Monday, June 16, 2014

The Halifax Explosion

Ask most people what famous maritime disaster is linked to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the answer will no doubt be, “Titanic, of course,” - being the port where many bodies and some wreckage ended up after that great tragedy of 1912.

But because the carnage of the Great War overshadowed everything else at the time, an event that took place just five years after Titanic may not be as well known. It resulted in the deaths of around 2,000 people, injury to another 9,000 as well as the demolition of much of Halifax itself.

It was caused by an explosion, the greatest ever man-made prior to the invention of the atomic bomb, and was the result of a collision between two ships in the harbour, between the empty Norwegian vessel Imo, and the French vessel, Mont-Blanc, which was loaded down with explosive supplies intended for the war in Europe.

Houses left like piles of matchsticks

This info sheet produced by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic gives a good summary of exactly what happened on that fateful day, 6 December, 1917.

And the even more comprehensive“In the blink of an eye” website is excellent and is totally dedicated to the explosion and its aftermath.

The long list of names in the Nova Scotia Remembrance Book can make for sober reading with so many children listed, including those who had just arrived to begin the school day and those in an orphanage.

One wonders at how many individuals living safely in Canada were grieving or deeply concerned for their loved ones fighting overseas, never for one moment imagining that the horrific tools of war would end their own lives.

Frozen in time, the moment of detonation (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

The last few nonagenarian survivors of the great explosion all died quite recently, among them Verna Jeffries and Mary Murphy

In 2005, a film was made of event, “The Shattered City”

Never forgotten. The Fort Needham Bell Tower where every year a memorial service is held
Dennis Jarvis © All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Kingston Incident

When major natural disasters strike in the world today, uneasy political relationships are often put aside as many nations reach out to help with the injured or homeless and such offers are usually eagerly accepted by the afflicted country.

But it was one such disaster that led to an international event that is now largely forgotten and was known as either the “Jamaica” or “Kingston Incident”. What is remarkable is that it wasn’t a clash between countries known to be uneasy with one another, but it was the good friendship between Britain and the United States that was put in jeopardy.

One of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded up until that time hit Kingston, Jamaica, on 14 January 1907. Up to 1,000 people were killed, many thousands made homeless and 85% of the buildings in the capital were damaged or destroyed. An extensive photographic record of the event can be seen here on Flickr.

Overseeing the rescue and recovery process was the Governor of the island, Sir James Alexander Swettenham, an experienced British administrator who’d had gubernatorial roles in the Straits Settlement and British Guiana prior to his appointment in Jamaica. (The role his wife played is described on my History Bucket blog.)

Much detail is available in online newspaper archives about the incident. In a nutshell - when the American Rear-Admiral Charles H. Davis Jr organised a rescue and sent in the Marines in the torpedo boat Whipple from Guantanamo Bay followed by the battleships Indiana and Missouri carrying medicines and supplies, he received short shrift from Swettenham who rejected the help offered by the Americans and demanded that they decamp.

This led to outrage in America and some red faces at Whitehall which was quick to send an apology to Washington. Worldwide, there was much chatter about the pros and cons of America’s actions and Swettenham did have some surprising supporters. France saw it as officiousness and thought the United States had used the disaster as an excuse to grandstand in the West Indies.

The Washington Evening Star’s glaring headline of January 21 1907 best sums up American feelings:


Action of Gov. Swettenham of Jamaica is Universally Condemned in London


Officials of the Foreign Office Do Not Attempt to Pardon His "Unaccountable Sarcasm."


That is the Only Fashion in Which the English Officials Can Condone Offense -
Americans Begged That Admiral Might Stay

And a browse of the many other newspaper headlines in Chronicling America are similar:

American Marines are Asked to Leave Kingston” (The Marion Daily Mirror)

Aid is Withdrawn From Kingston After Insult” (Rock Island Argus)

Somebody has Blundered” (Albuquerque Evening Citizen)

They’re sweating Gov. Swettenham. Jamaicans want him recalled” (The Yakima Herald)

British Press Deplores Action of Arrogant Swettenham” (San Francisco Call)

etc. etc. etc.

But this was not the worst of it!

