Monday, December 29, 2008

Four cafes a night

‘The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.’ So wrote Susan Sontag in her diary, exactly 50 years ago today. A first collection of her diary entries has just been published in the US, and is set for publication in the UK in January.

Susan was born in New York City in 1933 to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five. Seven years later, her mother remarried, to Nathan Sontag whose surname Susan took. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Chicago, but also spent time at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. When only 17, she married Philip Rieff, and they had one son, David, before divorcing in 1958.

After teaching philosophy at Columbia University for a while, Sontag began to focus exclusively on writing. She produced several novels (and plays), starting with The Benefactor in 1963, and ending with The Volcano Lover in 1992 and In America in 1999. She also wrote and directed several films. However, it was as an essayist that she is probably best remembered.

Against Interpretation, published in 1966, helped establish her reputation as a ‘dark lady of American letters’ (according to the neoconservative theorist Norman Podhoretz), and in 1977, she wrote a ground-breaking essay called On Photography. Over the next two or three decades, she wrote widely on photography, as well as about novels, film, the media and illness. She was also a busy human rights activist, and served, from 1987 to 1989, as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization. She died on 28 December 2004, four years ago yesterday.

Sontag was also a diarist, and her son, David Rieff, a writer on international issues, has been preparing the diaries for publication. A first volume published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1964 - came out in the US a few weeks ago (see Amazon.com) and is due for publication by Hamish Hamilton in the UK on 1 January (see Amazon.co.uk).

According to the publisher’s blurb, Reborn is ‘a kaleidoscopic self-portrait of one of America’s greatest writers and intellectuals, teeming with Sontag’s voracious curiosity and appetite for life’. The Independent, previewing the book last November, says it unveils ‘an intimate portrait of her early life and her much talked-about sexuality’. And it quotes one passage from when she was still only 15: ‘I am very young, and perhaps the most disturbing aspects of my ambitions will be outgrown . . . so now I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this).’

The Independent also quoted Rieff on the difficulties he had had with publishing such frank and personal material: ‘It was a difficult decision for me to make and my reasons are that I didn’t have much choice given the fact that she chose to sell the papers to the University of California. So later, down the line, editions of it would inevitably be published, so I would rather do it myself . . . I certainly made every effort in the editing not to cut anything on the basis of my being uncomfortable with it, and not to cut anything my mother might have preferred the world not to know.’

A generous helping of Sontag’s diary extracts can be found on the New York Times website, which published an article about her diary-writing more than two years ago. It says her interest in traditional journal-keeping - with dated entries and considered sentences - was ‘episodic’. There are outbreaks of diary writing, it explains, though more typical are lists (movies seen, books to read etc.). Although sometimes in her life she traces every detail of her private life with anxious care, it adds, at other times close relationships seem hardly to have been recorded. 

Of particular note is this comment: ‘Seen in the light of her accomplishments and celebrity, Sontag’s life seems to have an admirable coherence. Her public persona was durable and unmistakably hers. But in the journals, the effort of it appears again and again: the reworking of the life and ideas, the total concentration, along with the excitement she felt when things were finally going well. She often meditates on this constant self-construction, and indeed some aspects of her life - the mixing of high and low culture, the sexual enthusiasm, the passionate intellectualism - would become, beginning in the 1960s, hallmarks of the Downtown life.’

Here are a few extracts from the diaries, starting with one written exactly 50 years ago today.

29 December 1958, Paris
‘St. Germain des Prés. Not the same as Greenwich Village, exactly. For one thing, expatriates (Americans, Italians, English, South Americans, Germans) in Paris have a different role + self-feeling than provincials (e.g. kids from Chicago, the West Coast, the South) who come to New York. No rupture of national identification, and mal-identification. Same language. One can always go home. And, anyway, the majority of Villagers are New Yorkers - internal, even municipal, expatriates.

The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.

Also, in New York (Greenwich Village) there’s the shared comedy of being Jewish. That’s missing, too, from this bohemia. Not so heimlich. In Greenwich Village, the Italians - the proletarian background against which deracinated Jews + provincials stage their intellectual and sexual virtuosity - are picturesque but pretty harmless. Here, turbulent marauding Arabs.’

31 December 1958
‘On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts - like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. . .

Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.

Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building - such as the fait accompli this journal provides - I shall win through to the confidence that I have something to say, that should be said.

My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane men, critics, correct them - but their sanity is parasitic on the creative fatuity of genius.’

