Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rocks in God's Highway - The Zambezi Expedition (1)

David Livingstone is a name that needs no introduction. There are so many journals, letters and books written by the man himself, one wonders how he ever found the time to travel and explore as much of Africa as he did. Subsequent to his death in 1873, numerous biographies, articles and dissertations have been published about him, one of the best being Livingstone by Tim Jeal. This book is no hagiography and exposes his many flaws as well as his positive attributes.

The famous classic image. Photo Thomas Annan, National Galleries of Scotland

Many people associated with Livingstone are moderately famous in their own right, such as his missionary father-in-law, Robert Moffat, his early travelling companion William Cotton Oswell, his childhood friend James "Paraffin" Young and the philanthropic Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. Others have been overlooked altogether and don't even warrant Wikipedia entries, yet they all did some remarkable things in helping to imbue Livingstone with his legendary status.

Even in his own lifetime, Livingstone tarnished his own halo. The Zambezi Expedition of 1858-1864 showed him in the worst light possible and it might be argued quite a number of people were humiliated or traumatised and some even lost their lives due to the disastrous way in which the Expedition was handled by him. Gruff and dour, he was fine with Africans but was useless managing those of his own race. But his major fault was in assuring those in power in Britain that the river was navigable from the Indian Ocean up to the Victoria Falls. He had in fact not personally travelled its full length himself, choosing to cut a vital corner thereby missing the notorious Kebrabasa (Cahora Bassa) rapids which rendered the river useless for commercial purposes. The repercussions can be imagined when huge sums of money were invested in the Expedition.

Kebrabasa, Thomas Baines

Here is a selection (in no particular order) of some names associated with that Expedition which may mean little to anyone who is not a Livingstone aficionado or scholar, but deserve having their individual stories better-known and they will be the subjects of upcoming posts.


Norman Bedingfield, Royal Navy commander
Thomas Baines, storekeeper and artist
Richard Thornton, geologist
Charles Hardesty, engineer
George Rae, engineer
Charles Livingstone, brother of David
John Kirk, botanist and explorer
Edward D Young, gunner
James Stewart, missionary
Charles Meller, doctor
Horace Waller, anti-slavery activist


Elizabeth M Burrup, wife of Reverend Henry de Wint Burrup
Anne Mackenzie, sister of Bishop Charles Mackenzie
Jessie Lennox, companion to Miss Mackenzie
Mary Livingstone, wife of David (see earlier blog here)

Plus ... there will be special mention of some of those unheralded and long-forgotten Africans without whom none of Livingstone's explorations or discoveries would have been possible. 

(A link to a special Pinterest board of images is being created and will be added to the blog entries.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A massacre between the lines

In the Portsmouth Evening News of 18 January 1878, and surrounded by advertisements for mahogany staircases, drapery sales and breath fresheners, departure times for mail ships, a letter to the editor about the disgraceful standard of singing by the choir in a local church and another on crimping (touts for low-class pubs who board ships and lure sailors into their clutches) is this brief report on a massacre in China.
The Russian newspapers announce that immense numbers of fugitives have arrived at Kulja from Kashgaria. At one point on the frontier alone the outpost officers report that 1,500 Dongans have sought refuge there from Toorfan, and at the Russian boundary nearest Aksu there are at least twice that number. The people of Manas were less fortunate in their endeavours to escape, the majority being cut down while on their way to seek refuge on Russian territory. According to their reports, the Chinese have massacred all the Mussulmen peasants they have come in contact with, while in the towns they have conquered, a reign of terror exists. Coincident with the arrival of Kashgarian refugees at Kulja, the Golos announces also the presence of Chinese commissariat agents there, who are buying up provisions for Tso Tsonn Tsan's army. The latter has left the encampment at Aksu and is marching forward with the intention of attacking Kashgar. Rumours are current that Bek Kuli Beg has retired to Yarkund.

With the exception of Kashgar, none of the place names or individuals meant much to me, so research beckoned. Obviously names have changed much since 1878 and here is how this same article reads using current accepted spellings:
The Russian newspapers announce that immense numbers of fugitives have arrived at Yining from Kashi.  At one point on the frontier alone the outpost officers report that 1,500 Hui people have sought refuge there from Turpan, and at the Russian boundary nearest Aksu there are at least twice that number. The people of Manass in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region were less fortunate in their endeavours to escape, the majority being cut down while on their way to seek refuge on Russian territory. According to their reports, the Chinese have massacred all the Moslem peasants they have come in contact with, while in the towns they have conquered, a reign of terror exists. Coincident with the arrival of Kashi refugees at Yining, liberal sources announce also the presence of Chinese commissariat agents there, who are buying up provisions for Zuo Zontang's army. The latter has left the encampment at Aksu and is marching forward with the intention of attacking Kashi. Rumours are current that Yaqub Beg has retired to Yarkant.