In the days following, reports of a morally damning nature emerged from Kingston about the attitude of the ruling British elite resident in Jamaica, referencing another man, Sir Alfred Jones. This inflammatory article from The San Francisco Call shows them in an appalling light according to a couple who had just arrived back from Kingston. 
Sir Alfred and Ladies Drink Wine as Dying Shriek About Them
New YORK. Jan. 21. — Mr. and Mrs. Chambers M. Craig arrived here today from Kingston. 
"We know Sir James Alexander Swettenham very well," said Mrs. Craig. "He is nervous, irascible, stubborn and prone to fly off on a tangent. Socially he is delightful. But I think that his action was influenced by the desire to stand well with Sir Alfred Jones, who dominates Kingston.
"The night before the earthquake we were present at a dinner to Sir Alfred Jones' party of thirty in the Constant Springs Hotel. On Monday afternoon relief parties were carrying the wounded aboard the Port Kingston on which the English party had taken refuge. There the ship's surgeon enlisted a couple of young Englishmen and set them to work sawing off limbs. The anesthetics gave out before the work was half finished, so that the amputations had to go on while the poor wretches were perfectly conscious. Their shrieks were heartrending.
"Through it all Sir Alfred and his fine ladies and gentlemen drank champagne and dined and made merry. The high-bred ladies tripped across the bloody decks, regardless of the dreadful scenes about them. That night the surgeon and his amateur assistants worked ever minute.In the morning some of the ladies complained to Sir Alfred that, the shrieks and groans of the sufferers disturbed their rest.
"To please them. Sir Alfred ordered every stranger, well or injured, removed from the vessel. None of Sir Alfred's party lifted a hand to aid these sufferers. Not a sympathetic or kindly or generous deed can be ascribed to them. The Americans were generosity itself. The Jamaicans blessed them."

Was it really true? Or a media beat-up? Or did the Craigs have sour grapes of a personal nature they wanted to get off their chests?

Other snide and nasty reports flew thick and fast. Go here and here to read other examples of similar stories about “British Brutality” towards American refugees. Then, on the other hand, there is this report, by Dr Arthur J. Evans who was there doing the amputations and who puts a very different spin on things with the high society ladies rolling up their sleeves and helping him without complaint.

Who to believe? From all of this, it seems clear there were not just personal animosities at play but possibly some latent political antagonism between the British and Americans in Jamaica that blew up as a result of the disaster.  Sir Alfred Jones was a prominent and influential ship-owner who no doubt made enemies. On his return to England, he furiously denied the reports and also roundly condemned the gung-ho attitude of the Americans to land their Marines without first going through the normal formalities with the resident Governor even though the action had received the approval of the President, Theodore Roosevelt.

(As a curious aside to all of this, two years later Chambers M. Craig committed suicide, apparently having lost his money. This poses questions as to possible underlying motivations for speaking about Sir Alfred and his guests in such a disparaging light.)

Sir Alexander Swettenham’s career was of course ruined. He had no choice but to resign, and slip out of the public eye. He seems to have remained a low-key figure for the rest of his life until he died in Switzerland in 1933, leaving just a few hundred pounds to his wife. It is somewhat telling as to the disgrace he continued to suffer in that the Oxford Dictionary of Biography fails to give him even a modest few lines while his brother, Sir Frank Swettenham, has extensive coverage.

Was Sir Alexander on the brink of a nervous breakdown and not really aware of what he is doing when he rebuffed the Americans in such a public way? Was he really trying to please the influential Sir Arthur Jones as was suggested? Government House had been badly damaged and like everyone else his living conditions must have been reduced. These days such behaviour by any prominent individual could be excused by psychological stress and no doubt he would be treated more sympathetically, but in Swettenham’s button-lip era that was riddled with protocol and pomposity and the hiding of true feelings, there was no such thinking. The Governor had blundered as a diplomat and so he had to pay the inevitable price.

In August of that same year, the Americans were still chewing over the incident. This article in the New York Times alleges murky details under the dubious heading “Double Dealing of Swettenham”. It tells of the state Kingston was in post-earthquake with prison riots, but also implies a dismissive attitude towards the capabilities of residents and the negro police force. The article also reproduces (and denies) all of Sir Frank’s written defence of his brother’s behaviour with his strict adherence to the rules relating to armed landings.

And here is Sir Alexander’s infamous letter to the Rear-Admiral which is fairly innocuous and hardly worth all the fuss. It displays a degree of formal sang-froid but perhaps it was the savage observation in the last paragraph that did the damage, British irony often being lost on Americans!

With its contrasting cast of characters showing what can happen to important people in the wake of a disaster or having their noses put out of joint, this whole episode could be the basis for a great book or even a film.

