Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Killer disease and foreign cure: the story of malaria and quinine

Nowadays one tends to think of malaria as an African problem. But in centuries past malaria was the scourge of the Mediterranean, and of Rome in particular. Even places as far a field as France, southern England and Russia were affected by it. Originally an ‘Old World’ disease, it was carried by explorers and settlers into the Americas. Its cure – the quinine found in the bark of the cinchona tree – was discovered in the C17th in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes, an elevated area where there had never been any malaria. The fact that quinine was ever actually discovered is something of a miracle.

Malaria is a parasite that is carried by the Anopheles mosquito (right). It is transmitted to humans through the bite of a contaminated mosquito. The parasite enters into the bloodstream and the infected human suffers from intense fever and icy shivering. The spleen becomes painfully enlarged. Those who recover often suffer relapses and they seldom regain their prior strength. Many die, especially when the parasite reaches the brain, causing cerebral malaria. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools of water.

Malaria has been around since at least late antiquity.* Nobody quite knows why, but it appears to have abated in the Middle Ages before flaring up again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The problem for so many centuries was that the Europeans had no idea what caused malaria. To them it was simply an intermittent fever that took hold of many in the summer months. They did not know it was caused by a parasite, they did not know the mosquito was its carrier and dispenser, and they thus had no real idea of how to prevent or cure it. The best idea they had of this fever was that it was some type of contagion that basically ‘hung about’ in the miasma (i.e. the summer mists). In Rome, where malaria was the most rampant, one was said to catch the fever from the ‘bad air’ (the mal’aria) of the marsh mists.

Malaria – variously known as the Roman marsh fever, the intermittent fever, or the tertian/quartan ague – was the ever-present enemy of the Roman Campagna. The Tiber frequently breached its banks in summer and left the countryside covered in stagnating pools of water. Numerous popes, cardinals and ordinary Romans were laid low or killed by malaria; six visiting cardinals died from malaria during the disastrous conclave of 1623. The wealthy citizens would desert the city during the worst of the summer heat, fleeing to the cooler climate of the surrounding hills in an effort to avoid catching the fever. Malaria was only really eradicated in the area in the 1930s when Mussolini had the Pontine marshes drained and the mosquitoes’ breeding ground in western Italy was thus finally eliminated.

The Italian Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino arrived in Lima, which was then part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, in 1605. Salumbrino witnessed how the Quechua people (Incas) would take cinchona bark - ground into a powder and drunk in hot water - to stop from shivering when the winter cold had seeped into them. Salumbrino was well acquainted with the symptoms of Roman marsh fever, and the shivering of the locals caused him to think of the shivering phase caused by the fever back home. So he sent a small sample of cinchona bark to Rome in 1631, where it proved to be a cure for the marsh fever.

Cinchona bark and flowers

In a short time the Jesuits, with the aid of the local Indians, would begin to search for and strip the bark of the cinchona tree in order to send it to the Old World. The Jesuits showed the locals how to strip the bark in vertical pieces so as not to kill the tree. They would plant five new cinchona trees for every one they cut down, and they would plant them in the shape of the cross in the hope that God would then bless their growth. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire by Charles III as the latter had grown fearful and jealous of their accrued power and properties. With time the local people would forget the conservational practices taught to them by the Jesuits, and the cinchona trees would begin to be over harvested.

Soon after the discovery every ship travelling from the New World to the Old would carry a consignment of “Peruvian bark” or “Jesuit powder”. Though nobody knew how it worked, its reputation as an effective cure for the intermittent fever soon began to spread throughout Catholic Europe. But the Protestants viewed it with great suspicion. The Reformation and counter-Reformation were in full swing, and many Protestants suspected the so-called remedy to be part of a Popish plot. In addition, the foul taste of the bitter bark led many to think they were being poisoned, and cinchona bark was thus not universally accepted for a long time.

The bark was also denounced by many hard-line conservatives. Medicine at the turn of the C17th was still an essentially medieval affair. The old-school doctors clung to the ancient ideas of Galen (a 2nd century Greek physician). Galen had advocated the idea that all disease is caused by an imbalance of the humours (i.e. blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). Fevers were thought to be the result of too much bile, so bloodletting and purging were the most common curative measures. The debate that raged over cinchona bark was heated to say the least, but with time, and the help of a few discreet Catholics, the bark found its way into even the most Protestant of places, such as England, where it was used to cure both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.

“Cinchona revolutionised the art of medicine as profoundly as gunpowder had the art of war.”** It ushered in a new age of medicine and quinine can be seen as the first modern pharmaceutical drug.

The next big problem was finding a way of producing plentiful, affordable and easily accessible quinine. The cinchona tree grew across northern South America, within the Spanish Empire. If you wanted to travel in Spanish territory, you had to obtain the permission of the King, who was determined that Spain should be the sole benefactor of the intellectual and financial rewards of the cinchona tree. Inadequate quinine supplies would hamper the efforts of explorers, missionaries, settlers, scientists and armies the world over. To be a missionary was a courageous thing – for centuries malaria felled them in their droves, in both Africa and Asia. The exploration of West Africa was only really made possible after the use of quinine as a prophylactic became common in the mid C19th. Before that, West Africa had been known as “the white man’s grave”. Malaria was sometimes also referred to as the “pioneer shakes”.

The worst malaria epidemic the world had yet to see attacked the British in 1809 when their expeditionary force of 40,000 men – the largest England had ever sent abroad – landed on the Zeeland coast in Holland in order to fight the forces of Napoleon. Napoleon, who was well aware of their impending arrival, is reported to have written to a commander, saying: “We must oppose the English with nothing but fever, which will soon devour them all.” When the English had landed, Napoleon ordered that the dykes of the Scheldt estuary be breached. Brackish water flooded the area and, with no medical corps, the British troops dropped like flies.

Malaria was most probably introduced to the New World by the early European explorers and settlers. American settlers then took the disease inland with them as they moved westward. It even found its way into Canada. During the Civil War, the Yankees, who had little natural resistance to the disease, suffered greatly from malaria when the fighting took them south into the heart of malarial country, such as Carolina. The Union army said that by the end of the war over a million of its soldiers had contracted malaria, and more than 10,000 had been killed by it.

The Panama Canal (above) was begun in 1881 by the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. At that time, supplies of quinine were irregular and expensive the world over. The Compagnie managers thus considered it more economically viable to replace dead workers with fresh ones, rather than provide the current workers with adequate quinine doses. The incessant downpours in Panama meant that thousands were affected by malaria. Additionally, the legs of hospital beds were placed in water-filled glass bowls in order to prevent ants from reaching the patients, but in so doing those who went into hospital for reasons other than malaria were sure to contract the disease whilst there. Under French administration of the canal, which lasted eight years, more than 20,000 workers died from malaria or yellow fever.

When the Americans took over construction of the canal in 1903, thorough efforts were made to eradicate the area of malaria and adequate quinine supplies for all workers was a priority. Quinine was given as a prophylactic and those who did not take their daily dosage were punished. The Caribbean workers were particularly resistant to taking it. So the authorities did as the British in India had done: they mixed it with something very sweet to make it more palatable. The British officers in India had added sugar and gin to the quinine, creating gin and tonic.

In the mid 1900s the British, Dutch and French were all extremely eager to get their hands on cinchona tree seeds so they might grow their own trees. As already mentioned, the cinchona trees were far less numerous than they had once been, and so there was a sense of urgency to the matter. The Dutch botanist, Justus Karl Hasskarl, triggered the rush to smuggle cinchona seeds out of South America when he disguised himself as a German businessman in an attempt to obtain seeds that he would then take to Java. Britain, after many ups and downs, eventually managed to lay hold of some cinchona seeds. They planted them in India. But the Dutch were by far the most successful: by the 1930s their Java plantations were producing 97% of the world’s quinine supply.

It was only in the C19th that scientists actually started to get a handle on the disease. The first milestone came in 1880 when the Frenchman Charles-Alphonse Laveran (right), working in Algeria and using what was essentially a magnifying glass, caught sight of the parasite that causes malaria in the human bloodstream. He spent years trying to convince his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some nut job. Those who advocated a link between malaria and mosquitoes were similarly ridiculed. In the last days of the C19th, whilst working out of a shed in India, Major Ronald ‘Mosquito’ Ross (far right) discovered through his dissections that the mosquito is responsible for transmitting malaria. For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1902.