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Right and wrong in poetry

Hanazono, the 95th emperor of Japan, began his reign 700 years ago today (according to Wikipedia’s 28 December listing). However, after only 10 years he abdicated, and focused his attention on religious and literary matters. He also wrote a diary. Although there is very little information about him or his diary in English, there are a couple of extracts from the diary online, and these demonstrate a keen interest in music and poetry.

According to Wikipedia, Tomihito-shinnō was born on 14 August 1297, and died on 2 December 1348. He was the fourth son of the 92nd Emperor Fushimi, and belonged to the Jimyōin-tō branch of the Imperial Family. He became Emperor Hanazono after the abdication of his second cousin, the Emperor Go-Nijō. His reign as emperor started exactly seven centuries ago according to Wikipedia’s event listing for this day of the year. (Of course, such exact dates from so long ago can only be tied down to the Gregorian calendar with much approximation.)

During Hanazono’s reign, both his brother and father, the retired-Emperor Fushimi, are said to have exerted influence as cloistered emperors. And the reign was marked by negotiations with another family line that claimed the throne and the Bakufu (military). An agreement to alternate the throne every 10 years between the two lines (the so-called Bumpō Agreement) was broken by Emperor Go-Daigo, Hanzono’s second cousin, who took over when Hanazono abdicated in 1318.

In 1335, Hanazono became a Buddhist monk of the Zen sect. He was considered very religious, never failing to miss prayers to the Amitabha Buddha. He was also literate, and is said to have excelled at tanka, a kind of poetry. He left behind a diary, Wikipedia says, called Hanazono Tennō Shinki (Imperial Chronicles of the Flower Garden Temple). There is very little information about this diary online and in English, but a couple of books, viewable on Googlebooks, use short extracts.

Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency by Michel Conan says this: ‘Emperor Hanazono describes in his diary an imperial progress in the fourth month of 1320; on this occasion, when the imperial party boarded two boats and played music in them under the moonlight, as the parties rowed around the lake, he observes that ‘the sounds of the wind and string instruments and the water’s voice from the waterfall filled our ears’. ’

Another quote from Hanazono Tennō Shinki can be found in Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm, edited by Mark Teeuwen and Fabio Rambelli. However, it comes (slightly modified) from another book Kyogoku Tamekane: Poetry and Politics in Late Kamakura Japan by Robert N Huey.

‘Ordinary people do not understand these religious truths. Tameyo, who claims the main descent from Shunzei and Teika, has no idea of such things. They just made no impression on him. He jealously holds to the six modes of poetry and cannot see the true meaning of the art. Yet most of the world follows him, and the true Way of Poetry is gradually being abandoned . . . In recent years I have met with the holy man of Sōko and learned the tenets of religion. I have also met with Shinsō Hōnin and heard doctrines of Tendai. I have perused the Five Classics and have come to understand the doctrine of Confucianism. With this knowledge I have thought anew about the Way of Poetry. Truly the distinction between right and wrong in poetry is like that between heaven and earth.’

Friday, December 19, 2008

Emily Brontë peels apples

Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights one of the classics of British 19th century literature, died 160 years ago today aged only 30. There is no evidence that she kept a diary or journal, however she did write four diary-like pieces in collaboration with her sister Anne, and these, in fact are the only pieces of autobiographical writing that Emily left behind. All of them are freely available online - and very domestic they are too.

Emily was born on 30 July 1818 at Thornton near Bradford in Yorkshire, the fifth of six children. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth, also in Yorkshire, where Emily’s father was curate. The following year, Emily’s mother died, and her sister joined the household. The children were sent away to school at various times during their lives, but when at home they encouraged each other in imaginative games and writing. Emily worked for a while as a governess, and taught the piano. In 1842, she and two surviving sisters travelled to Brussels to improve their French, with the idea of starting a school on their return. But that plan never came to fruition. A year or two later, though, they published an edition of their poetry under pseudonyms (Ellis for Emily, Currer for Charlotte, and Acton for Anne).

In 1847, Emily published her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Although now considered a classic of English literature, Wikipedia says, it met with mixed reviews initially, ‘with many horrified by the stark depictions of mental and physical cruelty’. Oddly, Wikipedia’s entry on Wuthering Heights is much longer that the one on Emily. In September 1848, Emily caught a cold at the funeral of her brother, and this led to tuberculosis. She refused medical help and died 19 December 1848, 160 years ago today.

