Friday, March 29, 2019

Hrdlička’s Alaska diary

Alois (later Aleš) Hrdlička, a pioneer of North American anthropology and evolution studies, was born 150 years ago today. While curator of physical anthropology at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian) he undertook many field studies, amassing a large amount of data on the migration of man to the New World. In his later years, his expeditions were mostly focused on Alaska, and his attempts to show how humans had arrived in North America via the Bering Strait. The very last book he published in his lifetime was, in fact, a collection of diary entries from these Alaska trips.

Hrdlička was born on 29 March 1869 in Humpolec, Bohemia (today in Czech Republic), roughly halfway between Prague and Brno. In 1882, he emigrated with his father to New York; other family members followed later. Hrdlička worked in a cigar factory to finance his studies at night school. Aged 19, he contracted typhoid, and by luck was attended by a Doctor M. Rosenbleuth who also subsequently helped him gain attendance to the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York. Graduating with the highest grades in 1892, he began to practise medicine for several organisations on the East Side, but at the same time continued his studies at the Homeopathic Medical College. While working for a period at the Middletown asylum in Baltimore, he began to be interested in anthropology. Subsequently, he travelled to Europe to visit scientists and laboratories, before taking, in 1896, a post as Associate in Anthropology at the newly-organised Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals. That same year he married the German-American Marie Stickler.

In 1898, Hrdlička went to Mexico where he was involved with a medical and anthropometric project among the Indians; and on his return to New York he took up a new position as director of physical anthropology for expeditions sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Many field trips followed, to study the Indians of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, as well as many publications. In particularly, he became the first scientist to argue and document the theory of human colonisation of the American continent from east Asia, something he claimed had happened only in the last 3,000 years. In 1903, he became the first curator of physical anthropology at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History). Further anthropological expeditions followed, not least to Europe and the Mediterranean, and to South America, as well as to speak at international congresses. In 1907, he was made President of the Anthropological Society of Washington; in 1910, he was promoted to curator in the Division of Physical Anthropology; in 1918 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, and the same year he launched the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. In 1918, his wife died, and in 1920 he married Wilhelmina Mansfield.

In 1927 Hrdlička published an article - The Neanderthal Phase of Man - in which he tried to prove that all races had a common origin. Among his published books are Physical Anthropology (1919), Anthropometry (1920) and Old Americans (1925). In trying to support his theory that Americans immigrated across the Bering Strait he organised and conducted ten expeditions, between 1929 and 1938, to Alaskan rivers, the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak and Commander Islands. His final years were spent in Washington where he was fully occupied with his vast collections, recording and publishing his experiences. He died in 1945.

According to a biographical memoir by Adolph H. Schultz (available online at the National Academy of Science website): ‘Hrdlicka’s outstanding and lasting contributions to anthropological knowledge are centered around his following three general interests: 1. The detailed investigation and tabulation of the ranges of normal variations in features of the outer body, the skeleton and the teeth among the different races of man, in the two sexes and, to a lesser extent, at different ages. 2. The collection and publication of reliable and adequate data on the somatic characters of the three large divisions of mankind in America, White, Indian-Eskimo and Negro, to provide basic standards for comparisons. 3. The compilation of precise information on all discoveries attributed to early man and critical examination of all evidence of the real nature and antiquity of these findings.’ The Smithsonian says his ‘contributions to American physical anthropology were great’ and that ‘his travels and field studies alone were impressive and important in his growth as an authority on the migration of man to the New World, human evolution, and the variations of man's physical form.’ Further information is also available at Wikipedia,, and SciHi Blog.

In the year before his death, Hrdlička put together a number of diary entries from several of his Alaska expeditions, and these were published as Alaska Diary 1926-1931 by The Jaques Cattell Press in 1944. According to Hrdlička’s own preface: ‘The following pages give a simple account of the more noteworthy experiences of the author and his companions on his 1926-1931 expeditions to Alaska. They have no pretense to any literary value, nor to any other virtue aside from reality. They are just brief but faithful records of what befell or was encountered by the writer and his coworkers in those far-away and lonesome, yet scientifically important regions, in quest of anthropological information. Perhaps a century or several centuries ahead, if a copy of these records survives, they might prove as interesting to the workers of that time as similar Russian notes on Alaska are to us, or would be if more of them existed, at this time.

The more formal scientific results of these expeditions are gradually being published elsewhere; nevertheless these notes contain numerous items that are more or less relevant to the scientific work proper, or complement it. And there are shown here views which will not be given in the scientific reports.

Considerable attention, throughout, will be seen to have been given to the weather, to food, and to transportation. This is because these factors in the work in the Far Northwest are constantly with one and not seldom prove of paramount importance. They can “make or break” an expedition or at least a part of it. They can thwart or make very difficult the best laid plans, or again facilitate them. Mind, health and physical strength, however necessary, are alone often powerless in these parts. Man is here against the elements, against want of things and means, and must repeatedly give way.’

And here are several of the diary extracts published.

8 June 1926, ‘Alaska’
‘Leaving Juneau. Has been raining here every day but one. They count rainfall here not in inches any more, but in feet. It is misting now, depriving of view of most of the coast. Wherever there is a glimpse of this it is seen to be mountainous, wooded below, snowy and icy higher up, inhospitable, forbidding.’

10 June 1926, ‘Alaska’
‘Arrive at Cordova, a former native and Russian settlement of some importance, now a pretty little town when the sun shines, protected by islands. Will stay here large part of the day and so go to see about Indians, old sites, burials, and specimens. The local forester takes me out along a lake some miles into the rugged volcanic back country, where there are still plenty of bear and mountain goat. After that Dr. Chase drives me to an old Russian and Indian cemetery nearer the town. There are numerous graves here, mostly Indians, but also few whites and even a Chinaman. Russian crosses still common. Hear of skulls and bones on a “mummy” island in Prince William Sound, but no chance now to visit.

See quite a few living natives in the outskirts of the town, but most appear mixed. Two adult men evidently fullbloods - Indian type of the short-headed form.

The ship makes three more stops before Seward, the main one at Valdez. These permit to see some fish canneries. They employ Japanese, Philippine, and Chinese labor, and I find it is quite a task to distinguish these one from the other, and to tell some of them from the coast Indians. The Chinaman can be singled out most often, though not always, the Japanese less so, while the Filipino in many cases cannot be told from the Indian even by an expert. A striking lesson in relationships.’

29 May 1929, ‘Yukon’
Skagway to White Horse, over mountain railway, skirting the famous tragic old trail to the Klondike region, which has witnessed vast human exertions and sufferings. Pass by one of the very sources of the mighty river that flows tor 2,700 miles from its source northward and then westward.

From White Horse, a pleasing little Canadian town, a neat river boat takes us to Dawson, where there will be change to a larger steamer. On the boat, after one bad night, must ask for a cabin well apart from my associate - what will it be when we must sleep closer!

Boat steams day and night, for nearly four days, with the current, through man-void wilderness. As we near Dawson see many caribou trails on steep slopes to the right. Have a bear steak for lunch, moose meat for supper - local specialties. And one day see a live full-sized black bear far on a great slope. Not much disturbed - too far for a shot - boat just whistles at him but he does not mind.’

21 July 1929, ‘Yukon’
‘(Evening). Visit the village, dispatch boxes, see Fathers once more - like them better and better, and admire, too.

After supper go with Walker to the old “Kozherevsky,” a site near the mouth of the Innoko River. Located about four miles above mouth of the latter, a short distance above and across the stream from the “new village.” Man clings to vicinities once adopted by his ancestors; yet the explanation is, I think, simple - the old-timers chose the best there was.

Site here, too, being washed away. A large potsherd on beach -  nothing further. Place, what remains of it, not large, overgrown as usual by rank grass and weeds, full of sharp-stinging mosquitoes. Must apply quantities of mosquito “juice,” with result, that some gets into the eyes and for minutes makes these burn so they cannot be opened. Walker goes ahead - in some ways is much like Lawrence - and soon locates five old graves, a child and four adults. I open three, M. one. Find good skeletons, three men and one woman (child left, fullbloodedness uncertain). All from Russian times already, though doubtless early, for all wood rotten, bones clean, above-ground graves typically Indian, no roofs or little houses, and bodies contracted.

Finish at 10, reach Walker’s again at 11 p.m. A sunset coloring in the west, though sun not yet seen and sky still full of clouds, but these lighter and higher. No rain, too, since 6 p.m., and so prospects for tomorrow brighter. An everlasting struggle with weather.

The Indian part of the river ends and that of the Eskimo begins between Holy Cross and Paimute. There is no line of demarkation either geographically or otherwise, but only linguistically. The average physique of the Indian here and the Eskimo differs in the main enough for a recognition of each, but the habits of the people and many physiognomies arc considerably alike. The latter is, it seems, only partly due to mixture of the two people, but largely to the fact that both proceed from the same general old racial source.

