Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Happier days must be coming

‘Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’
This is just one of many poems written by the great Vietnamese revolutionary and politician Ho Chi Minh - born 130 years ago today - while incarcerated by the Chinese for a year or so in the early 1940s. The short undated poems were published in English as Prison Diary even though they bear no resemblance to the kind of texts normally found in literary, historical or political journals. Ho’s manuscript which contains these poems is listed by the Vietnam National Museum of History as a ‘national treasure’.

Ho (originally Nguyen That Thanh) was born on 19 May 1890 in Hoang Tru in central Vietnam, or French Indo-China as it was then known. His father worked at the imperial court but was dismissed for criticising the French colonial power. After being educated locally, Ho and his brother attended a Franco-Vietnamese academy in the city of Hué. Ho left before graduating and worked briefly as a schoolteacher before making his way to Saigon and taking a job as cook on a French vessel heading for Marseilles. From there, he began two years of travelling. He settled in London, but during the war he moved to Paris where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. He became very involved with anti-colonial activities, and he authored a petition demanding the end of the French colonial exploitation of Vietnam (which he attempted to present to the world powers at the Versailles Peace Conference).

In 1923, Ho visited Moscow for training at Comintern, an organisation created by Lenin to foment worldwide revolution. There he became acquainted with Trotsky, Stalin and Bukhari. Two years later, he was in China with Mikhail Borodin, organising a revolutionary movement - Thanh Nien - among Vietnamese exiles. This soon established links with other nationalist and revolutionary groups inside Vietnam. In 1930, he founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party, spending much of that decade in the Soviet Union and China. After the Japanese invasion of Indo-China in 1941, Ho returned to his home country. He founded the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement, to fight the Japanese. He adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’. In August 1942, he was arrested in southern China as a suspected spy, and shuffled between various prisons for a little over a year before he was allowed to return to Vietnam.

At the end of WW2, Viet Minh announced Vietnamese independence. When France refused to relinquish its colony, war broke out. After eight years of hostilities, the French were pressed into peace talks in Geneva which, ultimately, split Vietnam into a communist north and non-communist south. Ho became president of North Vietnam, and was determined to reunite Vietnam under communist rule, supporting and financing insurgents in 
American-backed South Vietnam. The communist insurgents became known as the Viet Cong, and formed the National Liberation Front. Ho began suffering from ill health and withdrew from active leadership. By 1965, the Americans had launched a full-scale military campaign against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Ho died in 1969, and when the communists finally took the South Vietnamese capital Saigon in 1975, they renamed it Ho Chi Minh City in his honour. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, BBC, History.com or this timeline.

There is no evidence that Ho Chi Minh left behind any diaries; nevertheless two years after his death, The Foreign Language Publishing House in Hanoi brought out a book by Ho translated into English (by Dang The Binh) called Prison Diary. It is not a diary by any normal sense of the word - there are no dated entries, for example - rather it is a collection of poems written during his year long imprisonment by the Chinese in 1942-1943. The book can be read online at Internet Archive or Banned Thought. Ho’s manuscript is held by the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi, and is rated number 10 on a list of ‘national treasures’.

Steve Bradbury has made a more modern translation of the poems, published by Tinfish Press in 2004 as Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. Bradbury writes about the process of translating Ho’s poems in Issue 61 of Translation Review. He says: ‘If The Prison Diary is not a great work of literature, it is most certainly an important (albeit neglected) contribution to the 20th-century poetry of witness, and this by virtue not only of its content but also of its form.’

The following extracts are taken from the earliest translation.

In jail veteran inmates greet the newcomer;
High above white clouds are chasing black ones away.
In the sky both white clouds and black freely have gone their way;
On earth a free man is to stay a prisoner.’

Every morning the sun, emerging o'er the wall,
Beams on the gate, but the gate is not yet open.
Inside the prison lingers a gloomy pall,
But we know outside the sun has risen.

Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’

The meal over, the sun sinks below the western horizon.
From all corners rise folk tune and popular ditty:
Suddenly this dismal, gloomy Zingsi prison
Is turned into a little music academy.’

On this side of the bars, the husband.
Outside stands the wife.
So close, only inches distant;
Yet as heaven from earth apart.
What their mouths cannot let know
Their eyes try to impart.
Before a word is said, tears flow:
Truly their plight rends your heart.’

Monday, May 18, 2020

A boiling cauldron

‘This is nothing like I had ever seen. It was much worse than any photographs of the face of the moon. It looked like a boiling cauldron, because large icebergs the size of houses from the glaciers on the mountain were buried underneath hot ash and lava. The icebergs were melting and the surface of the ash was caving in.’  This is President Jimmy Carter writing in his diary about a visit to the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruptions - the most disastrous such eruptions in US history. The volcanic activity had started two months earlier and culminated in a destructive earthquake on 18 May 1980 - 40 years ago today. Although Carter had always declined requests to publish his diary record of the visit to Mount St. Helens, he agreed, finally, to let journalist Jim Erickson include it in his just-published book: Memories of Mount St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens was formed about 275,000 years ago and has been the most active volcano in the Cascade Range, northwest US, during the Holocene (roughly the last 12,000 years of Earth’s history). Historical eruptions in the 19th century were witnessed by early settlers. Prior to 1980, the mountain had the shape of a conical, youthful volcano sometimes referred to as the Mount Fuji of America. But on 27 March 1980 and thereafter, it suffered a series of volcanic explosions, culminating on 18 May with a major explosive eruption. The upper 400 m of the summit was removed by a huge debris avalanche, leaving a horseshoe-shaped crater now partially filled by a lava dome and a glacier.

Some 57 people as well as thousands of animals were killed directly, hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland, and damage was calculated at over $1 billion - it was the most disastrous volcanic eruption in US history. Subsequently, the US Forest Service took over control of the area, which has been preserved, in an unaltered state, as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, USGS, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Four days after the catastrophic event, President Jimmy Carter visited the site, and he wrote about the visit at some lengthy in his diary. Since then, and over the decades, he refused repeated requests to publish his account. Only now - forty years after the eruption - has he made the unedited diary entry public. Here is journalist Jim Erikson - who said the eruption was the biggest story he ever covered - explaining how access to Carter’s diary entry inspired him to complete a book about the volcano:

‘In January 2019, I began reading clips of my stories from the Tacoma News Tribune, as well as other volcano articles from the Oregonian and the Columbian, the only newspapers I had access to during the weeks I spent in Vancouver, Washington, with geologists. In February I wrote a letter to President Carter in Plains, Georgia, including a copy of my story about his visit to the volcano to establish my credibility. My request was for his memories. After a month and a half, Carter did respond, giving me permission to use his diary entry for the day of his 1980 visit. I was elated. It inspired me to contact all the other people I interviewed for my book. I collected photos to augment the book and was pleased when The History Press accepted my proposal.’

Memories of Mount St. Helens was published by The History Press in March 2020; some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. Here is the publisher’s blurb: ‘In the spring of 1980, Mount St. Helens awoke from a century-long slumber with a series of dramatic changes. Most threatening was a bulge on the side of the snowy peak, pushing steadily outward. Near Spirit Lake, local resident Harry Truman refused to leave his lodge, even as scientists like David Johnston warned about potential destruction. On May 18, the mountain finally blew, enveloping whole communities in ash and smoke. Mudflows destroyed bridges, houses and highways, and fifty-seven people, including Truman and Johnston, lost their lives. Today, the mountain is quiet. Plants and animals have returned and hiking trails have been rebuilt, but the scars remain. Join author and journalist Jim Erickson as he recounts the unforgettable saga of the Mount St. Helens eruption.’

