Friday, 28 January 2011

Takeshiro Matsuura

The Daily Yomiuri reports on an exhibition about Takeshiro Matsuura, the Japanese explorer who was the first person to document the inner reaches of what is now known as Hokkaido. He explored the area extensively during the mid 19th century and created a map of the island that included parts which had been ignored by earlier cartographers. He visited Ainu communities and compiled records of the large numbers of the population who had been conscripted for forced labour far from their homes. Matsuura suggested the name Hokkaido for the area.

Artscape Japan has produced an informative article about Matsuura, while The Old Geographer Matsuura Takeshiro, by Frederick Starr can be searched here.

Matthew Flinders and his map of Australia

Australians are demanding that Britain hands back a map of the country drawn by explorer Matthew Flinders in 1804. Often referred to as the nation's 'birth certificate' on account of the fact that it's the first map to refer to the land mass as Australia, it is currently currently kept at the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) in Taunton, Somerset - but is not on display.

In 1798, Lincolnshire born Lieutenant Matthew Flinders, who had studied navigation and cartography under William Bligh joined Royal Navy surgeon George Bass on a voyage around Van Diemen's Land, charting its coasts and proving that it was separate from the main continent. From 1802 to 1803 he circumnavigated the continent aboard the Investigator, filling in many unknown stretches of coast on the charts. Flinders's map, produced while he was detained by the governor of Mauritius from 1803-10, was the first to call the continent Australia. The name was adopted by the British Admiralty in 1824.Flinders died in 1814.

Australian MP Greg Hunt has written to the Dr Liam Fox, the British Defence Secretary, asking for his assistance and has started a petition calling for the return of the map to Australia. However, the Daily Telegraph reports that UKHO's response to the request was to say: "Matthew Flinders was a Commander in Her Majesty's Royal Navy on board the HMS Investigator and, as such, the UK Government holds it as a public record and [it] is officially part of the UK National Archives."

Matthew Flinders's Voyage to Terra Australis can be read here and for a little more information about him see this Manchester Guardian piece that appeared on July 21 1919:

Friday, 21 January 2011

Aleister Crowley and Gilles de Rais

Put Aleister Crowley into an article and you can usually guarantee something of interest. Whether it’s about occultism, the Led Zeppelin connection or his mountaineering exploits, the so called ‘wickedest man in the world’ generates a good tale. Of course many dismiss him as a self-deluded charlatan but there’s no denying, as the latest Footless Crow posting shows, that in his youth Crowley was a bold and talented mountaineer. The blog reprints a Robin Cambell piece that originally appeared in Mountain magazine.

As ever, I was interested to see what contemporaneous news reports had to say about the man. Following the Guardian Book of Mountains thesis that at the beginning of the 20th century the Manchester Guardian was the paper of record for all things climbing, I was expecting at least something on the 1905 Kangchenjunga expedition. Unfortunately there was little apart from a few mentions. There were though some amusing reports of court cases, plus the following story about Crowley being banned from talking about the 15th century poet Gilles de Rais at Oxford University. Perhaps it was a quiet news day but the issue was thought important enough to warrant a leader column in the paper on February 4 1930. (Click images to enlarge)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

In search of James Fitzjames

While the British can seem obsessed with the exploits of Scott and Shackleton in Antarctica, Canadians are fascinated with the fate of the 1845 Franklin Expedition that set out in search of Northwest Passage, an Arctic waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, plus 129 crew members disappeared and little is known as to what happened - other than there is evidence that some of them survived for a number of years, along with lurid tales of cannibalism and lead poisoning.

A whole publishing industry has grown up around the expedition, while marine archaeologists regularly try and establish what exactly happened to the crew. Much has been written about Sir John Franklin, the leader, but there is scant information about other members of the crew, particularly James Fitzjames, the third in command on the voyage and captain of the Erebus. That was until William Battersby's James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition was published last year.

The author recently talked about how he came to write Fitzjames's biography at Kennington's Durning Library, as a guest of the Friends of the library. He explained that as someone working in institutional investment marketing he travelled incessantly, often to San Francisco. On one flight the financier found himself reading Barrow's Boys while travelling above the Arctic, the area where the grisly events contained in the book took place. He became obsessed with the Franklin expedition and after leaving his job during Lehman Brothers bank collapse, decided to pursue this interest, resurrecting his original training as an archaeologist.

Battersby was aware of the many theories about the expedition but found himself irritated by numerous inconsistencies. So he decided to start from scratch and look at the subject afresh. Initial research led him to deciding to concentrate on the life of Fitzjames.

The talk consisted of a romp through the sailor's relatively short life (he was 32 when he joined the expedition). Previous references to the man usually had him down a fast-rising adventurous glamour boy of the British navy. He took part in the first steamer trip down the the Euphrates River and fought China during the first Opium War. Then, at the age of 29, he was promoted from lieutenant to commander. This has usually been attributed to an aristocratic background. However, after trawling through a mountain of archive material, Battersby discovered that Fitzjames was illegitimate and a self-made man, plus many more facts about the man.

This was a fascinating talk that brought Fitzjames and navy life in the 1840s alive. It was illustrated with such newly discovered details as unseen paintings by the sailor and the fact HMS Erebus and HMS Terror can, on close inspection, be seen reflected in the band around his hat (picture above).