The present Indians of the Yukon are largely admixed with whites and somewhat with the Eskimo, but have escaped admixture with the Negro. They are in a transitional and partly demoralized state, due to Jack of adequate education, and to alcoholism. Alcohol like everywhere has a detrimental effect on the Indian. They make some crude liquor themselves, from cornmeal and other substances but they also get liquor from white trash. There is, too, considerable sickness among them and but little if any real help.

There is no possibility of estimating how long the Indians have been in this region. None of the still recognizable sites of their forefathers are ancient, but it is certain that many such places have been cut away by the river and all traces of them lost. The process is now going on in some localities. Nor is it possible to say as yet from what direction the river was originally peopled by the Indians. The skeletal remains now gathered should aid much in these directions.’

17 June 1930, ‘The Kuskokwim River’
‘Rain. cold, all night. Leaky roof in school, doors cannot be closed, floor sagging, walls also. A little cat-wash in a ditch - no water in school, no rain barrel. At 7 at Mrs H.’s house, breakfast with her and Miss Martin, an exceptionally good Indian teacher. Then pack, carry a good-sized box of specimens to my place - almost a mile - and then again patients. A lot of chronic conditions.’

20 May 1931, ‘Nushagak - The Peninsula’
‘A year ago this day I stood facing the frozen lake on the Yukon-Kuskokwim portage; today look wistfully over miles of bleak, slaty, forbidding mud flats. The ice was friendlier. And so were other things.

In an hour leaving on a tug for Naknek. No prospects here for the present - no boat, no help, no possibility to get farther up the river or into Iliamna Lake - the latter will not be free of ice before June 20. So must postpone work here and take other places first.

Cold, northwestern breeze from the ice fields. Depart on large tug near 10 a.m., when water sufficiently high. Trip four hours. Out in the bay somewhat rough but not bad. The tug brings me to the big ship Bering. Find a talkative interesting captain, but cold draughts everywhere, begin to get sore throat. Nice cabins on this boat, though but a few in number - used to be a Dutch freighter. At 8 p.m. descend on rope ladder to a “lighter” and start for Naknek. Have with me a poor Italian who is developing insanity - ran away from the cannery and frantically wants to “go home, go home” - by airplane, boat, any other way, only “go home.”

Arrive at the Naknek cannery 9:30 - cannot get to dock, water too low. Wait over half an hour, then considerable maneuvering with our barge, finally reach another barge in front of the dock and all rush out, climb high ladder, and are at the cannery. It is now nearly dark and raw cold.

Go to Superintendent’s house - have met him in San Francisco and so need no introduction. Sends me to sleep in a house that has not yet been fixed and has no heat. Go with the ill Italian to the doctor -  has no malted milk for him, no other needed things, and wants to know why the man has not brought with him his own blankets.

To bed - near 12 - room cold as ice box. No lights, but get smelly little lamp half filled with impure yellowish oil.’

30 May 1931, ‘Nushagak - The Peninsula’
‘Morning icy cold. Water so cold that cannot gargle with it. No means of making fire, stove “broke.” Outside cloudy all over. Breakfast at 7 in the “mess” - anxious again, no boats visible  - throat sore.

Have a talk with the Superintendent - “cannot help.” Introduces me to an old-timer, who gives some information. Pale sun coming out and mildly warmer but with snowy undercurrent. Walk two miles northward along left bluff of river to an old site at a creek. Find place, climb perilously along edge of high bluff. Locate two feet from surface half-rotten rafters, a nest of many burnt beach stones, fragments of plain pottery, bones of animals. Scanty remains, and nothing on beach indicating stone work; no specimens in fact whatever.

When I come back see “old-timer” again and want to tell him what I found, but find him in a grouchy, barking mood and with breath smelling liquor. House still cold. To shave must heat a little water above the lamp. Ask Superintendent where to get some wood for starting fire - tells me “there’s wood in the carpenter shop over there” somewhere, and when abashed I do not answer, repeats: “I say you can get some wood in the carpenter shop if you want it.” Has evidently no use for anyone not connected with fish.

Start, throat now very sore, about 1, for a cannery of another company, from the vice-president of which I have a good letter. Follow wrong trail - get far out on tundra and then have to cut across - difficult walking. The place is five miles away but make at least 8. A toe on left foot begins to hurt badly - old sprain. Reach after 4. Find Superintendent, Mr. Daly, in a shop. Show him my letter - and received real kindly. Offers me accommodation in his house, also aid in work, so decide to stay here, has his pleasant wife with him, and two boys, and all accept me almost as one of the family. How good it feels.

Shows me the whole cannery. And after supper we go, with his two lively boys, to look at a site I had been told of - but find nothing.

Return at nine. Cold now in nose, throat and head bothers, a little fever. Get something from doctor - all the larger canneries have to have one - and to a nice bed in a warm house soon after. A little after 12 the night watchman comes to get the Superintendent - “the Finns got drunk and raising hell.” Night feverish.’

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The father of American botany

Born 320 years ago today, was John Bartram, the father of American botany. He was made King George III’s botanist of North America, and Carl Linnaeus called him the greatest natural botanist in the world. With barely any education, he developed a thriving business in colonial Pennsylvania selling botanical specimens around the world. And, he went on many an exploratory journeys searching for new plants. Although it is thought he kept field journals on these trips, only two have survived.

Bartram was born into a Quaker farming family on 23 March 1699 near Derby in Pennsylvania. He received little schooling, but from an early age was drawn to botany, and, in particular, medicinal plants. In 1723 he married Mary Maris with whom he had two sons, but she died very young. In 1927, he married Ann Mendenhall with whom he had nine more children. By this time, he had inherited a farm from his uncle, and sold it to buy a larger one on the banks of the Schuylkill River at Kingsessing, four miles from Philadelphia. He converted the marshy lands into productive meadows by draining them; and began to use innovative fertiliser and crop rotation methods. He counted Benjamin Franklin among his friends, and it was with Franklin that he cofounded the American Philosophical Society in 1743.

Having set aside a plot for cultivating plants and shrubs, Bartram soon turned this into a thriving business supplying specimens to other botanists. He was introduced to fellow Quaker Peter Collinson, a London mercer and science enthusiast, who helped him secure contacts and clients in Britain and other European countries, not least the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who later said of Bartram that he was the ‘greatest natural botanist in the world’. With increasing financial security, Bartram began to travel, mainly to collect plants, undertaking more than a dozen extensive journeys to different parts of North America between 1736 and the mid-1760s, culminating in his longest trip to the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

In 1765, lobbying of King George III by Collinson and Franklin secured Bartram a pension of £50 per year as King’s Botanist for North America, a post he held until his death. His seeds and plants then went to the royal collection at Kew Gardens, as well as to botanic gardens in Oxford and Edinburgh. He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm in 1769. He died in 1777. See Wikipedia,, American Heritage, Bartram’s Gardens, or Bartram Heritage (available to view at Googlebooks) for further information. Bartram’s third son, William, went on to become a famous botanist, natural history artist and ornithologist in his own right. And Bartram’s garden remained the major botanic garden in Philadelphia until the last Bartram heirs sold it in 1850. Today, the house and garden are part of a thriving 45 acre visitor and horticultural centre.

John Bartram seems to have kept journals on all his expeditions, most of which, it is thought, were sent to Collinson in London. However, only a couple remain extant. The journal of his 1743 trip to Lakes Onondaga and Ontario was published in 1751 as Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and other matters worthy of Notice made by Mr John Bartram in his Travels from Pensilvania to Onondaga, Oswego and the Lake Ontario in Canada. It is freely available at Internet Archive, but was also republished by the Imprint Society in 1973 as A journey from Pennsylvania to Onondaga in 1743. Secondly, also extant, is part of the diary Bartram kept on his last and longest journey in 1765-1766. This was published, in 1769, as part of William Stork’s A description of East-Florida, with a Journal, kept by John Bartram of Philadelphia, botanist to His Majesty for the Floridas: upon a journey from St. Augustine up the river St. John’s as far as the lakes. With explanatory botanical notes.

In 1942, this latter journal was re-examined and annotated by Francis Harper for the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society as a Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from 1 July, 1765 to April 10, 1766. It can be accessed at JSTOR (log-in required). Here is part of Harper’s introduction: ‘The actual journey commenced on July 1, 1765. A happily detailed diary accounts for the activities of each day thereafter until April 10, 1766, at the commencement of the return journey by water from Charleston. Since John Bartram was primarily a botanist, his diary deals largely - but by no means solely - with the plant life of the South. He discusses soils and fossil shells as well as rice and indigo plantations: he furnishes a record of hurricanes at Charleston during the previous hundred years; he tells of hobnobbing with colonial governors and plantation owners, and of lodging under pines and palms in the wilderness; he mentions in a single line the discovery of Franklirtia and Pinckneya on the Altamaha; he describes the towns of Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine; he gives an account of the calumet ceremony on the part of the Indian chiefs at the Treaty of Picolata on the St. John’s River - the only description of this ceremony from a point so far east.’