And here is Carter’s diary entry. (In fact, an edited version of this diary entry appears in Carter’s own published work: White House Diary - see Googlebooks. Also, see the online version of Carter’s ‘Presidential Daily Diary’ for 22 May 1980 here.)

22 May 1980
‘In the morning, about 5:30, we ran 3 miles or so. And then took helicopters. Went down the Columbia River to the Kelso area where the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers dump into the Columbia. The surge of ash carried by the rivers had clogged up the Columbia ship channel from a depth of 40 feet down to only 12 feet. We are moving hopper dredges in there as quickly as possible to get the channel opened up because a number of ships are trapped in the Portland harbor and need to get a load of cargo out.

We then went up to Toutle Valley in the helicopter - first seeing large quantities of white-looking ash. And in the narrow river valley, we eventually began to see where the blast had directly burned the trees. Fifteen miles from the volcano, the trees had been burnt instantaneously with power at least equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear explosion. The blast that followed in a few minutes had leveled every tree in an area of 150 square miles. One cubic mile off the side of the mountain had been pulverized, most of it into ash the consistency of face powder. Less than one micron in particle size. This ash had flowed down the mountain, carrying large chunks of ice, and also large rocks and molten lava.

Spirit Lake, the head of the Toutle River, was filled with 400 feet of ash and lava. The level of it had been raised 150 to 200 feet. And there was a dam 12 miles long below the lake.

This is nothing like I had ever seen. It was much worse than any photographs of the face of the moon. It looked like a boiling cauldron, because large icebergs the size of houses from the glaciers on the mountain were buried underneath hot ash and lava. The icebergs were melting and the surface of the ash was caving in.

The steam from the melting ice was rising. There were a few fires visible, but there was nothing much left to burn.

Eighty-five or 90 people were either dead or missing, including, unfortunately, some geologists who were handling the seismograph stations and instruments to assess the mountain’s volcanic activity before it erupted.

The top 1,200 feet of the mountain was missing.

We couldn’t get all the way to the mountain because of heavy steam and cloud formations. When the helicopter pilot decided to turn around, he didn’t get any argument from me.

After a press conference [in Portland], we went to Spokane. Although they only had about a half-inch deposit of ash, being 250 miles away their airport was closed [it remained so for twenty-two days] because this extremely fine powder couldn’t be controlled and was suspended in the air. 

At other places around Yakima and Ritzville the ash was as deep as 4 or 5 inches, and they’re still not able to shovel their way out through this fine powder which has a specific gravity of about 2.7. It is non-toxic, and will ultimately be incorporated into the soil or on the bottom of lakes and streams, or carried out to sea.

Frank Press [Carter’s science advisor] says this is by far the biggest natural explosion ever recorded in North America in the last 4,000 years.

Only because the volcano was very closely monitored, was the loss of life restricted. And, of course, it is in an isolated area, as well.

My inclination is not to clean up anything we don’t have to, that’s not directly effecting human life, but to let nature take its course in the valley region and around the mountain, which has a completely different geological configuration now.’

Friday, May 15, 2020

Barricading the gaol

’There is a great deal of excitement in the Town, and the Gaol Authorities fearing violence have barricaded and strengthened the Entrance, as well as made a door as close to the Court as possible by which to take the prisoners too [sic] and from Trial. I remarked that people might break doors to get out, but that I hardly thought they would break them to get into the prison.’ This is from the personal diaries of John Buckley Castieau, a colonial prison official born 190 years ago today. The edited diaries are freely available online thanks to the National Library of Australia, and are considered a ‘vital record of daily life in Melbourne during its years as one of the Empire’s leading cities’.

Very little is known about Castieau’s background. He was born on 15 May 1830 in Gosport, Hampshire, England, the son of John B. Castieau of Portsmouth and Emma née Whitcombe. With a reasonable education behind him, he emigrated to Australia in 1852, accompanied by two sisters, their parents having, perhaps, separated. Soon after arriving, he secured a position as turnkey at Melbourne Gaol. Almost immediately, he was promoted to senior turnkey then, within two years, promoted again to gaoler at the Eastern Gaol; another two years later he was governor of Beechworth Gaol (some 200km northeast of Melbourne). While at Beechworth, he was an official witness to the hanging of Ned Kelly - see Wikipedia. He married Mary Moore (who he called Polly) in 1858, and they had six children. After more than a decade, Castieau returned to Melbourne, in 1869, to serve as governor of the Melbourne Gaol; and, in 1881, he was appointed Inspector-General of Penal Establishments. He retired in 1884, partly because the authorities were dissatisfied with his performance, and partly because of ill-health. He died in 1885.

Throughout his career in the colonial prison service, Castieau kept a detailed diary. This was edited by Mark Finnane and published by the National Library of Australia (which holds the Castieau manuscripts) in 2004 as The Difficulties of My Position: The diaries of Prison Governor John Buckley Castieau, 1855-1884. The full work is freely available online at the Library’s website (and is the only online source I can find with biographical information on Castieau). A review of the book is available here.

In his introduction, Finnane says: ‘What makes Castieau exceptional in the historical record is what he left behind him - a collection of diaries that cover (intermittently) three decades of his life as prison warder, governor and inspector-general; his years as a young lad in the wild early days of the newly-separated colony; his hypochondria; his feelings as a Victorian husband and father with a capacity for ironic reflection on the relations of the sexes; and his experiences as an urban clubman who read and conversed with some of the leading figures in Victorian cultural life of the 1870s. The diaries are, above all, a vital record of daily life in Melbourne during its years as one of the Empire’s leading cities. As a rich domestic and professional daily record, they demand attention beside other personal insights into colonial life, such as those of the police functionary and clubman Frederick Standish, or even of the more literary Annie Baxter Dawbin.’ 

Here are several examples from Castieau’s diaries as found in Finanne’s book.

16 January 1855
‘Purchased this Diary for which I paid 10/- and considered reasonable, it being but 50 per cent over the Home cost.

Went to the Main Gaol to hear tidings of the State Prisoners, charged with Treason in taking up arms against the Government at Balaarat. The Judge remanded them for 10 days, stating that being charged with High Treason, they were entitled to that term of clear notice with copies of their indictments from the opening of the Sessions. Mr Ireland the Counsel for the Defence, stated he was prepared to proceed at once, but the Chief Justice preferred granting the priviledge allowed by the Law.

This conduct seems evidently to betray an inclination on the part of the Governt. to let the matter gradually drop, and in my opinion the men will not be tried at all.

There is a great deal of excitement in the Town, and the Gaol Authorities fearing violence have barricaded and strengthened the Entrance, as well as made a door as close to the Court as possible by which to take the prisoners too [sic] and from Trial. I remarked that people might break doors to get out, but that I hardly thought they would break them to get into the prison.

The Visiting Magistrate inspected the Gaol today. I wrote a letter to my sister at Geelong, enclosing one from our Father to her.’

