we saw distinctly from a short distance that the description of the sandy and low island did not accord in the least with our discovery. Furthermore, it could not be the same land which the aforesaid voyagers claim to have seen stretching 14 to 16 leagues in front of them, and near the highland which Dampier judged to be the coast-line of the unknown south. That Easter Island can not be the sandy island described by Davis is clear, because that was small and low, while on the contrary Easter Island is high and towers above the sea, having also two elevations rising above the level part. It would not be possible to mistake, even at the dry season of the year, the grass and verdure that covers the hill-sides for barren sand. After the Dutch custom of the day, the admiral assembled the commanders of the three vessels composing his fleet - the Arend, the African Galley, and the Thienhoven - in council to pass formal resolutions claiming the discovery of the land. The proceedings of the assembly state that on Easter day land was sighted about 9 miles distant, of moderate height, and containing an area of about 6 Dutch miles. The weather being calm the vessels were not able to secure an anchorage near the land until the next day, The island was found to be destitute of trees, but with a fertile soil producing bananas, potatoes, and sugar-cane of extraordinary thickness. It was unanimously agreed that both from the difference in the location as well as the appearance of the land seen by Davis, the fact was established beyond doubt that the island just discovered could not be the same. These proceedings, being drawn up, were formally signed by Jacob Roggeveen, Jan Koster, Cornelius Bonman, and Roelof Rosendaal. After sailing from Easter Island the vessels spent a number of days in it search for the low sandy island described by Davis, but not with success.’

There are more details about Roggeveen’s journal available on the The Easter Island Foundation website, though it is necessary to search the site’s blog to find them. Here, though, is a dramatic description of the discovery of Easter Island (which can be found on the [archived] RapaNui Central website):

‘On April 5 of 1722, a small fleet of three Dutch vessels commanded by Admiral Jacob Roggeveen arrived to the island. As that day was Easter Sunday, Jacob Roggeveen baptized his discovery with the name that is universally known, Easter Island. According to islanders oral tradition, in this first encounter of a native with the Europeans, a man that was in a canoe was invited to come on board and it was offered a glass of wine and food, the islander instead of eating or drinking took the glass of wine and poured it on his own head.

The report of the same scene according to K. F. Behrens, a German who was part of Roggeveen’s crew, said that an islander in a canoe approached the Dutch ships, so he was invited on board. The man was completely tattooed with many different figures and his ears were very long. He was offered a glass of wine but instead of drinking it, he poured it on his eyes. Behrens added that he believed that the islander thought that they were trying to poison him.

Two days later, the islander visited again the ships in the company of other natives. And that same day Roggeveen and Behrens took land with 150 armed men. A multitude of natives surrounded them and some tried to touch the sailors weapons, so some sailors opened fire and 13 islanders were killed.’

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hibbert’s diary books

Christopher Hibbert, a prolific and popular historian and writer, died last month. He wrote many biographies on a wide range of subjects, from Elizabeth I to Disraeli; and often turned his pen to Italian people and places. However, he also edited a number of books - such as those on Greville, Wheatley and Livingstone - based on diaries.

Born in 1924, Hibbert was educated at Radley School, and then Oriel College, Oxford. He joined the Army, and served as an infantry officer in the London Irish Rifles regiment in Italy during World War II (winning a Military Cross in 1945). After ten years working with a company of land agents and auctioneers, he switched to a career as a history writer in the late 1950s - his first book being The Road to Tyburn. Wikipedia has a short biography, but more information can be found about Hibbert in the various obituaries that followed his death on 21 December - The Guardian’s was published only yesterday.

The Times says Hibbert ‘was probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific’. According to The Guardian, he was never sensational for sensation’s sake: ‘He wrote in a careful, measured and meticulous style, not seeking to impose his personality on his prose, preferring to present the facts to the reader, to set his story out before them, rather than to embellish his research with supposition, theory and conjecture.’ The Telegraph says his style was sometimes criticised for failing to break new ground or to tackle subjects in enough depth, nevertheless, Hibbert ‘was sure of his methodology and his audience’.

The Guardian says Hibbert ‘had more than 50 books published’ and The Telegraph that he ‘wrote more than 40 books’ (although The Times says he ‘wrote more than 50 books’). This discrepancy between the number of books he ‘wrote’ and the number he ‘published’ is partly explained by those he edited, and of these several were based on people’s diaries. In 1964, Hibbert edited and Longmans published The Wheatley Diary: A Journal and Sketch-book Kept during the Peninsular War and the Waterloo Campaign.

Other diaries edited by Hibbert include: Greville’s England - Selections from the Diaries of Charles Greville 1818-1860, published by the Folio Society in 1981; Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals published by John Murray in 1984; A Soldier’s Tale, Three Nineteenth Century Stories of Life at War: The Letters of Private Wheeler; The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier and The Recollections of Rifleman Harris published by Windrush Press in 1999; and The Life and African Exploration of Dr. David Livingstone: Comprising All His Extensive Travels and Discoveries As Detailed in His Diary, Reports, and Letters, Including His Famous Last Journals published by Cooper Square in 2002.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rooke’s Battle of Vigo Bay

Admiral Sir George Rooke, an English naval commander of some importance, died three centuries ago today. He is remembered particularly for defeating the Spanish treasure fleet at the Battle of Vigo Bay, and for securing the capture of Gibraltar. His journal, which is freely available online, only covers a couple of years, but includes the days when he was in charge of the attack on Vigo.