Four pages of extracts from the journal, further annotated by Ben Burroughs, can be found online at the Coastal Carolina University website. Moreover, Florida History Online also has a set of extracts on its website for the months of December 1765, January 1766 and February 1766. Here, though, are four extracts (as found in the 1942 Transactions of the American Philosophical Society).

2 January 1766
‘White frost on the boat; thermometer 35. Set out to view the cove, which was surrounded with extensive marshes on the south-side, on the east and west with marshes, several hundred yards wide, then a narrow cypress-swamp joined to the common pine-land; we came again into the river 80 yards broad, which ran at first a south course, then bended east for several miles: We saw very extensive marshes on each side (with several short cypress-trees and maple-hammocks interspersed) until we came to a pond on the south, soon after which we landed and climbed up a tree, from which we had a prospect of the lake lying N. W. with an extensive marsh between: We observed many short willows, but the woody swamps are chiefly black and white ash, with red maple next the river, and generally a cypress-swamp interposed between the pine-lands and swamps of ash; we rowed several courses in sight of extensive marshes and swamps, 2. 3 or 4 miles wide more or less; the river was pretty high, 2 foot above the driest times, by reason of the great rains, yet it barely covered the swamps even in pretty low places, but indeed there is little difference in their height for scores of miles, unless near the palmetto and pine-lands: We landed on a shelly bluff of 2 or three acres of sour orange-trees full of fruit; then rowing along the cypress-trees, which grew here next the river, a deep swamp interposed between the cypress and pine-lands; we came to Clement’s Bluff, where we encamped on a shelly bank 12 foot perpendicular; the lower part next the water was an indurated shelly rock, the bluff is 300 yards long and one broad, more or less, beyond which it gradually declines back to a fine savannah, then to the pine lands, palmetto and shrubby oaks; this is on the west-side of the river, as is the orange-grove; thermometer 48. P. M.’

3 January 1766
‘Clear cold morning; thermometer 26. wind N. W. The ground was froze an inch thick on the banks: this was the fatal night that destroyed the lime, citron, and banana trees in Augustine, many curious evergreens up the river, that were near 20 years old, and in a flourishing state: the young green shoots of the maple, elm, and pavia, with many flowering plants and shrubs never before hurt: Set out from Clement’s Bluff, rowed by much rich swamp and marsh; saw many elder-trees in flower (which grow in plenty close to the river next the water reeds) and many alligators, though so very cold that it had froze the great convolvolus and coreopsis, yet the great shrub after held out: The banks were in several places 2 or 3 foot high, shelly, and two rood broad; then fell back to a fine rich grassy swamp, chiefly ash, elm, and cypress, but much more open than down the river below the great lake, with more frequent patches of marsh and high grass and small maples, willows, and cephalanthus thinly scattered upon them; the higher banks with live and water-oaks. Landed about noon on the east-side on a bluff, 6 or 8 foot high, and 150 yards broad, but soon falls back to a cypress-swamp,
at the upper end of which oaks and palmettos join the river, and a little back the pines begin.’

6 January 1766
‘Clear morning: thermometer 38. Strong wind at N. W. Set out and soon saw a great body of very different swamp and marsh joining it, some dry, others middling moist, and some very wet, some reedy soil, some myrtle, oak, cypress, and lastly pine; then we came a little farther to tall water-reeds on both sides, and much elder grew next the river and close to the reeds, which last grew very thick close to the bank, and from 14 to 16 foot high; sometimes a narrow ridge, about a rood wide and a foot or two high, would run close to the river, on which grew oaks, hiccory, maple, and ash, the ground back being scarcely above the common flow of the river; but as we rowed higher up, the soil was in many places of an unknown depth, of tenacious rich mud, especially on the Indian side, which is generally higher than ours, and so stiff that cattle may walk upon it very safe, and bears choice grass, though full of tall trees, as hiccory, maple, water-oak, and ash: We rowed by a very large island on the east side and another on the west, the best I have seen in Florida; the river, for these two days, has run very crooked. Landed on a high rich shelly bluff, some good flat soil, but full of palms, and a little back the pine-lands begin: The last frost killed the young shoots of ash, hiccory, eupatorium, peanines, sunflowers. and the tops of two lovely evergreen shrubs, one of which would have grown all winter, if the frost had not killed it; the bark was burst from the wood, but the lower part was not hurt, the other was full of flowers, green and ripe berries, yet the tender tops for half a foot were killed: ’Tis very common in this country for vegetables to produce at the same time flowers, green and ripe fruit; and if the tender shoots are by chance killed, they soon send out fresh ones; here is a native gourd or squash, which runs 20 foot up the trees, close to the river; the people eat them when young, but they are bitter when old, and about the size of a man’s fist.’

7 January 1766
‘Clear morning; thermometer 36. Set out from Cabbage-bluff, so called from the great number of palm or cabbage-trees growing there; after some miles rowing round several points of the compass, it being generally good reed-marsh and sonic cypress-swamps, we came to the middle lake, 1, 2, or 3 miles broad, and 8 long; its general course is S. E. at the N. E. end is high ground, producing oak, palm, myrtle, bay, and a fine new evergreen, something like the purple-berried bay, but the leaves grow alternately, and the berries close to the stem, like myrtle; here is a pretty stream of sweet water, small enough to run through the bung-hole of a barrel, and at about 200 yards distance from it runs out a large stream of water, so warm as to support the thermometer at 71 in it, feels warm to a coolish hand, tastes more loathsome than the others beforementioned of the same kind, and may be smelt at some roods distant; hereabout is drove on shore, the most delicate crystalline sand I ever saw, except what is got on an island near our capes, though this is still finer: A few hundred yards from the last 
spring is another much like it in taste, but much larger, and near 30 yards broad, having three heads within 30 yards; the water is very loathsome and warm, but not so hot as one’s blood: This differs from the other in having most of its surface covered with duck-meat; its banks full of shelly stone of the snail-shell kind, and running level with the river; the last had some fall; they are not above 200 yards from the lake. Set out and arrived at a rocky bluff, at the entrance of the head of the river, which was two or more miles wide, but gradually narrowed; this bluff is composed of snail and muscle-shells, indurated into hard rocks, which would break or split for building or burning into lime; but a bluff we landed at in the forenoon was more remarkable; for as the bank was perpendicular, we had a better opportunity of searching deeper; we saw about 3 foot above the water a mass of clustered sea-shells, as periwinkles, cockles, and clams, the very productions of the sea, and to what depth they went is unknown; but this I believe, that they reach all under this whole low country at uncertain depths, and support the superior soil, under which the prodigious sulphureous and saline fountains run, which are continually fed by the slow settling of rain-water.’

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Life on an ocean steamer

‘This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.’ This is from a short lively journal kept by Cornelia Maria Clapp, born 170 years ago today, when travelling by steamboat across the Atlantic. She was one of North America’s first women marine biologists, and is remembered for being an inspirational teacher.

Clapp was born on 17 March 1849 in Montague, Massachusetts, the oldest child of two teachers. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (the forerunner of today’s Mount Holyoke College) in 1871 before becoming a Latin teacher at a boarding school in Andalusia, Pennsylvania. On returning to teach at Mount Holyoke from 1872, she became increasingly focused on zoology and is credited with developing a laboratory method of instruction that was highly effective.

Clapp went on numerous field trips; and she furthered her own education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse (New York) University, where she received a Ph.D. degree in 1889 (her dissertation on toadfish was published in the Journal of Morphology), and at the University of Chicago, where she took a second doctorate in 1896. That same year, she helped Mount Holyoke (by this time a college) start a department of zoology, and in 1904 she was promoted to professor of zoology - a position she held until retiring in 1916.

Clapp was also involved, from 1888, in the work of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, particularly in the field of embryology. She was the first woman to be given a research post at the institution, and she went on to serve as librarian between 1893 and 1907 and as the first woman trustee from 1897 until 1901 and again in 1910 until her death in 1934. Although she published little during her career, she is considered to have exerted a major influence in helping women to extend scientific knowledge and opportunity through education. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Women’s Museum of California,

Donna Albino, a student of Mount Holyoke College in the 1980s, has collected a large amount of textual and pictorial information about her alma mater. Some of this has been published in a book of historic postcards, and some can be found online. Among the handwritten books she lists on her web pages is a short travel journal kept by Cornelia Clapp in 1886. It consists of just 11 entries during a voyage by steamboat from New York City to Antwerp, Belgium, accompanied by other Mount Holyoke professors and students. Albino has transcribed the text of the journal; here are two of the entries.