17 March 1855
‘This was the last day of the Races, and I began early in the morning to feel much inclined to go. At length after preparing for contingencies, I tossed a Coin in the air declaring it it tell Head uppermost I would go if Tail I’d stay at home. It came down head so away I went to the Bull and Mouth, jumped into an omnibus that was about starting, and found myself on the course before the first advertised race came off. Mr Sub Inspector Smith kindly passed me on to the Grand Stand, where I of course got a good view, and although the horses were not the fastest, yet the riders evidently rode to win, and consequently made the matches somewhat exciting. Mr G.V. Brooke & Miss Cathcart with some of the Town Company were quietly starring in a corner of the Stand. I bet a sovereign during the day, but fortune frowned and I had to pay it.

Coming home I met a girl who I saw once at Dr Stillman’s. I made an appointment to go with her to the Concert Room in the evening. I met her at eight o clock. To our disgust we met the doctor at the Concert. He had come into town along with Newby, though very much against his ordinary custom. Made the best of a bad job and eventually I saw the damsel part of the way home, made another appointment. Felt very excited last evening, and chatted away to several women till I believe the Doctor thought me a great rake. However I got him and Newby to come home with me and take a nobbler or two before they made way for Richmond.’

14 November 1855
‘Went to the main Gaol with some ordinary business papers. Dr Youl called at my Gaol while I was absent. Went to the Railway Station to see Fox, arranged with him for rehearsal at the Station in the evening.

Received a lunatic from Sandhurst. Went with Neild to look over a collection of old books that had been purchased by one of his friends, bought two volumes of Elegant Extracts, a French Dictionary, Bacon’s Essays & two odd volumes tor 7/6.

Attended Rehearsal in the evening made a great deal of noise, but read the Play throughout. Got home about a quarter to eleven o clock.

Dr Webster paid ordinary visit to the Gaol. The lunatics have been very troublesome during the day.’

8 December 1856
‘Nethercott my Head Turnkey complained to me of having been annoyed by an ex-prisoner on Sunday. Nethercott had been to the Woolshed & was returning home when he called at the Alliance Hotel for a drink. Healey a man who some time since was in Gaol for 14 days, there accused him of tyranny & bullied him before several other people, inviting him to fight & daring him to come again down the Creek.
Nethercott is a very respectable man and one who simply complies with the Orders he receives from me. He is very sober & would not I am sure molest or say a disrespectful word to any person unless first insulted. I therefore advised him to summon Healey & he accordingly did so.

Tis a most annoying thing for a Government Officer to have to receive insult when he knows he has merely performed his duty. The cry of ‘Joe’ seems puerile and beyond being cared for by a man of sense but yet as it is intended to insult & annoy, none but the most callous can hear it without getting out of temper or feeling humiliated.’

20 May 1857
‘Somewhere about this time I dined at the Star with Martin, Hall, one or two others and Truwhitt a solicitor.

An argument arose relative to the power of constables & the necessity of individuals yielding themselves without resistance to their Authority when acting upon Warrant.

Truwhitt maintained that if a man were innocent he need not yield to any Warrant and that if in resisting being taken into custody such person were to Kill the Constable the law would hold him not accountable for the Constable’s death.

I said under such circumstances the person resisting a Warrant would if he killed the Constable be guilty of Murder as every man is bound to yield himself to the laws of his Country and that if a Warrant were granted the Constable would be simply performing his duty when executing it and therefore his person would be protected by the law, the question of Innocence or Guilt of the Crime charged in the Warrant having nothing to do with the Case.

The Argument produced a Bet. Truwhitt backed his opinion by betting £5 he was right. I accepted the Bet and the subject was to be decided by Mr Mayne the Barrister. I won and after considerable quibbling was paid.’

1 January 1859
‘The Beechworth Races took place. I attended two of the days and made several bets all of which I lost; one evening I played at Loo and with that Game and the Races together expended eleven pounds.

Patrick Hamilton, Coulen and a Comic Singer of the name of Pierce have been giving Concerts at the Eldorado. I went to several of them.

The Wesleyans gave a Fancy Bazaar in aid of the funds for building their chapel. I went and met a rather nice girl who was acting as Post-Mistress. She is now engaged to Le Mair and I have been introduced to her by him.

I get along very well with most people but find it a very difficult matter to save any money. I however intend to try in future to do so.

The Beechworth Garrick Club is established. I am Vice President, we find however great difficulty in getting the Members to take sufficient personal interest to keep it together.

Yesterday December 30th 1858, I took an important step in my life’s journey, that step was getting married. I was attracted at the Church of England Bazaar held about six weeks since by the many charms and eminent business capabilities of Miss Moore. We kept a Lottery together, & flirted to an extent that brought us into notoriety. Polly got very much talked about & her name severely handled, however we continued to be very much together & when the Bazaar was over, took plenty of walks, had the usual sweets lovers indulge in & innumerable quarrels. At length however we made up our minds to be man & wife. This was on Sunday December 26th; that same night we agreed to be married on the 30th.’

15 May 1870
‘Weather fine this morning though wet under foot. This is my Birthday I am forty years old now & must begin to think myself fast sliding into the middle aged man & losing the right to be considered a young one. As soon as I awoke Polly wished me many Happy Returns & sealed her wish with what I am sure was a good honest kiss, as soon as I got down stairs the youngsters all rushed & overpowered me with their congratulations. Took Harry Sissy & Dotty to church. In the afternoon Polly was about taking the children to see Mrs Smith, the girls however insisted on my taking them out as it was my Birthday so thinking to give them a treat I consented to go with Polly & Five of the youngsters to Sandridge. Godfrey was very rowdy & it was with difficulty he could be kept at all right, he shouted the whole way to Sandridge. When we got there, the Fare was 2/3. The Cabman rather a cheeky fellow said ‘I’ll toss you 2/6 or 2/-’. I laughing said ‘all right’. This raised the dander of Mrs C & she got very much out of temper & the pleasure of the afternoon was lost. I got sulky & so we dragged along disgusted with ourselves & everything around.’

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Florence’s lost diaries

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth one of Britain’s greatest heroines - Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp. She was also a lady of the diary, at least as a young woman. A few years back, one of her journals turned up, anonymously by post, to Claydon House, where Nightingale frequently stayed; and one of Florence’s biographers, Hugh Small, believes there are several more lost journals waiting to be discovered.

Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820, in Florence and named after the city, to an upper class British family. As a young woman, she shocked her family by spurning offers of marriage in order to become a nurse (which she believed God had called her to do), though her studies were initially blocked by her parents. While in Rome in 1847, she met and became friends with the British politician Sydney Herbert, who would later be instrumental in her career. In 1850, she entered an institution in Kaiserswerth, Germany, to train, and three years later was appointed superintendent of the Insitution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London.

The following year, in 1854 during the Crimea War, Nightingale was put in charge of nursing in military hospitals at Scutari, Turkey. There she set about starting to deal with appalling conditions of crowding, insanitation, and lack of basic necessities, as well as the hostility of local doctors. Not immediately, but within a year, she had managed to significantly reduce the death rates, though this may have been largely due to a Sanitary Commission, she had called for from Britain, which flushed out the sewers and improved the ventilation.

During her time at Scutari, she made three trips to the Crimea itself, was dangerously ill for a while, and was eventually given jurisdiction over all the army military hospitals. A report in The Times about her work led to the nickname ‘Lady of the Lamp’. However, even today there is still controversy over whether her theories as to the causes of the high death rates at the time were correct.