There are no records of Emily Brontë ever having kept a diary. However, there are four autobiographical pieces which seem to have been written as one-off diary entries. Two of them were written with her sister, Anne, in 1834 and 1837, and signed together - these are referred to as Diary Papers. And two were written by Emily on her birthdays in 1841 and 1845, and these are referred to both as Diary Papers and Birthday Papers. They can all be found online, for example at the website of the Brooklyn College English Department, and in several biographies, such as Emily Brontë by Lyn Pykett, published by Rowman & Littlefield, in 1989 (viewable at Googlebooks).

Pykett says, of the 1834 fragment, that it hardly suggests ‘the sixteen-year-old Emily is undergoing a stormy adolescence’ and instead offers ‘a sufficiently mundane impression of the daily life of the Haworth Parsonage’. Moreover, she adds, Emily’s ‘tenuous grasp of spelling and punctuation’ only adds to ‘the general impression of rather happy-go-lucky chaos’ in a ‘scene of female industry’.

Here is the 1834 Diary Paper, dated 24 November.

‘I fed Rainbow, Diamond Snowflake Jasper pheasant (alias) this morning Branwell went down to Mr. Driver’s and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to be invited to stand for Leeds Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make us an apple pudding and for Aunt nuts and apples Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Taby said just now Come Anne pilloputate (i.e. pill a potato) Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said where are your feet Anne Anne answered On the floor Aunt papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte - The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchen

It is past Twelve o’clock Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bedwork or done our lessons and we want to go out to play we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef, Turnips, potatoes and applepudding. The Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished) pilling the potatoes papa going to walk Mr. Sunderland expected.

Anne and I say I wonder what we shall be like and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874 - in which year I shall be in my 54th year Anne will be going in her 55th year Branwell will be going in his 58th year And Charlotte in her 59th year hoping we shall all be well at that time we close our paper’

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

1798 - year of woe

Mary Leadbeater, an Irish poet and diarist, was born 250 years ago this month. Her diary, published as The Annals of Ballitore, provides a literary but graphic account of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as an incredibly moving account of the death of her own daughter - ‘so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved’ - which is reproduced below. 

Born in December 1758 (the exact date is not known), Mary Shackleton was the daughter of the schoolmaster in Ballitore, a village in County Kildare founded by the Quakers in the 1700s. She travelled to London with her father in 1784, where they paid several visits to Edmund Burke’s town house, and where she met Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Crabbe. In 1791, she married William Leadbeater, a former pupil and teacher at her father’s school, and they settled in Ballitore. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, and Library Ireland.

Mary Leadbeater’s first published work, Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth, appeared anonymously in 1794, but she went on to publish collections of poems and several books - Her Cottage Dialogues and The Landlord’s Friend for example - which are considered to provide insight into the domestic and communal life of rural Ireland at the time. She is best remembered, though, for her diary, which she began aged only 11, and which she continued writing until a few years before her death in 1826. Extracts from this, entitled The Annals of Ballitore, were published in the first volume of The Leadbeater Papers in 1862. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.

Her first hand account of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 is particularly harrowing. Ballitore was occupied first by yeoman and soldiers and them by insurgents. The Leadbeaters themselves narrowly escaped death, but they then suffered the death of their daughter. Here is a longish extract from the Annals, dated almost exactly 210 years ago, the last weeks of 1798, in which Mary Leadbeater writes about her daughter’s dying.

‘A general rebuilding of the ruined houses now took place, but even this work was in a great measure carried on by plunder. The stately trees of Ballitore were often missed in the morning, and we could hear at night the sound of their being felled and the creaking of the cars which took them away. Desolation threatened in various shapes - the darkness of the winter nights was illumined by the fires of the houses burnt by the insurgents, and fatal was their vengeance. One man whom they thought they had killed and had thrown into a ditch, pulling down part of the bank upon him, was not fatally injured, struggled out of his grave, ran naked to Baltinglass, and convicted his intended murderers. A large burial moved through Ballitore with a kind of indignant solemnity. It was that of a young man who had been hanged, and whose father, on his son’s being apprehended, put an end to his own life. Such were the tragedies with which we were surrounded, and with which we had grown shockingly familiar.