30 June 1886
‘The biggest thing to record to-day is the visit to the lower regions of our floating world. Stone challenged me to go down to the fires and I went. Down, down down until we came to a horrid torrid climate, where 24 fires are constantly kept going, and there is an apparatus that records each pulse beat of the engine. It now stands 369524 and it will stand when we reach Antwerp 900000 -

The machinery is beautiful & we saw & went nearly the whole length of the shaft that runs the screw way down in the lower regions - This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.

Alice Bartholomew sketches, and we have become acquainted with an artist on his way over to study art, who is trying his hand on sketching some members of the party. There is a regular crew of teachers on board - Vassar & Smith are well represented besides Holyoke, of course ladies predominate - We have been reading Mark Twain’s description of the German language & Kingsley’s Water Babies. [. . .]

I am at this writing perched in my (upper) berth & ready to drop off to sleep at any moment - Goodnight.’

3 July 1886
‘The sensation to-day is the visit to the Steerage - The Capt. himself accompanied us - took us into the store room at the stern, & showed us the immense wine lockers, & the place where they carry the mails & money - This steamer is capable of carrying 1500 steerage passengers, but at present there are only about 300 passengers in all on board. (- cargo in steerage going East.)

This morning is the most beautiful one yet. Not a cloud in the sky, & the air so balmy & warm that not a wrap is thought of -

We are beginning to talk of land now. Next Monday even. at 9. P.M. we are expecting to see the Lizard light. There will be a crowd on deck then I surmise.

I found Mr. Williamson knew Brayton of Indianapolis & we have been talking him up this morning. He calls him a regular Bohemian - happy-go-lucky fellow - agrees with me in his ideas of him - I have been reading in “The Ocean Wave” this morn. and the following paragraph is awfully true - “Men of the highest genius seem to be transformed as soon as they get at a distance from land in a rolling vessel. There is an inability to control the mind while at sea, a difficulty in concentrating the attention on the task of even writing in one’s diary or reading even the most trifling fiction.”

No one of the party is the least big sea sick, and we now range over this great boat from stem to stern whiling the time away -

Last evening the regular dance on deck took place - gymnastic feats - leap frog & the like - a set of young men with the banjos have taken to serenading in the passage ways -, as it is difficult to get outside the windows!

The table waiter said to day that he never saw such a passage as this before - He has had us to wait on most regularly - not more than three have lost a single meal - It is simply delightful. (I repeat it again lest I should not have put it on every sheet of paper written.)

We sight ships occasionally - a single stroke of the bell in the bow gives the signal - but none have been within speaking distance. We take an extremely southern route - thus avoiding fogs off Newfoundland, icebergs and such! and certainly we must have struck one of the dry, still times in mid ocean -

At lunch to-day Miss Stevens gave me an account of the Reception at the Sem. I had not thought to ask her about it before & she told me of her pleasure in meeting my brother & Miss Metcalf - the first intimation that I have had that these persons were present in that occasion. What prizes were taken, I heard of some by a graduate of Ag. Coll. Stone remarked the other day that he wished my brother was aboard. He seems supremely happy - Miss Bartholomew has a fine sketch of him. A Wellesley teacher has turned up now on board - such a boat of school marms! -

We have just now come upon a steamer going the same way - It is about five or six miles away, I suppose but it seems quite like having company along - No. Ger. Lloyd. One week ago this hour we set sail - left the lovely New York harbor - on that charming afternoon.

The distance in the last 24 hours has been 335 miles. We have been guessing on it & Bryan & Carter hit it right -

Miss Hooker & I are talking of fees - We shall soon have to begin to live again - spend money that means - We take quite a rent [?] on ship board - Now I must start & read German with Miss Pettee - Clara Stevens talks of going to the German cities -’

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Lofty idealism, artistic perfection

‘Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’ This is a very rough (Google) translation of one extract from the diary of Sully Prudhomme, the French writer born 180 years ago. He is barely remember in the English-speaking world, yet was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for literature - for the ‘lofty idealism, artistic perfection’ of his poetry.

René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme was born in Paris on 16 March 1839 to a shopkeeper and his wife. He attended the Lycée Bonaparte (now Lycée Condorcet) one of the oldest and most prestigious high schools in the city. He was intent on becoming an engineer but eye trouble interrupted his studies. He worked for a while in the Creusot region for the Schneider steel foundry, but then took employment in a solicitor’s office.

In 1865, Prudhomme published a first volume of poems, Stances et Poèmes (Stanzas and Poems) which was well received in literary circles, and which contains his most famous poem, Le vase brisé (The Broken Vase). Further works followed, such as La Justice (1878) and Le Bonheur (1888), all considered to be in line with Parnassism though combined with his philosophic and scientific interests. He was elected to the French Academy in 1881.

During the late 1880s, Prudhomme turned away from poetry to write essays on aesthetics and philosophy, such as L’Expression dans les beaux-arts (1884) and Réflexions sur l’art des vers (1892), and La Psychologie du Libre-Arbitre (1906). In 1901, he was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.’ Subsequently, he funded the launch of a poetry prize administered by the Société des gens de lettres. He also cofounded, in 1902, the Société des poètes français. He suffered poor health for many years, and died in 1908. Further information in English is rather thin online, but some is available at Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize website, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Some years after his death, in 1922, Alphonse Lemerre published Prudhomme’s Journal intime - lettres - pensées as edited by Camille Hémon. The book, 
freely available at Internet Archive), contains extracts from Prudhomme’s diary for the years 1862-1864 and 1868-1869. Very little of Prudhomme’s work has been translated into English, as far as I can tell, and certainly none of his diaries or letters. However, I have used Google Translate to render (rather mechanically) one extract into English, so as, at least, to give a flavour of his diary writing.

17 June 1868
‘I have recently been asked why I do not write novels or plays. I did not dare to say it. The study of philosophy has reduced to me all human affairs. The variable is indifferent to me; to create a scene, to make live this or that individual, to make him take his cane, to dress him, to make him sit, I find that pitiful, miserable. I’d rather take the essence of a passion, a pain, regardless of any adventure, and look for the rhythm, the rhythm that is its eternal and necessary accompaniment. The contingent is odious to me. It has become impossible for me to read a novel, and I do not go to the theatre because we now substitute the plot for the character. The facts do not interest me, they are only the flowering of the only essential causes.

Go tell that to a gentleman you see for the first time!

I realise with regret that I have lost the sense of comedy. I laugh much harder than before, and I am quite surprised to see my friends laughing at certain things. I took care, two or three years ago, of the essence of laughter, of the causes that provoke it, I will resume this study.

It seems to me, by rule of thumb, that there are no laughable abstractions and that a form is always engaged in the reason for laughter. Perhaps the form alone is ridiculous, perhaps it is by a disconnection with the idea. It is to be examined.

Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’

Thursday, March 14, 2019

As big as the West

‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time.’ This comes from the diary of Edward Abbey, a controversial American writer - ‘as big as the West itself’ - who died 30 years ago today. It was his fourth marriage he was writing about then, but there would be a fifth before he died in his early sixties. Extracts from his diary, like the one above, were edited and published posthumously as Confessions of a Barbarian, and much of the book can be read freely online.

Abbey’s Web, which is edited by Christer Lindh in Sweden, has a good deal of information about Abbey. He was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, in 1927, and grew up in nearby Home. After a brief military career (1945-1947) in Italy, he attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, he studied at the University of New Mexico, with a year at Edinburgh University in Scotland. His master’s thesis at New Mexico was called Anarchism and the Morality of Violence. For 15 years and well into his 40s, he worked as a part-time ranger and fire lookout at several different national parks, providing a collection of experiences that underpinned much of his writing.

Here is an assessment of the man from the blurb of a 1993 documentary video Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness. ‘Through his novels, essays, letters and speeches, Edward Abbey consistently voiced the belief that the West was in danger of being developed to death, and that the only solution lay in the preservation of wilderness. Abbey authored twenty-one books in his lifetime, including Desert Solitaire, . . . The Brave Cowboy, and The Fool’s Progress. His comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang helped inspire a whole generation of environmental activism. A writer in the mold of Twain and Thoreau, Abbey was a larger-than-life figure as big as the West itself.’

Larger-than-life indeed. According to Wikipedia, Abbey’s abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism, and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. He was sometimes called the ‘desert anarchist’ for his ability to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. His private life was no less full of discord. He married five times, fathering five children from three different wives, and died on 14 March 1989.