As a footnote to this story, it is noted that another eminent British administrator died in the Kingston earthquake. He was Sir James Fergusson, and had served as Governor of South Australia, of New Zealand and of Bombay.  Even he warrants a Wikipedia entry that the hapless Sir Alexander Swettenham does not.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The curious tale of the Humanity Islands

With the current crisis in the Ukraine and the Crimea, one is reminded that history is full of stories of secession, of unhappy people who want autonomy and who break away from their homelands, or join up with others, but that all too often this results in wars and even wholesale slaughters.

But other acts of secession are on the individual level and often the work of just one man - and these can make for both astonishing and amusing reading.

Wikipedia has a list of recent or current “micro-nations” and although the instigators were, or still are, deadly serious about their actions, no government has accepted them or their demands.

Australia and New Zealand have a fair share of these renegades, the most famous being Prince Leonard of the Hutt River Principality of Western Australia, which is famous of its own flag, coinage, stamps and passports and is a popular tourist destination. Its matriarch, Princess Shirley passed away just last year.

But as my interest is in older history, one micro-nation that caught my eye on the list is that of the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads, allegedly founded in the 1870s by a “British captain James George Meads”.

This is in the Spratly Islands group, now the focus of considerable international unrest between the surrounding nations, particularly as the area is believed to rich in resources. Read here.

What information there is available on Meads is vague and conflicting. The only website with a fair amount of information is this old Angelfire site that doesn’t appear to have been updated for 14 years and is full of quirky and dubious facts. A biographical book reviewed on the site can’t be found anywhere. This is what it has to say about the origins of the Republic:
In 1877, Captain James George Meads, Master of the ship "Modeste" discovered the islands that now constitute the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads and claimed the archipelago on behalf of the world's downtrodden and persecuted. 
Captain Meads named the island group the "Kingdom of Humanity" and the sea that surrounded it, the "Humanity Sea" and, upon proclamation as King James I in 1878, formed a colony on the islands dedicated to a peaceful existence far removed from the hostilities that vexed the nineteenth century world. 
From the outset, the Kingdom of Humanity attracted a vast array of people from around the globe who wished to escape persecution and intolerance in their native country. King James I welcomed these refugees with open arms, claiming he had a sovereign duty to care for the world's poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Then there is other strange information as well from the Philippine version of Wiki which states the Republic of M-S-M was established by a man called Christopher Schneider in 1959. He intended to replace the Kingdom of Humanity and was described as Chief of State and Morton F. Mead, the former King, was proposed to be ambassador to the United Nations.  This version also states that in 1972, Schneider and all of his cabinet drowned when their ship sank in a typhoon near Mindoro Island, and the current status of the micro-nation is unclear but that there have been isolated efforts to re-establish it. (Presumably by whoever prepared the Angelfire website.)

Some basic research into the genealogical records available for James George Mead (not Meads) shows that he was born in Weymouth, Dorset, on 4 March 1834. He joined the Royal Navy and gained the rank of Lieutenant in 1855, followed by Commander ten years later, becoming a Captain in 1872. By 1889 he was a Rear-Admiral and on 9 December 1894, he was a Retired Vice-Admiral. In 1867 he had served as second in command of Rattlesnake, at Cape of Good Hope and the west coast of Africa. Between 16 January 1878 and 30 September 1881 he was “Captain in Modeste (until paying off at Sheerness) commanded by William Montagu Dowell, China”.

Photograph of HMS Diamond,  a similar corvette of the Amethyst class as HMS Modeste

The Angelfire site states that “King James” died in 1888, but investigations show that Vice-Admiral Mead was very much alive and had retired to Bournemouth about 1894.  At the time of the 1911 Census, he and his wife had had 3 children (one deceased) and the two living children were still at home. The ages of James and Mary Mead his wife are given as 77 and 60 respectively and this suggests they had their children somewhat later than usual - George Gaskell being aged 27 and his sister Grace 23. There are several servants listed, but none with exotic names from Asia.

George Gaskell Mead had been born in Dorset in 1883 and served in the Army Service Corps during World War I – his mailing address on his medal card given as a garage in Bournemouth. He must have reached the rank of Captain as he is known by this in many subsequent electoral registers for Dorset. In 1929 he appears with his wife Gladys on a passenger list going to Tangier (hardly the South China Sea!) He seems to have spent his last years in a modest flat in Bournemouth and died in a nursing home there in 1966, leaving an estate of only £427 to a spinster lady.