Things haven't changed all that much in the 21st Century. Advertising still keeps newspapers going. There are still individuals who waste time and column space writing letters to editors on matters that seem trivial compared to reigns of terror being waged against minorities elsewhere on the planet. Read this BBC report about the Uighurs today.

Yaqub Beg is clearly not a popular figure in Xinjiang and heads up this most wanted list that also includes the woman who is probably the most famous living and exiled Uighur, human rights campaigner, Rebiya Kadeer.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What the Fates have in store

Another year has ended on a rather sombre note, with tragedies in the air and at sea, yet more senseless violence perpetuated by fanatics, as well as random accidents no-one could possibly foresee. They serve to remind us that such events are always part of life and all the safety precautions in the world can't protect us against the Fates when our time has come.

In the 19th Century, before the use of modern navigation devices, travelling by sea was always rather risky and shipwrecks were commonplace. Just one such disaster that is now little-known was the sinking of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Teuton off the coast of South Africa. (Note: Wikipedia link is in German.)

Originally owned by Robert Jardine of London and Hong Kong, she was built by William Denny & Brothers of Dunbarton and launched in 1869 as the SS Glenarty. In 1873 she was transferred to the ownership of the Union Steam Ship Company and renamed Teuton. (There are still people who believe renaming a ship is inviting bad luck!)

The ship carried 157 passengers, many of them immigrants to South Africa. She had sailed from Plymouth on 6th August 1881 and, after a stop at Madeira, arrived in Cape Town twenty-three days later. Not long after she departed Table Bay for Algoa Bay on 30th August, she struck something off Quoin Point that lies between Danger Point and Cape Agulhas.

Rather than repeating what has been comprehensively written elsewhere, please go to this South African Genealogy blog post for the full account.

Always after reading such stories, I am intrigued to know what happened to the survivors, how they coped in later years. The blog post gives us some information about the crew and other men who survived, but what about the only female, 16 year old Lizzie (Elizabeth) Ross who lost all her family in one night? One can only imagine her state, so young and alone in a strange country.

This page on the founding of the Cape Town Caledonian Society is enlightening in that it states the Society only came into being directly as a result of the sinking of the Teuton. It also says that Lizzie Ross was "... taken in by the Minister and Elders of the St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Cape Town and cared for by Mr and Mrs Runciman. She was later educated as a teacher." Genealogy searches fail to show any further reference to her, but we can only hope that her later life was less traumatic. If anyone reading this does know what happened to Lizzie, please contact me.

Presuming he is the same Mr Runicman who took in Lizzie Ross, William Runciman deserves acknowledgment in his own right. From information in The Anglo-African Who's Who and Biographical Sketchbook 1907, William was born in South Shields, County Durham, around 1858, and educated in Scotland. His father, also called William, was a Master Mariner in the Merchant Navy and later became the Dock Master at Cape Town. His son immigrated to South Africa in 1873 and worked his way upwards in a steamship agency, finally becoming senior partner. He was very interested in improvements in education and public works, was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Cape Parliament, Mayor several times over, and Simonstown owes much to his vision and energy. He married Elizabeth Black and had two sons and a daughter.

From genealogy website

Tombstones, Runciman family, Simonstown, Cape, South Africa

Images of the area in and around Simonstown

Site showing book with old photos with links to Runciman

More on the Teuton here:

Wrecksite details

Other shipwrecks in the same vicinity.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thoughts on coping with a four year anniversary of "that bloody mess"

Like millions of others, I have been moved by many of the events taking place on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, such as the poppies surrounding the Tower of London, but I am a bit apprehensive that this centenary of the "War to End All Wars" is going to last another four years until the 11th hour of the 11th month in 2018.

In every week of every month until then there will be some anniversary somewhere - of battles on land and sea, other war-related events or disasters. They already loom large. The Gallipoli Campaign, the sinking of the Lusitania, the major Battles of the Somme – all lie ahead. And then there are the other world-shattering events that took place in those troubled years such as the Russian Revolution and the murder of the Tsar and his family. There are already rather too many books being published on these topics, fiction and non-fiction, not to mention television dramas, films and documentaries - plus every village, town and city in all the countries affected by that War are seemingly being compelled to remember their men who marched away in some way via a display or event of some kind.