Abbey kept a diary - intermittently - from the age of 19 to a few days before his death, filling 20 volumes. They were edited by his friend David Petersen (who is also the literary editor of the Abbey estate), and published in 1994 by Little Brown as Confessions of a Barbarian - Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951-1989. Most of the book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Here is the start of Petersen’s introduction: ‘Abbey began keeping a personal journal in 1946, viewing it as an important resource in his hoped-for-career as ‘a writer of creative fictions.’ He was nineteen at the time, serving as an army motorcycle cop in postwar Italy. Abbey continued the practice of writing to himself until just days before his death on March 14, 1989. The product of those four-plus decades of ‘scribbling’ (his term) was twenty cursive volumes kept in eight-by-ten and five-by-seven notebooks. Would have been twenty volumes, that is, had not the three earliest journals, documenting the years 1946 through most of 1951, been destroyed by flooding while in storage in the basement of the Abbey family home in rural Pennsylvania.’

And here are several extracts from Abbey’s journal.

3 June 1952
‘Cornwall. The way these short-skirted English women display their knobby knees and hairy shanks, you would think they thought they had something to show. You would think they thought. How’d I happen to notice? Well ... just habit.

Where am I? I’m on the north Cornish coast by the seashore near a little town called Bude, looking west, at the moment, toward America - the Promised Land.

The sea is beautiful. It’s a revelation: I’d almost forgotten how powerful and mysterious and beautiful the shore, the beach, the sun, sea and charging surf can be. Genuine surf here - big breakers three feet high and a sandy beach walled in by gray-green cliffs. Gulls and crows. Dark brown kelp sprawled wet and limp on the rocks, algae the color of pea-soup, pale blue English sky, mild English sun, wistful little English clouds floating around listlessly on the horizon. A pleasant charming setting, England at its best.

I’m all alone on the beach now. The English have all trotted off for three o’clock tea. An amazing people. If I didn’t admire them so much I could despise them far more satisfactorily.’

7 June 1952
‘Bude. The novel is shambling along - I’m in a big scene now, the murder of Jonathan’s father, but there are so many distractions and interruptions here that I can’t really get rolling - every time I think it’s about to rain, the sun comes out instead and I surrender to the overwhelming compulsion to go swimming in the surf-then when I get in at night I’m too tired to write. Damn thing is 625 pages long now and I’m not halfway finished. What a monstrous heap of rubbish! - or genius and artistry! - or both.

About three more days and I’ll be leaving Cornwall, and Britain and Europe. Will I ever come back? Who knows? I want to, of course-yet not as much as I want to explore Asia, and Australia and the Americas. But I’ll probably be back - not alone, I half-hope.

Thinking of girls, and sex and these brief parting little flying affairs of mine - I suddenly realize that I am tired and sick of simple animal love. I begin to long for something better, and more complicated, and more enduring. Every other thought or so - half-dream, vague emotion - is of her, the girl I love, the demon-possessed Jew-girl back there in the Promised Land, waiting for me.

Yet with the longing for the comradeship of a real live heart - and-brain - shared love comes the old feeling of restriction, constriction, a dragging weight. I still wonder if I am man enough for love, good enough for marriage, worthy of her. When I wonder I doubt, and doubt makes wonder. I’m still filled and bulging with adolescent urges and lurches, afraid of responsibility, afraid of hard work. But what would it be like - with her? Not this pedestrian and mediocre association, surely, but rather something grand and growing, full of beauty and creating for both of us not less but ever more freedom. Surely. . .’

8 June 1952
‘Bude. Do I occasionally long for death? Not very deeply - I’m much too interested in the investigation of the human situation, in trying to discover the root-cause of my own and others’ misery. After all. I'll die anyway, probably - no need for impatience. The final gift of life, at least, never fails us.

Again I am grateful that I have abandoned - no, it would be more accurate to say “never acquired” - Christianity, with its appalling and horrible promise of immortality which makes Heaven and Hell indistinguishable, and life a vale of dread. It’s not immortality I crave, no; never - what I want is understanding. Gladly, joyfully would I sacrifice all eternity for one bright flash of terrible and godly omniscience.

This traditional Western bawling after immortality - what is the meaning of it? Why the insane desire to perpetuate through and beyond all time the identity of the person and the personal consciousness? The Orientals know better - they have the spirit merge with the world, not buzz over it forever like a bored and boring fly.

I can hear the sea: the roaring surf, the waves, the wind.’

28 May 1959
‘ATTENTION: Aaron Paul Abbey is born today. My second son. May he, like my first, be blessed by Heaven and Earth, grow straight and strong in the joyous sunlight.

If the world of men is truly as ugly, cruel, trivial, unjust and stinking with fraud as it usually appears, and if it is really impossible to make it pleasant and decent, then there remains only one alternative for the honest man: stay home, cultivate your own garden, look to the mountains. (Withdraw! Withdraw! Withdraw!)’

10 February 1974
‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time [This was his fourth marriage.]. If this one fails, for any reason, I shall resign myself forever to the call of solitude, wander the world with my Suzi [his daughter by his third marriage] and maybe a small friendly homely dog.

But it won’t. Renee is the right one, at last, after twenty seven years (!) of searching. Very young - eighteen now, sixteen when I met and fell in love with her - she is not only beautiful and sweet and gentle and full of love for me, but also - so to speak - unspoiled, free of all those neurotic tics and nervous fears that older women invariably reveal after the honeymoon begins to fade. Spoiled, mostly, by men of course, by mistreatment or what they imagine is mistreatment. Anyway I’ve found the one I want. And by Gawd, I’m going to keep her.’

29 May 1979
‘Visitors come and visitors go. Some sonofabitch shit on the floor of our shithouse. Swine. So I’ll have to lock that one up too.

Renee was here for a couple of days. Tells me we’re through; she’s bored with our marriage (‘lacks intensity’) and fed up with me - says I’m away too much, that I don’t talk to her when I am with her, that I’m indifferent, that I don’t love her etc. She suspects me of fooling around with other women; doesn’t trust me. Says she wants out. Wants a divorce . . .’

30 May 1979
‘So. Again. Divorce and loneliness loom ahead. Can I endure it all again? If I must, I will. One thing for sure: no more hasty or impulsive marriages for me. Me and Suzi will go it on our own for a while. . .’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 14 March 2009.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Why Ever Did I Want to Write

‘Why am I writing this autobiography of sorts, this collection of stories about myself, this patchwork of a life? I’m no celebrity, and I’ve done nothing of importance in or with my life (other than bring up three amazing boys), nothing that would warrant public attention, promotion or explanation. But I am a writer, and writing has been such a consistent thread running through my life and how I’ve lived it that I feel this gives me purpose in putting together a collection of autobiographical swatches, to show this interweaving of living and writing. Much of my writing has been so-called ‘life writing’, for I’ve kept a lively diary from the age of 11, but much has been other forms of writing, journalism in particular. I’ve also written novels, plays, short stories, poems, local history, psychogeography, and children’s fiction. I am not society’s idea of a ‘writer’, a published author with a portfolio of commercial or literary books behind me. No, I am my own idea of what a writer is: someone who enjoys the process of writing, the translating of thoughts and ideas into communicable language; someone for whom writing infuses their daily life; and someone whose mind and soul is affected - infected even - by how and what they write, and by the need to use words to explain, to expose, to imagine, and to play.’

These are the opening paragraphs in a new memoir, focusing on my own life from birth to my mid-30s. Just published by Pikle Publishing, I’ve called it Why Ever Did I Want to Write. Back in the 19th century, biography and autobiography was dominated by the so-called ‘Life and Letters’ approach, whereby a chronological narrative of a person’s life was patched together with a dense collection of extracts from diaries and letters. This methodology was severely criticised in the first half of the 20th century by the like of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Strachey wrote of Victorian biography: ‘These two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to celebrate the dead ... are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.’ And Woolf wrote of it as an ‘amorphous mass’ in which ‘we go seeking disconsolately for voice or laughter, for curse or anger, for any trace that this fossil was once a living man.’ (See my essay in A Companion to Literary Biography edited by Richard Bradford at Googlebooks; also the introduction to the essay can be found here in The Diary Review.)

Why Ever Did I Want to Write can, however, be seen as a modern form of the ‘Life and Letters’ approach, in which extracts from my diaries (and to a lesser extent letters) do provide a crucial source of information (not available in any other form - especially not from my deficient memory). However, this modern form of the genre differs markedly - at least in my book - from the old in at least three ways. Firstly, rather than following a dry chronological order, the memoir is divided up into themes, some focused on people/relationships (my grandfather, mother of my first child for example), some on places (Hampstead, Brazil etc.), and others on specific topics (travelling, work, photography). Secondly, the diary extracts have been chosen not so much for factual biographical purposes, but for their colour, emotion, or movement. Thirdly - as indicated by the title - the writing is infused with modern self-analytical tendencies, a determination to understand how and why my life turned out as it did.

Here is the promotional blurb.