So the real “King James I” - ie James George Mead - died in Bournemouth on 18 March 1913 and left effects of just under £12,000 and there is no way that his son, George Gaskell, could have been “King George I”. 

So whoever the “royal family” of Songhrati is, they are certainly not legal descendants of the Admiral and the whole thing sounds a bit of a “cargo cult” that involves the creation of a mythic ancestry.

It would be interesting to know if the real James or his son George ever knew how highly they were esteemed by people that James had most likely simply met as part of his exploring duties in the Royal Navy, but on whom he must have made quite an indelible impression to be immortalised in such a way. Perhaps he did indeed give the area the names of Humanity Islands and Humanity Sea and that in itself reflected his own opinion of the people who lived there.

One of the Spratly Islands currently the subject of a diplomatic row between neighbouring states

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Pistol Packin' Empress

Throughout history, most Russian rulers have been pretty adept at scaring the pants off their subjects, but for her eccentricity, excesses and sheer unattractiveness, there can be few to rival the Empress Anna Ivanova, one several Romanov dynastic tsarinas during the 18th Century.
Anna, image The Hermitage
She was born in Moscow in 1693, a daughter of the lacklustre Tsar Ivan V who suffered from some mental and physical difficulties (producing several children wasn't one of them) and who went by the unfortunate nickname of Ivan the Ignorant. For seven years, Ivan had reigned as co-tsar with his much smarter younger half-brother, Peter – later to be known as the Great – who eventually sent Ivan into retirement and took complete control of the Romanov family business.

Anna and her many sisters grew up quietly in a village outside Moscow and although she studied all the required refinements of the aristocracy, she never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy, and grew into a frowsy and uncouth woman with a superstitious, vindictive and capricious character. She was huge with it, a real Amazon, and she towered over everyone in the court. Her fat cheeks were famous and the British author Thomas Carlyle once compared her looks to that of a 'Westphalian ham'.

Frederick William
In 1710, Peter ordered Anna to marry Frederick William, Duke of CourlandNeither party had a say in the matter and one can only wonder at the poor Duke’s reaction at being condemned to holy matrimony with this Russian colossus. Not only that, he had to suffer the humiliation of sharing his wedding celebrations with more than seventy dwarves. They had been invited by Tsar Peter to a second wedding that he had arranged at the same time between two of the court’s dwarves (he had ideas of breeding a race of small people). This was followed by days of drinking that became the biggest vodka binge involving dwarves in history. When one looks at the portrait of the hapless Duke of Courland and sees that he was a most delicate young man, it is quite understandable to learn that he drank himself to death while still on his honeymoon.

The wedding

Some years later, Peter despatched the widowed Anna to her late husband's Latvian dukedom to look after the business there. But Peter knew her limitations so he ordered one of his senior diplomats, Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin to accompany her and attend to the 
Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin
practical side of things which included the unpaid post of gigolo, or more politely, 'gentleman of the bedchamber', to Anna. You did not argue with Peter the Great, and no doubt Ryumin did exactly as he was told in all respects. His portrait shows a man of much more sturdy construction than the Duke and he probably managed his duties with aplomb.

Ernest Johan von Biron
Peter the Great died in 1725 and Ryumin was recalled to Moscow, leaving Anna at a loss in the bedchamber and thus ripe to fall madly in love with Ernst Johan von Biron, an impoverished local nobleman with an eye on the main chance. He had just escaped from prison in Konigsberg where he had been jailed for killing a soldier in a duel and he clearly saw his opportunity with Anna. As he also looked like a Westphalian ham, there is no doubt he must have been Anna's idea of a match made in heaven. According to some sources Anna had a son with him but the boy was said to have been raised by Biron's wife. Her relationship with Biron was to last the rest of her life.

It was largely by accident that Anna ascended the Russian throne. The fourteen-year old Tsar Peter II died the day before his wedding and less than three years into his rule. Smallpox was alleged to be the culprit this time but it was probably the cure that killed him and no doubt included bleeding by leeches and other 18th century quackery aided by that inevitable anaesthetic vodka.

One bonus was that with Moscow packed for the royal wedding, all of Russia's dignitaries and political elite were assembled in one place and the succession crisis went into conclave over who should take over the Romanov family firm. With a potential for factional infighting, and in sheer desperation, the privy council offered the job to Anna. Everybody knew she wasn't the best choice, so it was on the strict proviso that she would be a figurehead tsarina and subject to tight restrictions on what she could and couldn't do as supreme ruler of all the Russias.