Thus were we circumstanced when a sore domestic calamity seemed to fill up the measure of our sufferings. We thought we had a little respite from our foes, and we were once more assembled in peace around Mary and Anne’s fireside, when our dear little Jane was trusted by me with a wax taper to go up stairs alone. The staircase was short, and her grandmother was in her own room with her attendant. I was not used to be so incautious, and the thought crossed my mind, ‘Is it safe?’ A distinct voice seemed to reply, ‘The child is so steady;’ and all recollection of her left me till I heard her shrieks. Then the truth flashed upon me, and I accused myself of having murdered my child! She had gone into another room than her grandmother’s, and had laid down the taper; it caught her clothes, and the flames were not easily extinguished. A kind of convulsion stiffened her for a moment; the burns though extensive were but skin-deep, and those around us assured us she was in no danger. Alas, we were not aware that the fright she got had stopped the circulation of the blood. 0! why were we not aware of it? Let this be remembered by others, and may no one else experience the distress caused by our error.

The dear child soon ceased to complain of pain, kissed all those about her, and was cheerful, yet all night was thirsty, wakeful, and cold, with but little pulse. In the morning her whole form and sweet countenance underwent a momentary revolution which I cannot describe. We had sent to Athy for a doctor, but he said nothing could be done. Meantime, unconscious that she was leaving us, the dear innocent got her book and her work into her bed, and repeated her little verses, spoke with her usual courtesy to all around her, and, happy in her short life, closed her eyes never more to open them, just twenty-four hours after the accident happened. We who had lost our darling child of four years old felt deeply the deprivation, and struggled hard to submit to the will of Him who gives and takes away.

My grief was aggravated by self-accusation. I beheld my little cherub lie as in a placid sleep, her bloom not quite gone. I listened to those who desired me to reflect on the many fathers of families who lay buried in ditches, slaughtered in the prime of manhood and of usefulness; and to the widow who with tears reminded me that I had still my husband! I reflected how, a brief time ago, his precious life had seemed near departing, and I strove to extract consolation from the genuine sympathy bestowed by our friends; yet I thought no sympathy reached my heart so fully as once when I raised my eyes from contemplating the lovely remains of my child, and met those of a poor neighbour woman fastened upon me in silence, large tears streaming down her cheeks, her countenance filled with the deepest concern. She was a coarse-featured, strong, rough woman, and had forborne any expression by words of what she felt.

Our Jane was borne from our sight; the grave closed upon her for ever; her little playfellows bedecked it with flowers, and wept for their lost companion, while their schoolmistress and her husband mourned as for a favourite grandchild. Even in this season of universal dismay the loss of this dear child was very generally deplored; she was so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved - not like a thing of earth. So ended the year 1798. Oh! year of woe!

That year, that eventful year, which to me began with the fulness of joy, I saw depart laden with deep and piercing sorrow. Thus trouble takes its rounds; but ‘shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not also receive evil?’

We were almost prepared to congratulate our precious child on her escape, and to think that her timid nature might have been terrified into imbecility, when, shortly after her death, the robbers paid us another visit, breaking in the windows in the solemn midnight, and scaring us out of our quiet slumbers to behold armed men in our very chambers. They discovered what we strove to conceal, for their search was very strict, and they took whatever suited their purposes; but withal treated us with civility and respect.’

Friday, December 12, 2008

A pope’s view of Mussolini

The diaries of Papa Giovanni XXIII (Pope John XXIII) are being published in full next week, but only in Italian. According to press reports, these show his views about Benito Mussolini wavered much over time. An edited version of his spiritual diary in English has been available for over 40 years, since just after his death in 1963; and more recently some prophetic statements, said to come from the pope’s diaries, have been quoted widely on the internet.

There is no shortage of information about Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on the internet. Try Wikipedia, The Vatican, or Time Magazine (which carried an archive article on him dating from his inauguration as pope in 1958). He was born at Sotto il Monte, Bergamo, the fourth child in a large religious family of sharecroppers, and entered the Bergamo seminary when only 11, which is where he began to make spiritual diary notes, a practice he continued throughout his life. He was ordained in 1904 as a priest and was soon appointed secretary to the bishop of Bergamo. From 1915, Roncalli served as a military chaplain, and in 1920 was made director of the Italian organisation for the support of foreign missions. In 1925 he was ordained bishop.