Many of the chapters are underpinned by entries from my diaries - not great writing, but characteristic of me all the same. Unlike those who burn/shred their childhood diaries for containing embarrassing detail or youthful journals for being impoverished in a literary sense, I’m a fan of my own diaries from every stage of my life. Generally, I consider them a reliable witness, for I have mostly tried hard to be straightforward and honest with myself - what would have been the point in leaving behind unreliable accounts of who or what I was? Obviously and self-evidently I have often – chronically, indeed - argued the case for myself when it comes to friction, disputes, arguments with the world around me. We all engage in this kind of self-justification, and without it most of us would be utterly lost psychologically. I have always claimed to myself, and occasionally to others, that the act of writing down the internal dialogues about external difficulties has helped keep me balanced. After all, I need to make what I write down in black and white sound sensible, I need my self-justifications to work in written language. It’s when they don’t work very well, and I find myself writing long convoluted explanations, that I sense myself out of sync, and, if not lying to myself, then twisting evidence.

My early diaries are desperately bare of the kind of detail that would interest me today, but nevertheless they are an invaluable source of information - through their content and the manner of the writing - as to who I was.

Which brings me to the topic of memory. For most people, their memories serve as the primary source of information about their past. Not so for me. I remember almost nothing about my pre-teenage years, and very little about my teenage years. The memories I do have are fixed stories about (or pictures of) myself: when brought to mind I cannot root around for further detail. Therefore, as I’ve long told myself and friends, my diary is my memory. A good example of this is the journal I kept for three years while travelling round the world: almost all of what I think I know about myself during that time can, in fact, be found in the journal. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to re-read it several times - typing it onto the computer, editing it for a printed copy, editing it for uploading to my website and so on. This means that if any of the travelling stories in my memory get altered (exaggerated), re-reading the diary serves to reset them.

Why Ever Did I Want to Write can be purchased as a paperback or ebook online at Amazon.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

First US balloon flight

Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a pioneer of balloon flight, died 210 years ago today. His first successful flight was made in Paris in 1784, but by 1793 he had crossed the Atlantic to make the first ever balloon flight in North America, an event witnessed by President George Washington. Blanchard published a journal of the experience - inscribed to Washington - which may have the distinction of being the briefest diary ever published.

Blanchard was born in 1753 in Les Andelys, France, the son of a skilled craftsman. He showed an early interest in inventing things, such as a firing pistol rat trap, an early velocipede, and a hydraulic system that pumped water from the Seine uphill to a chateau. In 1774, he married Victoire Lebrun, and they would have four children - though, in time, he would abandon her, and she would die in poverty.

Blanchard’s fascination with birds led him to build a flying machine with four wings with pilot-operated levers and pedals, but it didn’t work. However, when a balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, was successfully demonstrated in 1783, Blanchard, too, turned to balloons. He made his first successful flight the following year. He soon moved to London, where after two flights, he and John Jeffries, an American physician, successfully flew across the Channel for the first time. The achievement was praised and rewarded by King Louis XVI.

Over the next few years, Blanchard toured Europe, demonstrating balloon flights wherever he went, and notching up first flights in many countries. In 1791, he gave a balloon performance during the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague. As well as developing his balloon expertise, Blanchard also contributed to the development of the modern parachute, invented a few years earlier by fellow Frenchman Sébastien Lenormand. Although Blanchard’s early demonstrations involved dogs, he, too, was forced to use a parachute once when his balloon ruptured in flight.

Arriving in 1793, Blanchard spent several years in North America. That year, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the capital of the United States, he demonstrated balloon flight for the first time in North America - an event witnessed by President George Washington, and, in fact, by several future presidents also. Blanchard remained in Philadelphia until 1795, and then moved to Charleston, Boston and New York, mostly giving performances of tethered balloon flights with animals. Generally, his attempts to secure funding for further manned balloon attempts were ill-fated, for lack of investment or bad luck. 

Blanchard returned to France in 1797, where he was able to raise enough interest for a dozen more balloon flights. He married his second wife, Sophie Armant, in 1804 who also became a balloonist. In early 1808, Blanchard suffered a heart attack while in his balon, and fell to the ground. He died a year later, on 7 March 1809, leaving behind many debts. Sophie continued to support herself with balloon demonstrations, but she also died in a balloon accident, in 1819. Further, information on the Blanchards is available at Wikipedia,, Normandy Then and Now, and the SciHi Blog.

Soon after the first US flight, Blanchard published an account of the event. He inscribed this to George Washington and titled it Journal of my forty-fifth ascension, being the first performed in America, on the ninth of January, 1793. The booklet runs to only 26 pages long, and, as it concerns but a single day, it might well be considered the shortest diary every published. A reprint by William Abbatt from 1918 is freely available online at Internet Archive.

Blanchard’s preface reads as follows: ‘Having so happily succeeded in the 45th attempt of my aerial flight, in the presence of the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia, I thought I could still afford them some pleasure, by offering to them an accurate description of the operations preparatory to this ascension, and by acquainting them with my various situation during this excursion, as well as with the motives which induced me to a return, and the means I made use of to accomplish it.

I will then account for the thoughts and feelings which agitated my breast at the time of my ascension: I will display them with confidence, to those candid and feeling men whose eye traced me across the vast expanse of the aerial regions.

To such as are not unacquainted with the mechanism of the aerostat, some of these details may appear trifling and superfluous; but as I felt them, I will therefore describe them: nor do I think I should be justifiable in concealing from the curious public any part of the operations which attended so extraordinary an experiment, of which they for the first time witnessed the complete success.

And here I request the indulgence of my readers for the style of my narrative - Elegance is not what I aim at in this performance: Truth is intended as its sole ornament.’

The following is part of the text of the brief journal, though I have removed various meteorological readings for ease of reading.

9 January 1793
‘At 9 o’clock the mist dissipated, the sky was wrapt in thin clouds, pervious to the rays of the sun; wind S. W. Reaumur’s thermometer [various meteorological figures]

At ½ past 9, the sun which broke in through the clouds dissipated them in such a manner that they appeared no more than cobwebs on the irradiated atmosphere - A gentle westerly breeze [figures].

The hour fixed for my departure now drew near, and I was anxious to keep my word with a numerous people, whom repeated discharges of the artillery of the city had already forewarned of the execution of my experiment; I then disposed in order all the apparatus requisite for my observations: I adapted Reaumur’s thermometer to the center of an excellent barometer, in order to rectify, with the greatest possible exactness, the degrees of expansion or condensation which the mercury in the barometer should undergo by the changes in the temperature of the air. The altitude, as corrected at that time, [figures]

At 10 o’clock, the sky was still finer and clearer; a light breeze from the W. N. W. [figures]

Already the balloon, inflated by the inflammable gas, lifted itself from the ground, and having assumed its spherical form, was equally pressed on all the points of its concave surface. Already specifically lighter than the column of air which it had displaced, it hovered majestically in the middle of that fluid in a vertical situation, striving to break loose from the fastening which held it by its base and reluctantly kept it down. Repeated experiments have made these various circumstances so many data from which to determine the moment of my departure.

At 9 minutes after 10, the sky being clear, serene and propitious, little wind and nearly calm at the surface of the earth; [figures] I affixed to the aerostat my car, laden with ballast, meteorological instruments, and some refreshments, with which the anxiety of my friends had provided me. I hastened to take leave of the President, and of Mr. Ternan, Minister Plenipotentiary of France to the United States. I then received from the President the most flattering mark of his good will in the passport which he was pleased to deliver to me with his own hand. I never felt the value of glory so much as I did in that moment, in the presence of a Hero, whom she had constantly attended at the head of armies, and with whom she still presided over the councils of his country.

The moment of my departure was announced by the last discharge of the artillery; I then ascended my car, studied the proportions of aerial gravities, and threw out as much of my ballast as appeared necessary to leave the aerostat at liberty, and to render my ascent certain. I soon found myself possessed of every requisite; I felt myself balanced at 15 inches from the ground. This was all I wished for; I requested Messieurs Nassy and Legaux, who held the aerostat, to let it loose.
My ascent was perpendicular, and so easy that I had time to enjoy the different impressions which agitated so many sensible and interesting persons, who surrounded the scene of my departure, and to salute them with my flag, which was ornamented on one side with the armoric bearings of the United States, and on the other with the three colors, so dear to the French nation. Accustomed as I have long been to the pompous scenes of numerous assemblies, yet I could not help being surprized and astonished, when, elevated at a certain height over the city, I turned my eyes towards the immense number of people which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads over which my flight carried me in the free space of the air. What a sight! How delicious for me to enjoy it! This people naturally serious and reflecting, whose mirth is so much more true and national, as it is not apt to give away to the transports of the moment, shewed from all parts the most unequivocal marks of astonishment and satisfaction: I, for a long time, followed their rapid motions: for a long time could I hear the cries of joy which rent the air: I thought myself carried on the vows of their hearts. I had at that instant nothing but the success of my voyage to answer for my gratitude, and the waving of my colours to express the same. At present I make it my duty to express the same in this feeble essay; may it be agreeable to the inhabitants of a city whose approbation is so glorious for me.