She was handed a long list of 'conditions'. She could not marry, nor appoint her own successor and she was told she could not declare war (nor make peace), she was not to impose taxes, not to confer ranks, not spend government money, not sign death sentences and not distribute or confiscate property or honours without permission of the privy council. As all of this is what tsars had done willy-nilly for centuries, it almost smacks of a reformist constitutional monarchy, but there was an uproar among the imperial guards and the nobility as it was having none of these ludicrous semi-democratic ideas and demanded that Anna reject the conditions and reign autocratically as all tsars were expected to do. A group of Anna's friends promptly ganged up and overthrew the privy council and Anna dramatically tore up the conditions in full public view. And of course you can guess at what happened to the members of the privy council. Death involving some sort of stretching and dismemberment procedure, or the frozen wastes of Siberia for life if you were lucky.

On April 28, 1730, Anna Ivanova was crowned Empress of Russia in the Kremlin, becoming the second crowned female ruler of Russia after Catherine I (not to be confused with the more famous Catherine II who came along later as Catherine the Great).

One of Anna's first acts to consolidate her power was to reinstate the most excellently titled Secret Search Chancellery (the 18th Century forerunner of the Cheka, NKVD and the KGB). Those good old Russian traditions of torture, death and exile were rightfully back on the agenda with Anna's lover Biron taking charge. Anybody foolish enough to protest was swiftly eliminated.
Pytor Yeropkin

Anna could be surprisingly contradictory and she must have had a civilized side as she supported French and Italian opera and comedies and even established Russia’s first ballet school. She also continued the vision of Peter the Great and made noticeable improvements in the layout of St Petersburg - although her most prominent architect Peter Yeropkin came to a sticky end when he foolishly involved himself with someone who had fallen out of favour with Biron, and he ended up being staked out and broken over a wheel and then beheaded. Anna also enthusiastically reinstated the death penalty for blasphemy and woe betide anyone who said anything against the Orthodox church.

While Anna grudgingly allowed a form of privy council to be restored, she didn't trust the old political elite and the guards who had served under them, so she created several new guards regiments comprising mostly foreigners as well as a new nobility. She gave them increasing benefits while at the same time she reinforced serfdom and enslaved other sections of the population. In 1736 she decreed that all factory workers were the property of their owners.

Anna's court was a mix of the archaic Russian and the new European styles as introduced by Peter the Great. Visitors were astonished at the splendour and her passion for luxuries. Biron ran most of the affairs of state, while Anna spent much of her time with card games and idle entertainments including cruel jokes at the expense of the old nobility, making them crawl like animals or squawk like birds. She gathered around herself jesters, gypsy fortune-tellers and dark-skinned slaves plus all kinds of other people considered to be freaks with more of those dwarves as well as cripples, and she particularly liked forcing them into wrestling matches between each other.

But what Anna became most notorious for was her craze for artillery and guns of all sorts, pistols and rifles. Large numbers of wild animals were imported into Russia, stocked and released into the grounds of Peterhof Palace just to satisfy her lust for hunting. Loaded weapons stood ready and available in all palace rooms so that Anna could shoot at anything that went past the window that took her fancy and every year she killed several hundred animals and untold numbers of birds - and no doubt a few luckless guards, gardeners and estate peasants in the process!

One of the most memorable and bizarre events of Anna’s reign occurred near the end of her life in the bitter winter of 1739-40 when she ordered that a palace be built in St Petersburg to celebrate Russia's victory over the Ottomans, but that it be made completely of ice. She had the doomed Yeropkin design the building before he was sent to the rack. It was about 20 metres tall and 50 metres wide and built of solid blocks of ice. The building's ice sculptures included artillery pieces, trees, birds and dolphins and an elephant that some sources say spouted a substance that did not freeze, possibly naptha. The interior furnishings were likewise all made of ice, right down to an ice four-poster bed with ice mattress and pillows.

Around this time an elderly prince of the house of Galitzine (or Golitysn) had offended Anna by marrying an Italian Catholic woman rather than a good Russian Orthodox one and although his wife had died, he was still punished by Anna and made to become one of her court jesters. She then searched throughout her staff for the oldest, most unattractive maidservant she could find and forced the prince to marry her. Anna displayed the newly-weds dressed as clowns and made them ride on an elephant at the head of a procession of Anna's freaks with farm animals bringing up the rear.