The need to grow more cinchona trees and/or develop synthetic substitutes became painfully apparent during the Second World War. Soldiers were fighting in malarious regions in West Africa, Sicily, the eastern Mediterranean, Singapore, China and the south-west Pacific. In the Pacific countries malaria was a bigger killer than combat. For the Allied powers, the German occupation of Holland in 1940 was disastrous, as the latter seized control of the quinine headquarters in Amsterdam, with its essential machinery and supplies. Furthermore, the Japanese then took control of Java and its plantations of cinchona. The Japanese kept the Axis powers supplied with quinine, but the Allies were left high and dry. The Americans began growing their own cinchona forests in Costa Rica, but not in time to help with the war effort. The Allies’ only supply of quinine came from the eastern Congo, where plantations had been grown from cinchona seeds that had been smuggled out of Bolivia and brought there in 1933 by Prince Leopold. It is the Congo that today has the largest cinchona forest in the world.

Quinine frequently has undesirable side effects, such as vomiting, headaches and tinnitus. The synthetic and much-hailed alternative chloroquine eradicated these. But the malarial parasite eventually mutated and chloroquine became ineffective. Other drugs have since been placed on the market, but none of them have proved as effective as the natural quinine found in the bark of the cinchona tree, to which the parasite appears to have developed no immunity. (As an aside, in 1856, the synthetic organic dye mauveine – a purplish colour which became known as ‘mauve’ by the public – was accidentally discovered by 18-year-old British chemist William Henry Perkin when he was trying to find a synthetic alternative to quinine.)

Malaria is today primarily a disease of the tropics, thriving in places where the smart new drugs on the market are too expensive for the average person. Two hundred million Africans, from Botswana to Chad, are at risk. Malaria is a disease that can be cured and even prevented through education and quinine, yet the UN’s World Health Organisation estimates that 3 million people die every year from malaria. In other words, it kills one person every fifteen seconds.

* There are those historians who believe that the problem of malaria in the Mediterranean was one of the main reasons the Roman Empire collapsed.
** Bernardo Ramazzini, 1717.

Main source:
- Fiametta Rocco’s The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure that Changed the World

Further reading:
- Michael Finkel. Malaria, in National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0707/feature1/text2.html

- Anopheles mosquito. CDC, public domain.
- Cinchona bark. A. Zell, 03/09/09. GNU Free Documentation License.
- Cinchona calisaya flower and leaf. Public domain.
- Panama Canal. Public domain.
- Charles-Alphonse Leveran. Public domain.
- Ronald Ross. Public domain.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Poland’s flying universities

The Poles have had a particularly hard time of it the past couple of centuries. They have suffered much at the hands of foreigners. But in reading about their brave underground efforts to educate themselves and resist the efforts of their occupiers to rob them of their identity, I’ve come to admire them for their fighting spirit.

The flying universities were underground educational programmes begun by Polish scholars in the late 1800s to create greater educational opportunities and to resist the suppression of their culture. Meetings were small and were held in private homes and apartments. They were called “flying” universities because the meetings had to constantly be moved from one location to another in order to avoid detection by the authorities. The Polish term can also be translated as “floating universities”.

In the second half of the C18th the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned among its more powerful neighbours. The bulk of the territory – the eastern half – was taken over by the Russians. The Prussians controlled the portion to the northwest and the Austro-Hungarians took control of the southwest portion. It became increasingly difficult for Poles to receive a higher education. Educational institutions were germanised or russified according to the area; the language and culture of the Poles was suppressed, as were studies in Roman Catholicism.

The first flying university was begun in Warsaw in 1882/3 by women. The 1870s had seen an increase in the educational opportunities available to women. But women were still not allowed to enter into universities in the Prussian and Russian parts of Poland and so they began to organise their own courses. One of the most famous students of the flying university was Marie Sklodowska, who later became Marie Curie (to the right). Curie was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes, which she was awarded for her work in physics and chemistry.

Men only joined the flying university from 1890. In 1890, the number of registered students was 1,000. Programmes involved humanities, natural and social sciences, mathematics and pedagogy. There were many highly renowned academics serving as lecturers and the standard of education was very high.

The flying university was, of course, an illegal venture. Not many primary sources therefore exist as most documents were destroyed or not even created in order to avoid detection by the authorities. Students’ fees did, however, make it possible to establish a secret library.

The university lasted until 1905. In 1905 greater liberty was afforded to Poland and the flying university became an official association of academic courses. In 1920 it became the Free Polish University.

Under Nazi occupation, however, which began in 1939, Poland’s universities were closed and Poles were kept from receiving any form of higher education. The Germans wanted the Polish people to be a subordinate, servant race, trained only in manual, certain technical and menial occupations. Polish efforts to provide higher education opportunities were once again forced underground.

Underground high schools were established, and these schools provided students for the underground universities. Underground publishing houses were set up to provide teaching materials and textbooks. The subjects taught by the flying universities were extensive, including law, the humanities, economics, biology, mathematics and medicine. Pope John Paul II was trained at an underground seminary.

Well over 100,000 people received some form of underground secondary or tertiary education during the war, and vastly more than that received a primary level education. Nowhere else in Europe did underground teaching educate as many people as it did in Poland.

Ninety percent of the underground activities were located in Warsaw, but teaching, learning and research also took place in other major cities. Little happened in Kraków as most of the professors there had been sent to concentration camps. In fact, everyone involved in underground education was risking deportation or death. Between 1939 and 1940 approximately 9,000 teachers and over 600 professors were murdered by the Nazis.

At the controversial Yalta Conference held by the Allied victors in the Crimea at the end of the war, it was agreed that the Soviet Union should be given control of Poland. It soon became clear, however, that Stalin was not going to allow free elections to take place in Poland, as he had promised. Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union; a communist regime was officially established there in 1949.

Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin, February 1945.

The Communists ruled through a reign of terror, and little underground academic acitvity could take place. Official Polish universities were allowed to operate under the Communists, but the state-sanctioned syllabi were used as vehicles for communist propaganda. Members of the Communist Party were made directors of education so as to ensure that the various curricula were in keeping with the interests of the Soviet government.

Stalin died in 1953. By 1956 the political situation in Poland had eased up just enough to allow flying universities to begin operating again. Much focus was given to history and philosophy, subjects that had been heavily censored over the past decade.

The safety with which flying universities could meet fluctuated over the decades. Meetings were often stormed by the police, and students and lecturers alike were frequently beaten. Incredibly, the suppression of intellectual freedom in Poland lasted well into the 1980s. In 1981 martial law was imposed and the flying universities ceased. It was only in 1989, when peaceful elections finally brought democracy to Poland, that the need for flying universities was finally at an end.

Main sources:
- De Haan, F., Daskalova, K. and Loutfi, A. (2006). Biographical dictionary of women’s movements and feminisms in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe: 19th and 20th centuries. Central European University Press.
- Genell, K. and Kostera, M (1996). The Flying University: institutional transformation in Poland, in Management Education in New Europe, M. Lee (ed.), 231-5.
- http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1209/Poland-HISTORY-BACKGROUND.html

- Partitions of Poland, by Halibutt. GNU Free Documentation License.
- Marie Curie. Public domain.
- Yalta Conference, February 1945. Public domain.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Empire State Building

One of the nicknames for New York State used to be Empire State. Hence we have the name Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Its construction during the Depression years was a marvel of ingenuity and efficiency. In many ways it was ahead of its time and it remained the world’s tallest skyscraper for a staggering 42 years. We all recognise it. It is truly iconic. And since the World Trade Towers are no longer standing, it once again dominates New York’s skyline.

The site of the Empire State Building – at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street in Manhattan – used to be part of Native American territory before white settlers muscled them off the island. It was a pretty, untilled piece of land, with a stream running across it. In the late C18th the area became the John Thompson farm. It was in a rural area, with the city of New York developing to the south. Fighting between the Americans and British took place there during the War of Independence.

In 1893 the Waldorf Hotel (to the right), the predecessor of today’s Waldorf-Astoria, opened on the site. The Waldorf was the embodiment of class and elegance. It did away with the idea of a hotel being merely a resting place for people in transit. It popularised the habit of “dining out” and was the favourite meeting place of New York’s social elite, known as The Four Hundred.