Pope Pius XI brought him in to the Vatican’s diplomatic service and, thereafter, he served in Bulgaria, where he remained until 1935, Greece and Turkey (1935-1944), and France (1944-1953). During the last months of the war and after peace was achieved he aided prisoners of war and helped to normalise the ecclesiastical organisation in France. In 1953, he was created a cardinal and sent to Venice as Patriarch. Five years later, he was elected pope, and took the name John XXIII. Although his pontificate lasted only five years, he is considered to have been one of the most popular popes of modern times (due, it is said, to his personal warmth, good humour and kindness), and to have begun a new era of openness in the Roman Catholic Church.

An edited version of his spiritual diary was published in 1965 - Journal of the Soul. The Diary Junction gives links to websites with some extracts. Here is one of ten resolutions he committed to his diary in 1897 while still a teenager: ‘At table, whether speaking or eating, I will never be greedy or immoderate; I will always find an opportunity for a little mortification; as regards the drinking of wine I will be more than moderate, because in wine lies the same danger as in women: ‘Wine and women lead intelligent men astray.’

More recently, several websites have carried a number of supposed extracts from the pope’s diaries. Here is what Morgana’s Observatory says: ‘The following article has been published by various sources on the Internet, including Insight Magazine. I have not found this ‘diary’ mentioned anywhere but on the WWW. It is republished here for general interest only. Its authenticity is strongly in doubt. The dusty, leather-bound diary containing handwritten predictions was found by a Vatican cleaning woman who was sorting through boxes stacked in a seldom used storage room. . . Father DeAngelo, now 73 years old has agreed to release some of the diary entries made between February of 1959 and April of 1963. The scrawled messages reveal a frightened and excited Pontiff who decided to keep his meetings with Christ and the Madonna a secret.’ And here is one of the prophecies: 

6 March 1961
‘Just when I thought my heavenly visits were over, the Madonna comes to me once again. She seems tired of the heartache she must share with me. My heart aches to see him hurting so. The news, again foreboding. In the early 1990s there will be a period of deadly natural disasters. She says paradise will be struck by powerful winds and wails, while killer floods and violent earthquakes will shatter man’s dwellings. By the middle of the decade, regional skirmishes will develop into full-fledged conflicts. As the casualties mount, world-wide famine will strike. The devastation will be like none ever seen, especially throughout Africa where millions will perish.’

Now, though, Pope John XXIII’s diaries are being published in full (though I doubt they include the prophecies!). A grand launch is taking place next Tuesday at Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome, presided over by some eminent doctors and professors, including Prof Valerio Onida, President of ‘Fondazione per le scienze religiose di Bologna’ which is publishing the diaries: I Diari di A.G. Roncalli - Giovanni XXIII. According to the foundation’s website, though, the ‘Edizione Nazionale’ of Roncalli’s diaries are being published in many volumes, the first of which seems to have appeared in 2004. Perhaps, therefore, the big event on Tuesday is to celebrate publication of the final volumes.

In any case, this week Times Online ran an article about the diaries being ‘published in full’. It says they confirm Roncalli regarded Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, as a man who had ‘committed errors’ but who had, nonetheless, brought Italy ‘great benefits’. The article carries several quotes, presumably translated by the article’s author, Richard Owen in Rome. (It is not clear, though, whether all these quotes come from the volumes actually being published next week.)

1924
‘In my conscience as a priest and a Christian, I do not feel I can vote for the Fascists. Of one thing I am certain: the salvation of Italy cannot come from Mussolini, even though he may be gifted. His goals may perhaps be good and correct, but the means he uses to realise them are wicked and contrary to the Gospel.’

1936
‘A hidden force is guiding [Mussolini] and protecting Italy.’

July 1943
‘The gravest news of the day is the withdrawal of Mussolini from power. . . The Duce’s gesture is I believe an act of wisdom which does him honour. No, I will not throw stones at him. For him too, sic transit gloria mundi. But the great good which he did for Italy remains. His withdrawal is an expiation for some of his sins. Dominus parcat illi (May the Lord have mercy on him).’

After the war, though, Owen writes, Roncalli described Mussolini’s dictatorship as an ‘immense calamity’ which had brought ‘great sorrow to the Italian people’.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The people of Pemba

Four centuries ago today, an explorer and sailor named Robert Coverte was landing on the island of Pemba, part of the Zanzibar archipelago off the east coast of Africa. A few days later, some of his crew were to be murdered there. Nevertheless, he wrote in his diary that the people of Pemba ‘seeme to bee louing and kind’.