On her return to England in 1856, Nightingale campaigned for, and achieved, a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. By this time she believed most soldiers in hospital were killed by poor living conditions, and was a strong advocate of improved sanitary living conditions. While still in Turkey, public interest in her work had led to the launch of a public fund which, by 1860, had sufficient funds to help Nightingale set up a training school for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital (now part of King’s College, London). Around this time, she also wrote and published, Notes on Nursing, which sold well to the profession and to the public, and is now considered a classic introduction to nursing.

From 1857 onwards, Nightingale was intermittently bedridden and suffered from depression, though she continued to campaign for social reform, introducing trained nurses into workhouses, for example, and pioneering work in the field of hospital planning. In 1883, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria, and in 1907, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. She died in 1910. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, the Florence Nightingale Museum (in London) website, or the Victorian Web.

Twenty years ago, a diary written by Florence Nightingale suddenly turned up - anonymously in the post - at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire - see the BBC report. This is now a National Trust museum, but is where her sister lived having married into the Verney family, the owners of the house, and where Florence herself often stayed. The diary had details of her eight-month journey across Egypt, France, Greece, Italy and Austria, ending in Berlin in 1850, but contained only mundane details. More interesting diary details had already been published in Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and “Visions” (State University of New York Press, 1997). The author, Michael Calabria, provides extensive notes and interpretations of the relatively sparse material. Some of this book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Hugh Small, author of Florence Nightingale, Avenging Angel, runs a website with many learned articles on the heroine. Earlier this year he published one on her diaries. It lists those of her papers which could be considered diary-like: a ‘commonplace book’ from 1836 with only facts and figures from her studies; a set of private notes on personal matters, dated between 1845 and 1860; the diary (as above) transcribed by Michael Calabria; a set of letters and travel descriptions for her family which formed the basis of Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile; and the 1850 diary sent to Claydon in 2000.

However, Small then says: ‘If you were to judge from the above, you would conclude that Nightingale did not often keep a diary during her first 34 years. But there is very strong evidence that the above list covers only a small fraction of the diaries that she left behind at her death.’ He points to a 1931 biography by Ida O’Malley - Florence Nightingale 1820-1856, A Study of her Life down to the End of the Crimean War - the full text can be consulted at Internet Archive.

O’Malley refers to several diary sources that have not been quoted directly by any writer since: an autobiographical text in French by Florence as a child in 1828-1830; journals for the following periods 1828-1831, 1837-1839, 1849-1850; and notes, fragments of diaries etc from 1845 onwards. And, according to Small’s analysis, the whereabouts of these papers is unknown. He concludes his article: ‘So keep your eyes open. We can only hope that in some neglected storeroom or attic there will one day be found a bundle of notebooks tied with ribbon, the little volume on top being a lined exercise book with pages 8½ inches high by 7 inches wide covered with large childish script: La Vie de Florence Rossignol, Première Volume.

Here are a few entries from the diary (as found in Ida O’Malley's biography).

22 January 1850
‘Sat long in the cold moonlight watching our approach to Philae and preparing myself for it. Moonlight walk on the island. Sitting on Philae by the temple of Isis, with the roar of the cataract, I thought I should see Him. His shadow in the moonlight in the Propylaeum.

26 January 1850
‘Yesterday I spoilt it all with dreaming. Disappointed with myself and the effect of Egypt on me. Rome was better.’

27 January 1850
‘Took my crucifix up before breakfast to lay it in the sacred dust of the chamber of Osiris.’

27-28 January 1850
‘Farewell moonlight walk. All night with my head out of the window learning every line of the temples under the palms by heart. Sailed before sunrise.’

22 February 1850
‘Luxor before breakfast. Long morning by myself at old Kourna. Sat on the steps of the portico, moving with the shadow of the sun, and looking at the (to me) priceless view. God spoke to me again.’

7 March 1850
‘God called me in the morning, and asked me would I do good for Him alone without the reputation?’

12 March 1850
‘Very sleepy . . . Stood at the door of the boat looking out upon the stars and the tall mast in the still night against the sky (we were at anchor - they were all asleep and I could not go to bed) and tried to think only of God’s will, and that everything is desirable and undesirable only as He is in it or not in it - only as it brings us nearer or farther from Him.’

This article is a revised version of one first published on 13 August 2010 to mark the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s death.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Victory in Europe Day

Today is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. The act of military surrender was signed by Germany on 7 May 1945, and the following day, 8 May, was declared a holiday. More than a million people spilled out onto the streets in the UK, crowds filling parts of central London. See the BBC, Wikipedia, The Royal British Legion, World War II Today for more about VE Day and past celebrations. The planned programme of events for the 75th anniversary has, of course, been decimated thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic - but see the official website, the BBC and inews for advice on relevant broadcasts and how to celebrate in lock down.

To remember VE Day first hand, as it were, here are several diary entries written on the day.

Tony Simmonds, teenager, Brighton
8 May 1945
‘VICTORY IN EUROPE DAY - I was at work - when I came back from lunch at 2 pm I found everyone in a hustle and bustle. The Manager said we were going to get out by 3.30. We did. Even then we had time to rush out to hear Churchill’s speech at 3 o’clock and a fine speech it was too.

We all knew something would happen in the evening and it did. It came right up to my fullest expectations. I just can’t describe the scene. I was alone most of the time and spent almost five hours around the Clock Tower. People just went mad - dancing, singing, chanting, shouting - the crowd just surged this way and that - The Academy, the Odeon and the Regent were all floodlit for the first time in almost six years - fire crackers, flares and even pre-war ‘jumpers’ were thrown about the streets - even into busses - all policemen ‘had their eyes shut’.

I left at just after 11 pm leaving behind me a riot going on outside the Regent - where a drunken sailor was protesting against a charge of 10/6d for a dance in the Regent Dance Hall. What a day - I shall never forget it for the rest of my life.

Our house is decorated up - four flags - a shield and red, white & blue streamers. Even Mrs Guild next door has her standard flying. As for the town itself - well I never knew there were so many flags manufactured. My bike has a big rosette and streamers on its handlebars.’

Source: Brighton in Diaries by Paul K Lyons (History Press, 2011); also the My Brighton and Hove website.


Joan Strange, young woman, Worthing
8 May 1945
‘It’s come at last. I woke up at 7 am to hear the sound of Mother wrestling with the flags (rather moth-eaten and patched, relics of Queen Victoria’s jubilee!). But we weren’t the first in the road after all as we were when Mussolini was captured in July 1943. The weather’s been good for the first of the two VE holidays. It’s been a queer sort of day, the highlights being the Prime Minister’s short broadcast at 3pm and the King’s at 9 pm. . . Hostilities cease officially at one minute past midnight tonight when it’s hoped that any fighting against the Russians will cease. Mother and I listened in to the thrilling broadcasts on the European victory. There were services in all churches and cinemas at 12 pm today.’

Source: Despatches from the Home Front, The War Diaries of Joan Strange 1939-1945 (Monarch Publications, 1989).


