Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Sherry for the Saviour

     Now that Christmas is coming up, we might take a glimpse at its celebration in India in the 1920s. One person who went there at the age of eight described his experiences in The Colonel's Son (1962) under the pseudonym of Nigel Eldridge. It turns out that the highlight of the pre-Christmas season was his being cast as the chief angel in the nativity play put on by the twenty-eight pupil Regimental School, written and produced by the music mistress, Miss Trouvel, and staged in the school gymnasium. I know this might sound extraordinary to some of my American readers, but I assure you that, in realms where the fatwas of SCOTUS do not run, such things are regarded as unexceptional - as, I am sure, they also were in the U.S. in those days. But let Mr Eldridge tell the story:

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Sex, Sorcery, and Swordfish

     The power of mind over matter can be quite spectacular, when the "matter" is the human body, and not always for the best. Take, for instance, a phantom pregnancy, when a woman wants a child so much that her body goes through all the features of pregnancy, except that no child has been conceived. The classic case was that of England's first queen regnant, the unfortunate Mary I ("Bloody Mary"). Married to the King of Spain at the age of 40, and desperate for an heir, she was apparently pregnant for eleven months, but nothing came of it. Even worse is "sorcery death" or voodoo death. Recorded in many parts of the world, the most dramatic is the phenomenon of "pointing the bone", also known as "singing to death" among the Australian Aborigines. When a person has a curse put upon him by a witchdoctor by having a bone pointed at him, he literally wills himself to die within a few days or a few weeks, unless the curse is removed.
    But what happens when both phenomena occur together?

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Adventures of a Curio Collector

     Every now and then one comes across people whose adventurous lives one can only envy. Thus, in my university days, when I imagined I had a future as a wildlife zoologist, I read George Schaller's account of his studies on mountain gorillas deep in the African jungle, even before Dian Fossey went in and did the same. Then I followed him as he studied lions in the Serengeti (I still have that book), tigers in India, snow leopards in the Himalayas, and pandas in China, among many others. The lucky devil! Again, to someone who spent the holidays of his bachelor days travelling the world, a major source of envy was Robert Ripley who, once his cartoon, Ripley's Believe It or Not! got started, never took a holiday, but travelled the world into far more exotic locations than a tourist like me could hope to enter, collecting items weirder and more wonderful than anything on the tourist trail.
    But recently, I came across yet another source of envy: Frank Burnett (1852 - 1930), whose 1,200 Pacific Island artifacts was donated to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and became the founding collection of the UCB Museum of Anthropology.  And I can't think of a better way to introduce him than to quote verbatim from this 1920 article by Francis J. Dickie.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Tombstone for a Trout

   I think this photo speaks for itself. I took it, believe it or not, from the Boy's Own Paper of June 1920.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The White King of the Kikuyu

     With 22% of the population, the Kikuyu are the dominant and most progressive tribe in Kenya, and they provided its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The reason is not hard to discern: living in the vicinity of Nairobi, they experienced the strongest effects of British civilisation. But it wasn't always so. Up to the end of the nineteenth century they dwelt ensconced in fortified villages, every clan being at war with every other. Not even a rooster was allowed in the village, lest its crowing alert enemies to the village's location. The breeding stock was hidden in coops out in the bush. Outsiders kept clear of their territory, for they would be marked for death. The first thing a passing caravan would know of the danger lurking in the undergrowth would be the twang of a bowstring, and a poisoned arrow striking down a laggard. Or else they would blunder into a poisoned skewer set into the underbrush at stomach level. All this came to an end when an intrepid white man arrived to trade, and unexpectedly became the white king of a savage tribe.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Burning Buddha's Tooth

     When one of the Pandyan kings, an invader and Hindu fanatic, ordered the destruction of the Buddha's tooth, the holy relic rebounded from the hammer blow in a ball of light. That, at least, was the event depicted in this modern painting in the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. This was the last photograph I was able to take in the temple, because immediately afterwards the battery in my camera failed. Well, I had my revenge on the Tooth. Shortly afterwards, I told my companions its dirty little secret.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

JFK's Big Brother: the Big Shot and the Big Gun

     When John F. Kennedy was elected President, there was soon a lot of publicity about his World War II service commanding torpedo boats, but what about his big brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr.? He was the one who was meant to be President. When he came into the world in 1915, his grandfather announced to the press that he would be the first Catholic President, and his whole life was plotted towards that purpose. Then his country went to war. Joe and Jack both joined the navy, Jack in the Pacific arena, and Joe on the other side of the Atlantic as a naval aviator, performing more than fifty missions in anti-submarine patrols. At last, he volunteered for Operation Aphrodite.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Husbands On the Menu