Not much is known about Coverte, other than what can be deduced from his diary first published in 1612 with a very lengthy title (as copied from the British Library catalogue): A True and almost Incredible Report of an Englishman, that, being cast away in the good ship called the Assention in Cambaya the farthest part of the East Indies, trauelled by land through many vnknowne kingdomes, and great cities. With a particular description of all those kingdomes, cities, and people. As also a relation of their commodities and manner of traffique, and at what seasons of the yeere they are most in vse. Faithfully related. With a discouery of a great emperour called the Great Mogoll, a prince not till now known to our English nation.

An American rare book dealer, William Reese Company, is offering a copy of the second edition, published in 1614, for sale at $25,000. Its website provides what little information there is about Coverte. He and his men, it says, left Plymouth in March 1607 and were among the first Englishmen to see the Cape of Good Hope, arriving there in July 1608. Coverte eventually reached Gujarat, where his ship ran aground while approaching Surat. Not granted permission to remain in Surat, the crew departed to various destinations, but Coverte and others set out for the Moghul Court at Agra, arriving there in December 1609. They left in January 1610 and made their way back to the Levant travelling by way of Kandahar, Esfahan, and Baghdad. They reached Aleppo a year later, and then sailed to England, arriving the following April.

Here are some entries taken from a copy of Coverte’s journal privately printed in Philadelphia in 1931. It has an introduction and notes by Boies Penrose (a lawyer and politician) who said the narrative was ‘vigorous’ and ‘one of the best examples of a travel journal that the period produced.’ The following extracts date from December 1608, starting with one from exactly 400 years ago today.

‘The tenth day of December about two or three of the Clock in the morning, and the Moone shiny, we espied on a sudden low land with high trees growing by the shore side, we being not a league form the shore, so that if we had not espied the trees, we should haue thought the land to haue been a shadow of the Moone, and so might haue run ourselues on shore, and cast our selues away with ship and goods but it was Gods good prouidence thus to defend us from so great and eminent danger, whose name be blessed and praised now euermore.

This was the island of Pemba, which we tooke to be Zinzabar, untill by one of the people of the Countrey we found it to be Pemba. At the sight of this low Iland - after we plainely perceiued it, wee presently tackt about and set from the shore till day and then we tackt about againe to the shore side, and neering along the shore side for a harbour to ancor in, wee sent Pinnis in the meane time, to the shore withe the Gang onlie and master Elmore to seeke for a conuenient watering place, wee keeping our course till our Pinnis came to the shore side. Then two or three people of the Iland demanded in the Portugall language what we were, and one of our men made answer, that we were Englishmen.

Then they demanded againe what we had to doe there, in regard the King of Portugall was King of that Iland: wee replied, that wee knew not so much, neither came we thither for any euill intent whatsoeuer, but only to water, and would giue them satisfaction, for any other thing we should haue of them. Then it drew towards night, and our man came aboard and acquainted the whole Company with this their parly on shore.’

‘The 19 day our Long-boat went a shore in the morning verie early, to fill our Caske with water . . . they gaue the watchword and sounded a horne, and presently set upon our men at the watering place and slew Iohn Harrington, the boat-swaines man, and wounded Robert Buckler. Master Ellmores man very sore, with 8 or 10 seurall wounds, and had killed him, but we discharged a Musket or two, which (as it seemed) hurt some of them; for then they retired and cried out: and so (though weake and faint) he did at length recouer our boat. Also two or three more of our men by creeping, and lying close in the ditch, untill they espied our, got also safe aboard, and then counting our men, we only missed Edward Churchman, and Iohn Harrington, that was slaine: and so comming aboard, we certified the company of all our proceedings on shoare; and our surgeon dressed Robert Buckler; and after, did his best for his cure and recouery of his health. . .’

‘The twentieth day in the morning we went on shoare . . . we found Iohn Harrington dead and starke naked, whome we buried at another Iland, hard by the main Iland. . . The naturall people of the Iland Pemba, seeme to bee louing and kind: for they made signes to me and others, at our first comming, to beware of our throats cutting: which we tooke no heede or notice of, untill this their treachery put in minde thereof againe.’

Saturday, December 6, 2008

1st Duke of Albemarle

George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, was born 400 years ago today. He was an English soldier and a key player in the restoration of Charles II. He was not a diarist (as far as I know) but Samuel Pepys mentioned him often in his diary, and called him ‘a dull fellow’. He didn’t, however, lead a dull life.