I still continued to rise; the calm state of the atmosphere, whereinto I had now launched, offered no kind of difficulty, and I followed the ascending motion of my aerostat with a gradual uniformity, at once easy and majestic.

I was at a perpendicular height of 200 fathoms, when I felt a somewhat stronger breeze spring up, which carried me in an easterly direction towards the Delaware: here I met a numerous and thick flock of wild pigeons: they seemed to be much frightened. Alas! it was never my intention in traversing the ethereal regions to disturb the feathered inhabitants thereof: they separated into two different parties and left a passage open for me. I soon perceived them again at a great distance from me. I ascended constantly, being carried towards the south-east by a light and pleasant breeze. At 10h. 10m. I let go my anchor, to serve as a point of observation, keeping the same course, though rather a little more to the southward.

At 10h, 19-20-21m. bearing constantly towards the S. S. E. my ascent became more rapid, owing solely to the dilatation of the inflammable gas which filled the balloon. At this moment my position was perpendicular over the middle of the Delaware, which the reflecting sunbeams painted to my eyes of a transparent white; and at the height I was then at, this river appeared to me like a ribband of the breadth of about four inches.

At 10h. 35m. being now in a much more rarified fluid, and the force of the inflammable gas having increased in proportion to its dilatation, the aerostat was soon raised to the highest elevation which it is susceptible of. I had lost nothing of my ballast consisting of four bags and an half filled with sand, containing 24lb. English weight each, together 108 lb. A little black dog, which a friend had entrusted to me, seemed to feel sick at this height; he attempted several times to get out of the car; but finding no landing-place he took the prudent part to remain quietly beside me: the whining of this little animal raised nevertheless reflections in my mind, which would have affected me very much, had not the view of the country, whose vast extent was expanded before my eyes, opened my mind to softer and more agreeable contemplations.’

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Best president Nigeria never had

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Obafemi Awolowo, a Nigerian politician some describe as the best president Nigeria never had. The son of a Yoruba farmer, he pressed himself through layers of education to become a successful lawyer, and then a powerful mover for his country’s independence, one embracing a federal structure, inclusive of all tribes and regions. Though never president, he served in various positions which allowed him to introduce much progressive social legislation. He wrote several influential political books, and some autobiographical works.

Awolowo was born on 6 March 1909 in Ikenne, some 50km northwest of Lagos, then part of British controlled Southern Nigeria. His father, a farmer, died when he was 10. He went to a local Baptist school and Wesley College in Ibadan. To support himself, he worked as a teacher, a clerk, and a newspaper reporter. He was an active trade unionist. In 1927, he enrolled at the University of London as an external student, graduating with a degree in commerce. Back in Nigeria, during the 1930s, he became increasingly involved in nationalist politics, rising to become an official in the Nigerian Youth Movement. In 1937, he married Hannah Adelana, and they had five children. In 1944, he returned to London to study law, and was called to the bar in 1946. While in the UK, he founded Egbe Omo Oduduwa to promote the culture and unity of the Yoruba people. He also published an influential book Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he made his case for an independent Nigeria in which the interests of each ethnic nationality and region were safeguarded.

Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he set up a sucessful law practice, acting as a solicitor and advocate of the Superior Court of Nigeria. In 1949, he founded the newspaper The Tribune to help disseminate his political ideas, and the following year he cofounded a political wing of Egbe Omo Oduduwa called Action Group, and became its first president. He won the first Western Region elections in 1951 and was chosen as minister for local government structure. In 1954, he was appointed the first premier of the Western Region. It was a position in which he was able to improve education, social services and agricultural practices. He resigned his post, in 1959, to run for a seat in the Federal House of Representatives, but his Action Group party was heavily defeated in the election, leaving Awolowo as leader of the opposition.

A power struggle soon developed between Awolowo and Samuel Akintola, his Action Group deputy, who had taken over as premier of the Western Region. Ultimately, this led to the federal government suspending the Western Region’s constitution, and to Awolowo being prosecuted for treason. In 1963, he was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Three years later, as the result of a coup and the empowerment of a military government, Awolowo was released. He became a member of the National Conciliation Committee, which attempted to mediate a rift between the federal government and the Eastern Region (inhabited predominantly by the Igbo people), but when this failed, and the region seceded as the Republic of Biafra, he backed the government. During the civil war that followed, Awolowo was federal commissioner for finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council. In the mid-1970s he was chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and Ahmadu Bello University.

In 1977, Awolowo published The Problems of Africa: The need for ideological reappraisal. And, the following year, when a 12-year ban on political activity was lifted in preparation for a return to civilian rule, he emerged as the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria. He ran for president in 1979 and 1983 but was defeated both times by Shehu Shagari. Following yet another military coup at the end of 1983, political parties were again banned, and Awolowo retired from politics. He died in 1987 (though his wife Hannah lived to 2015, just a few months short of her 100th birthday). Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia BritannicaNew World Encyclopedia, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation or Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries.

Apart from his political books, Awolowo left behind a couple of autobiographical works: Awo - Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; My Early Life; Adventures in Power: Book 1 - My March Through Prison; Adventures in Power: Book 2 - Travails of Democracy. None of them seem to be available online (nor available for preview at Amazon or Googlebooks). It’s possible that the first Adventures in Power book contains a prison diary by Awolowo but I’m not sure. Two biographies, however, do make mention of diaries (described variously as personal, political or prison diaries), and both these can be previewed at Googlebooks: Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses by Adedara S. Oduguwa (Trafford Publishing, 2012); and The Political Philosophy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo by Olayiwola Abegunrin (Lexington Books, 2015).

In his preface to the first book, Oduguwa states: ‘As readers will discover, Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses is a book that encompasses politics, law, and the search for power, as well as incarceration, denial, and betrayal by respected members of the Action Group (AG) and the political environment of Nigeria in the 1960s. It is a book that vividly investigates a 1962 treasonable felony, bringing into focus the case hearings and its implications for the young Nigerians. [. . .] This book reminds us of how a man who dedicated the entirely of his life (as stated in his diary) to serve his fatherland was denied his ambition, and now, twenty-five years after his death remains the most celebrated Nigerian that ever lived. Even one of his contemporaries at the time attested “Awo is the best president Nigeria never had.” ’

Here is one quote he provides from Awolowo’s diary.
19 August 1959
‘I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats at the federal elections, I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the Prime Minister of Nigeria. In the return for this privilege, I solemnly aver and promise in the presence of God that I will strive and do my utmost best for the entire people of Nigeria irrespective of their tribe, religion, political affiliation and ensure individual freedom, human dignity and cultural progress, for Jesus says: whatever we ask for, we shall have it; I believe the AG will win 200 seats and 1 will become the prime minister of Nigeria. I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats. I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the prime minister of Nigeria at the conclusion of the election.

As prime minister of Nigeria, I will strive to ensure the rule of law; happiness and spiritual well being of the people of Nigeria. I therefore believe firmly that the AG will win 200 seats: I thank God for granting my desire.’

And here are two quotes provided by Olayiwola Abegunrin in his biography of 

7 March 1939
‘After rain comes sunshine: after darkness comes the glorious dawn. There is no sorrow without its glorious joy: there is no joy without its admixture of sorrow. Behind the ugly terrible mask of misfortunes lies the beautiful soothing countenance of prosperity. So. tear the mask.’

2 August 1966
‘On this triumphant occasion I believe that the following decision of mine is irrevocable under all and any circumstances, namely: That I hereby solemnly and resolutely dedicate the rest of my life, even second of it, to the service of the peoples of Nigeria in particular, and of Africa in general, by promoting their welfare and happiness. So be it-Amen.’

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Trungpa’s escape from Tibet

Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan monk who became a renowned lay teacher of Buddhist teachings in the United States and founded the Shambhala organisation, was born 80 years ago today. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, he was no more than 20 years old. At first he went into hiding, but then took part in an heroic expedition across the Himalayas to escape into India. For a few weeks during the latter part of that journey, he kept a diary which he included in his first autobiographical work, Born in Tibet.

Trungpa was born in the Nangchen region of Tibet on 5 March 1939, and was eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus, of the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He was trained in the Kagyu tradition, receiving his degree at the same time as Thrangu Rinpoche (who would go on to become another important 
Buddhist figure in the West). Trungpa was also trained in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools. 