     In sub-Saharan Africa husbands are dispensable. That might seem a strange thing to say, considering that many African women are downtrodden, are all expected to get married, and often have limited say in whom they marry, while divorce entails returning the bride price. Nevertheless, one has to consider the economic situation. Times are changing, of course, with new technology and urbanisation, but traditional African agriculture was (and in many cases still is) hoe-based, and most of it is performed by women. (A similar situation exists in Melanesia.) Indeed, the fact that a man need not be a significant breadwinner to his wife or children is one of the main enabler of polygyny - 20% to 50% in some cases. I have a book published in 1952 entitled, The Fon and His 100 Wives, in which the author, Rebecca Reyher interviewed the king ("fon") of Bikom in the Cameroons, along with many of his wives. The interesting thing was that his harem, unlike those of a sultan or rajah, did not live in idleness in a gilded cage; they worked in the fields much like village women, their children accompanying them, or dragging themselves up. Perhaps this economic pattern may explain the grotesque events which took place in the same period in what was then the Belgian Congo.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

How Houdini Controlled the Rain

     Of course, we have all heard about Houdini, the great escape artist. A sideline to his story is what happened after his mother died. Distraught and grief-stricken, he sought the aid of mediums in order to contact her. By his own account, he wanted to believe. But it was a mistake for any medium to let a top class professional magician into the séance. Immediately, he saw that everything was not as it seemed. Behind the raps, the levitations, the slate-writing, the ectoplasm, and so forth lay the most blatant fraud. It was amazing how simple were many of the stage tricks involved. Thus began his crusade against Spiritualistic trickery. And most amazing of all was the desperate will to believe by their dupes. Many people, including his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insisted that he himself must be a medium, performing his work by with the aid of the spirits, despite his constant avowals that they were merely tricks.
     The upshot was his book, A Magician Among the Spirits (which can be read or downloaded here), appropriately dedicated to his mother. And on pages 245-6 he describes his own amusing adventure.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Bad Beef for the Baron

    Well, not exactly a baron, but what other English word is there to translate the Japanese  daimyō? They were the feudal lords of Japan, and even the small island of Hirado, 20 miles long by 5 wide, off the southeast coast of Kyūshū, had one. Shigenobu had been daimyō until 1589, after which he had been officially deposed in favour of his grandson, but it was the old man himself who really held the reins of power. However, Captain Saris of the English ship, the Clove persisted in recording his name as "King Foyne" because, for some reason, he was unable to pronounce Shigenobu. In any case, the Dutch had set up a "factory", or trading post, on the island in 1609, and now the English were going to try their hand. When they arrived on 10 June 1613 they were in terrible shape.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Of Eskimos and Ants

     How do Eskimo firefighters entertain themselves during down time? Eskimo firefighters? You must be kidding! How many fires do you get in the land of snow? Well, the igloos I saw in Greenland were made of timber, (igloo simply means "house", of whatever material) but I agree there were not enough to justify a regular fire brigade. However, it was a different matter in Idaho in 1967. But there are no Eskimos in Idaho, I hear you exclaim. Well, let me explain.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Farce of the Tombstone Rangers

     Bloody and brutal was the conflict between the Apaches and the white settlers, but there was one episode of a farce. It occurred in 1883, when General Crook was organizing an expedition into Mexico against Geronimo.
     While Crook was organizing the expedition a party of barroom Indian fighters who called themselves the "Tombstone Rangers" and who were well fortified with bottled spirits, patriotically set out for San Carlos to massacre all the reservation Apaches. Before they reached the southern edge of the reservation, however, they ran out of both whiskey and courage. They continued on their way with diminished enthusiasm until they saw an old Apache man out gathering mescal. Fortunately for them he was unarmed; fortunately for him, when they shot at him they missed. He fled north while the Tombstone Rangers dashed in the opposite direction, having completed one of the least bloody "massacres" of the Apache wars. The organization, Bourke noted, "expired of thirst".
Reference: Donald E. Worcester, The Apaches, Eagles of the Southwest, University of Oklahoma Press, p  267 of the 1992 edition.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Custer: Defender of the Indians

     A certain ironic justice has ensured that when the Red Indians achieved a major victory in the defense of their homes, the opposing general's humiliation would be compounded by having the defeat named after him. Thus, their greatest victory, which left 632 white soldiers and up to 200 female camp followers dead, and mostly scalpless, on the ground, is known as St Clair's Defeat. If it is any consolation to General St Clair - who escaped alive and unharmed, but with eight bullet wounds in his hat and clothing - his débacle has been largely forgotten by his compatriots.
     Not so lucky was George Armstrong Custer. Not only was his own body included among the 258 dead near the Little Bighorn River, but his action has remained forever famous as Custer's Last Stand. In a way, this is a pity, for it has overshadowed all the other aspects of his life.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Great Havana Clean-Up

     Cuba has had the bad luck to have suffered from oppressive governments for most of its history (it still does), but at least there were times when something positive was done - like when the U.S. was in charge. As you are no doubt aware, the Spanish-American War began with the U.S. intervening on Cuba's behalf during its war of independence. The result was that the country got its independence, but only after being taken care of by Uncle Sam from January 1899 to May 1902. And when Major William Black arrived as head of the U.S. Army Engineer Corps, he must have felt the same way Hercules did when presented with the Augean stables.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

P.O.W.s on Parole

     They don't fight wars the way they used to. I was surprised to discover, for example, that during the War of 1812 American prisoners were released by the British authorities with letters of parole. Essentially, they were let go when they signed a promise not to take up arms against His Majesty again. This they were able to do because, for the most part, they were militia who had signed up for six months' service, and were free to resign after that.