The newly-weds were taken into the ice bedroom of the ice palace, stripped completely naked and then locked up under guard. The legend is that the couple only survived the night of around minus 40 degrees because the bride traded her necklace with one of the guards for a sheepskin coat. What happened to them after that is unknown but Anna probably decided they cheated with the coat and packed them off to Siberia as per usual.

Wedding at the House of Ice, Valery Jacobi, 1878

The ice palace was reconstructed in St Petersburg in 2006.

Anna passed away from kidney failure in 1740. Just before she died, and without children of her own, she rushed to organise her succession, choosing her baby grand nephew as her heir with the wily Biron to be his regent. But after Anna's death, Biron's control was short-lived and he was seized in his bedroom by one of his rivals and immediately condemned to death by quartering, although he somehow managed to sweet-talk his way out of it and get his sentence reduced to banishment to Siberia for twenty years.

The baby grand-nephew Tsar Ivan VI reigned less than two years before being deposed in turn by the next Empress on the scene, Elizabeth, the legitimate daughter of Peter the Great, and Ivan VI and his family were locked up for life. Tsarina Elizabeth proved to be one of the better examples of Russian rulers in that she refused to ever sign a death penalty and so not a single person was executed during her reign. But the foxy Biron certainly was a survivor and he came back into favour many years later under the reign of Catherine the Great.

This modern image, created by George S. Stuart of the Empress is my favourite!

Anna from the George S. Stuart collection

Here is my own fun take on the Pistol Packin’ Empress (With apologies to Al Dexter)

Oh, drinkin' vodka with the dwarves
Was I havin’ fun!
Until one night she caught me right
And now I'm on the run.
Oh, lay that pistol down, babe
Lay that pistol down
Pistol packin' Anna
Lay that pistol down

Oh, she kicked me out the palace
And she hit me on the head
She cussed and cried and said I lied
And she planned to have me dead

Oh, lay that pistol down, etc.

We're all tough gals us Romanovs
From far out Moscow way
We got no pals coz
They don't like the way we play
We're rootin tootin tsarinas ...
But the best of us is Anna
She's a terror make no error
But there ain't no nicer terror
Here's what we tell her:

Oh lay that pistol down, etc.

Follow these links for more images on the rebuilding of Anna’s ice palace:

Other links and sources on Anna can vary as to the reliability of their information, but the Russian ones tend to be more comprehensive and here a few already in translation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

African Cossacks

Few people will be aware that there was once a short-lived Russian colony in the Horn of Africa. There are various scanty versions of this episode to be found written in English, with the most detailed reports in French or Russian, and the true facts are hard to establish with any certainty, but the story goes something like this.

In January 1889, a steamer escaped the detection of French patrol vessels and slipped into the Gulf of Tadjoura. On board was a group of around 200 Russians, including 40 monks and several women and children.

The group was led ashore by Ataman (supreme Cossack leader) Nicholas Ivanovitch Atchinoff [or Atchinov, Achinoff, Atchimoff] who had decided to gain a Russian foothold in Africa under the guise of a religious enterprise.

After camping overnight, the next morning they held a service of thanksgiving on the beach. This was led by Archimandrite (a monk-bishop or abbot in the Orthodox Church) Paisij.

The Ataman
After the prayers, vodka flowed, and Atchinoff gave a traditional toast and announced that he intended to go beyond the expedition’s ostensible claim of just establishing a religious community and invited his fellow Cossacks to indulge in good old pirating and plunder of caravans as well.

What the monks thought of this is difficult to know, but the local French Governor soon got wind of it and sent an urgent message to Atchinoff to inform him that if he committed any hostilities against the natives in the territory, French forces would act against him. But given their heads, the Cossacks had already started a rampage, raiding local mountain villages and herds. Allegedly they also kidnapped and raped a young local girl in frustration at losing out on a gold and silver caravan. The local Sultan demanded reparations but Atchinoff treated him with contempt, paid him off and then proceeded to tell the local chiefs that they were now under the protection of the Russian Tsar.

Italy, with its own interests in the area, was the first country to express concern and when the news reached Paris, all hell broke loose in diplomatic relations between France and Russia. The French demanded answers and the Russian ambassador swore that it had nothing to do with his country, that it was a private enterprise undertaken without the sanction of the Tsar or the Russian military. The French Government then ordered its Admiral, Jean Baptiste Olry, to the gunboats.

