Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Digitised history

British Library Newspapers Online allows researchers to explore over three million pages of 18th and 19th century newspapers online. It's a brilliant resource that has changed the whole nature of historical investigation. It has also presented challenges, some of which were debated at Digitised History, a conference held at the BL on Tuesday.

I plan to write about the day on vexed issue. However, one point that intrigued me was a remark made by Jim Draper, Vice President and Publisher at Gale, when he mentioned that the Victorians were obsessed with the phrase 'eaten by' - as in humans being eaten by wild animals or cannibals.

This chimed with some of the background research I did for Those Who Dared. Starting with the obsession with sailors from Sir John Franklin's failed attempt to find the North West Passage resorting to eating their dead colleagues, to wild tales of cannibalism from around the world, the papers were indeed obsessed with the phrase. A quick search brought up numerous examples. I've chosen this Manchester Guardian story from January 14 1890, if only for the extra details about 'roasting' and 'besmeared with blood'.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Longest Winter

The events surrounding the 1910-12 expeditions to the South Pole have been written about so many times that it is hard to believe that there is anything new to say about the travails of Scott and Amundsen. It was a surprise then to come across The Longest Winter: Scott's other Heroes by Meredith Hooper, a a tale that has never been fully told.

While most of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's 59-strong team was dedicated to getting their leader and four others to the Pole, six members set out in February 1911 on a separate expedition several hundred miles north of the main Ross Island base camp. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Victor Campbell, the purpose was zoological and magnetic research. The Longest Winter tells the tale of how this Eastern, or Northern Party as it became known, after a partially successful year at Cape Adare, was picked up by Terra Nova, the expedition ship, and deposited further down the coast for further exploration. However, five weeks later, severe ice conditions meant that the ship couldn't collect them and so they were forced to spend the winter in an ice cave measuring 9ft by 12ft. Rations were low and seal and penguin became the main source of food. Come the Spring, and with no sign of a rescue party, the team then had to make a 230-mile walk back to the main base.

The first section of the book covers the team's year in a prefabricated hut. It's interesting to hear about life, (and often boredom), in a remote research outpost but the story really comes to life with the telling of the men's unexpected stay in the ice cave. Drawing on the diaries of the team - three officers and three 'men' - some still smelling of the seal blubber fires on which they depended for survival, Hooper reveals the daily grind and feeling of desperation they felt in what was dubbed Inexpressible Island (above).

Life revolved around trying to have enough to eat. The seal was served in the form of a 'hoosh', a stew which they found tastier when stirred in the blood-soaked ice. This was cooked over fires of burning seal blubber, which also served as fuel for improvised lamps made out of Oxo tins. The walls of the cave were soon blackened by the smoke and the acrid fumes choked the men. 'That igloo with its black and blubber beastliness' was how Apsley Cherry-Garrard later described it, after hearing accounts of the place.

While the diet of mainly seal and penguin kept the mean alive, the salt-water ice, combined with a lack of carbohydrate led to all of the team suffering from chronic diahorrea (often after long periods of constipation.) The radical change in their appearance can be seen in these photographs. In the first, taken at the Cape Adare hut, the men look like they're posing for a Boden winter catalogue.
A year later, and making the most of a lull in the wind to get out of the cave, the team, in their blubber soiled clothes resemble a particularly disgruntled Scandinavian heavy metal band.

Why this group of six very hungry men cooped up in a tiny ice cave for six months didn't end up fighting each other can be explained in part by the fact that Campbell maintained the strict naval discipline that had carried them through their year in the hut. All abided (if sometimes reluctantly) to this. That said, living in such close proximity to each other did lead to some of the strict class and social barriers breaking down. Certain matters though remained sacrosanct. It would take an expert in Edwardian etiquette to explain why exactly, even during a period when all the team were suffering extreme stomach problems, they needed one latrine for officers and one for the men - each side by side. At times the account feels almost Monty Pythonesque.

However, The Longest Winter recounts a story that should certainly be up there in the pantheon of tales of endurance. A good piece about the expedition appeared in the New York Times on February 15 1913 (a version of which was reproduced in the Manchester Guardian on the same day).

Friday, 9 July 2010

Ian Fairweather

The Australian artist, Ian Fairweather, who died in 1974, is usually described as difficult, reclusive and a genius. The British-born son of a distinguished surgeon-general,who grew up on Jersey in a large house with a butler, rejected his privileged background and ended up living as a hermit on Bribie Island, Queensland.

Fairweather is usually viewed as an an artist of exceptional talent who produced paintings that merged everything from cubism, aboriginal art and Chinese calligraphy. Art critic, Robert Hughes, believed that "the emotional range and sheer breathtaking beauty" of Fairweather's finest pieces, such as Epiphany (below) surpassed all other Australian paintings.

However, as this recent article from the Australian explains, Fairweather is also remembered for a crazy ocean adventure when in April 1952 he set out alone from Darwin for Timor on a flimsy raft. This was made from materials he scavenged from the detritus of post-war Darwin such as torpedo shaped aluminium aircraft fuel tanks, driftwood and square sails made from parachute silk. He landed 16 days later on the Indonesian island of Roti, from where he was shipped back to Britain. He barely survived the voyage but in a later interview he explained "I wanted to get to Portuguese Timor, as the next best thing to Bali where I had done the best painting of my life after coming out of China 20 years or so before."

The artist Michael Stevenson recreated the raft in 2004:

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

David Livingstone's last letters

The contents of a letter written by David Livingstone in which he condemns slavery and talks about his loneliness and ill-health have been revealed for the first time. The Letter from Bambarre addressed to friend and future biographer Horace Waller was written six years into the explorer's final, ill-fated mission to discover the source of the Nile and shortly before his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley.

Livingstone had run out of paper and ink, so he improvised by writing on torn-up pages of an old newspaper, using 'ink' squeezed from berries. Over the decades his handwriting had all but faded but researchers using spectral imaging, a technique that involves illuminating an object with successive wavelengths of light, were able to separate the explorer's handwriting from the newspaper type, thus revealing the contents of the document.

The publication of the letter by the Livingstone Online project is the prelude to a much larger project over the next 18 months, that will utilise spectral imaging to recover the diaries and remaining letters written by Livingstone 1870-71. Works by him can be found on the Missionary Etexts archive.

There was plenty of Livingstone coverage in the Guardian and Observer, but the following letter from the Guardian, September 24 1872, provides a revealing snapshot of the Scottish explorer's "useless tramp" around the Lake Tanganyika region of Africa.