Monck was born on 6 December 1608, near Torrington in Devon, into a respectable family but one suffering from money problems. He became a soldier, fighting with the Dutch against the Spaniards from 1629 to 1638, and earned himself a reputation as a leader. He distinguished himself further by suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, before returning to England to fight for King Charles I against the Parliamentarians. He was imprisoned for two years in the Tower of London. Then, from 1646, he sided with the Parliamentarians for whom he went to Ireland to fight against the rebels there.

Subsequently, Oliver Cromwell sent him to Scotland where he fought (with Cromwell) at the important Battle of Dunbar. Monck was then made commander-in-chief in Scotland, and completed the subjugation of the country. In 1652, he was appointed one of three generals at sea fighting in the First Anglo-Dutch War. On his return, he married Anne Clarges, and went back to Scotland, to beat down a Royalist insurrection. At Cromwell’s request, he remained there as governor.

During the confusion which followed Cromwell’s death in September 1658, Monck at first supported Cromwell’s son and successor Richard, but did not oppose the overthrow of the Protectorate and the recall of the ‘Rump’ of the Long Parliament. The Rump was forcefully dissolved by General John Lambert, but Monck refused to recognise the new military regime and led an army from Scotland in early 1660 against Lambert. 

When the new Convention Parliament was elected, it quickly invited Charles II to return to England as king. For his services in contributing to a peaceful restoration of the monarchy, Monck was made Duke of Albemarle and a Knight of the Garter, and was awarded a large annual pension. He returned to sea and battle once more, in 1666 commanding the English fleet in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but died in 1670.

Samuel Pepys, who worked for the Navy Board, was a regular visitor at the Duke’s house during 1665, for business and society. Here are a few of Pepys’s diary entries from November that year (taken from The Diary of Samuel Pepys website).

Sunday 12 November
‘. . . After dinner I by water to the Duke of Albemarle, and there had a little discourse and business with him, chiefly to receive his commands about pilotts to be got for our Hambro’ ships, going now at this time of the year convoy to the merchant ships, that have lain at great pain and charge, some three, some four months at Harwich for a convoy. They hope here the plague will be less this weeke. . .’

Tuesday 14 November
‘. . . and down I went to Greenwich to my office, and there sat busy till noon, and so home to dinner, and thence to the office again, and by and by to the Duke of Albemarle’s by water late, where I find he had remembered that I had appointed to come to him this day about money, which I excused not doing sooner; but I see, a dull fellow, as he is, do sometimes remember what another thinks he mindeth not. My business was about getting money of the East India Company; but, Lord! to see how the Duke himself magnifies himself in what he had done with the Company; and my Lord Craven what the King could have done without my Lord Duke, and a deale of stir, but most mightily what a brave fellow I am. Back by water, it raining hard, and so to the office, and stopped my going, as I intended, to the buoy of the Nore, and great reason I had to rejoice at it, for it proved the night of as great a storme as was almost ever remembered. . .’

Wednesday 22 November
‘Up, and by water to the Duke of Albemarle, and there did some little business, but most to shew myself, and mightily I am yet in his and Lord Craven’s books, and thence to the Swan and there drank and so down to the bridge, and so to the Change, where spoke with many people, and about a great deale of business, which kept me late. I heard this day that Mr. Harrington is not dead of the plague, as we believed, at which I was very glad, but most of all, to hear that the plague is come very low; that is, the whole under 1,000, and the plague 600 and odd: and great hopes of a further decrease, because of this day’s being a very exceeding hard frost, and continues freezing. . .’

Monday 27 November
‘Up, and being to go to wait on the Duke of Albemarle, who is to go out of towne to Oxford to-morrow, and I being unwilling to go by water, it being bitter cold, walked it with my landlady’s little boy Christopher to Lambeth, it being a very fine walke and calling at half the way and drank, and so to the Duke of Albemarle, who is visited by every body against his going; and mighty kind to me: and upon my desiring his grace to give me his kind word to the Duke of Yorke, if any occasion there were of speaking of me, he told me he had reason to do so; for there had been nothing done in the Navy without me. His going, I hear, is upon putting the sea business into order, and, as some say, and people of his owne family, that he is agog to go to sea himself the next year. Here I met with a letter from Sir G. Carteret, who is come to Cranborne, that he will be here this afternoon and desires me to be with him. So the Duke would have me dine with him. So it being not dinner time, I to the Swan, and there found Sarah all alone in the house. So away to the Duke of Albemarle again, and there to dinner, he most exceeding kind to me to the observation of all that are there. . .’