Wikipedia and The Diary Junction have short biographies of Rooke. He was born at St Lawrence, near Canterbury, and entered the navy as a volunteer. He served first in the Dutch Wars and rose, eventually, to become a rear-admiral and vice-admiral. He fought at the Battle of Beachy Head, served under Russell at the Battle of Barfleur, and commanded the Smyrna convoy, which was scattered and partly taken by the French near Lagos Bay.

With the opening of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, he commanded an unsuccessful expedition against Cádiz, but then, on the way home, won an important victory against Spain, at the Battle of Vigo Bay. Wikipedia has a long article on the battle, but, in summary, says this: ‘The engagement was an overwhelming naval success for the Allies: the entire French escort fleet, under the command of Château-Renault, together with the Spanish galleons and transports under Manuel de Velasco, had either been captured or destroyed. Yet, because most of the treasure had been off-loaded before the attack, capturing the bulk of the silver cargo had eluded Rooke. Nevertheless, the victory was a welcome boost to Allied morale and had helped persuade the Portuguese King, Peter II, to abandon his earlier treaty with the French, and join the Grand Alliance.’

Less than two years later, in July 1704, Rooke commanded the allied naval forces in the capture of Gibraltar, and he served briefly as its military governor (the BBC has a brief page on this). On leaving the navy in 1705, he retired to his estate at St Lawrence. He died on 24 January 1709, according to Wikipedia, which is exactly 300 years ago today.

In 1897, the Navy Records Society published The Journal of Sir George Rooke, edited by Oscar Browning. The Society says it is ‘a conflation of correspondence with a journal kept by Rooke’s secretary (which exists in several versions), all covering his Baltic expedition of 1700, and the attack on Cadiz and Vigo in 1702’. Uniquely among the Society’s early issues, it adds intriguingly, the book ‘went out of print almost as soon as it was published, having received some damning reviews’.

The full text of the journal, in several forms, is viewable at the Internet Archive website in several forms. Also, all the extracts concerning the Battle of Vigo Bay can be found on a website maintained by Rafael Ojea. (However, he seems to have adjusted the dates from those in the journal itself, when the British Empire was still using the Julian calendar, to the Gregorian calendar now in use.) Here are a few extracts taken (and dated) from the original Navy Records Society publication.

10 January 1702
‘Delivered a scheme to his Majesty for the prosecution of services at sea, &c., the next summer. That forthwith fifty sail of English and thirty Dutch of the line be appointed for the main fleet, thirty English and twenty Dutch to go abroad with 8,000 English and Dutch soldiers to attempt something on Spain or Portugal, the other thirty sail, with frigates, &c., to remain at home for the security of the Channel.’

11 October 1702
‘Having lain by from eight last night, at four this morning made sail, being about four leagues from the Islands, but it being very dirty, thick weather we had much ado to make the entrance in; and it was not till ten o’clock that the Kent, who had been in with the passage early in the morning, brought to and made the signal; upon which, the wind freshening very much, the whole fleet anchored before 11 o’clock in a range up almost to the chain which the enemy had placed before their ships. The town of Vigo fired some few shot, but none of them reached us, except two or three which did no harm.

Immediately called a Council of War.’

12 October 1702
‘Early this morning the soldiers were got in a readiness to disembark, and all landed in a little bay on the starboard side going up to the Rondello, about a league above Vigo, at 11 o’clock.

At ten weighed with the fleet and stood in close to the two forts at the entrance of the harbour, but proving calm, Vice-Admiral Hopsonn was forced to anchor, the cannon from both sides playing amongst the ships, but did no great damage.

Ordered the Association and Barfleur to lay near the forts and to flank’em, to force the men from the batteries in case our ships should stop at the boom.

The forts were observed to fire about thirty guns on the starboard, and fifteen or sixteen on the larboard. At twelve went aboard the Torbay, and viewed the forts, boom, and position of the French ships, and at one, the wind coming pretty fresh, the Admiral ordered the Vice-Admiral to slip and push for it, which he immediately did, and by half an hour after one, with great success, broke the boom, and notwithstanding the great fire that was from both the forts, and eight of the French that were very conveniently posted, the three first divisions got in. The army got up to the fort just as the ships got past and took it. One, and, soon after, three, of the French ships were set on fire, and all abandoned the ship Monsieur Chateau Renaud was in, being first afire, and those near the boom, so that before our ships began to appear pretty clear, and Vice-Admiral Hopsonn returned to the Somerset to give the Admiral an account as well as he could of the action, that he found all our ships well except the Torbay which had been laid aboard by a French fireship which was luckily got a little off, but blew up and set only their sails and side afire, which also, by the captain’s and men’s good management, was put out; but fifty-three men were drowned, with the first lieutenant, Mr. Graydon, and the purser by the accident of her blowing up.