Vera Brittain, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Felt disinclined to hear a “Victory” service so went to the little meeting of the London Mission at Kingsway Hall to hear Donald Soper give a really inspiring address on thanksgiving, penitence and dedication. After lunch again went back to Whitehall determined to end this War near Westminster as I ended the last. Flags now everywhere; ‘planes flying over crowds; bells ringing; mounted policemen moving back a throng which grew immense between 2.0 & 3.0; yet sense of anti-climax persisted in contrast with spontaneity of Armistice Day 1918; it was all so formal & “arranged”.

Ar 3.0 Churchill’s voice duly announced the end of the War & after silence the crowds cheered. Typically he ended with the words “Advance Britannia!” & introduced no phrase of constructive hope for a better society which renounces war. Caught a glimpse of him standing in his car as he went from Downing St. to the H. of Commons surrounded by cheering crowds, waving his hat, with the usual cigar & self-satisfied expression.

Walked half the way home for tea with Mother, thinking how strange it was that, though this time I have kept (so far) all my private world which last time I had totally lost, not one of them is here, & again I experience the end of a European war half-exasperated & half-saddened by the triviality of her preoccupations in contrast to the immensity of world events.

Dined at Rembrandt with J. von R., talked to her till past 11 p.m., when we walked to Sloane Avenue & looked at partially flood-lit buildings & a display of searchlights half-obscured by a cloudy sky; saw it from the roof of the flat. Left her at S. Kensington station & walked home with the War officially (at 1 minute past midnight) as well as actually over in Europe. Bonfires in St Luke’s Churchyard & elsewhere; Chelsea Town Hall floodlit; people in streets, but everything orderly & controlled.’

Source: Wartime Chronicle - Vera Brittain’s Diary 1939-1945 (Victor Gollancz, 1989). See also The Diary Junction.


Naomi Mitchison, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Then we went off to Piccadilly Circus [. . .]. We had lunch at the Café [Royal) at 12.45. It wasn’t very full or decorated, nor did the people look special in any way. But when we got out there was quite a crowd. The children had wanted to go to the Zoo but Pic Circ seemed better, so we wandered along slowly, looking on. A number of other people were doing the same thing, in fact almost everyone was tired and wanting to look rather than do. They were sitting when possible, lots of them on the steps of St Martin’s. Most people were wearing bright coloured clothes, lots of them red white and blue in some form (I was wearing my kilt and blouse, much too hot, as I found). Most women had lipstick and a kind of put on smile but all but the very young looked very tired when they stopped actually smiling. [. . .]

Dick wanted to book a place at the Ivy but it was shut; we tried to get ballet tickets but there was none. We walked down to the Temple where a few people were happily resting on the benches in the gardens. It was amazing how the half blitzed trees had sprouted again. [. . .] After dinner we walked back down to Pic Circ again. There were a lot more drunks and broken bottles than earlier, and a few people crying or having hysterics or collapsing, and a lot of ambulances. But still most people were looking on; there was a man doing antics on one of the roofs but he didn’t fall off. People were sitting all along the pavements, no general dancing. We wandered round, looking for a pub, as Jack was longing for a beer. My feet were getting very sore indeed so that I could hardly think of anything else. I was also very tired after my journey. Americans (and perhaps others but one always blames the poor Yanks!) were throwing crackers which weren’t altogether popular. Jack and I always jumped. [. . .]

In The Doves there was nobody we knew. People were singing but (just like everywhere else) with the minimum of tune. I think mostly There’ll always be an England and Roll out the Barrel . . . Val came in just before midnight and we went on the roof and looked at the searchlights whirling round and reflected beautifully in the river. Then we listened to the midnight news and went to bed.’

Source: Among you taking notes . . . The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1986). See also The Diary Junction and The Diary Review - Ordinary people.


Frances Partridge, writer, Newbury
8 May 1945
‘At three o’clock Churchill delivered the promised announcement. Afterwards we drove to Newbury to get the other Inkpen [village west of Newbury] children from school. Every cottage had a few flags hung out, and in most of them a dummy-like figure of an old person could be seen at an upper window. Near Newbury we had a narrow escape from a drunken lorry-driver veering from side to side of the road - he made the V-sign as we passed. Bicyclists were hurrying in to Newbury dressed in their best; little girls wore satin blouses and red, white and blue bows in their hair.’

Source: A Pacifist’s War - Diaries 1939-1945 (Phoenix, 1999). See also The Diary Junction.

This article is a revised version of one first published 5 years ago on 8 May 2015.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tchaikovsky’s poison

‘It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the poison . . .’ So confided the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, born 180 years ago today, to his diary. Although the diaries are full of references to his drinking, they reveal nothing about his inclination towards homosexuality; they do, though, provide lots of comment on other musicians and on writers: he was a great fan of Tolstoy, and admired the composers Beethoven and Mozart, but considered Brahms a ‘scoundrel’.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on 7 May 1840 in the Ural Mountains near the metal works where his father worked. He started piano lessons at five, and, while at the School of Jurisprudence, between 1850 and 1859, he helped in a choir. Although he began his career at the Ministry of Justice, he did not stay long there, preferring to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he worked under Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba. Later, he taught at the new Moscow Conservatory. Although his First Symphony was given a good reception in 1868, a year later his first opera, The Voyevoda, flopped. Subsequent works were largely successful.

In the mid-1870s, he found a patron in Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow, and this allowed him to give up teaching. Though they never met, the two corresponded for over 13 years. In an attempt to deal with growing concerns about his sexuality, Tchaikovsky married an admirer in 1877. But the marriage failed almost immediately, and he plunged into an emotional crisis and an attempted suicide. His brother, also a homosexual, took him back to St Petersburg. Thereafter, as he travelled widely across Europe, and, once, to the US, his fame as a conductor and composer grew. Although it was said he died of cholera, some researchers suggest he may have committed suicide out of fear that his affair with a Russian nobleman would be exposed. More biographical information is available online at the Tchaikovsky Research website, Wikipedia, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Tchaikovsky kept a diary during the latter years of his life, and this was first translated (by Wladimir Lakond) and published (by W. W. Norton, New York) in 1945. However, nearly half a century earlier, G. Richards in London published Tchaikovsky - His life and works, with extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888. This latter book is freely available online at Internet Archive, but the 1888 ‘diary’ reads as though it were written as a memoir not a diary. See The Diary Junction for some links to online extracts of Tchaikovsky’s diary.

Academics have, naturally, examined the diaries very closely, not least in search of some clues concerning the composer’s sexuality. In his book Musical Musings Petr Beckmann has a chapter on How Homosexual Was Tchaikovsky?, and this is available online at Fort Freedom. Beckmann notes, first of all, that the musicologist E. Yoffe believes there is nothing in Tchaikovsky’s ‘voluminous correspondence (5,000 letters) or in his eleven diaries (1873, 1884, 1886-1891) that refers directly to his alleged homosexuality’.

Beckmann explains that Tchaikovsky’s diaries often contain brief, even one-word entries (‘A walk. Newspapers. Whist. Supper at home.’) and very frequently contain statements about his inclination to drink: ‘I drank a good deal’; ‘Drunkenness’; ‘Felt bad from drunkenness’; ‘Drunkenness at the [railroad] station’; ‘Drunkenness during intermission [at the opera]’. However, Beckmann then goes on to discuss some ambiguous entries in the diaries where Tchaikovsky writes of unspecified ‘inclinations’.