But how much can all of us take? At what point will we feel the need to switch off because we are suffering "centenary fatigue"? 
Private John Atkins

My Uncle John was a teenage recruit to the first Tank Corps and was lucky to survive as the Corps had a high casualty rate. He was hardly one for navel-gazing, being a practical no-nonsense sort of fellow with a wicked sense of humour about the stupidity of politicians. He also had an aversion to memorials or any notions of sentimentality about "that bloody mess", as he called the First World War, and he would no doubt be baffled by all the attention and introspection being awarded to the centenary.

There is much comment in the British media and on Facebook (around 5,000 likes and heading for 2,000 comments as of writing this) about this article from The Guardian  regarding this Christmas advertisement produced by Sainsbury supermarket chain currently doing the rounds on UK television. There is quite a war of its own going on among the comments. There are those cynics who think it is crass commercialism and disrespectful, those who find it beautiful or moving but have no compunction in telling the others they ought to think the same as they do. I can almost hear Uncle John chuckling at the pomposity and self-righteousness being flung about.

There is no doubt that the commercial is a fine production but ultimately it is a simplified and sentimental rendering of a well-known, if somewhat apocryphal, episode from that War that may have more to do with distorted memories and wishful thinking, even a bit of ancient propaganda. (Google for more articles and studies as to how much hard truth is behind the Christmas Truce story.)

Christmas 1914 was when this War was supposed to be over. There was probably still some optimism that the European powers would see sense and let those young men return home – many of whom were naive and had signed on as a lark, an adventure, rather than having any real awareness of what they were fighting for. None of the participants could have foreseen what lay ahead – almost another four years of slaughter such as the world had never seen.  

In all likelihood, most of  the young men who played football at Christmas were eventually killed, wounded or scarred in some way, psychologically if not physically, and it is this that went through my mind when I watched the commercial. If there was a moment when those on both sides genuinely believed in the spirit of Christmas and the ultimate goodness of mankind, then we should never denigrate that faith, even if a supermarket chain used it to give itself a plug in the process. If one researches old newspaper and magazine advertisements during World War I it will be seen that there were no scruples back then about using images of men who were likely to die in order to sell products. 

There are thousands of interpretations of World War I – photographs, films, paintings - many of them capable of creating intense emotions, but for me personally one of the finest is Midnight at the Menin Gate by Will Longstaff to be seen at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Its spiritual tone might be unfashionable now in our more irreligious age, with its representations of ghostly souls drifting through the cornfield and its poppies, but it gave consolation to many bereaved families in the years following the War. Its message on the "bloody mess" is that we might learn and not let it happen again. A faint hope since there were, of course, many other terrible conflicts to follow, but in many ways the world is a better place due to that waste and sacrifice of a century ago and if we need to keep being reminded about it for the next four years perhaps that isn't such a bad thing.

Copyright Australian War Memorial

Monday, October 20, 2014

The last note. “King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke”

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a hero is: “A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealised for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities”.

Throughout history some heroes stand the test of time, others wax or wane to reflect society’s changing ideals and attitudes.
Beside the Yarra blog

At the corner of Swanston and Collins Street in the city of Melbourne is a grandiose and towering statue of two men, Burke and Wills, who are famous to all Australians as the leaders of the first expedition to cross the continent from south to north. They failed in the attempt and died from starvation.

The one man who survived has no statue.

This very comprehensive website tells the reader anything and everything they might wish to know about the famous expedition, and also a little of that only survivor, John King

So why isn’t King celebrated with a grand statue in Melbourne or elsewhere? 

It all goes back to the bigoted and class-ridden era in which the events took place when a “common” Irish soldier was considered unsuitable material for a hero or that he couldn’t possibly be found to be more competent than the “gentlemen” who commanded him. 

King, in fact, was far more practical and knew that the only way to survive the harshness of the Outback was to learn from the Aboriginal people. Burke, in his arrogance, refused to have anything to do with them and perished as a result. * 

In recent times, there have been attempts to restore John King to his rightful place in history, although it has been a slow process.

