For amateur historians and trivia collectors everywhere

Location: Masterton, New Zealand

I survived school history despite the best efforts of the education system to bore me to death. Many years later, I discovered Treaties, dates, the movement of nations, are mere context. The fascination is in the details.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Born this day in 1740 - James Boswell, the Scottish lawyer and writer who is remembered most for his biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Not everyone was a fan of either Boswell or his subject. In 1791, Horace Walpole wrote -
"Boswell's book is gossiping. Often, indeed, Johnson made the most brutal speeches to living persons; for though he was good-natured at bottom, he was very ill-natured at top. He loved to dispute, to show his superiority. If his opponents were weak, he told them they were fools; if they vanquished him, he was scurrilous - to nobody more than to Boswell himself, who was contemptible for flattering him so grossly, and for enduring the coarse things he was continually vomiting on Boswell's own country, Scotland."

Success! Blogger is co-operating again (see yesterday's post).

Here are the photos from the gathering on Queen's Wharf to celebrate Captain Cook's birthday. At left is Ken Scadden, historian and museum consultant, reading an opening speech. Cannon in the background ready for firing and chrome foghorn rigged to an air tank for making lots of celebratory noise.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A small group of maritime enthusiasts and similar eccentrics met on Queens Wharf, near the Museum of Wellington, at noon yesterday to celebrate the birthday of Captain James Cook who was born on 27th October 1728.
There was a short speech in the man's honour, cannon were fired, and there was beer, lime juice and birthday cake for all. I have photographs and would like to show them to you but Blogger, in its wisdom, doesn't want to co-operate. I keep getting a non-specific error message and I'm too tired to argue. Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Returning to England after the Battle of Trafalgar, the victorious British fleet - with prize ships in tow - ran into a gale. Sir Henry Blackwood, writing from the Euryalus (36 guns) on 25th October 1805, described the chaos.

"All yesterday and last night the majority of the English fleet have been in the most perilous state, our ships much crippled with dismasted prizes in tow, our crews tired out, and many thousands of prisoners to guard - all to be done with a gale of wind blowing us right on the shore .... The melancholy sights we experienced yesterday of ships driven on shore, others burning, and the rest that we have been forced to sink, after withdrawing as many men as we could for fear of their again falling into the hands of the enemy, cannot be described. Close to the port of Cadiz I had to destroy the Santissima Trinidada, a Spanish ship of 100 guns .... The French commander-in-chief, Villeneuve, is at this moment at my elbow .... his despair and astonishment at so many having fallen cannot be easily conceived."
('Nelson and his Captains', W.H. Fitchett, 1911)

Meanwhile, the French newspaper 'Le Moniteur' was churning out this incredible piece of propaganda.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On the eve of Trafalgar's 200th anniversary, try this reading of Admiral Nelson's character from W. H. Fitchett, B.A., LL.D -

"He was vehement, moody, swinging to opposite poles of emotion with strange readiness; now drooping, now exultant, and intense alike in his hates and his loves. There was a strain of the woman in him; of womanly vehemence, of womanly sensitiveness, of womanly - not to say half-shrewish - temper. It was the woman in him which explains that pathetic "Kiss me, Hardy," in the last scene of all. His hate of the French has in it a strain of feminine shrewishness. His belief in his friends, in his comrades, in his ship, had in it more than a touch of feminine exaggeration. The half-feminine side of Nelson's character is seen in his simple and unashamed delight in flattery. Lady Hamilton's emotions and superlatives, her tears, her apostrophies, her swoons would have turned the stomach of most men."
('Nelson and His Captains', 1911)

You can read a moderately edited version of this essay here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

On this day in 1936, New Zealand pilot, Jean Batten - "the Garbo of the skies" - added another aviation record to her list when she landed at Auckland, ending a record flight from England to New Zealand in a Percival Gull monoplane.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Fairy tales #2 - The formidable Mrs Alec-Tweedie, travel-writer, ardent monarchist and British to the core, wrote this in 1926 -

"The Republics of the Americas, China, France, and Russia can teach us little. It is we who can teach them the laws of just government. Do not let us slip back from our pedestal. For centuries the British nation has led the world. We must lead it still.
Republics are always more or less corrupt. They cannot help it. Constant change means constant upheaval and the top man putting all his own friends into office to support him, until another top man comes along and kicks him and all his minions out - and the same begins again, to last for another four years. The first year the President is learning his job, the second and third year he becomes useful, and the fourth he is sterile, afraid to offend anyone or anything while he nurses his seat, hoping to get in again. The greatest achievements have been attained under monarchs."
('An Adventurous Journey')

Monarchs who have Prime Ministers who stand for election, bring in their friends, are useful for a time, then become sterile, afraid to offend.......