Beckmann concludes as follows: ‘I know only of two places in Tchaikovsky’s diaries and correspondence where he expresses disgust at himself for some behavior or habit whose nature he does not indicate. Homosexuality is a distinct possibility, though I have given reasons why that appears unlikely, or at least no more likely than his (documented) addiction to alcohol or an (entirely speculative) addiction to drugs. Should homosexuality prove nevertheless correct, it would be but an additional symptom in a high-strung over-sensitive man who was emotionally severely maladjusted, or even disturbed.’

As for the diaries themselves, the excellent Tchaikovsky Research website provides comprehensive information on all the surviving manuscripts and fragments. It also has available many extracts, newly translated into English. The main diary index provides a portal to view extracts from April-June 1884 and February-April 1886, but other extracts in English can be found when viewing the results of searches on individual topics, such as other composers.

20 February 1886
‘Bright, frosty, but spring is near, - the snow was melting in the sunshine, and during the day it was just as warm in the gallery as in the room. After tea I went to the school, but a mass was in progress (somebody’s funeral service) and there were no lessons. I wrote with success. After dinner I walked to the river via Praslovo (but skirting it to avoid the urchins). During tea I read Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”. I like it very much, and yet I’m not a Shakespearist. I worked splendidly in the evening. After supper I fussed over my choice of Mozart for the suite, playing them through until 11.30. Aleksey sorted out all my letters today. Photographs.’

13 July 1886
‘When I made the acquaintance of L N Tolstoi I was overcome by fear and a sense of awkwardness in front of him. It seemed to me that this supreme student of human nature would, with one glance, be able to penetrate into all the recesses of my soul. In his presence, so I thought, there was no longer any way of successfully concealing all the rubbish which I have at the bottom of my soul and just showing myself from the bright side. If he is kind (and that he must be, of course), I said to myself, then he will tactfully and gently, like a doctor investigating a wound who knows all the places that hurt, avoid touching and irritating these, but in this way he will also make me feel that nothing is hidden from him; if, on the other hand, he is not particularly compassionate, he will stick his finger straight into the sorest spot. I was terribly afraid of either of these situations. However, neither the one nor the other actually occurred. In his writings the most profound student of human nature, he turned out to be a simple, sound, and sincere person in his treatment of other people, and he revealed very little of that all-knowingness which I had been afraid of. He did not avoid touching [these sore spots], but neither did he seek to cause deliberate pain. It was clear that he by no means saw in me an object for his investigations; rather, he simply wanted to chat with me about music - something that he was interested in at the time. Amongst other things, he liked to reject Beethoven and openly expressed doubts as to his genius. Now that is a trait which is not at all characteristic of a great man, since bringing down to the level of one's ignorance a genius who has been recognized as such by all, is typical of narrow-minded people.

Perhaps never in my life has my composer’s pride been so flattered and moved as when L N Tolstoi, sitting beside me and listening to the Andante from my First Quartet, burst into tears.’

11 July 1886
‘It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the poison against which Mr Miklukho-Maklai [a Russian anthropologist] protests. A person with such a strange name is extremely happy that he does not know the delights of vodka and other alcoholic drinks. But how unjust it is to judge others by yourself and to prohibit to others that which you yourself do nor like. Now I, for example. am drunk every night, and cannot do without it. What should I do then . . .’ (This extract can be found on the Fort Freedom website.)

2 October 1886
‘Probably after my death people will be interested to know what my musical passions and prejudices were, especially since I rarely expressed these in conversation.

I shall make a small start now and eventually, when I get to those composers who lived at the same time as me, I will also discuss their personalities.

I’ll start with Beethoven, whom it is customary to praise unconditionally - indeed, one is supposed to cringe before him as before God. And so, what does Beethoven mean to me?

I bow before the greatness of some of his works, but I do not love Beethoven. My attitude towards him reminds me of how I felt as a child with regard to God, Lord of Sabaoth. I felt (and even now my feelings have not changed) a sense of amazement before Him, but at the same time also fear. He created heaven and earth, just as He created me, but still, even though I cringe before Him, there is no love. Christ, on the contrary, awakens precisely and exclusively feelings of love. Yes, He was God, but at the same time a man. He suffered like us. We are sorry for Him, we love in Him His ideal human side. And if Beethoven occupies in my heart a place analogous to God, Lord of Sabaoth, then Mozart I love as a musical Christ. Besides, he lived almost like Christ did. I think there is nothing sacrilegious in such a comparison. Mozart was a being so angelical and child-like in his purity, his music is so full of unattainably divine beauty, that if there is someone whom one can mention with the same breath as Christ, then it is he.

Speaking about Beethoven, I have stumbled across Mozart. It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music. Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has.

Beethoven also caused me to shudder. But it was rather out of something akin to fear and painful anguish.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 7 May 2020.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

My unjust condemnation

‘I was with General Lafayette, invited by him to discuss reconciliation with Bolívar. I explained to him the origin and the development of our enmity, the persecution I suffered, the outrages, and my unjust condemnation; I told him that Bolívar was vindictive and proud, and that in my current disgrace I should not neither abate myself nor humiliate myself, and that with these principles he could use me as much as seem convenient and opportune to him.’ This is from a diary kept by Francisco de Paula Santander, one of the founders of Columbia who died 180 years ago today, after being exiled to Europe. His diaries have only been published in Spanish, but a few extracts in English can be found online in Revista Brasileira de História.

Santander was born in the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, not far from the Venezuelan border, in 1792 to a cocoa farmer and his wife, both descendants of Spanish aristocracy. He studied law, but was attracted by the growing movement for independence. By the age of 18, he had taken up a military career with the federalists. He was promoted rapidly, and was at the front line during several defining battles in the war for independence from the Spanish colonies. He fought under Simón Bolívar for many years, being made a general when only 24. Unhappy with his role, though, he resigned within a few months. In 1821, after the Constitution of Cúcuta (the founding document and constitution for Gran Colombia) was proclaimed, 
Bolívar was elected president, and Santander vice president; Santander, though, was placed in charge of the government while Bolívar headed to Venezuela to propose a wider union of territories.

As acting president, Santander sent trade missions around the world and managed to persuade Great Britain and the US to recognise Gran Colombia as a state. The new nation, though, was in a turbulent economic state, having endured a prolonged state of war. In time, a rift in ideology developed between Santander and Bolívar  especially over their views on the future of Gran Colombia - Santander seeing its future as a separate country, and Bolívar wanting to create a unified South American state. In 1828, Bolívar declared himself dictator and abolished the vice-president position, effectively cutting Santander off from all political power and influence. Just weeks later, Santander was arrested for an assassination attempt on Bolívar. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Bolívar pardoned him, but forced him into exile. Two years later, Gran Colombia was dissolved, and Bolívar died soon after (aged 47).

Santander returned from exile to New Granada in 1832, having learned much from his time in Europe. Under a new constitution, he was selected to be president, a post he then held until 1836. That same year, he married Sixta Pontón, and they had three children. As president, he ordered the execution of several Spanish officers in captivity and reinstated many of the doctrines that had been overturned by Bolívar  More specifically, he advanced public education, and signed a final peace treaty with Spain. He died in 1840, like Bolívar at the aged of 47. Further information is available from Wikipedia, New World Encyclopedia, and Totally History.