In the evening went up round the harbour and found by the account of Monsieur le Marquis de Gallisoniere, Captain of the Hope, that the following ships were here viz . . .

He says also that all the King’s plate, about 3,000,000 sterling, was taken out and carried to a town about twenty-five leagues up the country, but that only forty small chests of cutcheneel [cochineal] was carried ashore.’

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mason-Dixon Line

Jeremiah Dixon died 230 years ago today. Although he lived and died in the north of England, his name is much better remembered in the United States, where he worked as a surveyor and astronomer with another Englishman, Charles Mason. Between them, they surveyed and created what became known as the Mason-Dixon border line. It was a job that took the best part of four years, and there’s a journal to prove it.

Dixon was born in Cockfield, County Durham, in July 1733, and he finished his life there too, on 22 January 1779 - 230 years ago today. His father, Ralph, was a coal mine owner, and his brother, George, who took over the mines is said to have invented coal gas. Jeremiah’s interest in astronomy and mathematics led him to being chosen, in 1761, to serve as assistant to Charles Mason on a Royal Society sponsored trip to Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus. However, their passage to Sumatra was delayed, and they landed instead at the Cape of Good Hope and observed the transit there.

Two years later, Mason and Dixon journeyed to the United States, to Pennsylvania and Maryland, to assist with resolving a boundary dispute between two land-owning families, and their two provinces, each one having been granted by different English monarchs. They began their work in November 1763 and completed it in 1766.

Dixon’s story is briefly told by Lynne Hall in an article for The Teesdale Mercury published in 2008. She explains that surveying the border line was an enormous task because not only did the two men have ‘to battle through an unforgiving landscape, they also had to contend with temperatures of well below zero’. And, although they had Indian guides with them, ‘there was a constant danger of confrontations with more hostile Indians as they travelled further west’.

Between the American War of Independence and the Civil War, the line acquired additional significance because many people saw it as both a symbolic and physical border between the northern states, which had banned slavery, and the southern slave-owning ones. The term Mason-Dixon Line continues in use to the present day, to distinguish between the northern and southern states, and is more famous than the men that created it - Wikipedia’s entry for the Mason-Dixon Line is twice as long as the entries for Mason and Dixon put together.

For a more detailed version of the story see The Evolution of the Mason and Dixon Line by Morgan Poitiaux Robinson, originally published in The Oracle Magazine, Richmond, Virginia, but now available online thanks to the Pennsylvania State University website. Or John Mackenzie’s article on the website of the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of Delaware. Mackenzie says surveying the line was ‘one of the great technological feats of the century’.

Mackenzie also provides some information about a journal kept by Mason and Dixon during their time in the US but actually written in Mason’s hand. It was lost for most of a century, but turned up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1860. The original is kept at the National Archives, Washington. It’s mostly mostly technical notes and calculations and diagrams, although there are also copies of letters and some comments by Mason on his travels.

More than a century after it was found, in 1969, the journal was transcribed and published - as The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon - by the American Philosophical Association. The full text can be viewed online through the website of The Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership (an organisation established in 1990 to inventory and preserve the original stones - some of which were shipped from England - used by Mason and Dixon to mark the boundary).

For a much longer and fictional treatment of the story, try Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. According to Mackenzie again, Mason and Dixon are portrayed as naïve, picaresque characters, the Laurel and Hardy of the 18th century, surrounded by an odd cast including a talking dog, a mechanical duck in love with an insane French chef, an electric eel, a renegade Chinese Jesuit mercenary feng-shui master, and a narrator who swallowed a perpetual motion watch. These two protagonists, though, come to personify America’s confused moral compass, ‘slowly realizing how their survey line defiles a wild, innocent landscape, and opens the west to the violence and moral ambiguities that accompany ‘civilization’.’

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hiss’d off ye English Stage

David Garrick, probably the most important English actor and drama producer of the 18th century, died 220 years ago today. He also penned plays; and for one journey only, it seems, kept a diary. That journey was to Paris, and Garrick pulls no punches in lambasting almost every theatrical entertainment he finds there.

Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica have detailed biographies for Garrick. Born in 1717 to a family with French Huguenot heritage, he grew up in Lichfield (about 15 miles north of Birmingham). Aged 20, he moved to London and set up a wine business with his older brother. Before long, though, he became obsessed with the theatre. In 1740, his first play - Lethe: or Aesop in the Shade - was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The following year saw him take the stage as a professional actor, in particular performing Richard III in London to great acclaim.

Garrick soon became a very successful actor, particularly renowned for interpreting Shakespeare. In parallel, he started managing shows in London and Dublin. He also continued to write plays, including the farces Miss in Her Teens (early in his career) and Bon Ton (much later). In 1747, he bought a half share in the Drury Lane Theatre, which he then ran for 30 years until his retirement in 1776.

After a series of affairs, Garrick married a German dancer, Eva Marie Veigel, in 1749. She would live to be nearly a 100, thus surviving Garrick, who died on 20 January 1779, by four decades. Two years after the marriage, they travelled to Paris together; and, during their stay, Garrick kept a diary - not something, it seems, he’d done before or would do again.