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Once upon a time ...... A.G. Street (1892-1966) speculates on how the British Empire began -

"Why were the sailors from such a small nation so successful wherever they voyaged? Largely because they did not set out with any idea of conquering the world. Being islanders they perforce went to sea. In their travels they landed on strange shores, where in most cases they found a state of things that offended their ideas of what was fitting for human beings. So they stayed and put it right, not so much because they wanted the job, but rather because they had stumbled on it, and felt it was up to them to do the right thing. Thus, without deliberate design they founded a great empire overseas. But, in conformity with the illogical character of the English, they allowed each part to govern itself, being free to support the Motherland in time of war or not as its people should decide."
('England Today in Pictures', Odhams Press Ltd., 1947)

Yes, dear reader, there was a time when the people were so ignorant of the facts they believed in fairy stories.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Belgium 1915. On this day, English nurse Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad. 'The Great World War, A History', Vol. 5 - written too close to the event to be objective - said

".... the utter inability of Prussian militarism to understand why the shooting of Nurse Cavell should have sent a thrill of horror and disgust throughout the civilized world .... was the most damning commentary on German Kultur since the sinking of the Lusitania. ....
The charge brought against Miss Cavell was that she had sheltered fugitive British and French soldiers and helped them, as well as some young Belgians, to escape across the frontier into Holland. This, apparently, was freely admitted by Miss Cavell, who, scorning to conceal anything, furnished her accusers with information which she alone could have given, and probably sealed her fate.
She had, it is true, violated a military law, and incurred some penalty, possibly imprisonment until the end of the war. But this was no drum-head court martial on a field of battle. This was Brussels, where.... the Germans claimed to have established orderly rule comparable with their own government, and to have appointed a Civil Governor. And their victim was no unknown adventuress, without a claim on their generous consideration, but one who had proved a good Samaritan to many a wounded German since the beginning of the war."

All true according to the values of the time. Of course, what the Gestapo would have done to her in the Second World War doesn't bear thinking about.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

National traits - according to Alexis de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America', 1835.

".... national pride takes different forms.
The Americans, in their relations with strangers, are impatient of the least criticism and absolutely insatiable for praise. The slightest congratulation pleases them, but the most extravagant eulogium is not enough to satisfy them; they are all the time touting for your praise, and if you are slow to give it, they begin praising themselves. It is as if they were doubtful of their own merit. Their vanity is not only hungry, but anxious and envious. It gives nothing, and asks insistently. .....
The Englishman, on the contrary, tranquilly enjoys the real or imaginary advantages which his country affords. He cares nothing for the praise of strangers. His attitude towards the whole world is one of disdainful and ignorant reserve. His pride seeks no nourishment; it lives on itself."

Friday, October 07, 2005

From 'Atlantic Meeting', By H.V. Morton, 1943. Winston Churchill is on his way north by train during WWII -

At Leicester we stopped for a new engine. It was not yet black-out time, and the windows were uncurtained. A shunting engine was stationary on rails opposite the Prime Minister's saloon. The driver of the engine was an old man with grey hair who wore a cap flattened by age and grease and oil, and he was leaning from his cab to exchange some pleasantry with a friend on the line. Happening to lift his head, he became aware that he was separated by not more than six yards from an apparition that bore every resemblance to Winston Churchill. Although the brains of engine drivers move with considerable rapidity, it took him a second or two to become convinced that the vision was a reality, during which time his mouth opened and a startled smile, which turned to one of great pleasure, crossed his blackened face. Lifting the oily cap from his head, he leaned out and shouted, "Good old Winston!" And the Prime Minister, lifting his cigar an inch or so from his mouth, gave one of his most roguish smiles. Then the train moved on.
"Leicester!" commented Mr. Churchill. "I once fought an election there, but they didn't want me."

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Argosy, City of Glasgow
Now the aerial voyagers embark in their winged express, one of the multi-engined "Silver Wing" biplanes which carry nineteen or twenty passengers and their luggage, in addition to the pilot, engineer, and steward, the last-named serving refreshments from his neatly-appointed buffet while the machine is in flight. Large trunks, it may be noted, as well as smaller luggage, can be accommodated in these big air expresses. The motors driving the giant machine develop a total of nearly 2,000 horse-power. Weighing, fully loaded, more than eight tons, the air express attains an average speed of 95 miles-an-hour with a top speed of approximately 120 miles-an-hour.
Entering the saloon of this big 'plane - the fruit of years of experience in commercial design and construction - passengers find that it is roomy, lofty, spacious. Each traveller is given a separate armchair seat, on one side of which there is a curtained outlook window, which may be opened as desired.
('The Romance of a Modern Airway', Harry Harper, 1930.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Things we take for granted. From 'The World', McDougall's Educational Company Ltd, c.1913 -
The opening of the [Panama] Canal will open up the eastern coasts of the Pacific to Europe as well as to the United States, and provide an alternative route to China, Japan, and Australia. The sea journey from New York to San Francisco will be shortened by two-thirds, and to Valparaiso and South American ports by a half. The chief political result will be to make the eastern and western coasts of the United States practically one coast line ......

Saturday, October 01, 2005

From 'Airborne at Kitty Hawk' by Michael Harrison, 1953 -
Europe owed the 'scientific approach' [to invention/discovery] to the Arabs, the overthrow of whose empire by the barbarous Christian pseudo-culture is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedies of history. For the Arab, inheriting and preserving the culture of Ancient Greece, added to the Greeks' insatiable curiosity and passionless determination to arrive at the fundamentals of things, a practicality that the Greeks never achieved. The Arabs could speculate as well as could the Greeks; they could reason from observed phenomena, and could seek for what their reasoning had shown them was to be found. But - unlike the Greeks - they could take their designs off the drawing-board and make them work.