In the early C20th there was an intense race in New York to build the world’s tallest building. When John Jakob Raskob, a former VP of General Motors, decided to build the Empire State Building, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building were already under construction. Chrysler was keeping the height of his building a secret. Weber, the original rental manager for the Empire State Building, wrote:

"We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet higher than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod and then sticking it up at the last minute." *

So Raskob asked William Lamb, his designer, to design the tallest building that was possible without it falling down. It was to become the first building to have over 100 floors.

The entire building was constructed in just over 13 months, well ahead of schedule. And because America was in the throes of the Great Depression, labour fees could be kept low and the building came in millions of dollars under budget.

The workforce was 3,400 strong, and consisted mainly of European immigrants. Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers were also employed as it was discovered that they are undaunted by heights and are just generally fearless. The men worked around the clock, including on Sundays and public holidays. A railway was built at the site to expedite matters. Plumbers and electricians began work on the interior before the exterior was complete.

Safety measures were almost non-existent. Many who have seen the famous photographs by Lewis Hine have marvelled over the absence of safety harnesses. Hine was himself swung out in a basket to obtain many of his photos. There were five recorded deaths during the construction of the building, though only one man died because he fell off the scaffolding (an impressive number, all things considered).

On completion, the Empire State Building was the tallest building by far, outdoing the Chrysler Building, which had held the title of tallest building for less than a year. It was ceremoniously opened on May 1, 1931 by President Hoover who, sitting in his office in Washington D.C., pressed a button that lit up the building.

The building was designed in the art deco style that was popular in the 1920s. It was modelled, in large part, on the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The staff of the Empire State Building sends the staff of the Winston-Salem a Father’s Day card every year as a way of honouring their architectural ancestor.

The scale of the building is astounding. The entire structure, including the antenna, is 443 metres. There are 102 floors, 69 elevators and 6,500 windows. The building even has its own zip code. Visitors to the Empire State Building can have a 360-degree view of the city from its observation deck on the 86th floor. There is a further, smaller observation deck on the 102nd floor.

The building’s spire was originally intended to be a mooring mast for dirigibles (airships). The 102nd floor was to be the landing platform. However, the powerful winds and updrafts made it impractical and even dangerous and the idea was soon abandoned.

The top of the Empire State Building was subsequently put to use to transmit almost all the city’s commercial TV and radio broadcasts. But in 1972 the World Trade Centre overtook the Empire State Building in height and interfered with transmissions from the latter. Much broadcasting was therefore moved to the Twin Towers, but after the terrorist attacks of 2001 the Empire State Building had to reorganise and is once again the main transmitter in NYC. The lightning rod at the top of the building is struck by lightning roughly 100 times a year.

The Empire State Building proved unprofitable for the first two decades. It was too far from the main transport links and so was unable to find enough tenants. It was dubbed the Empty State Building. Things only changed in 1951 when the building was sold to Roger Stevens for $51 million, then the largest sale in real estate history. Today roughly 21,000 people work in the Empire State Building on a daily basis, making it the most populated workspace after the Pentagon.

The building is a popular venue for the sport of tower running. The Empire State Building Run-Up is a foot race that has been held annually since 1978. The record time for running up all 1,576 steps to the 86th floor is 9 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Empire State Building has seen its share of tragedies. In 1947 a fence had to be erected around the observation terrace when 5 people attempted to commit suicide in a 3-week period. One lady who jumped off the 86th floor was blown back onto the 85th floor, incurring only a broken hip, which further illustrates how strong the winds near the top are. The most infamous suicide, however, was that of Evelyn McHale who, in 1947, jumped from the observation deck. She crushed a limousine below but landed in such a restful pose that she was called, paradoxically, The Most Beautiful Suicide.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, a US Army B-25 Bomber accidentally flew into the Empire State Building during heavy fog. Some who heard or felt the impact initially thought that the war had been brought to New York. The bomber crashed into the 79th and 80th floors, into the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. One engine shot straight through the building and fell out the other side. The other engine fell down an elevator shaft, severing the cables. Incredibly, a woman named Betty Oliver, who was in the damaged elevator, survived a plummet of 75 floors. She still retains the record for the longest survived elevator fall. Fourteen people died in the crash.

The 1997 Empire State Building shootings could be seen as a precursor to the type of terrorism that was to come to America in later years. A Palestinian named Ali Kamal shot seven people on the observation deck and then himself. Only one of his victims was fatally wounded. Ten years later his family admitted that they had been coerced into covering up his motives, but a note on his body and his diary entries both made it plain that he was angry with America for supporting Israel and so wanted to make ‘a statement’ at a place where people would take notice of his actions.

Since 1964 different coloured floodlights, representative of various important or popular events, have illuminated the top of the building. For example, red and green lights are used at Christmas. When Buckingham Palace played the Star Spangled Banner during the Changing of the Guard on September 12, 2001, the Empire State Building was lit up in gold and purple (the royal colours of Elizabeth II) as a way of showing America’s appreciation for the supportive gesture.

The Empire State Building is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It has played a major role in over 600 movies, including An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. In King Kong (the 1933 and 2005 versions) the Empire State Building was the scene of the showdown between King Kong and his pursuers. But in the 1976 remake, which was set in a contemporary NYC, the scene was shot on the Twin Towers.

The One World Trade Centre, or Freedom Tower, which is being built on the site of the previous World Trade Centre, is set to once again usurp the title of tallest building in NYC. It is due to be completed in 2013. It will be an incredible 541 metres – almost 100 metres taller than the Empire State Building – and will be the tallest building in the United States.

* Hamilton Weber as quoted in Goldman, Book 31-32.

1) The Empire State Building, by Michael Slonecker. Free use.
2) The Waldorf, circa 1904-1908, by Joseph Pennell. Public domain.
3) Photograph of a Workman on the Framework of the Empire State Building, by Lewis Hine. Public domain.
4) Empire State Building, Psongco. GNU Free Documentation License.
5) Ernie Sisto (New York Times).
6) David Shankbone. GNU Free Documentation License.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kalk Bay

For those who have never visited, Kalk Bay is a small seaside community on the Cape Peninsula that sits on the incline between False Bay and Kalk Bay Mountain. The colonial-style houses are small, eclectic and quaint, and are reached via steep lanes or step streets. The vibe of the place is arty, touristy, and, well, fishy – brightly coloured fishing boats row out in the morning and come home at noon with the day’s catch. Kalk Bay is also known for its clothing and jewellery boutiques, its antique shops, its galleries and seafood restaurants.

But before trendy tourism, Kalk Bay was about the not-so-glamorous industries of transportation, lime and fish.

In the C18th, when the Dutch still ruled the Cape, Kalk Bay became an important mini-port. Simon’s Town was being used as a winter anchorage for the ships of the Dutch East India Company, but the goods that were needed from Cape Town for the construction and provisioning of the town could not be easily transported overland as there was no adequate road. So the goods were taken to Kalk Bay instead, where they were loaded onto ships and taken across the bay to Simon’s Town.

The name Kalk Bay is derived from the Dutch for “lime”. Limekilns were set up to produce kalk from the shore’s shell deposits. The lime was then sent to Cape Town via the same ox-wagons that had brought goods to Kalk Bay for transportation to Simon’s Town. The lime was for use in the construction of buildings; it is this component that gives so many Capetonian houses their white-walled appearance.

The British took over control of the Cape in 1795. They built a proper road to Simon’s Town and Kalk Bay consequently fell into decline.

The village was revitalised in the early 1800s through its prosperous, though short-lived, whaling stations. It had no competition from Simon’s Town, as residents there objected to the smell of the rotting carcasses and burning blubber. Whaling was, at this point, the colony’s third biggest source of income (after agriculture and wine-making). But by the 1830s this source of revenue was petering out; the southern right whales on which the industry relied had been hunted to near extinction.

But although its whale population was diminishing, False Bay still teemed with fish. Fishing, which had always taken place, eventually took over as the predominant activity of the community. Seals were also hunted. The ascendancy of fishing in Kalk Bay was powered by the arrival of the area’s first Filipino settlers.

The CSS Alabama
The accounts of the first Filipino settlers are vague and contradictory. Some claim that a shipwreck left Filipinos stranded in the bay, perhaps as early as the 1840s. A few settlers reportedly arrived on the Confederate ship the Alabama in the early 1860s (the ship’s visit was later commemorated in the song Daar kom die Alibama). There were also Filipino sailors who deserted their ships while they were at anchor in False Bay.