In 1928, the diary manuscript was edited by Ryllis Clair Alexander and published by Oxford University Press as The Diary of David Garrick: Being a Record of His Memorable Trip to Paris in 1751. In his introduction, Alexander says the original is ‘a little note-book . . . bound in red morocco with gold-tooled edges’. Here are four extracts, all of them showing Garrick very unimpressed by the entertainment on show in the French capital.

Friday 24 May
‘We went to ye Comedie Francaise dans les premiere Loges. The play was Molier’s L’Ecole des Maris, very ill acted but as a new Tragedy call’d Zares was acted for ye first time the night before, & by ye best actors, we saw none but ye inferior ones in this Play - the petite Piece was Le Magnifique (by La Motte as they told me) taken from La Fontaine, an indifferent farce, & worse acted.’

Saturday 25 May
‘I left my name at ye Ambassador’s (Lord Albemarle) & call’d upon M. Boyle we went this Evening to the Comedie Italliene & saw Marivaux’s fausse Suivante with an Entertainment of Dancing call’d Le May, the first was acted much better than L’Ecole des Maris but ye Dancing which was great Success & much approv’d of, would have been hiss’d off ye English Stage -’

Sunday 26 May
‘I waited upon Lady Sandwich, was very politely receiv’d by her Lady; she is a woman of great vivacity (tho very old) & of great parts; & tho much us’d to ye french and their customs, know all their foibles, & retains ye sentiments of an English woman . . . We went this Evening to ye Opera; a very raw Entertainment to me; ye scenes were well conducted & had a good Effect ye habits seemingly rich, the singers and dancer very numerous; but yet singing abominable to me, & the dancing very indifferent.’

Tuesday 4 June
‘So Hot I did not stir out all ye morning, Saw Devisse from London, din’d with Sir John Lambert & went to ye Comedie Italienne with Mr Mildmay belonging to the Embassy - there was nothing sure Ever so despicable & contemptible as Arlequin Scanderbeque. We did not, nor could not stay it out.’

Friday, January 16, 2009

To die this way

The British soldier and general, Sir John Moore, died 200 years ago today, hit by a cannonball at the important Battle of La Coruña, Spain, during the Peninsular War. After being hit, he reputedly told a colleague that he had always wanted ‘to die this way’. His battlefield funeral is celebrated in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe which ends ‘We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.’ In fact, glory would have to wait, for back home Moore’s strategy in Spain was heavily criticised. However, a century later, Moore’s diaries were found and published, and these helped to re-establish his reputation as a great soldier.

Moore was born in Glasgow in 1761, the son of a doctor. While still a boy, he was taken on a grand tour of Europe, which included two years of schooling in Geneva, before joining the British Army in 1776. He fought in the American War of Independence, returning to Britain in 1783 and becoming a Member of Parliament the following year. In 1787 he was appointed a Major, and subsequently led campaigns in Corsica, the West Indies, Ireland, the Netherlands and Egypt. Back in Britain, in 1803, he established an innovative training regime that produced the country’s first permanent light infantry regiments. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, he earned a reputation as one of the greatest trainers of infantrymen in military history.

In 1808, Moore was put in charge of the British forces in the Iberian peninsula with orders to remove the French from Spain. However, when Napoleon’s forces cut off the British escape route to Portugal, Moore decided to head for the Spanish ports of La Coruña and Vigo, from where he calculated his troops could sail to safety. He, himself, however, was killed there at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, exactly two hundred years ago today. Initially, Moore’s strategy was heavily criticised in Britain, but later it was established that he had, in fact, extricated his men from Napoleon’s trap, forced the French to divert badly needed troops from Portugal, and thus delayed France’s conquest of Spain for a year.

According to Wikipedia, Moore’s last words were: ‘I hope the people of England will be satisfied! I hope my country will do me justice!’ He was buried secretly at midnight wrapped in a military cloak in the ramparts of the town. Later, though, a monument was built over his grave. The funeral is remembered in Wolfe’s poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna. Here are the first two and the last two verses.

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

. . .

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

Nearly a century after his death, a copy of Moore’s diary was found in the papers of Sir William Napier, in the handwriting of Moore’s niece, Lady Napier. Sir John Frederick Maurice, a soldier and military writer, edited the papers which were then published in two volumes, by Edward Arnold, in 1904 - The Diary of Sir John Moore. However, the volumes contain much more than the diary, since Maurice provides his own, at times extensive, analysis and commentary. The New York Times has an archived review, dating from March 1904, which itself draws on a review in The Daily News. It is worth quoting a paragraph.

‘There has been great contention over Moore, owing to the bitterness of partisan feeling in England. . .  To attack him. . .was supposed to be the duty of every good Tory, and, as usual, historian after historian has repeated the blunders and calumnies of those who have gone before. This diary, which brings to light much that was not known before will clear away many misconceptions and do justice to the memory of a brilliant soldier, who, but for his untimely death at the age of forty-eight, might have had a career equal to that of Wellington himself.’