Meanwhile, after scouring the local area, Atchinoff returned to the base and announced he had found a new place for settlement, an abandoned Egyptian fort at Sagallo. There, he raised the Russian flag and renamed Sagallo “New Moscow”.

Sagallo  Landscape with Bay, an Arid Shore in the Foreground

by Johann Martin Bernatz

A make-shift chapel was initially erected among the ruins for the monks and they were accommodated in the surrounding blockhouses while the other members of the expedition had to make do with tents in the scorching heat. Atchinoff tried to repair the fort but he was starting to lose control of his men as discipline deteriorated and the Cossacks were only keen on booty from the wealthy caravans that headed to Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Admiral Olry then arrived and via the local governor demanded Atchinoff take down the Russian flag, cease and desist from plunder, as otherwise his naval division would go into action against him.

Atchninoff refused to comply, stating that he was on a mission from the Tsar, who was the only one who could change his instructions and that he had no intention of shifting out of New Moscow. He then ordered the uncovering of his machine guns to show he meant business.

There was quite a bit more argy-bargy until Admiral Olry got fed up with the ridiculous state of affairs and decided to fire a few shells to make the Ataman think again. Several Cossacks were injured and the Russian sources suggest some women and children were killed. Atchinoff surrendered swiftly and the French moved in to collect all the remaining guns and rifles. The members of the expedition were then assembled on the beach and sent to Obock, another small town in Djibouti, for repatriation from Suez to Odessa.

The Russian Government naturally enough appeared to be furious with Atchinoff and accused him of disobedience to the Tsar, defrauding the Russian Treasury and committing acts of piracy, but he seems to have avoided serious retribution. Some sources allege he was pardoned and ended up in Paris. Archimandrite Paisij apparently returned to Ethiopia.

This abortive attempt at colonisation by Russia in Africa could be the subject of a most interesting book in English. The French and Russian sources report on this extraordinary episode in quite divergent fashions, so whether the Ataman truly acted alone or he was in fact some sort of secret agent of a Russian Government hoping to get its own toe-hold close to the Suez Canal or wanting to establish a base where it could also take part in the Scramble for Africa makes for interesting speculation.

This image from Journals des Voyages No 615

Links to sources:

Too easy to blame the past for the present

This blog is never intended as a soap box for personal opinion, but recent racism hysteria surrounding the sale of t-shirts produced to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January had me feeling rather sad that people must still look to the past as some kind of justification for their present disappointments, prejudices and behaviours. (Read about it here.)

Why is pride in your nation now something to be ashamed of? Why is the voice of common sense or reason always drowned out in these arguments? Journalist Patrick Carlyon’s comments in the Melbourne Herald Sun are very apt in this case.
"... The rush to outlaw a T-shirt suggests sections of Australian society are as intolerant as the people they fear we have become. ...”
Looking at this background from an historical perspective, in the latter part of the 18th Century, the “great south land” was ripe for “invasion” by any one of the dominant European powers and some of them were far more ruthless in their treatment of indigneous populations than Britain was.

If Captain Cook hadn’t staked a claim and the British didn’t settle Sydney when they did, then the French who were already active in the area would most certainly have done so, or even the Germans at some later date. It largely depended on the outcomes of various European wars and revolutions as to who were the winners and losers of colonial possessions. If the Belgian King grabbed a chunk of Australia, the human carnage could have been as bad as anything that happened in the Congo. The Dutch had already visited a century before and found the place wanting but could have changed their minds at any point. The Spanish and Portuguese were largely occupied elsewhere, but they too could have decided to make their presence felt. All these nations had enslaved and exploited, even exterminated, local indigenous populations. The British most certainly had their faults, but they were on the whole the better colonisers with their legacy of fair governance, free speech and rule of law, and that is something that is always overlooked in such arguments.

Off my soap-box … and to another little-known and astonishing experiment in imperialism in my next post.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A curly tale of pigtails

For anyone who has ever bought a real hair wig or had extensions, this story will really make your hair curl and you will be glad you weren’t living a century ago.

In October and November of 1905, a very unusual coroner’s case appeared in the British newspapers that caused alarm and even panic among the community. A Yorkshire man called John Deighton died from anthrax, still a very nasty disease to contact in our time and nearly always fatal in the pre-antiobiotic age. 