John King, copyright State of Library of Victoria
This book John King - Ireland's Forgotten Explorer - Australia's First Hero - by Irish author, Eric Villiers, is not readily available in bookshops or most public libraries in Australia, while the publishing arm of the Australian Government’s scientific body CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) also produced this work  - The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills, Forgotten Narratives - which is a more academic study of the Aboriginal cultural aspects, but it is unlikely to be the sort of book that will come to the notice of the general reading public.

King’s short life, on the other hand, has numerous ingredients for an historical novel. He lived through the Great Irish Famine, spent seven years at the Royal Hibernian military college in Dublin, joined the 70th Regiment of Foot and fought in the Indian Mutiny. He was also a teacher, linguist, musician, sharpshooter, as well as being a crack horseman and camel handler.

Burke's Soldier is a novel by Alan Attwood that was published in 2003, but with the recent revelation that John King had a child, later known as Yellow Alice, or Annie, with an Aboriginal woman Turinyi of thYandruwandha people who had looked after King, there is a new poignant angle to add to the saga.  And then there is a family connection to a British Lord, no less! 

Read about that momentous encounter in 2013 between two quite disparate men, Aaron Paterson and Lord John Alderdice, here and here.

Some of the history and background to Annie King's life can be read here.

Lord John's own blog entry about his ancestor in which he describes actually handling and reading the last ever note written by Burke:
“King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke” 

Aaron Paterson at John King's grave, Melbourne General Cemetery
Copyright: Ecos Magazine

Yet even as recently as 2008, the myth that King couldn’t possibly have been a respectable sort of hero still hangs around as can be seen in this article.

I recall once reading a letter written by the African explorer, David Livingstone, in which he praised King as the only one of the party with any sense.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chinese Labour Corps and Sons of Africa

Until now, there has been little attention paid to the Chinese Labour Corps that consisted of thousands of labourers in the trenches of the First World War and it is gratifying to see that at last something is being done to remember their contribution to the war effort.

This article from The Guardian leads to a website called Ensuring We Remember that is dedicated to providing a lasting memorial to these forgotten Chinese men who did so much yet have been sidelined by history.

When one reads of how shamefully they were treated, it is even more important that their work and sacrifice is given publicity. Many of these men were simple peasants, and they endured often disgraceful conditions - as per this extract from The Guardian article:
Recruitment of the Chinese began in 1916 as ever escalating casualties meant labourers became disastrously scarce. Many came from such remote farms that when they reached the tall buildings and busy waterfront of Shanghai, they thought they had arrived in Europe. In fact it was only the start of an appalling journey on which many died – by ship across the Pacific, six days crossing Canada in sealed trains to avoid paying landing taxes, on by ship to Liverpool, by train again to Folkestone, and on to France and Belgium, where they lived in labour camps and worked digging trenches, unloading ships and trains, laying tracks and building roads, and repairing tanks. 
Book on the subject. Click here
Some who died on the voyage are buried in Liverpool, and 2,000 more lie in Commonwealth war graves, but some sources believe 20,000 died. They worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, and had three holidays including Chinese New Year. When the war ended and other men went home, they worked on until 1920, clearing live ordnance and exhuming bodies from battlefield burials and moving them to the new war cemeteries.
... when Britain distributed 6 million commemorative medals to all who took part in the war, those received by the Chinese bore only their numbers, not their names, and were bronze, not silver. Painfully symbolically, the Chinese were also painted out of a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war. It was believed to be the largest painting in the world, and showed a victorious France surrounded by her allies. It was begun in 1914, but had to be changed in 1917 to include the arrival of the United States – the space was found by painting over the Chinese workers.
It is also important to note that the Chinese weren't the only labourers, that thousands of non-combatant men came from other parts of the world like the West Indies, Africa and India and laboured for both British and German forces and they too are largely forgotten. 

In this connection, it is worth recalling the loss of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in 1917 when up to 650 men, mainly South African labourers, perished. After the war, none of the black men on board SS Mendi received any recognition, not even a war medal, although their white officers were decorated. These wrongs have been progressively righted and the South African government recently instituted the Mendi Medal for Bravery.

The story of the chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, addressing the men and leading a Death Dance as the ship sank, has become a South African legend ...
'Be quiet and calm, my countrymen ... You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.
... and the men took off their boots and stamped out the dance as they went to their deaths. 

One can hardly imagine the extraordinary scene, it is every bit as powerful as the orchestra continuing to play as Titanic slipped beneath the waves.