Both volumes of the diary are available online at Internet Archive (volume 1, volume 2). Here is how Maurice writes about Moore’s death:

‘It was in that moment of triumph that Moore was struck down. It is a picture for a great artist. Horse and rider as Charles Napier has described them. The rider watching eagerly the advance of his zealous battalions, whose arms, renewed throughout from the stores of Corunna, were driving the French before them much as men armed with modern weapons drive before them troops with old-fashioned muskets . . . Triumph everywhere! visible to the keen eyes that knew war so well as to take in at a glance how not only was the French army tactically in his hand, but that their weapons, rusty with the long march through the mountain snows, their ammunition failing, his troops amply supplied, the enemy would soon be an unarmed crowd!

Moore - his whole mind centred on the coming vindication of his long patience, on the triumphal accomplishment of an impossible task, hampered by those who could not understand him - sees before him the prize for which he has waited so long. A cannonball carries away his left shoulder and part of the collar-bone, leaving the arm hanging by the flesh. The violence of the stroke threw him off his horse on his back. Not a muscle of his face altered, nor did a sigh betray the least sensation of pain. . . He was carried in a blanket to the rear, refusing to allow Hardinge to remove his sword, which was obviously inconveniencing him . . . He made the soldiers turn him around frequently to view the battle. He said to his old friend Anderson - ‘Anderson, you know that I have always wished to die this way.’

As for Moore’s diary, there are no extracts in Maurice’s volumes taken from the months preceding his death. However, here is an interesting extract from the summer of 1808, just prior to Moore’s departure to take command in the Iberian Peninsular. (Sir Arthur Wellesley is, of course, the Duke of Wellington, who rose to prominence later in the Peninsular War.)

‘I understand that several of the Cabinet have taken a personal dislike to me, though I seldom have seen them, and they can know nothing of me. They wish to hold up Sir Arthur Wellesley, and had intended to give him the command of the whole force in Spain and Portugal. He is the youngest of the lieutenant-generals made the other day, and the King and Duke of York objected to him. This provoked them, and, added to their general dislike, had led them to endeavour to mortify me by placing me in a station similar to Sir Arthur. Though they were forced to approve what I had done in Sweden, yet it was against the grain, for I took no trouble to conceal the ignorance which had sent us there, when they should have known from the character of the King and the weakness of his force that it was impossible for anything to be done. Upon leaving Lord Castlereagh I set out for Portsmouth, and arrived on Wednesday evening, the 20th, having stopped at my brother Frank’s, and afterwards with my mother. I found the fleet just come in from the Downs. I was occupied in getting everything ready to proceed, when, on the 23rd, a King’s messenger brought me a letter from Lord Castlereagh, evidently with a view to irritate me, in the hope that I would answer it intemperately, and give them an excuse to recall me from this service, for, as senior to Sir Arthur, though there are many others his seniors, they think I shall be particularly in his way. I, however, have disappointed them; for I sent them a very calm answer, in which I give them a wipe which they will feel but cannot resent. I sent at the same time copies of both letters to Colonel Gordon for the Duke of York, together with a narrative of everything that has passed since my return to England. I am in hopes now to be allowed quietly to go on the service, on which I am ordered, without further molestation.’

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Plotkin’s Berlin; Carano’s Stalag

Two diaries of Americans in Germany before and during the Second World War have just been published by US university presses. One is by Abraham Plotkin, a Russian immigrant of Jewish origin, who returned to Europe to live for a few months in Berlin when the Nazis were just coming to prominence. And the other is by Steve Carano, a prisoner of war in the infamous Stalag 17 camp.

University of Illinois Press has just published, for the first time, a diary written by Abraham Plotkin, a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, who went to live in Berlin between November 1932 and May 1933. According to listings by and, An American in Hitler’s Berlin was first published in paperback late last year, but is due for hardback publication in the UK today. It is edited by Catherine Collomp and Bruno Groppo.

There is not much information about Plotkin on the internet. According to Mendele, a forum for Yiddish Literature and Yiddish Language, he was born in 1892 in Russia, and died in May 1988 in Los Angeles. He wrote a number of articles for the Jewish Daily Forward in 1933, presumably after his return from Berlin. There’s a little more about his activities in 1933 on the KC Labor website.

The diary provides, University of Illinois Press says, ‘a firsthand account of the Weimar Republic’s final months and the early rise of Nazi power in Germany’ and ‘focuses on the German working class, the labor movement, and the plight of German Jews’. Compared to the writings of other American observers of the Third Reich, it adds, Plotkin’s diary is ‘unique in style, scope, themes, and time span’ because it is attentive to socioeconomic factors, and provides ‘an alternative view from the left’, one that stems from his access to key German union and socialist leaders.

A few extracts of An American in Hitler’s Berlin are available to read on Amazon’s website. Here is part of the first entry.

25 October 1932
‘Off at last. Don’t know what I am heading for. I probably would have changed my mind about going if some occult wisdom had given me foresight. Here is to prayer that my hindsight will prove to be as exciting as my lack of foresight.