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sutter’s Gold Rush

One hundred and sixty years ago today, President James Knox Polk confirmed to the US Congress that there was an abundance of gold on the west coast, in California. In fact, gold had been discovered nearly a year earlier at a mill owned by Johann August Sutter, a German immigrant. Sutter’s diary provides an interesting account of those early gold rush days.

It is widely accepted that the California Gold Rush began on 24 January 1848, when the metal was discovered by James Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator at Sutter’s Mill, Coloma, some 130 miles northwest of San Francisco. Rumours about the gold began to spread, first being published in a West Coast newspaper in March. Later that year, in August, the New York Herald, on the East Coast, reported that there was a major gold rush.

On 5 December, 160 years ago, the gold rush became official, as it were, when President Polk wrote to congress as follows: ‘The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.’ And the news continued to spread so that eventually some 300,000 men, women, and children travelled to California - from the rest of the US in covered wagons, and from overseas by boat - often undergoing great hardships on the way. At first, the prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning, but more sophisticated production methods evolved over time.

The effects of the California Gold Rush were substantial, Wikipedia says. San Francisco grew from a hamlet to a boomtown, while roads, churches, schools and other towns were built all across the area. By 1850, California had been admitted as a state, and soon new methods of transportation, such as steamships and railroads, were being developed, as was the land for agriculture. The rest is history - today California is the richest of the United State, accounting for 13% of the US’s GDP.

There are many first hand accounts by forty-niners (the name given to those who made the journey to California in search of gold) in letters and diaries. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco is a good place to start, as is The California Gold Country - Highway 49 Revisited. Gold Rush Saints: California Mormons and the Great Rush for Riches by Kenneth N. Owens, which can be looked at on Googlebooks, uses a lot of original diary material.

To return to Sutter, though, the mill owner. He was born in 1803 in Kandern, southwest Germany, but was schooled in Switzerland, and joined the Swiss army rising to the rank of captain. However, in 1934, he left Europe for the New World to escape creditors. After extensive travels in North America, he settled in California in 1839, then part of Mexico, where he founded New Helvetia colony near the Sacramento river. Although the discovery of gold happened on Sutter’s land, it was eventually to ruin him. His land and property were over-run and destroyed by gold diggers, and thereafter he spent many years and much money on legal battles trying to defend his ownership or in seeking compensation. He died in Washington in 1880, apparently a poor and embittered man.

Excepts from Sutter’s diary first appeared in 1878 in the San Francisco Argonaut, and were reprinted by the Grabhorn Press in 1932. Here are three from early on in 1848 (and more can be read on The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website, which notes that the entries were probably written retrospectively).

28 January 1848
‘Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private Room he showed me the first Specimens of Gold, that is he was not certain if it was Gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was Gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 Carat Gold; he wished that I should come up with him immediately, but I told him that I have to give first my orders to the people in all my factories and shops.

1 February 1948
‘Left for the Sawmill attended by a Baquero (Olimpio). Was absent 2d, 3d, 4th, & 5th. I examined myself everything and picked up a few Specimens of Gold myself in the tail race of the Sawmill; this Gold and others which Marshall and some of the other laborers gave to me (it was found while in my employ and Wages) I told them that I would a Ring got made of it soon as a Goldsmith would be here. I had a talk with my employed people all at the Sawmill. I told them that as they do know now that this Metal is Gold, I wished that they would do me the great favor and keep it secret only 6 weeks, because my large Flour Mill at Brighton would have been in Operation in such a time, which undertaking would have been a fortune to me, and unfortunately the people would not keep it secret, and so I lost on this Mill at the lowest calculation about $25,000.’

7 March 1948
‘The first party of Mormons, employed by me left for washing and digging Gold and very soon all followed, and left me only the sick and the lame behind. And at this time I could say that every body left me from the Clerk to the Cook. What for great Damages I had to suffer in my tannery which was just doing a profitable and extensive business, and the Vatts was left filled and a quantity of half finished leather was spoiled, likewise a large quantity of raw hides collected by the farmers and of my own killing. The same thing was in every branch of business which I carried on at the time. I began to harvest my wheat, while others was digging and washing Gold, but even the Indians could not be keeped longer at Work. They was impatient to run to the mine, and other Indians had informed them of the Gold and its Value; and so I had to leave more as 2/3 of my harvest in the fields.’