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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

The unlucky life of Captain George Pollard Jnr

Captain Valentine Barnard, Drawing of a Bowhead or Right Whale and a Sperm Whale, c 1810

This weekend’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the discovery of the wreck of the Whaleship Two Brothers on the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll about 1000km northwest of Honolulu.

The discovery is fascinating for two reasons. The first, and more prosaic, is that there our understanding of life on board Whaleships is largely second-hand. As Ben Simons, of the Nantucket Historical Association points out in the article, “Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans … we have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”

But it’s also fascinating because the Two Brothers’ Captain, George Pollard Jnr, was also the captain of the Whaleship Essex, the ship whose sinking by a whale in 1820, and recorded in Owen Chase’s remarkable Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

For those of you who haven’t read Chase’s narrative I urge you to do so: its 60-odd pages are remarkable reading. As Jeremy Harding points out in a piece on Melville in the London Review of Books, contemporary interest in the Essex is, like Melville’s, largely confined to the story of the wreck itself, but as Chase’s narrative reminds us, the wreck is really only the prelude to a far more chilling story, involving the survivors’ journey several thousand kilometres westward, to the Pitcairn Islands, and gradual descent into starvation, cannibalism and madness.

Chase published his account of the wreck and its aftermath in 1821, and some years later it came to the attention of a young Herman Melville (interestingly it was not Melville’s first encounter with the story, which he first heard from Chase’s son, who was also a whaleman, while a crewman on a whaler himself). Later other versions of the disaster would appear, including a detailed account by Charles Wilkes of his conversation with Captain Pollard, and (interestingly) a manuscript held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney which details the experiences of the survivors who chose to remain on Henderson Island in the Pitcairns. These and many more are reproduced in Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick’s excellent The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale.

Prior to the wreck, Pollard was described as gentler and more contemplative than the average Nantucket whaleman, and was only 28 when given the command of the Essex. Yet the circumstances of the wreck, and more particularly the descent into cannibalism in the weeks before he and his companions were rescued, changed him.

As the piece in The New York Times points out, in a way the most surprising thing about Pollard’s presence on the Two Brothers is that he actually chose to take on another command. There’s something gut-wrenching about the description of him freezing and having to be physically dragged to a longboat when this second ship foundered, and deeply sad about his subsequent retirement to a position as a night watchman in Nantucket (he actually made one more voyage, upon a merchant vessel).

These days Pollard is mostly remembered as the prototype for Ahab and for his part in the murder and consumption of his cousin Owen Coffin while he and his companions drifted hopelessly in a whaleboat, but in details like the image of him moving through the darkened streets of Nantucket, it’s possible to glimpse a rather different man. Certainly Melville, who visited him after the publication of Moby Dick, was impressed by him, declaring “[t]o the islanders he was a nobody – to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming even humble – that I ever encountered”.

As I say above, the documents relating to the wreck of the Essex are well worth reading, in particular Chase’s Narrative, the opening section of which appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean. And while I used the Spirit Spout chapter in the collection, if you’re unfamiliar with it I recommend reading the hellish description of the Pequod’s try works, which make the reality of life aboard a Whaleship viscerally real. And finally, if you can track down a copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, do: it’s a splendid and harrowing account of a quite remarkable episode in maritime history, and of the fates of Pollard and the other men at its centre.

A little bit of linkage

I tend to do most of my linking on Twitter these days (and I’m a heartbeat away from setting up a Tumblr page for things that seem too long for Twitter but not really worthy of full-scale blogposts) but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct people to this amazing series of photographs of London in the early 1880s. All photography is, as Sontag and Barthes remind us, necessarily a record of loss, but in these images of London that sense of loss is (as the author recognises) given added power by the strange absence of people from the streets and buildings depicted, an absence which recasts the city itself as a sort of memento mori.

On a rather different note, you might want to check out Sci-Fi-O-Rama, a site dedicated to SF and Fantasy-themed art. There’s usually something good going, but recent features on French SF illustrations, British SF artist Jim Burns (whose work graced the covers of any number of the SF books I read as a teenager in the 1980s) and Australian artist Dan McPharlin are particularly worth checking out.