Felix Florez (to the right) was an early Filipino settler who, as the leader of the Kalk Bay community, was responsible for enticing many of his fellow countrymen to settle there. He reported to them the good way of life to be had, and offered them shelter and fishing supplies to help get them started.

In 1872 Filipino nationalists rose up against the ruling Spanish government in what became known as the Philippines Revolution. This revolution, as well as the riots in the decades that led up to it, caused many Filipinos to flee the country. A Filipino Diaspora took place, and Kalk Bay became a haven for many.

The Philippines had been colonised by Spain all the way back in the C16th. With time the Spanish government gave all the indigenous Filipinos Spanish surnames so as to aid in the development of the country. The Filipino settlers to Kalk Bay therefore had surnames like Manuel, Santiago, Fernandez, and, of course, Florez. But there were also those few Filipinos who acquired their Spanish names through intermarriage with the colonisers. The Spanish features of the early Kalk Bay settlers (such as that of Maria Francis Florez to the left) attest to the fact that these Filipinos were, in fact, as much Spanish as they were Filipino. The settlers in Kalk Bay thus spoke either Spanish or Tagalog.

The Spaniards had introduced Roman Catholicism to the Philippines and the Kalk Bay settlers were consequently all devout Catholics. There was no church in Kalk Bay to begin with, so they would row across the bay to Simon’s Town for church, as well as for weddings and christenings. When someone died, a boat would be covered like a hearse and the body rowed across. Eventually, however, a small chapel was built in Kalk Bay.

Things improved for the Filipinos in 1874 when Father Duignam – an Irishman – was sent to Kalk Bay to be their priest. Father Duigman spoke Spanish, and this alleviated the language problem that they had been experiencing. Duigman was a strict disciplinarian, who carried a sjambok (a leather whip) with him so as to insist on 100%, punctual attendance at mass. But by all accounts he was much loved by the Filipinos. He had initially been sent to pastor them for just six months, but his devotion to the community resulted in him serving there for fifty years, until his retirement in 1925.

Father Duignam was unhappy with the small chapel in Kalk Bay. He bought three morgen (2.5 hectares) of land alongside Kalk Bay and there he built the church and convent of St James, named in honour of James of Compostela, Spain’s patron saint. This church no longer exists, but it lent its name to the present-day village of St James, which lies adjacent to Kalk Bay.

While the Kalk Bay community always had plenty to eat, life there was not easy. The men had to row far out into False Bay at times, and suffered all sorts of injuries and ailments, especially during the harsh winters. The life expectancy of these fishermen was between 40 and 50 years. Most of the women and children worked as domestics in houses or hotels.

The railway was extended to Kalk Bay in 1883. With this came the arrival of wealthy tourists, from areas such as Rondebosch and Wynberg, and they built seaside homes there. In 1862, an Englishwoman named Mrs Ross visited Kalk Bay and described it as “a little fishing hamlet, consisting of a few old-fashioned Dutch houses, and a dozen or so of fishermen’s huts straggling for a mile between the rocky beach, and the precipitous mountains that rise up almost immediately behind it. It is accounted a very healthy place, and is the favourite resort of well-to-do people.” Cecil John Rhodes and Count Labia both had holiday homes in Kalk Bay.

The distinctive Filipino character of Kalk Bay was of course diluted with time. The railway was extended to Simon’s Town in 1890 and thereby increased the traffic through Kalk Bay. In 1898 the USA took possession of the Philippines and some of the settlers returned to their homeland, reducing the community’s Filipino population. Others intermarried with the local coloured population. They eventually learned to speak Afrikaans. Portuguese and Italian fishermen moved into the area. Emancipated slaves (originally from Java, Malaysia and Batavia) settled there. White South Africans bought up property.

But descendants of the Filipino settlers still live in Kalk Bay today and they are very aware and proud of their Filipino heritage. They are part of the Philippine Commonwealth League and maintain strong ties with the Philippines, often supporting charitable organisations there.

To end off, here are a handful of firsts and only’s that you might not have known about Kalk Bay.

1) Kalk Bay is one of South Africa’s oldest traditional working harbours.
2) Holy Trinity Church boasts the oldest thatch-roofed lychgate in the country (built 1875).
3) Kalk Bay was the only community in South Africa to successfully resist the Separate Group Areas Act in the 1960s and it thus remained a mixed-race community.

Clivir Learning Community website. www.clivir.com/.../kalk-bay-south-africa.html. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The lonely islands of St Kilda

The islands of St Kilda fascinate me. If one looks at the map below, the inset shows Scotland (Ecosse) and the tiny red square represents St Kilda. This tiny, windswept archipelago juts up into the frigid Atlantic Ocean 64 kilometres west from the rest of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, which are themselves considered remote. Up until 1930, when the entire population was evacuated, a small community always lived there, cut off from the rest of Britain in what is surely one of the most remote, isolated places in the world.

Here is my list of things about St Kilda that fascinate me:

· Its geography

The largest island is Hirta and this is the island where people have lived since time immemorial. Technically St Kilda is part of the Hebrides, but it is so far removed that its inhabitants – though also Gaelic – developed their society in relative seclusion. Its climate is harsh and unforgiving: there are no trees and little biodiversity; it is surrounded by turbulent waters; and it is frequently blasted by fierce winds. The other islands making up St Kilda are Soay, Boreray and Dùn.

The surrounding sea stacks (sheer, rocky islets) are the highest in Britain, with Stac an Armin (on the left) reaching 196 metres. They are an awesome, imposing sight. St Kilda has been described as a “hoard of all unnecessary lavish landscape luxuries”.*

· Its prehistory

When and how the first settlers arrived at St Kilda is, for now at least, a matter of conjecture. An ancient settlement known as the ‘Amazon’s house’ has been discovered on Hirta’s north shore, and some believe it indicates that a matriarchal society once dwelt there.

· Its name

The origin of the name ‘St Kilda’ is uncertain. Firstly, there is no saint named Kilda. Various suggestions have been made. Some think ‘St Kilda’ comes from the Old Norse for ‘sweet well water’. There are also other place names that suggest a Scandinavian presence or influence on the islands.

· Its isolation

St Kilda has been described as the Macchu Picchu of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the remotest inhabited place in all Britain. The tiny Gaelic community that lived there was cut off from the rest of the world both geographically as well as socially and mentally. Most of its inhabitants would not have been able to tell you who the reigning British monarch was at any given point in time.

· Its late entry into the written record

The oldest written records we have regarding St Kilda come from the late Middle Ages, even though the archaeological records go much further back. The St Kildians don’t appear to have had a literary culture of their own.

· Its self-sufficiency

The St Kildians were a hardy, self-sufficient community. They farmed sheep and a few cattle and chickens, and they fished a little, though they did not go out onto the water as the seas were too dangerous. They also grew potatoes, barley, oats and corn. Everyone worked during the warmer months to grow, gather and stow food. During winter they would live on the stores.

· The importance of seabirds

The islanders also relied heavily on St Kilda's large seabird colonies for meat, oil and eggs. All able-bodied men were essentially ornithologists and cragsmen. They would climb and abseil seemingly impossible rockfaces to reach bird nests and retrieve eggs. Rough shelters can even be found on the islands and sea stacks surrounding Hirta, as they did not limit themselves to going after eggs only to be found on the main island.

St Kilda is the most significant seabird breeding habitat in all of northwest Europe, hosting millions of gannets, puffins, petrels and fulmars. They are a brilliant sight when seen flying en masse.^

The St Kildians would preserve the eggs in small stone pyramids called cleitean (like the one to the right), which were capped with turf and then padded inside with peat and turf to keep out the wind and damp.

· Accessibility and communicating with the outside world

The 'mailboat'
St Kilda is only accessible by boat, and then only in summer. The waters in winter are too treacherous and landing on the island becomes nigh on impossible (though coming ashore is difficult at the best of times). The first jetty was only built in 1902. There is no airstrip.

In the past the only way for the inhabitants of St Kilda to contact the wider world was for them to light a bonfire and hope a passing ship would see it. They would sometimes also use the St Kildian ‘mailboat’: this was a message-in-a-bottle affair, with an inflated sheep's bladder attached, that was dropped in the ocean when the winds were coming from the northwest. Amazingly, two-thirds of their missives were eventually washed up and found on the shores of Scotland (or of Scandinavia when less lucky).