But what was most worrying is that it was alleged he had contracted it through his job as a wool-comber in which he had opened bales of Chinese pigtails (or queues) imported into Britain for use in the wig trade. The coroner had ordered that a doctor examine the said pigtails, which he did, and came to the conclusion that although many unknown spores were present in the bales, none of them contained the bacillus associated with anthrax.
But the newspapers grabbed the story and it was repeated around the world with varying degrees of hysteria. This one comes from a New Zealand newspaper on PapersPast:

The astonishing statement was made at an inquest at Bradford recently that large quantities of Chinese pigtails are imported into England for commercial purposes.

The fact came out during an inquiry into the death from anthrax of a man employed by a firm of wool-combers. The foreman related that the workman, John Deighton, had been employed in opening camel hair, low foreign wool, low hair, and human hair.
The Coroner: Do you know where human hair comes from?
The foreman: I believe that comes from China.
Mr Seal (H.M. factory inspector): Have you ever known the firm to use, human hair from China before?
The foreman: Yes,we have done a good bit of it. It comes in 1000 1lb lots.
Has any sickness or illness been associated with the time when you were dealing with human hair? - No.
How does the hair appear when it comes in? - Just as if it had been cut from a Chinaman's head and rolled up.
Is it in pigtails then? - Yes.
It might have been cut from the head of a man suffering from plague or an infectious disease for all you know? - Yes.
Dr. Logan and Deighton had been ineffectually inoculated with selavo [sic. should be Schlavo’s] serum. Death was due to general anthrax.
The Coroner said, under the circumstances, and considering that two cases of anthrax had occurred at these works, he thought it was necessary to have further inquiries with regard to human hair being manipulated by the firm. He thought it was necessary to adjourn the case in order to have some of this hair examined as a protection for the general public.
The Los Angeles Herald put a different spin on it altogether and the wool-sorter Deighton had morphed into a woman wearing artificial hair, with greater emphasis on the fact that pigtails were used for automobiling fringe nets.


Artificial Hair Made From Chinese Appanage Causes Woman's Demise

Special cable to The Herald
LONDON, Oct. 28. — A new warning note to women who go automobiling has been sounded at an inquest at Bradford on the body of a woman who died from anthrax, caused by wearing artificial hair made from a Chinese pigtail, and it came out in the evidence that Chinese pigtails were largely imported for the purpose of making, among other things, fringe nets for automobiling.
The coroner remarked that as the case in question showed how serious was the danger from the wearing of these fringe nets, all this hair ought to be bacteriologically examined, and that, in fact, this would be done now at the factory where the fatal case of anthrax had been caused, and an application would be made at the home office for an order requiring special precautions to be taken at all factories where artificial hair was made up.

As these pigtails were regularly exported by the ton into Europe and America, prior to the demise of the custom in China shortly before the First World War, that would have amounted to an awful lot of Chinese hair. Many pigtails were reputed to have come from decapitated bandits as detailed in another lurid article from the Los Angeles Herald of 23 June 1908. What a grotesque and creepy thought that your fashionable hairpiece might have come from an executed man or had been dug up by grave-robbers!

See article San Francisco call, Nov 8, 1908 Chronicling America

Ton of Pigtails from Bandits Who Have Been Beheaded Brought to New York In Big Freighter Wray Castle
 NEW YORK, June 22.—
A ton of Chinese hair for the "rats" of American women formed part of the cargo of the big freighter, Wray Castle, which has just arrived from the Orient. The hair came from the heads of Chinese bandits who had been beheaded and is valued at more than $5000.  
Enough of this hair is on board the Wray Castle to provide thousands of American girls with the necessary "filling," and great care was taken on the freighter to keep it from exposure of any sort that might spoil it for the market in the United States.
Hardly had the consignment of the Chinese hair been brought to the American docks on Staten island before the British steamer Seneca arrived at quarantine with twenty-two cases of Chinese pigtails, which, according to Captain Grimes, were collected in Chinese cemeteries by a crafty American, who collected the gruesome souvenirs for profit in three months' plunder in Chinese burial grounds.

From 1910 onwards, the pigtail started to disappear in China and no doubt other sources had to be found for ladies’ hair rats (presumably extensions), but anthrax continued to be a very real risk, especially to workers in the cheap fur industry. American newspapers carried regular reports of death, mostly of girls who had been wearing fur collars or coats.

And this alarmist image shows that there just as much risk from poorly processed and domestic cat skins than as from the Chinese pigtails. Ugh and more ugh!

See article The Day Book, December 10 1915, Chronicling America

Watch out ladies, if the furs don't get you, then the fringe nets or false hair will!!

General articles on the history and demise of the Chinese pigtail, or queue.