During his exile in Europe Santander kept a diary, eight notebooks in all, but these were only revealed for the first time in 1948 by the National Museum of Colombia. The diaries were then published, in 1963, with the sponsorship of the Colombian Banco de la República as Diario del general Francisco de Paula Santander en Europa y los EE. UU., 1829-1932. A review of this, in English, can be read at the Hispanic American Historical Review website.

Subsequently, in 1989, the Biblioteca de la Presidencia de la Republica in Bogotá published a two volume edition: Santander en Europa: Diario de viaje, 1829-1830. There is no English edition of Santander’s diaries. However, in 2013, the periodical, Revista Brasileira de História, published an essay, in English, by Libertad Borges Bittencourt on Santander’s diary: To write, to tell, to keep: the diary of Santander in European exile (1829-1832). And this is freely available online at Scielo. Here are a few extracts as found in Bittencourt’s essay.

7 November 1829
‘Today it is one year since Urdaneta [president of Gran Columbia 1830-1831] pronounced my death sentence, violating all the rights and laws of justice.’

6 May 1830
‘I was with General Lafayette, invited by him to discuss reconciliation with Bolívar. I explained to him the origin and the development of our enmity, the persecution I suffered, the outrages, and my unjust condemnation; I told him that Bolívar was vindictive and proud, and that in my current disgrace I should not neither abate myself nor humiliate myself, and that with these principles he could use me as much as seem convenient and opportune to him.’

7 May 1830
‘they were talking with me about the projected reconciliation with Bolívar. I told them decidedly that on my part the reconciliation could be made under the following conditions: 1) that the political regime in Colombia would be republican and partially federative; 2) that General Bolívar, in good faith, would agree to this and govern without privileging any parties and in conformance with the law; 3) that all the outrages and persecutions I suffered would be remedied. On the other hand, I cannot commit myself to anything, because that would mean humiliation and debasement, unworthy of me and prejudicial to the welfare of my homeland.’

26 June 1830
‘There I heard of Bolívar’s new farce in Bogotá in April and read some public documents from Bogotá. In summary there was a movement in Casanare in favor of the Venezuela pronouncement, for which reason the principal neighbors of Popayán sent a petition to Congress, dated 29 March, stating that it was necessary to cede to the nature of things and the impulse of public opinion, forming a confederation to prevent war with Venezuela, which the Granadines did not want to do this because the Venezuelans should not be considered, according to the principles of public law, as factions, since a large dissident part of a state which had the means to support their decisions could not be treated like this. They conclude by asking for the convocation of a Granadine congress and the adoption of a federal regime which is desired on a daily basis by people with an imperious need. Another document signed by General Obando in Bogotá expresses equal feeling and talks of the effervescence in the capital. Based on all of this the provisional government of Bogotá (D. Caycedo, Osorio, Márquez and Herrán), or instigated by Bolívar, who saw that the opinion was decided in favor of the Venezuela pronunciation and the federation, sent a message to the Congress on 15 April inviting it to dissolve and to meet in a new convention in New Granada. This produced a great altercation in Congress when García Del Rio and De Francisco called the provisional government revolutionary and traitors. Nevertheless, the ministers of England, Brazil, and the United States had sent a note to the government, without the interest of intervening in domestic affairs and without being able to appreciate the reasons for the message of the government to Congress, declaring that any secession of Colombian territory would impose on them the duty to withdraw, taking their functions to be finished and that any treaties with Colombia on the part of their respective governments would be considered invalid. This scandalous note produced its effect: the Council declared that it would preserve national integrity and the Council of State proclaimed Bolívar as president, with the debates in the Chamber being suspended. Bolívar returned to his mandate.

27 August 1830
‘To my answer that I was no longer one, because my country was an independent state and called Colombia, they asked me several questions about our army, the way of fighting war, and, particularly about Bolívar; I sought to be moderate about the political conduct of our Liberator and praised his military conduct; the officer answered that irrespective of what I had said there were important men in Colombia who were opposed to the political conduct of Bolívar, which to him seemed doubtful whether or not they were without ambition. My answer was reduced to saying that in effect he had personal enemies and enemies of his political principles, and that time would say with justice which was right. The officer named Sucre as being opposed to Bolívar and, not remembering my name, said these precise words: “There is another general who was president of Colombia when Bolívar was in Peru who they say demonstrated great talent and many services, and who positioned himself completely against the ideas of Bolívar, as he supported the laws of his country.” This praise made me flush, but I did not reveal myself. However, my servant, in a stop to change horses shortly afterwards, revealed who I was, and the officer paid me many flattering compliments.’

16 September 1831
‘I was presented to the king in his palace of Neuilly by Count Saint Maurice; I went with a complete military uniform, and the king, the queen, and Mme. Adelaida, the king’s sister, asked me different question about the geography of Colombia and its political situation. The king told me that we should not fear any attack from Spain, for which it would be necessary to form a government that would inspire confidence in Europe and maintain public order.’

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Crushing the slave traffic

‘We met a Brazillian named Jose dos Cento, who came to Whydah a poor man, but has become rich, from his own direct energies, and perseverance, he ships a great quantity of Palm oil, as well as a little in the Slave Trade when a fair opportunity offers, on that point he does not speculate much, I am glad to be encouraged to state that the legitimate [trade] is beginning to Bud, competition has become so great that it has so far enhanced the value of Palm Oil from 2 dollars for a measure of 19 Gallons to six dollars for the same, so it is too obvious, that could the abominable [i.e. slave] traffic be crushed legitimate trade would soon outstay the odium.’ This is from the diary of a John Beecroft, a Yorkshire-born sailor, explorer and colonial governor baptised 230 years ago today. He is remembered for the part he played in helping Britain combat the slave trade.

Beecroft was baptised on 2 May 1790 in Sleights near Whitby, North Yorkshire. Little is known about his early years, but from his teens he was employed at sea, on coastal vessels. In 1805, he was captured by a French privateer, during the Napoleonic Wars, and held prisoner until 1814. Subsequently, he joined the merchant navy and, as master of a transport vessel, traveled to Greenland with William Parry’s expedition searching for a Northwest Passage. The significant part of Beecroft’s career began in 1829 with his appointment as superintendent of works at Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea nominally under Spanish control but where Britain was establishing a base for combating the slave trade. The following year, when the island’s governor returned to England on sick leave, Beecroft took over as acting governor, a post conferred on him by the Spanish government with the rank of lieutenant in the Spanish navy.

Britain gave up its settlement on Fernando Po in 1833, but Beecroft stayed on as a partner in a firm that controlled the shore establishments and trading, and despite his status as a simple private citizen, effectively he continued to govern the island, maintaining a court of justice, and generally overseeing the island’s affairs. In 1843, in fact, the Spanish formally made him governor of Fernando Po and two other Spanish islands. During this time, he systematically explored the interior of Africa using steam ships to navigate up the Niger and other river systems further than had been possible previously. The native Africans he employed as crew proved far more resilient to the endemic malaria which had claimed numerous European lives on previous expeditions. In 1849, he was also appointed consul, by the British, of the Bights of Benin and Biafra.

As consul, Beecroft assisted in the British bombardment of Lagos in 1851, negotiated (and was a signatory to) the Treaty Between Great Britain and Lagos, and was instrumental in the deposition of Pepple, King of Bonny, in 1854. He died that same year just as he was about to embark on another Niger expedition. According to Anthony Tibbles’ bio of Beecroft in The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, ‘his principle contribution to the abolition of the slave trade was in using his influence with African chiefs to cut off the supply of slaves to illegal slavers and to help provide the more stable conditions required by legitimate traders.’ Further information is also available from Wikipedia, Genealogy, and The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).