· Its population

The population of St Kilda has always been small. In 1758 there was a population of 88, and that was recorded as an improvement. In an 1841 census (the first time Britain remembered that it had some distant islanders in its kingdom who also ought to be tallied) there were 96 people, coming from only eight family names: Mackinnon, Macdonald, MacQueen, MacLeod, Macrimmon, Morrison, Gillies and Ferguson.

The village

The village street, 1886
A new village was built in Village Bay in the 1860s to replace the medieval one. Village Bay, which is on the east coast of Hirta, is the most sheltered part of the island as Dùn protects it from southeasterly winds. Since the island has no trees for wood, the cottages were made from stone and thatch. There are only a couple dozen cottages along the street – you would literally come to know all the people whom you were likely ever to know!

· Its unique society

St Kilda, owing to its isolation, essentially became an island republic, though officially it was under the lairdship of its Scottish landowner. It developed a type of socialism. Resources and food were shared amongst the community. There was no private property and inhabitants bartered for what they needed.

There was no local government. A ‘parliament’ of all the able-bodied men would meet every morning after prayers on the grass in front of the village to decide on the day’s work activities. The downside of this was that when a poor decision was made (one, for example, that would lead to the loss of a crop), the entire community would suffer the consequences and there was no backup to be had.

· The privations

Infant mortality was always high. A staggering 80% of the babies born between 1830 and 1834 died from tetanus as there was no proper midwifery. And medical help was literally an ocean away.

There was no electricity or running water on the island.

· Winters

The village in winter
Winters were incredibly long and bitter. There were frequently food shortages. The cattle would occupy one end of the house. The men worked in their sheds while the women sewed. The importance of community and mental strength really came into play at this time of the year. The St Kildians fought against depression with music and dance, which they loved, and they would also tell humorous story poetry.

· Religion

It isn’t known when and how Christianity first came to St Kilda, though some suggest anchorites took the religion there. One stone cross that can be found at house no. 16 in the village is thought to possibly date from as far back as the C7th. But until the arrival of missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the St Kildians’ religion was in many ways druidic, and druidic altars have been found on the islands.

Church of Scotland ministers became a permanent feature on St Kilda from the beginning of the C19th. They instigated the building of a church and manse, started a school (thereby introducing the islanders to formal education) and helped improve agriculture. Observance of the Sabbath was enforced.

· Visitors and tourists

In the C17th the only way of reaching St Kilda was in a longboat, which meant days and nights on the open, rough sea. While the occasional wayward ship would shelter in Village Bay, and the odd explorer would also visit, the inhabitants’ interaction with outsiders was sporadic.

In the late nineteenth century, however, Victorian steamcruisers started to take in St Kilda as part of their itinerary. This introduced the islanders to monetary trade, as they could sell visitors tweeds and bird eggs. It brought the St Kildians some new comforts, but their pride was hurt as they were made to feel curiosities. Their way of life was also increasingly undermined as their previous isolation had forced them to work hard at cultivating a self-sufficient society.

It was missionaries and tourists who prompted many St Kildians to learn English.

· The effects of WW1

The St Kildians lived in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world’s troubles and for centuries were unaffected by the turmoil of European politics and warfare. No St Kildian ever fought in a war. Furthermore, there were no guns on the island, no prisons, and no serious crimes were ever recorded.

WW1 increased the islanders’ contact with the outside world. The Royal Navy installed a signal station and guns on Hirta. No fighting actually took place on the island, though a German submarine did shell the station. But for the first time ever the St Kildians had regular contact with the mainland. This chipped away at their self-reliance.

· Its evacuation

Life on St Kilda was not always as difficult as it became in the last few centuries. The islanders were reportedly flourishing in the C17th, having a high population and plenty of food. But visiting ships in the C18th introduced previously unknown diseases to the St Kildians. In 1851 thirty-six St Kildians emigrated to Australia, and the community never really recovered from this sizeable loss.

In the twentieth century circumstances conspired to wear down those who remained. There was an outbreak of influenza in 1913. Many of the young men left the island after WW1 and the population went from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928. The number of able-bodied men was not sufficient to enable the small community to weather the endless winters. Then, in 1929, a young woman died from appendicitis.

So in 1930 the entire community of 36 people was evacuated off the island, in response to their request for the British government to transport them to the mainland. (Many of the men subsequently became involved in forestry, because although they had lived where there are no trees, their rock climbing skills made them excellent tree climbers.) St Kilda was left to the birds and sheep.

· After 1930

Three plane wrecks from WW2 can be found on the islands. These occurred at a time when the islands were completely abandoned. There were no survivors.

The village street in 1988
People returned to St Kilda in 1957 when a small army complex was built in Village Bay as part of the Hebrides missile tracking system. Military personnel live on Hirta year-round. Scientists also now stay on the islands so as to research the feral Soay sheep population. Volunteer work parties frequently make summer trips to help renovate and preserve the buildings of the village.

· Its World Heritage status

In 1931, the Marquess of Bute, an avid ornithologist, bought the islands and then conferred them on the National Trust for Scotland in 1957. St Kilda was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 because of its extraordinary landscape. In 2004 this status was extended to include the islands’ surrounding marine life. The following year St Kilda was chosen as one of a few dozen sites around the world to be honoured as a dual status World Heritage Site, noted for its geological as well as cultural significance.

* Baxter, C. and Crumley, J. (1988). St Kilda: A portrait of Britian’s remotest island landscape, 7.
^ Go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/39617394@N00/624170764 to see my favourite photo of gannets in flight over Boreray.

Photo credits:
- Soay. (Olaf1950, public domain.)
- Saint Kilda archipelago topographic map. (Eric Gaba – Wikimedia Commons user: Sting. March 2009. Used under GNU FDL.)
- Stac an Armin and Boreray. (Stephen Hodges. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
- Fulmar hunting. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- Cleit above Village Bay on Hirta. (Bob Jones. Taken 2006. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
- The 'mailboat', 1898. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- St Kildans sitting on the village street, 1886. (Unknown, public domain. Property of the National Trust for Scotland.)
- Hirta village in the snow. (Owen Jones. Taken Feb 2001. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonesor/.)
- The inhabitants, 1898. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- The village street, 11 May 1988. (Des Colhoun. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Street.jpg.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The history behind Easter traditions

Lent, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday: these are all terms heard a great deal at this time of year. But what exactly do they mean and where do they come from? The special dates and traditions that are upheld as the days draw near to Easter Sunday have a long and intriguing history in Christian practice.

Most of the West’s time-honoured Easter traditions began in Europe, where Lent coincides with the beginning of spring. The words ‘Lent’ and ‘Easter’ are both derived from old English words: ‘Lent’ is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word that means ‘springtime’, and ‘Easter’ comes from the word Eastre or Eostre, which was the name given to the Goddess of Spring, who represented dawn and new light. As so frequently occurred, early church leaders adapted pagan traditions to fit in with the newly introduced Christianity. The already existing focus on the new light of the spring season thus came to refer to the spiritual dawn or new light Christ brought into people’s lives when he defeated death by rising from the grave.

Lent, which is forty days long, begins on Ash Wednesday, a day so named because in the Old Testament men and women covered themselves with ash during times of sorrow. The church adopted this practice during Lent as a sign for sorrow over one’s sins. Ash Wednesday thus heralds the start of a period in which men and women traditionally adopt a sombre and prayerful attitude, focusing on self-discipline, self-reflection and partial fasting (and also penance for Catholics). Lent then ends on Easter Sunday.

By the Middle Ages, food restrictions during Lent were a matter of enforcement; no meat, dairy or eggs were allowed, these being thought of as foods that give one pleasure. So the days and weeks leading up to Lent thus became a time when all the rich and fatty foodstuffs in one’s parlour were to be used up before Lenten fasting begins. These days became days of ‘carnival’, a word derived from the Latin for ‘a farewell to meat’. Shrove Tuesday – the time when Christians ‘shrive’ themselves, or confess their sins – is the last day of carnival, and it thus also became a day known to many as Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French).

In some areas Fat Tuesday it is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In the English town of Olney women have, for the past five hundred years, met in the town square with hot frying pans and raced one another to the church while flipping pancakes in the air.