Memorial to the men of SS Mendi. Copyright Janet Szabo

More details can be read here and here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fertilisers for Turnips and the great British backbone

While there is currently much distress around the world over the difficult repatriation of innocent human remains from a war zone, it is worth remembering in centuries past very few of those who died in conflicts – civilians as well as soldiers - were accorded much dignity or respect at all and often did not even have any proper burial. Not only would their belongings be looted, but their useful body parts would be appropriated, such as the famous “Waterloo Teeth

In a book about Sister Janet Wells that mentioned the terrible conditions during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, this brief statement surprised me and I wondered how true it was:

Thirty years later a ship docked at Bristol carrying thirty tons of human bones from Plevna, the cargo was ground and used as bone meal to enrich England’s parks and gardens.”

It is somewhat difficult to find an authoritative account on the use of human bones in fertilisers, but reading through archival newspapers online there are many references to the practice, often completely at odds with one another. 

The Battle of Plevna took place during 1877-78. Thirty years later suggests the ship would have docked in 1907 but that must be incorrect as there are a number of newspaper reports discussing the alleged importation of bones around three years later, such as this paragraph in The Edinburgh Evening News, 10 October 1881, that says it makes little business sense.

The statement in the book can be found around the Internet in blogs, bulletin boards and especially in military chats. One of the sources switches the tonnage from thirty to thirty-thousand! These sources discuss the use of battlefield bones quite casually, stating that it goes back a long way - that in the 1820s and 1830s most of the bones came from the big battlefields such as Waterloo, Leipzig, Austerlitz and were being dug up and sent to Yorkshire or East Anglia or Scotland to be ground into fertiliser and that quite a number of companies were involved. 

Who were these companies? Who were the gatherers and the shippers? Has any historian given this unusual topic serious academic scrutiny? Were any laws passed to ban the practice, if in fact it was taking place?

There are many letters to be found in the old newspapers decrying the practice, such as this one in the Portsmouth Evening News in 1881, when a correspondent asks:

 “... whether such outrages on decency cannot be prevented by law. Could not any application of human remains to such purposes as were contemplated by the importers of the cargo in question, be forbidden by Act of Parliament?

Bones for Morayshire, Western Times, 7 November 1829

Bones for Hull, Westmorland Gazette,16 November 1822
What is even more astonishing is that many books on the science and history of fertilisers, plus recent university treatises, dissertations and articles, all mention the founding father of the fertiliser industry, Justus von Liebig, and include his inflammatory hyperbole, which smacks of some underlying personal sour grapes or other issue that he had with England.
England is robbing all other countries of their fertility. Already in her eagerness for bones she has turned up the battlefields of Leipsic and Waterloo and of the Crimea; already from the catacombs of Sicily she has carried away the skeletons of many successive generations. Like a vampire she hangs upon the neck of Europe, nay, of the whole world and sucks the heart blood from nations without a thought of justice towards them; without a shadow of lasting advantage to herself.
Is it his ironic way of saying that much of Europe or the Crimea was now [mid 19th century] wasteland because its war dead were ground up to keep English turnips growing, instead of German cabbages, Italian tomatoes or Russian buckwheat?

It seems a ludicrous statement to be perpetuated in our modern age, that England had sole monopoly on this trade. Von Liebig died over 140 years ago and to keep quoting it without investigating its real basis in fact reflects a certain amount of complacency or laziness in research methodology. All sorts of countries could be just as guilty of exploiting their own battlegrounds. Somebody had to be engaged in the trade of digging and exporting them. As recently as 1924, the French authorities were having to investigate a report and deny that bones from the Battle of Verdun and Mort-Homme were being used for this purpose.

There is probably no doubt that all kind of bones – men, horses, oxen - from Waterloo, Plevna and numerous other 19th Century battles could have been mixed up and sent to countries around the world ... and let’s not ever forget what the Nazis also did with bones since then. Our veneer of civilisation is very thin and, as we have seen in recent events in the Ukraine, we are still frighteningly close to the barbarities that have riddled history.

On a less sombre note, this report from the Preston Chronicle dating back to June, 1870 has a few (now politically incorrect) things to say about how the Egyptians exploited their mummies for the same purposes. (The war referred to is most likely the Crimean.)

And it is worth reading to the end for its amusing suggestions about turnips, British backbones and what might befall those who lie in the vaults of the cathedrals.

Finally - another image to think about. This poster from World War I. Bones to make munitions to kill men and make more bones .... all just a form of recycling.

Museum of London