In 1850, Beecroft undertook a diplomatic mission to Dahomey (in present-day Benin) to visit its king, Gezo. The mission was part of a sustained effort by the British government to persuade Gezo to collaborate in the suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although the mission of 1850 was a failure, Beecroft’s account of it - his journal - is now considered an invaluable source for the history of Dahomey, especially for the information it provides on the role of the slave trade within the kingdom, as well as its response to British pressure for the trade’s abolition. The journal exists in a single manuscript version in Beecroft’s own handwriting. It was 
edited by Robin Law and published recently - in 2019 - as Consul John Beecroft’s Journal of his Mission to Dahomey, 1850 (Oxford University Press). According to the publisher, the book includes extensive editorial annotations and analysis.

Frederick E. Forbes, a naval lieutenant who accompanied Beecroft on the Dahomey mission, also kept a journal, but his was published in 1851 immediately after the mission’s conclusion. Dahomey and the Dahomans: being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey and Residence at his Capital in the years 1849 and 1850 can be freely consulted at Internet Archive. Law suggests it is not clear why Beecroft’s journal was overlooked for so long, but suggests Beecroft’s manuscript was much longer and more difficult to decipher than Forbes', and that Beecroft himself expected to produce a revised/edited version which he never did. In any case, Law says publication of the Beecroft journal now serves to redress the imbalance.

Law has edited the Beecroft journal to be an ‘accurate transcription of the original text, with all its defects and idiosyncrasies’. Here are two extracts.

16 May 1850
‘I arose at 5 o’ clock. Ther 74°. washed and shaved in readiness to receive our friend the Vice-Roy as he promised to pay us a visit early, but we were disappointed, he had been carouseing all night, and required sleep when he ought to be have been on his legs, I am extremely sorry that Mr Hutton, has thought fit to take the greater part of the useful community belonging to English Town with him to Badagry, they have been absent about six weeks, it appears rather mysterious, I trust there is not any sinister motive to annoy, still I have a better opinion of Mr Hutton, but it is very annoying as we are in want of people to send the King’s Presents on to Abomey. There are only a few Hammock bearers here, Noon all the Presents were removed from the Fort to Caboceers, he having received orders from his Majesty to leave Whydah for the Customs at Abomey on the 20th inst[ant] this afternoon we waited on Monsieur Casse and Blanchely at the French Fort, and were very kindly received, showed us through the whole Factory, it is well adapted for trading purposes, with large Vats for storing palm oil, they will have a great quantity left after dispatching the Barque Bon Pere she will be completed in a day or two having 300 Tons.

we had previously applied to Mr Hutton for a supply of cowries for the mission, they not having any we were necessitated to purchase from Monsieur Casse at 21 dollars per cwt [= hundredweight] a high price I ordered two casks, and thirty pieces of different sorts of cloth, for use at Abomey We returned at 4 o’clock to the English Fort. We met a Brazillian named Jose dos Cento, who came to Whydah a poor man, but has become rich, from his own direct energies, and perseverance, he ships a great quantity of Palm oil, as well as a little in the Slave Trade when a fair opportunity offers, on that point he does not speculate much, I am glad to be encouraged to state that the legitimate [trade] is beginning to Bud, competition has become so great that it has so far enhanced the value of Palm Oil from 2 dollars for a measure of 19 Gallons to six dollars for the same, so it is too obvious, that could the abominable [i.e. slave] traffic be crushed legitimate trade would soon outstay the odium.

Whydah has many drawbacks, the distance it has to be rolled to the Beach shipment, at a risk these are obstacles not to be easily surmounted, but it only requires the energies & mind of the purchasers to obviate, in a great measure, a moiety of these difficulties and commence a new plan, if the other [trade] was finished the Path would be made perceptible.

Received from the French Fort 1014 lbs of cowries and the 30 pieces of cloth ordered.

After dinner I took a walk accompanied by Capt Forbes and Mr Roberts, round the Fort, on our way we came upon the Fetish peoples performances their superstitious fooleries and rogueries, we were detained a short time, as they belonged to English Town, looking at their distortions, and gesticulations, going round the circle, Keeping time to their rude music of country Drums, and Horns, there were a great number of lookers on with us en passant, at last an aged Lady and three or four more of Grey haired venerables, Old Gents heads of the Fetish, came up and paid their respects to us, we were then in a measure obliged according to the Custom of the Country to acknowledge the same and give them a small present of rum, particularly being Englishmen and strangers, for which they overwhelmed us with thanks and e[n]comiums, shortly after Capt Forbes and myself left and prolonged our walk a short distance into the country, the Path we had chosen appeared a very impoverished soil, Iron stone, and mica, saw several gigantic Bombax Trees, taken possession of by the Fetish and walled in, the country as far as the eye can discern is level, with a Park like appearance, we returned at sunset, on our arrival at the Fort found a messenger from Badagry with letters from Mr Hutton stating that he had remained at Porto Novo, on his way here, the messenger was one of their own people, he of course accosted accosted Mr Roberts in a very friendly manner, it did not seem pleasing to Mr Hastie. Capt Forbes and myself left and retired to our own domicile and talked over other matters more serious connected with our mission we retired to rest at 9 o’clock this day ends with a very find wr. Reported that a very small schooner of 35 Tons [was] taken by Phoenix belonging to a Black man named José liveing at Aghwey.’

26 June 1850
‘daylight dull cloudy wr Ther 75° Forbes took his walk as usual, returned at 7 o’clock took a light Breakfast of Tea and eggs. 10 o’clock the Mayo-gau made his appearance, to report progress it was as I had expected that the King wished us to remain to see the Fetish Custom, and the small Schooner dressed out with Flags and some other fooleries, that would take fifteen days, I told him it would be three weeks for they Procrastinate too much you are never sure of their word, as soon as that was communicated we sent down for 50 dollars more cowries, Noon fresh westerly Breezes Mayo told us the Fetish people were going to amuse themselves with their ribaldry if [we] wished to see them we were at liberty, I told him that I had seen them and got them in my Book. Then at 2 o’clock 78° dined and took a walk to the Gate, where the Fetish women were performing an old Caboceer very polite introduced us to two of the Kings Brothers, and gave us each a Country stool to sit on, sent small decanters of rum, Gin &c &c and a Pot of water and Peto, or country Beer, we tasted of each with them, they were all women performers, a few of the King's wives, and one of his daughters were present, sent for a Keg of rum and presented to the old Caboceer, it was placed in front. The two Kings sons and two Caboceers presented it in due form with a long speech, they returned us many thanks Bah-dah-huu Kings Brother was particularly complimentary. and said it pleased him too much to see Englishmen at Abomey, friends with his brother the King. They sung Praises trusting God would take care of us, and Protect us from harm, they said that they would be glad to see us tomorrow as they were going to sacrifice a Bullock, they then retired and we returned home, we received a few necessaries from Whydah from Mr Hastie they arrived at a very convenient season for we were nearly dry, it is truly Kind and thoughtful of him, he states that he has been confined 8 days, retired to rest at 9 o’clock. the Fetish performers were all aged.’