In the first century, Lent was only forty hours long, Christians observing the actual period during which Jesus lay dead in the tomb. Lent was then broken at 3am on Easter morning with the church meeting to celebrate. I remember as a young girl in the Anglican Church how we would meet in the dark at 5:30am for an early Easter Sunday service. We would light candles and hold vigil for the ‘light’ of Easter Day. When first light came we would all wildly shake and rattle homemade instruments to celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead.

The hot cross bun, also popular in the West, was supposedly first baked by an English monk who was moved to compassion when he saw poor, hungry families on the street during Lent. He baked the buns, added a symbolic white cross on the top, and gave it to them, hoping they would not be robbed of the joy of Easter.

The Sunday before Easter Sunday is Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and men and women waved palm fronds at him and also laid them on the ground so as to provide him with a softer path.

The last week of Lent is Holy Week. The first notable day during Holy Week is Maundy Thursday. It was on Maundy Thursday that Jesus sat around the dining table with his disciples and gave them the commandment to “love one another as I have loved you”. The Latin word mandatum, from which comes ‘Maundy’, means ‘commandment’.

The following day, Good Friday, Jesus was crucified. It is a “Good” Friday because he took on himself the punishment that mankind deserves, but it is also known as Black Friday in many parts of Europe because Christians remember the darkness and suffering Christ endured on their behalf.

The day for observing Easter is different every year because in the fourth century church leaders agreed that Easter Day would be every first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring Equinox (20 or 21 March).

In the Middle Ages, eggs were given to children and servants on Easter Day, a lovely gift because dairy foods had been denied everyone during Lent. The egg is also an obvious symbol of birth and life. It predates Jesus’ crucifixion as a sign of new life, but early Christians adapted its meaning so that the eggshell represents Christ’s tomb and the emergence of the bird represents his victorious breakout from the tomb. Today the symbolism of the egg remains, but the egg has been turned into a chocolate egg.

Easter Sunday is all about celebration, with Christians rejoicing over Jesus’ resurrection from death. Early Christians used to hold feasts, dance and sing, and play practical jokes on one another, celebrating the ‘final joke’ that Jesus played on the devil when he rose from the grave.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sir Harry and Lady Smith

In this week’s blog I am going to tell you a love story. And if you read till the end you might be surprised to learn the relevance of the couple’s story to South Africa.

The story takes place in the early 1800s between an English officer, Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith, and a Spanish lady of equally long name, Juana María de los Dolores de León. They met and fell in love through unusual – even providential – circumstances.

Henry (or Harry as he was known) Smith was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, in 1787. In 1805 he joined the British Army. He was sent to fight in South America the following year as part of the British invasion of the Río de la Plata. In 1807 he was taken prisoner when the Spanish defeated his unit in Buenos Aires. He returned to England after only a few months of captivity but it was during this time that he learned to speak Spanish.

Harry met Juana María in 1812, when he was twenty-four. He was in Spain at the time, fighting with the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War. The Peninsular War was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars, and as such British forces had been sent to the Iberian Peninsula in an effort to keep Napoleon from conquering and controlling all of Europe.

On 7 April 1812 British and Portuguese troops successfully stormed the Spanish town of Badajoz and thus brought to an end their besiegement of it. The victorious British soldiers, much to the horror of Smith and his fellow officers who were camped outside the city walls, were barbarous in their pillaging of the captured town. Smith later wrote of the event, saying:

“The atrocities committed by our soldiers on the poor innocent and defenceless inhabitants of the city, no words suffice to depict. […] too truly did our heretofore noble soldiers disgrace themselves, though the officers exerted themselves to the utmost to repress it, many who had escaped the enemy being wounded in their merciful attempts!”*

It was at this time that two Spanish sisters of noble birth^ approached the officers, seeking protection. The war had orphaned them, and they thus had nobody to defend them against the looters. They had blood trickling from their ears where soldiers had ripped off their earrings. The younger sister, Juana, was freshly out of the convent and only fourteen years old. Smith instantly stepped forward once they had made their appeal and he and Juana were married only a few days later.

Juana decided not to go to England to live with Harry’s family, but instead chose to remain with him, travelling with the luggage carts, sleeping in the open, and putting up with the hardships of a military life. She was the darling of the army, adored and admired for her beauty and courage. During one battle Juana was told Harry had been killed. She ran out onto the battlefield in a desperate search for him. She later learned that he had fortunately only been wounded.

Juana travelled all over the world with Harry, accompanying him on all his various postings (save for a short period in 1812 when he served in the British-American War). After a few years Juana converted to Anglicanism and was thus disowned by her remaining Catholic relatives.

In 1828 the couple moved to the Cape in South Africa where Harry worked hard to develop good relations with both the Xhosa and the Dutch. They were relocated to India in 1843, but were back in South Africa by 1847, where Harry – Sir Harry by now – was made Governor of the Cape Colony and High Commissioner.

Sir Harry and Lady Smith, as she became known, were well liked by many, and the result of this was that many towns in the countries where they served were named in their honour. Most notable of all the South African town names that can be attributed to them are: Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, Ladismith in the Western Cape, and Harrismith in the Free State. Incidentally, Ladysmith in British Columbia was so named because 7,000 Canadians fought in the Anglo-Boer War and when Ladysmith, Natal was finally liberated from its besiegement, the Canadians’ patriotism towards Imperial Britain was high and the name Ladysmith was thus adopted for their Canadian town.

Sir Harry and Lady Smith are largely remembered today because of their great love story. Georgette Heyer’s popular novel, The Spanish Bride, was written based on their lives during the Napoleonic Wars. Their marriage, though childless, lasted for forty years, ending when Sir Harry died on 12 October 1860. Twelve years later, to the day, Lady Smith followed him.

* Harry Smith, Autobiography, from the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library Project. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/hsmith/autobiography/harry.html.
^ Their great-grandfather was Juan Ponce de Léon, the first European to explore Florida while looking for the fabled Fountian of Youth.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The disappearance of the SS Waratah

Last year I wrote a centenary article for a regional newspaper about the baffling disappearance of the SS Waratah. I still find it a gripping story and thought I would re-air the article for a geographically wider audience…

The SS Waratah, a British luxury steamer carrying 211 passengers and crew, set sail in 1909 from Durban to Cape Town and then disappeared somewhere off the east coast with all on board. Sometimes called the ‘South Atlantic Titanic’, the 465 ft ship has never since been found.

The Waratah was built in Glasgow for the British company Blue Anchor Line and was named after the emblem flower of New South Wales. It was to be the company’s flagship, serving as a passenger and cargo ship, taking European emigrants to Australia and then returning with freight.

The Waratah had a hundred first class cabins, eight state chambers, a salon and a lavish music chamber. On outgoing journeys the cargo holds could be converted into dormitories that were able to transport up to seven hundred steerage passengers. She was an immense ship, capable of carrying enough stores to survive at sea for a year, as well as having a desalination plant for producing drinking water. What she did not have was a radio, but at the time this was not uncommon.

In July of 1909, having already completed a successful maiden voyage, the Waratah was returning home from Melbourne, via the ports of Durban and Cape Town, on its second voyage. When it reached Durban, a few passengers disembarked, and one passenger, an engineer, cabled his wife in London, saying: “Booked Cape Town. Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban. Claude.”

In a 17 December 1910 article in The Times Claude G. Sawyer claimed that he had had nightmares of pending disaster whilst en route to Durban and that he had been alarmed at the slow roll of the steamer, which did not quickly right itself after having been tilted by a swell. So although he was booked through to Cape Town, Sawyer decided to disembark in Durban and sent his wife the above cable. He relayed his nightmares to the manager of the Union Castle Line the morning after disembarking, and this action later helped save his reputation, as he had spoken of his fears before the Waratah’s disappearance.

The Waratah left Durban on 26 July and was due to arrive in Cape Town on 29 July. On the 27 July she passed the SS Clan McIntyre off Port St Johns and the two exchanged signals. This was the last verifiable sighting of the Waratah. Later that same day the weather worsened, creating strong winds and great swells.

The Union Castle Liner Guelph passed a ship during the storm and exchanged signals via lamp, but because of the poor visibility created by the storm, the crew could only make out the last three letters of the passing ship: “T-A-H”.