This is my second sea voyage . . . The first one was thirty years ago. The year McKinley was shot. I came to the shores of the land that became my native land with wonder and dreams and the vague hopes of a child. Or was it a sense of escape from the dark shadows of terror that hovered over Czarist Russia. The ghetto in old Russia then was neither picturesque nor pleasant. Those qualities of the ghetto, I suspect were discovered in America. Now I am going back. What for? I hardly know. Perhaps I am going so as to escape the humdrum of everyday city life in my own country. Perhaps my eyes have gotten tired of seeing the forms and people and things. I don’t really know. I mean that if I have any motive in going it’s stuck deep down in me, so far down that as yet I haven’t see either sight or sound of it. Perhaps later when and if I become aware of it I’ll feel as silly as I look. One never can really tell how foolish one is.’

Also today in the UK, according to’s listings, The University of Arkansas Press is publishing Not without Honor: The Nazi POW Journal of Steve Carano (in the US publication was last October - The editor is Kay Sloan and there is a foreword by Lewis H. Carlson. The book not only tells Carano’s story but weaves in the stories of two other POWs, John C. Bitzer and Bill Blackmon. According to the publisher, Carano records air battles and escape attempts, and ‘the journal reads like a thriller’. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Here is a quote about the book from The University of Arkansas Press: ‘On a cold December day in 1943, Claudio ‘Steve’ Carano’s B-17 bomber was shot down over the Dutch coast on the return flight to England. This marked the beginning of his eighteen-month incarceration in Stalag 17 b, the camp made famous in the Billy Wilder film and in the television show Hogan’s Heroes. During his confinement Carano secretly kept a journal in his Red Cross blank book, filling it with meticulously penned entries and illustrations. It takes the reader deep behind the notorious wire fence surrounding the prison and into the world where men clung to their humanity through humor, faith, camaraderie, daily rituals, and even art.’

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Keeling Islands

The discovery of the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean 400 years ago is generally attributed to William Keeling, a British sea captain. Keeling kept a diary of his voyages and this includes entries from January 1609, exactly four centuries ago. Unfortunately, he made no particular record of sighting the Cocos. Another diarist and assistant to Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle, Syms Covington, however, did mention the islands.

The Cocos, which is now a territory of Australia, consists of two low-lying atolls and twenty-seven coral islands about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka. Keeling is thought to have been the first to discover them in 1609; but they remained uninhabited until the early part of 19th century, when private owners (the Clunies-Ross family) transported slaves there to work on coconut plantations. The islands were annexed by the British Empire in 1857, but then, in 1886, Queen Victoria granted them to the Clunies-Ross family in perpetuity.

An important telegraph station on one of the islands, which provided a communication link between Britain and Australia/NZ, meant the Cocos were drawn into both World Wars. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, they were administered from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1955, their administration was passed to the Australian government, but it was not until 1978 that it obliged the Clunies-Ross family, which had still been enjoying feudal rule, to give up ownership. Today, there are about 500 inhabitants, coconuts are still their main cash crop, but tourism is becoming a significant industry. Wikipedia has more, as does the Cocos Keeling Islands website.

Not much is known about William Keeling, a British sea captain. According to Wikipedia, he commanded the Susanna on the second East India Company voyage in 1604, and he commanded the Red Dragon on the third voyage of 1607. It was during this journey, while returning home from Java, that he discovered the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in 1609. Later, he was put in command of Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1620.

Keeling’s journal is contained in Volume VIII of A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels by Robert Kerr (freely available at Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive). There is no mention of the Cocos in the journal, but here are two paragraphs from Kerr’s introduction, which explain (by reference to another set of travel writing - Astley’s Collection) how Keeling’s journal came to be rather fragmentary.

‘In this voyage three ships were employed, with about 310 men; the Dragon, admiral, Captain Keeling, who was chief commander or general; the Hector, vice-admiral, commanded by Captain William Hawkins; and the Consent, Captain David Middleton. The relation of the voyage, as appears from its title in Purchas, was written by Keeling, the chief commander or general, or, as he would now be called, the commodore: But, by a side-note, Purchas informs us, that he had abbreviated the narrative from the journals written at sea, by Captains Keeling and Hawkins, which were very voluminous, occupying a hundred sheets of paper, and that he had only retained the most necessary observations for sea and land affairs.

The editor of Astley’s Collection observes, ‘That this narrative is written very obscurely, in an abrupt, uncouth style, which he thinks Purchas ought to have reformed when abridging it. The author seems to have kept no regular journal, but only to have entered such things from time to time as seemed most material. In many places it consists only of loose imperfect hints, thrown together without connection, and often referring to things not mentioned before. Possibly these defects may have been owing to Purchas, in order to abbreviate the journal; and indeed, whether from want of care or judgment, he spoiled almost every thing he abridged. It contains, however, many valuable nautical remarks, and many particulars respecting the conduct of the Dutch, who now began to lord it in India, which may atone for its defects. If the dryness of some of the details may disgust any of our readers, we hope they will consider that our design is to give a series of the English Voyages; and in so doing to steer equally between the two extremes of redundance and imperfection.’ ’

And here are a couple of paragraphs from Kerr’s journal itself, dating from January 1609, exactly 400 years ago. They are taken from section 4 -  Voyage of the Hector to Banda, with Occurrences there - and although tedious in style are also interesting for the details.