Elsewhere I can heartily recommend both the excerpt from n+1’s What was the Hipster? in the New York Magazine, a piece which has some very intelligent things to say about the hollowing out of the counter-culture. And if you’ve not seen it before, it’s worth revisiting n+1’s terrific 2005 editorial about the novel and its place in contemporary culture.

And finally, please read the summary of an extraordinary year in climate science that appeared this week on Climate Progress. A lot of what’s there will be familiar to anybody with an interest in the subject, but it’s a piece that should be required reading not just for anybody who doesn’t think climate change is the single biggest issue facing the human race, but for every politician and policy-maker around the world.

And if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you could cap off the Climate Progress piece with Elizabeth Kolbert’s trenchant analysis of the Republican Party’s war against climate science and climate scientists in this week’s New Yorker. As Kolbert remarked in her chilling 2006 study of climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “[i]t may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” (I’d also recommend Kolbert’s excellent piece on the links between declines in zooplankton populations triggered by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans and large-scale change in the ocean’s chemistry, ‘The Darkening Sea’, a piece I came within a hair’s breadth of including in The Penguin Book of the Ocean).

Called to Glory

Family history is one of those things you should never inflict upon people you like or respect, but this little story I learned last week is too good to let pass. It concerns my Great-Grandmother, Adelaide Bradley, who was run over by a tram on Jetty Road in Glenelg in 1942. Sad, obviously, but it’s difficult not to wonder what the family (who were Church of Christ in those days) were thinking when they drafted her death notice, which read, in one of those delightful collisions of religion and modernity, that she’d “been called to glory after contact with a moving vehicle.”

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Is that a turkey in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Brush Turkey phone home?

So, I’m driving through East Sydney at about 5:15 last night, on my way to pick my daughter up from childcare, when I look out the window and see a Brush Turkey trotting along the footpath. Not a bird that looked like a brush turkey, or some other random Megapode, but an honest-to-Betsy, full-grown, black and red Brush Turkey.

Now I have to confess that threw me a bit. Sydney’s blessed with an abundance of bird life, including a number of quite large birds (Black and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, Channel Billed Cuckoos, even the omnipresent Sacred Ibises) but a Brush Turkey? In the inner city? If nothing else Brush Turkeys are pretty much flightless, so it would have to cross the road on foot to get anywhere. And where on earth would it nest? (for those of you overseas, Brush Turkeys nest in huge (and I mean HUGE) mounds of leaves and sticks). Bizarre.

Pleasingly though, it reminded me of one of my favourite stories, which concerns the bird painter John Gould, and is to be found in Isabella Tree’s biography, The Bird Man. The story stems from Gould’s visit to Sydney in the late 1830s, a visit which saw Gould visit many of the local worthies, including one (who if memory serves was Alexander Macleay, one of the founders of the Australian Museum and the original owner of Elizabeth Bay House) who Gould was delighted to discover had a Brush Turkey nesting in his garden.

Gould spent some time observing the turkey and made some sketches of it, but the real treat comes later in a footnote by Tree, in which she notes (rather sardonically if I remember correctly) that despite its success on the day of Gould’s visit, the Brush Turkey later met with an unfortunate end, when it drowned attacking its own reflection in a bucket of water, a fate that suggests a degree of focus that’s not so much admirable as alarming.

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Writing The Past

Just a quick note to say I’m speaking at the 2010 History Festival on Saturday (13 March). This year’s Festival, entitled Writing The Past,which is being held at the NSW Writers’ Centre, is focussed on the complexities of representing the past, and features writers and historians such as Delia Falconer, Gabrielle Carey, Robert Gray and Mark McKenna.

Full details of the program are available on the NSW Writers’ Centre website, or you can download the program. I’m on at 3:15pm, along with the impossibly charming Tom Gilling, my old pal Ashley Hay and Catherine Jinks. Given all three of them know more than a bit about the questions thrown up by the Festival’s title it should be an interesting event.

Hopefully I’ll see you there.

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On depression and creativity

Griffith ReviewI’ve just realized the full text of my essay about depression and creativity, ‘Never real and always true’ is available for download on the Griffith Review site. Unfortunately it’s only in pdf format, so I’ve taken the liberty of cutting and pasting the text onto this site. And remember you can subscribe to Griffith Review by visiting their website, or purchase individual copies of Essentially Creative online from Gleebooks, Readings or bricks and mortar bookshops everywhere.