That same evening the Harlow saw a ship almost 20 km behind her, ploughing through the waves. The Harlow’s shipmate saw two bright flashes coming from the same direction, and then there was blackness. But he deduced that the flashes had been caused by brush fires on the shore, and he and the captain agreed that it wasn’t worth noting in the log. Only when they heard of the tragedy did they think that it was perhaps significant.

After the Waratah’s disappearance, there was a Board of Trade inquiry that focused on the supposed instability of the ship. Sawyer, in his interview with The Times, said that the entire journey to Durban had been uncomfortable, with the ship’s rolling reaching a 45 degree angle and more than one passenger being knocked off balance and injured.

But there were those who thought the ship stable; it had been given a “+100 A1” rating when tested for seaworthiness, and the Waratah’s design was heavily based on that of the Geelong, which had performed very successfully. And so the inquiry could discover nothing conclusive.

More than one rescue ship was sent to look for the missing Waratah. The HMS Hermes, searching in the area of the last sighting of the Waratah, encountered such strong, high waves that she strained her hull. The SS Wakefield, chartered by relatives of Waratah passengers, searched for three months, finding nothing.

Twenty years after the incident, Edward Joe Conquer, a Cape Mounted Rifles soldier, claimed to have seen a ship roll over and sink off the coast of the Transkei on the day of the Waratah’s last sighting. But many have questioned his integrity. And for his words to ring true of the Waratah, the ship would either have had to have turned around to return to Durban, or have lost engine power, as it was farther north than it logically should have been after passing the Clan McIntyre.

One of the most widely held theories of what occurred is that the Waratah was overwhelmed by a rogue wave that filled its holds and quickly sunk it. Either that, or the same wave overturned it, aided by the perhaps top-heavy nature of the ship. The latter option helps explain the lack of debris, as any persons or buoyant objects would have been trapped under the overturned deck. On leaving Durban, the Waratah had had in its holds 6,500 tons of food and lead concentrate. If a freak wave did hit it, the cargo could have been dislodged and as such would have helped to capsize the ship.

After the ship’s disappearance there were, however, two possible sightings of floating bodies near the Bashee River mouth, but neither were picked up – if they even were human corpses – and they cannot be linked to the Waratah with any certainty.

The freak wave theory gained greater prominence later in the century, redefined as the ‘hole’ phenomenon. In 1973 Professor Mallory, an oceanographer at the University of Cape Town, published a paper about the prevalence of abnormally large waves off the east coast of South Africa. He argued that the strong Agulhas current, along with the narrow continental shelf and a severe storm, could work together to create waves of up to 20 m in height, which would be large enough to swallow up a ship even as big as the Waratah.

Another theory is that there was an explosion in one of the coalbunkers, which would explain the supposed sighting of flames as witnessed from the Harlow. But such an explosion would not have sunk the whole ship without there being time to launch a lifeboat. (Unlike the Titanic, which sank three years later, there were enough lifeboats for all onboard.) And as with all the non-paranormal theories, it still doesn’t answer the question of where the wreckage is.

Other less accepted theories are that the ship was caught in a whirlpool or that an upsurge of methane sank it. In 1899 the Waikato had lost power and drifted for fourteen weeks before being recovered; many at the time speculated that the Waratah had lost power after being hit by a freak wave or having had some sort of mechanical breakdown, and that it was similarly adrift. This would explain the absence of a shipwreck. David Willers wrote a book arguing that the ship had drifted all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

The writer Clive Cussler worked in partnership with Dr Emlyn Brown, head of the South Africa National Underwater & Marine Agency (NUMA) and the foremost researcher into the disappearance of the Waratah, and the two men spent decades searching for the wreck. Since 1983 Brown led several expeditions to inspect the remains of ships hoped to be the Waratah.

In 1999 Brown announced that the wreckage of the Waratah, fitting the location described by Conquer, had finally been found. An underwater expedition was organised. But Brown had to later regretfully report that the wreck thought to be the Waratah was in fact a WWII cargo ship that had been sunk by a German U-boat in 1942. In 2004 Brown announced that he had given up the search, stating he had “exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look.”

One thing is clear: the name Waratah has proved to be an unlucky one. No less than four ships of the same name sank between 1848 and 1894. Yet all four of those losses have known causes. It is only the SS Waratah that remains elusive.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The impact of The Pilgrim's Progress

No other English work (excepting the Bible) has been so widely read over such a long span of time as has been John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Up until the twentieth century it was a standard household book in English-speaking homes, a common sight on bookshelves alongside the Bible. Most adults today have heard of the famous allegory, but few have actually read it, and even fewer are aware of the worldwide impact that the book has had and continues to have in terms of culture, religion, literature and language.

But first let me briefly set the scene. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded and a predominantly Presbyterian Parliament, headed by Oliver Cromwell, was instituted. These Parliamentarian years, known as the Interregnum, ended in 1660 with the Restoration, when Charles II was brought back from the continent to reinstate the monarchy. Charles re-established Anglicanism as the state’s enforced religion.

Bunyan – a poorly educated Baptist minister – wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1675 while imprisoned in a Bedford gaol, where he was kept for twelve years because he had been preaching without a licence. Puritans (also known as nonconformists) were largely reviled under the Restoration and suffered many persecutions, including not being lawfully allowed to meet and worship according to their own doctrines. Bunyan was actually offered freedom from prison provided he refrain from any further preaching. But he famously replied: “If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow.” And so he remained in a dank gaol cell, separated from his wife, his children and his ‘flock’, and it was during this time that his daytime dream came to him about a pilgrim called Christian.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is the world’s most famous allegory. (An allegory is a story where people, place and object names clearly point to their representative meanings.) The allegory of Bunyan’s book, the idea of which is taken from the Bible, is a simple one: a man called Christian becomes aware of a heavy burden on his back (his sins) and so, at Evangelist’s urging, flees from the City of Destruction where he was born towards the Wicket Gate, where he will find the straight and narrow path that will lead him to the Celestial City. He faces many obstacles, hardships and dangers throughout his journey, but along the way he also receives help from others and is kept company by Faithful and then Hopeful.

The first edition was published in 1678 and before the year was out there was a need for a second one. In 1684 Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress Part II – this story follows the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children – in response to Part I’s huge success. Within the first hundred years of its printing, Part I was printed in thirty-three editions and Part I and II together in fifty-nine.

The Pilgrim’s Progress travelled quickly after its publication, and it received an even more eager reception in Scotland, Ireland and the colonies than it did at home, as gauged by its sales and the manner in which it was discussed. It was printed in New England three years after its first publication in England, and unlike the crude materials used by English publishers, the New Englanders – for the most part nonconformists who a generation before had left England in order to find a better way of life – thought it worthy of the most elegant binding. For them, Christian’s allegorical journey hit home in a big way, speaking as it did of a hard, dangerous journey, much like the one that they had literally experienced in sailing to New England and settling in its harsh climate. Six years after its first publication Bunyan wrote of Part I:

’Tis in New England under such advance,
Receives there so much loving countenance,
As to be trimm’d, new cloth’d, and deck’d with gems
That it may show its features and its limbs,
Yet more; so comely doth my Pilgrim walk,
That of him thousands do sing and talk.

Its translations came quickly. The Dutch and French had it by 1682 and the Germans by 1694. The Pilgrim’s Progress travelled across Europe with the persecuted as they fled to safer and Protestant parts of the continent. It also went with them to the Caribbean. The whole book (Parts I and II combined) later underwent even greater dispersion abroad as the result of missionary societies, arriving in India in the late 1700s and spreading all over Africa the following century. It was considered such an invaluable evangelistic tool that in 1847 a London Missionary Society ship heading for Tahiti carried not only 5,000 Tahitian Bibles but also 4,000 Tahitian copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Today the number of translations is formidable, the figure being around two hundred. There are eighty African language translations alone. And let us not forget that there are also modern ‘translations’ for those who struggle with the archaic English of the original text.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was and still is popular with children. “This is the great merit of the book,” said Dr. Johnson, “that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing.”* For a child, the read is all about foul fire-breathing fiends and sword fights to the death, and about good men trapped in dark dungeons by cudgel-carrying giants who have seizures at critical moments. Victorian parents in particular were known to give it to their children to read in the hopes that the book would help in the task of teaching them religious and moral values, as well as make such things easier to talk about.