‘About one in the morning of the 1st January, 1609, we weighed anchor, and with an off-shore wind got round the east point, three leagues E.N.E. from our former anchorage. Thence easterly to another point other three leagues, a very long shoal with very little water extending between the two, to avoid which it is good to steer halfway between Java and the isles of Tonda, which are five leagues distant. East from the second point is the isle of Tanara, so close to the shore that it cannot be distinguished from any distance. From the second to the third point, are four leagues E.S.E. and one and a half mile off that point N. by W. is the isle of Lackee, between which and the point is only one and a half fathoms water, according to report. We rode all night in six fathoms, having the isle east of us a league. Weighing on the 4th, we steered within half a league of Lackee in seven or eight fathoms; from the isle to the west point of Jackatra being E.S.E. four leagues. There is a dangerous sand off the west point of Jackatra, wherefore it is good to keep nearer the island opposite that point.

The 8th I went to Jackatra, and anchored far out. The king sent his sabander to desire powder and match, and I sent him 30 pounds of powder and a roll of match. I bought of them a Portuguese boy, given by the Hollanders to their king, but who refused to apostatize from Christianity, and paid for him 45 dollars. We have seen thirty or forty islands since leaving Bantam. The 10th we made sail from Jackatra. There is a sunken island even with the water, about two leagues W. by N. from the east point of Jackatra, which we left to larboard, going between it and the easter island. The two points forming Jackatra bay bear E.S.E. and W.N.W. four leagues distant, the eastermost island being in a straight line between both points. At noon on the 11th we were ten leagues N.E. from the east point of Jackatra. The 12th at noon, we were two leagues S.W. by S. from an island, having sailed thirty leagues E. by S. The 15th we came near Madura, contrary to my expectation, whence I suppose that the island of Java is not so long as it is laid down in the charts, or else that we had found a current setting to the east. The 18th we were near the islands of  Nossaseres or Nussasira, which were N. by W. a league from us, in lat. 5 deg. 30’ S. The 21st, in the forenoon, we saw Celebes; but we could not fetch Macassar. Coming to anchor, we parted our cable and lost an anchor. The 4th February we saw Bourro. The 5th I held a council to consider what was best to be done, as the wind did not serve for the Moluccas, when it was concluded to go for Banda. We saw Amboyna E. by N. from Bourro, twelve leagues. The 6th we saw the high land of Banda, in my opinion 25 leagues E. by S. 1/2 S. from the eastern part of Amboyna.’

Two and a quarter centuries later, in 1836, Charles Darwin passed by the Cocos, during the second voyage of HMS Beagle, and his assistant, Syms Covington, gives a colourful description of the islands in his journal. (This is also freely available online at the Australian Science Archives Project.)

‘Anchored in the Basin, Keeling or Cocos Islands April 1st, after having a heavy breeze the last two or three days of our passage. The Islands ARE all very low; the beaches appear to be the highest. AND the highest I should suppose not more than twelve to fifteen feet high; all coral, about forty in number, the largest not more than ten miles long. The islands are complete forests of cocoa nut trees; if not for THE trees, the land would be seen FROM but a very short distance. ONE can wade from one island to another when the tide is low, to nearly all except THE entrance to THE Basin, which Basin is formed by the islands being as placed to form a circle. The Basin IS about twelve miles across. ONE cannot go far in with A ship; we anchored in seven or eight fathom OF water; coral bottom with white sand, the water always being clear. Beautiful branches of coral can be seen from the ship’s side, the fish constantly passing and repassing amongst the coral, has a most beautiful effect, etc.

An Englishman and HIS family, with about sixty or seventy Mulattos from the Cape of Good Hope, live on one of the islands. Captain Ross, the governor, is now absent at the Cape. Plenty of poultry (A Chinese breed) and turtles, the latter of which the ship was supplied during our stay: two per day, each about A hundred fifty pounds IN weight. Also hogs, sugar cane and bananas (the latter I never saw); tobacco, planted here, produces well. I believe the coffee plant was also tried but never saw it. THERE ARE two sorts of indigenous fruit AND plenty OF watermelon, ALSO maiz. The water is very brackish and for which one is obliged to dig wells; THE WATER LEVEL rises and falls with the tide although IT IS some distance from THE beach, and THEY WERE obliged to dig until they came to a number OF stones, under which springs the water.

A lake (lagoon) IS on the largest island. In the small lagoons or pools on reefs are immense numbers of small fish of different species, and of the most brilliant colours and shapes I ever saw or fancy could paint. Here are great numbers A green fish, THE coral eater. Here also are land crabs, very curious and very strong in claws. THEY are eaten by the inhabitants. Here, I should suppose is one of the largest shells in the world, sort of clam shell, WHICH would take a very strong man to lift one with the animal in. The largest is about nine feet long. Different sorts OF SHELL AS WELL, leopard shells, etc. Great quantities of bêche-de-mer, WHICH is like A large, black English slug only about ten times the size, are dried here for the Indies.