In 1958, aged only 19, Trungpa’s home monastery was occupied by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and so he spent the winter in hiding. The following year, he started out with Akong Tulku and a small group of other monastics to escape China. As they travelled, often through mountain wildernesses, others joined them swelling the group to some 300 refugees. They eventually reached the  Brahmaputra River. Under heavy gunfire, about 70 managed to cross it, but they then had to climb 19,000 feet over the Himalayas, with little food, before reaching the safety of Pema Ko. On reaching India, in early 1960, the party was flown to a refugee camp. The full story has been told by Grant McLean’s in his 2016 book From Lion’s Jaws: Chogyam Trungpa’s Epic Escape To The West.

In India, Trungpa had one son
 (who is today the head of Shambala network) with a nun he had met on the journey. He set about learning English, and by 1963 had won a scholarship to study comparative religion at St Antony’s College, Oxford University. In 1967, he and Akong were invited to take over Johnstone House Trust in Scotland to run a meditation centre, which then became Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. Around 1969, he married Diana Judith Pybus, a wealthy rebellious 16 year old, with whom he had at least one son. He also had a car accident which left him partially paralysed for the rest of his life. When Trungpa split with Akong, in 1970, the former moved to the United States. By then, he had dispensed with his monastic way of life (allowing himself to be promiscuous and drink heavily), and set course as a lay teacher. He travelled widely around North America, gaining renown for his ability to present the essence of the highest Buddhist teachings in a form readily understandable to Western students, in particular he introduced and opened up, to the West, the esoteric practices of the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.

Trungpa soon began to establish many meditation centres and retreats, all managed by an umbrella organisation, Vajradhatu, based in Boulder, Colorado. Also in Boulder, he found the Naropa Institute which would become the first accredited Buddhist university in North America. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were hired at one point to teach poetry and literature respectively. (Joni Mitchell even sang about Trungpa in Refuge of the Roads, on the Hejira album.) From 1976, he began a series of secular teachings, some of which were gathered and presented as the Shambhala Training, inspired by his vision, when younger, of the legendary Kingdom of Shambhala. His whole organisation eventually took on the Shambala name.

In 1981, Trungpa hosted a visit by the 14th Dalai Lama to Boulder. In 1983, he established Gampo Abbey, a Karma Kagyü monastery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; the following year, he observed a yearlong retreat in a rural community in Nova Scotia, and in 1986 he moved his home and international headquarters to Halifax. However, he was, by this time, suffering failing health; after a heart attack in 1986, he died in 1987. Further information can be found at Shambhala, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Stripping the Gurus.

A diary kept by Trungpa for a few weeks during his heroic escape to India was first published by George Allen & Unwin in 1966 as part of the autobiographical Born in Tibet (as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts). This has been republished several times, and can be previewed at Googlebooks. Born in Tibet is also included in the first volume of The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian, and published by Shambala in 2003. Furthermore, the diary itself can be found online at The Chronicles, ‘a repository of teachings, articles, interviews, news and podcasts pertaining to the life and teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’.

Here are several extracts (as found at The Chronicles).

‘With the morning light we started off and walked down the slope and as we turned uphill again we met the peasant husband carrying a large bag of tsampa. To our amazement he said that he and Tsepa had overtaken Akong Tulku’s elder brother in company with Dorje Tsering’s wife and three nuns and they had given him the tsampa to tide over our immediate needs. They told him how they had been captured by the Chinese near the backwater, but managed to escape from the headquarters where they were being held and had afterward joined up with some Kongpo peasants who were also escaping. The party had heard Tsepa’s gun the night before and had been so frightened that they had rushed away. It appeared that the gun had only been fired to scare a wild animal which seemed as if it might attack. Tsepa had sent the peasant husband back to us while he himself went up to the village on the mountainside to buy provisions. He sent us a message saying that we were to go to a cave below that place where the other party was waiting for us; he would join us there later with the food. We soon reached the cave and spent a very happy morning telling each other of our experiences. They told us that a group of them had crossed the river and the backwater and had tried to follow us; however, they had lost their way and after lying hidden in the long grass for a time they reached the village. When the Chinese discovered them, there was no fighting; all the refugees were taken prisoner and removed to a village which was a local Chinese headquarters, on the south side of the Brahmaputra. Their baggage was thoroughly searched; all the contents of their amulet boxes were thrown out and all religious books were immediately destroyed. Each person was privately questioned to find out if their stories tallied; they were asked where they came from and where they were going. Most of them said that they were trying to escape to India, though a few said that they were going on pilgrimage to that country. The lamas and leaders were separated from the rest and put under guard to be interrogated more closely. They were given the most menial work to do, such as cleaning out latrines. One of the lamas despaired and hanged himself, he had already escaped from one prison camp in Derge and this was the second time that he had been captured. As other prisoners were brought into the camp all our party were relieved to find that no members of our little group were among them; but when the Chinese could not trace Akong Tulku, Yak Tulku, or me among the senior prisoners, they thought we might be lurking disguised among the crowd, since they knew that we had been the leaders of the party; so the prisoners were checked again, especially the younger ones.

At night everyone was locked up together in a single room, but women and the less important men were allowed to go out into the village during the day: They were, however, called in for individual questioning from time to time. The Chinese would then tell them that now that Lhasa was liberated they could go there whenever they wished to, there would be no trouble on the roads; but of course there were more useful things to be done than wandering off on pilgrimages, which were indeed only superstition. The prisoners were even told that should they wish to go to India for this purpose, the Chinese administration were quite ready to let them out; however, such a journey would be exceedingly dangerous, for anyone might die of starvation or fall ill from the hot climate there.

When a rumor went round the camp that all the able-bodied refugees were shortly to be sent north to join labor camps on the other side of the Brahmaputra and that the senior people and those too old for work were to be sent to concentration camps, one of the nuns contrived to buy food for herself and Akong Tulku’s brother, she also obtained information about the best way to reach Doshong Pass. Dorje Tsering’s wife and two other nuns were also able to procure some food and all five managed to escape together. They stopped in a wood the first night and crossed the Doshong Pass the following day. Here they met the family from Kongpo who knew the country and were also making their escape, so they joined forces.

The Kongpo family were camping in a valley below our cave and the man came up to see me, bringing a jug of soup made of meat and barley which was much appreciated. He told me how he and his people had escaped: It had been very difficult to get out of their village as permits were only given to visit friends in the near neighborhood and when the visit was over the holder had to apply to the local authorities for permission to return to his own home. Having obtained the permits to leave his village, our friend and his family took the opposite direction toward the mountains to the south. A number of the villagers had wanted to do the same thing, but knowing the danger they would have to encounter in crossing the snowbound Doshong Pass, they had not dared to undertake the journey.

Some refugee lamas from Lower Kongpo were sheltering in the small monastery in the village above our cave. A monk came down with Tsepa to request me to conduct a devotional service for them as well as for the villagers. I was surprised to see him wearing a long dagger which looked somehow wrong for a monk. He was particularly friendly and invited us all to stay in the monastery. However, we felt that this village was too near Lower Kongpo and might not be a safe place for us so, seeing that one could not get to the monastery and back again that same afternoon, we stayed where we were in and around the cave. We had an excellent meal with some pork the villagers had supplied and made dumplings with their wheat flour which they also gave us. We tried the local dish of millet, but found this difficult to swallow.

23 January 1960
‘No one knew how we could get to India proper, for there was a waiting list for the few airplanes flying to and fro. However, we no longer felt anxious: We were free at last and were able to wander about the town at will. I was struck by the fact that people here were much gayer and more cheerful than in the Communist-controlled Tibetan towns. As we were having our midday meal, a messenger came to tell us to go down to the airport, as there was every possibility that we would get a lift that same evening. A tractor arrived with a trailer behind it, into which we all bundled. The winding road led through a valley and we came to the gate of the airport. It was built in decorative Tibetan style, surmounted by the ashoka emblem. We disembarked and waited. No one knew of any airplanes likely to arrive that day. The evening drew in and it was quite dark. A jeep came to take me to see the local district administrator; he gave me a bag of rice and a few vegetables and apologized that supplies were so scanty and the accommodation so limited. However, he was sure that the plane would come the next day. He asked me to leave my blessing in the place, that things should go well. I thanked him and presented him with a white scarf. We spent that night in the hut.’

24 January 1960
‘In the morning an official came and read out a list of our names. He told us that we would be given priority on the next plane. It arrived that morning and, since it was a transport plane, its cargo of building material was first taken off and seats screwed in afterward. There was only room for six of us: myself, my own attendant, Yak Tulku and his attendant, Tsethar, and Yunten; the rest of the party followed in a second plane that same day.

This, our first flight, was a strange new experience, skimming over cloud-covered mountains, seeing far below us the small villages and footpaths leading up to them; only by the moving shadow of the plane on the ground could we gauge how fast we were traveling.

We thought about the teaching of impermanence; this was a complete severance of all that had been Tibet and we were traveling by mechanized transport. As the moments passed, the mountain range was left behind, and the view changed to the misty space of the Indian plains stretching out in front of us.’