There were plenty of questions but, inevitably, the one that generated the most interest was over a slide featuring the skulls, minus jawbones, of some of the Franklin expedition members. There's no getting away from the fact that all talk of this failed voyage from over 160 years ago will always turn to cannibalism.

More on the book can be seen here and here.

Thanks to the Friends of Durning Library for organising such an illuminating evening. Mention must also be made of the fact that they are fighting hard to prevent sections of the service being closed down as part of the current UK spending cuts. The talk was yet another example of the varied services public libraries provide for the community.

Monday, 17 January 2011

On this day - January 17 1912: Scott reaches the south pole

The obvious event to mark on January 17 is the arrival of Captain Scott at the South Pole. He may have written in his diary "Great God! This is an awful place," but that hasn't stopped scores of people, particularly over the past few decades, wanting to repeat the famous journey.

However, with next year seeing the 100th anniversary of the race to the pole (Roald Amundsen's Norwegian team got there first on December 14 1911), an unprecedented number of adventurers are heading to Antarctica. According to a report in the New York Times, some people plan to ski the exact routes taken by Scott and Amundsen, while others will travel to the pole by truck. Then there are novices making the trip as well as those making a race of it. Of course you can avoid all the discomfort by being flown there.

I'm undecided as to what to make of this. After all, the number of people actually stepping onto the ice (as opposed to visiting by cruise) is relatively small. A forceful case against all the hullaballoo can be read on Russell Potter's Visions of the North blog in which he states in no uncertain terms that these expeditions "confer only the most artificial sense of achievement".

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The abominable snowman

Tales of the abominable snowman, a human-like, long-haired creature that lives around the snowline in the high Himalaya have long fired the public imagination. Apparently named by a 19th century British journalist, but of course also known as the yeti, countless individuals have tried to capture it - at least on film.

The yeti industry includes everything from books by the likes of
Reinhold Messner, serious studies by cryptozoologists (students of unknown or undiscovered animals) to all manner of appearances in popular culture, including Dr Who.

One of the most recent investigations comes from Mike Allsop, a mountaineer who is hoping to locate and return the supposed hand and skull of a yeti that were stolen from a monastery in the village of Pangboche in 1999. Allsop was so taken with the story that he has worked with a film prop firm to produce replicas and in April he will present them to the monastery. However, he is willing to fly anywhere in the world to collect the originals. Much more information can be found on the
returnthehand site.

Perhaps the most famous bit of yeti 'evidence' were the serious of strange footprints photographed by mountaineer Eric Shipton while on the 1951 British Everest reconnaissance expedition. This is how the Manchester Guardian reported on the find on December 5 1951:

Incidentally, the piece appeared in the Miscellany column. Alongside it was the following report about walking backwards...

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Brockwell Lido Midwinter swim (again)

A final posting about winter swims. Enjoyable as they can be, all that collective jollity, silly hats and standing around in the cold can sometimes be a bit too much to take. As such, I was planning to give this year's Brockwell Lido Midwinter swim a miss.

However, a combination of the air temperature rising to balmy 10C and curious to see what the repainted pool looked like, saw me once again poolside, waiting to take the winter plunge with fellow South Londoners. And it was great. I really enjoyed the swim (rather than it being an ordeal and excuse for a drink) plus, unlike last year, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

The pool looked fantastic too. The new Mediterranean blue colour made the water look inviting even on a cloudy day. As an aside, I really think the owners of the Lido are missing a trick by not opening up the pool during the winter to members of its gym. The combination of modern gym, outdoor swim and then heated spa pool would have me signing up.

Thanks to athlonejonnie for the picture.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Climbing Everest: Noble adventure or Selfish Pursuit?

Climbers who make the pilgrimage to Everest may claim that they're transcending the stresses of daily life in the city, but life at the mountain's Base Camp is as bitchy and competitive as any office across the globe. So say G├╝lnur Tumbat and Russell W. Belk in Marketplace Tensions in Extraordinary Experiences, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

With many climbers paying as much as £40,000 for the pleasure of trying to get up the mountain, the authors conclude: “Our study finds that extraordinary experiences, when bought in the marketplace, can be destructive of feelings of camaraderie and reinforce an individualistic and competitive ethos that I, the climber, am the only one who matters”.

Plenty of books (see Michael Kodas's High Crimes, for example) and articles have been written about the often tense atmosphere around Base Camp, but this probably the first in-depth sociological study into the people who feel the urge to go there.

The 'discovery' of Machu Picchu

2011 sees the centenary of the 'discovery' of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham. Even though it wasn't actually brought to the attention of the wider world until much later in 1911, the anniversary is enough of a peg for travel articles about the ancient Incan ruins to start appearing. The following piece appeared in the Observer on December 31 1911.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

On this day - January 5 1922: Ernest Shackleton died

On January 5 1922, Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer and legendary survivor, died on the island of South Georgia. He was leading the Shackleton-Rowett expedition, his fourth, which aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. Setting sail from London in Quest on September 21 1921, the ship arrived in South Georgia on January 4 1922. However, Shackleton suffered a heart attack, possibly due to the immense physical strain of previous expeditions and the stress of raising finance for them. He died the next day at Grytviken, where he was eventually buried in the whalers' graveyard overlooking the bay.

George Marston, the official artist on Shackleton's Nimrod and Endurance expeditions, wrote the following piece for the Manchester Guardian.

(click to enlarge)
More expedition pictures can be seen here. Thanks to DeadExplorers.