Only one genus of land bird here, viz. the land rail, indigenous to THESE islands. A great many sea birds and very tame, as to let you come close to the them or within a yard or two. THEY build their nests on the trees close to beach. On this Island were great numbers of the land rail, about several houses. The Java sparrow WAS brought here.

On Sunday the 3rd of April was caught a shark eight feet long, which put a stop to our bathing, which before was at every evening by moonlight. It is excessively hot. When sitting still the sweat is constantly dropping off the body.

Outside of THE Basin, round the islands at seven tenths of a mile from THE beach, soundings 100 fathoms; a mile out, no bottom. AT THE southernmost part of basin a channel is cut through coral for the boats, and stakes drove in different places to mark the channel. Even then, you are very apt to run foul of or branches of coral. WE had a pilot in the boat.’

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ordinary people

Naomi Mitchison, a prolific Scottish writer and activist, died ten years ago today aged 101. She wrote almost as many books as she lived years, including one based on the diaries she kept for the social research organisation, Mass Observation, during the war. This gives a wonderful picture of Mitchison’s upper-class world, though one very much coloured by her liberal concerns.

Naomi Haldane was born in 1897 in Edinburgh, to a wealthy family, and educated at Dragon School and St Anne’s College, Oxford. During the war, she married Dick Mitchison, and after it, they both became Fabian Labour campaigners. He was elected to Parliament, later being elevated to the House of Lords. Until the 1930s, the Mitchisons lived in Hammersmith, London, entertaining, among others, a wide circle of literary friends. They had seven children, though one died at birth and another of meningitis when still young.

In the late 1930s, the family moved to Carradale in Argyll, where she lived for the rest of her life. Soon after, at the request of the social research organisation, Mass Observation, Naomi began to keep a diary. She travelled often and widely, both before and after the war, and, in the 1960s, was adopted as an honourary adviser by the Bakgatha tribe in Botswana. She was a lively activist, always campaigning on political and social issues, particularly family planning. She was also interested in gardening and archaeology, and was very much committed to her local area.

Naomi’s main occupation, though, was always writing. Her first novel, The Conquered, was published in 1923, and other novels, such as The Corn King and The Blood of the Martyrs, followed in the 1930s. All in all, she wrote nearly 100 books, including biographies, essays, fiction, poetry and some well-respected and entertaining memoirs. Excerpts from her early diaries are contained in the biography The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, but there’s also a full book of the diary entries made for Mass Observation - Among You Taking Notes... The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939-1945 - edited by Dorothy Sheridan and first published by Victor Gollancz in 1985 (but more recently by Phoenix Press).

Mitchison died 10 years ago today, on 11 January 1999, aged 101. The Guardian website has an obituary, and also an appreciation of her by Neal Ascherson who wrote: ‘She was wise, having lived through much personal turmoil, and brave: somebody who lived out her feminism in days when love and freedom could carry grim penalties. . . If intelligent people shouted long and loud enough at governments, she believed, truth would prevail. She often did prevail. For the rest of us not raised in an age of reason, it is harder.’ Further information can be found at Wikipedia, and at The Diary Junction.

Mass Observation, which was founded in 1937, recruited a team of observers and a large panel of volunteer writers so as to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This work continued through the war and until the early 1950s, but was taken up again in the 1980s. It still continues today in the care of the University of Sussex. Some of the diary entries from the original project have been published in anthologies, but at least two diarists have had their war diaries published separately. One of these is Naomi Mitchison (another is Nella Last). Here is the very first entry from Mitchison’s book, Among You Taking Notes, which gives an impression of her liberal tendencies, and also of her privileged life.

1 September 1939
‘Woke from nightmare to realise that at least it hadn’t happened yet: so until after breakfast. Got the news at 10:30. Two of the boys had been out all night herring fishing so were asleep still; the others came in and listened. At the end Dick said ‘That’s torn it’. Thought I had better at once return the cups and saucers borrowed from the [Women’s Rural Institute] and the school urn, and see what news there was of children to be evacuated. Felt a bit sick. Went into the garden, and saw Willie, very white; he had been listening to Hitler ‘working them up’ - Willie himself conducts a choir. Talked a little to him and James Downie, all felt it had got to come now. We talked of the ordinary people in Germany and tried to hope this would mean the end of privilege everywhere. So to the stables; Lachie was filling up the car, so I waited talking to Eddie and Taggie, both of them curiously without enmity towards Germany; we discussed ploughing up the fields for potatoes, and they argued as to whether they would bear two crops in succession and I said I hoped they wouldn’t have to. Taggie talked about his young brother who is a C. O. said ‘They’ll shoot him before he goes’ and then ‘It’s no free country where they can do that’. I said I thought it important that there should be some real pacifists in any community, and they agreed; I said I would do what I could for the boy. Both agree that the ordinary people in Germany don’t want this. Lachie brought the car back; I said ‘Bad news’, and he soberly said ‘Aye’.’