‘Never real and always true: on depression and creativity’

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All hail the Rat-King!

The Rat-King on display in the Mauritianum Museum, Altenburg, Germany

The Rat-King on display in the Mauritianum Museum, Altenburg, Germany

I was reminded last night of one of the more repulsive bits of cryptozoological folklore, the Rat-King. And since the two people I was with had never heard of them, I thought I might share the concept with the world. A Rat-King is created when a rat nest (a horrible concept all on its own) becomes so crowded that the tails of the rats become physically entangled, and slowly but surely, the separate rats begin to fuse into a single organism.

Perhaps not surprisingly the concept of the Rat-King is regarded with some scepticism by contemporary science, but belief in their existence has persisted in European countries, and particularly Germany, since the Middle Ages, and over the years various specimens have been displayed in museums and private collections.

Of these the most famous is probably the one owned by the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, which is comprised of the mummified remains of 32 rats, and was reportedly found in a miller’s fireplace in Buchheim in 1828, although specimens from as far afield as Java and New Zealand have also been collected through the years (Wikipedia has a brief survey of the various extant specimens, and you can see images, including x-ray images of one of the Dutch specimens on the Museum Kennis website).

As someone who’s not keen on rats at all, the Rat-King is a thing of nightmares. But I’m not sure you’d need to be as phobic about rats as I am to feel there’s something deeply unsettling about the whole idea, and not just because the thought of all those rats, scrabbling and hissing and seething together is inherently repulsive. Rather I suspect that just as the idea of zombies, and vampires, and the living dead  break down the ontological categories which order our world, the idea of several creatures merging into one super-organism, something smarter and more malign than any of its individual constituents, so offends our most primal suppositions about individual identity that we have few reactions open to us beyond fear, and disgust.

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Vampire discovered in mass grave?

vampireFriday’s New Scientist has a tantalizing little item about the supposed discovery of the skeleton of a “vampire” in Venice. The body, which was discovered during the excavation of mass graves dating from the plague of 1576 on the island of Lazaretto Nuovo, was found buried with a brick forced into its open mouth, as the rather unsettling image to the right depicts.

Sadly I don’t have a decent cultural history of vampires to hand (though if you’re after one, Amazon is up to their eyeballs (or is that eye teeth?) in them) but it’s difficult not to be struck by the manner in which the vampire myth continues to infect our culture. Quite aside from the not-insubstantial literature of the gothic underground, the past few years have seen at least two television series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood), the Twilight phenomenon and a slew of novels ranging from J.R. Ward’s erotic Black Dagger Brotherhood series to Peter Watts’ hard-edged (and all the more terrifying for it) neurobiological take on the vampire myth in the Hugo Award-nominated Blindsight (if you’re interested in taking a look, Watts has published the novel online under a Creative Commons license — I particularly recommend his ‘Brief Primer on Vampire Biology’ if you want to see someone take a serious stab at making the myth make scientific sense).

The reasons for this are complex, but I suspect they’re also oddly basic. The vampire myth, whether in its contemporary, Western form or its various variants and precursors draws together the two deepest elements of the human psyche, sex and death, and binds them together (indeed in a very real sense it is the distorted mirror image of that other great ritual of blood and death and the acceptance of another’s flesh into one’s own body, the Christian communion). It’s a potent brew, so potent, in fact, that in some very real sense the vampire is a kind of universal signifier, able to accommodate almost any anxiety about sex or death, from Dracula’s fin de siecle anxieties about sexuality and moral decline, to anxieties about homosexuality, and blood, and disease, to the images of a death-obsessed Old World which drive Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe. It can also, in the manner of these things, become so overdetermined as to signify not much at all, as the oddly engaging but essentially silly True Blood demonstrates.

All the same, it’s chastening to be reminded of the extent to which, even now, in a world transformed by technology, we are still creatures of our biology, driven by the primitive urges of fear and desire, and haunted by nightmares that, for all that their digital sophistication, are essentially the same as the fears that drove the plague-battered people of Venice to bury a woman with a brick rammed in her mouth four and a half centuries ago.

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