The general attitude towards Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress has changed dramatically with time. In his own lifetime the book was the cherished possession of nonconformists. It did, however, gradually but thoroughly become adopted by all Protestants, regardless of denomination, and it became, as we have seen, a favourite of missionaries. So it is no longer the celebrated spokesman for a maligned few, but has rather come to be considered the property of all Protestants, including the established Church of England that once colluded in Bunyan’s imprisonment for propagating Puritan beliefs.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was initially ridiculed by the literati, who had no time for the writings of a tinker’s son. In England, “all the numerous [earlier] editions of The Pilgrim's Progress were evidently meant for the cottage and the servants’ hall. The paper, the printing, the plates were of the meanest description. […] The Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the only book about which, after the lapse of a hundred years, the educated minority has come over to the opinion of the common people.”^ And with the genesis of English literary studies in the late nineteenth century, scholars began to hail Bunyan as a genius, pointing to his natural talent for employing fluent and vibrant language.

Bunyan has also been recognised as a literary innovator. For his text to be didactic (Puritans loved to be edified and eschewed anything frivolous), his readers needed to be able to relate to the pilgrims’ journey. He caused his pilgrims to come alive in a manner foreign to the well-established genres of the epic and allegory, where characters were flat and heroic, lacking in human frailty and thus hard to connect with on any emotional level. Bunyan gave Christian, Hopeful and Faithful three-dimensionality or inner depth that foreshadowed the manner in which the novelists of the eighteenth century would paint their fictional characters. The pilgrims are allegorical but they are unique people as well, with specific personality traits, such as Christian being wise but not particularly tactful, and Faithful proving himself courageous but struggling with sexual temptation.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has not only entered into people’s homes throughout the centuries, but it also eventually became part of British and American popular imagination and public discourse. The numerous references to The Pilgrim’s Progress in subsequent novels, plays, poems, speeches, art and music bears testimony to the mark it has made on society. Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair (serialised in 1847-8 and dramatised in 1917), John Buchan’s novel, Mr Standfast (1919), and C.S. Lewis’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), all made explicit use of Bunyan’s book for their titles. The influence of The Pilgrim’s Progress is especially noticeable in nineteenth-century literature, with Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain and Loiusa May Alcott as just four examples of prominent authors, besides Thackeray, who made reference in their novels to Christian and his pilgrimage. There existed such common knowledge of the allegory that writers could think and comment and describe in terms of The Pilgrim’s Progress, knowing their audience would pick up on and understand the references.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has also added to the English language, with original phrases such as Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and Land of Beulah entering into some dictionaries. Other inventive names such as Hill Difficulty, Valley of Humiliation, By-ends, Mr Facing-both-ways, Little-faith, the Delectable Mountains, Giant Despair and Doubting Castle are also proverbial, having become part of common parlance and thus recognisable even by those who have never read the book. The dissenting beliefs of the Puritan minority have generally been remembered and written about unfavourably since their time, but Bunyan’s imaginative and succinct manner of expressing intangible concepts has led to the universal and lasting acceptance of much of his language and expression.

For more on this topic or for detailed references, take a look at my thesis at www.meganabigail.com.

* http://www.bartleby.com/217/0706.html
^ Macaulay, The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay (Encyclopediae Britannica, Poems, etc): John Bunyan (May 1854).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The world’s first subway

Does anyone watch Cities of the Underworld? In a recent episode they explored the oldest subway tunnel in the world. Your immediate thought was of London, right? So was mine, but I had to put that idea on hold when they revealed that in 1844, sixteen years before they even began construction on the first London subway, a subway tunnel had been built in Brooklyn. Abandoned in the 1850s and then filled in, it soon entered into urban legend. Clearly I needed to find out more!

Today Brooklyn is a borough of New York, but in the 1840s it was a separate city with its own transport system. The Long Island Rail Road Company had at that time a train that ran right through the city along the busy Atlantic Street (now Atlantic Avenue). Brooklynites who tried to dodge the train were frequently knocked over and killed.* The train had no air brakes and so took up to eight blocks to stop (though trains did not stop for people back then anyway). Cornelius Vanderbilt, the company’s director, was not so very concerned about the casualties, but he was indeed concerned about the punctuality of his trains. So for reasons of safety and practicality, a ‘grade-separated’ or subway transport system was planned.

Construction on an Atlantic Street tunnel began in 1844. The ‘cut and cover’ method was used: half a kilometre of street was dug up, a brick arched tunnel – large enough for two standard gauge tracks – was built and then the street was laid down again on top of it. It was built by Irish workers and took as little as seven months to complete. It was the first tunnel built under a city street for trains, and as such is considered by many to be the world’s first subway (it did not, however, have underground stations, as do modern rapid transit subways).

But within a very short time the train lost its usefulness and the tunnel fell into disrepair. The last train ran in 1859 and in 1861 a man called Electus Litchfield was contracted to fill in the tunnel. Litchfield realised he could make away with a great deal more money if he merely stopped up the ends and entry points, without actually filling in the entire tunnel. He had some associates sign the papers saying that it had all been done properly and nobody was the wiser.

As the decades passed rumours started to circulate concerning the tunnel: the freemasons were using it; German spies were hiding there; it was housing bootleggers’ whisky stills; it was a dumping ground for the mob. But in later years it was all but forgotten.

In 1980, Bob Diamond, a young engineer living in Brooklyn, heard mention made on the radio of a local, abandoned subway. The radio host was discussing a 1979 book by G. O’Toole called The Cosgrove Report. The book, which is about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, referenced a rumour that the eight missing pages from the diary of John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassinator) might be hidden in a forgotten subway under Atlantic Avenue. Diamond was intrigued to say the least. He contacted O’Toole, who knew nothing more than what he had related. Two local rail historians said they had looked for it but found nothing.

Diamond spent the next year scouring old newspapers, looking for clues of where the subway might be located. Eventually he came across a 1911 article that spoke of a set of plans, housed in the borough president’s offices. When Diamond went there he was told that there were no such plans, but he was allowed to make a search for it. He found an old locked box. Having broken the lock, he sifted through ancient documents until, at the bottom of the box, he found a rolled up blueprint for the tunnel. Diamond noticed a small blue circle in the drawings and speculated that it represented a manhole. If the manhole could be found, it might offer an entry point into the tunnel.

In the middle of downtown Brooklyn’s busy Atlantic Avenue, Diamond and some friends located a smooth manhole, different from all the others. They opened it up but it revealed a drop of only about two or three feet before one would hit a floor of dirt. His friends assumed the search was a failure but Diamond decided to wiggle along in the crawl space. He was able to go forward for about 21 metres before the dirt went up to the ceiling.

Diamond, who has since said that he felt like an urban Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark had just come out that year), decided to dig with his hands, in the same way that Indiana had done. In digging he came across a brick wall. He was assisted in breaking through the wall with a pole, and in so doing opened up a hole through which he could look down into a cavernous, black tunnel, roughly 5 metres high and 6.5 metres wide. The lost subway had been found.

The subway, which today is known as the Atlantic Avenue or Cobble Hill Tunnel, was made part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Since his discovery Diamond has lead many group tours into the tunnel (everyone still enters in through the Atlantic Avenue manhole), marketing it as a great tourist attraction. One can even hold art events down there.^

A documentary, What’s Behind the Wall, which details Diamond’s quest, is soon to be released.* But for Diamond the search is far from over. A large part of the tunnel (the western section) is walled off. Diamond believes that not only might Booth’s diary pages be hidden behind that wall, but there may well also be an old locomotive lying there. Tradition has it that in 1961 one of the trains Litchfield was using to haul in dirt had a crank axle break and, rather than spend the time and money involved in fixing or removing it, it was simply left where it was. This could help explain why he chose to fill in only the tunnel ends.

Permission from the authorities for Diamond to break through the wall has thus far been denied due to the hugely disruptive impact such an operation would have on traffic. The western end of the tunnel remains, therefore, a mystery. At least for now.

* An interesting footnote, only thinly related, is that by the late nineteenth century New Yorkers referred to anyone from Brooklyn as “trolley dodgers”, because of the extensive network of streetcars that by then dominated the city. The Brooklyn baseball team even changed its name to the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers in 1911. The name was then shortened and became the Brooklyn Dodgers.
^ For photos of the tunnel, go to
* A preview can be seen at