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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Political swing in the Pacific

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and PM Bill English in Wellington
How a few headlines illustrate how the world can change ....

FAMINE HITS AS US LOOKS TO SLASH AID, runs one heading in today's Wellington Dominion Post newspaper.

NZ DONATES $3 MILLION TO SUPPORT FAMINE RELIEF, runs another.  Yes, we are a small country down here in the bottom of the Pacific, but we do our bit, it seems.  That three million is for emergency famine relief in Africa and Yemen.  It is intended to assist the more than 20 million people facing starvation across the Greater Horn of Africa, Nigeria and Yemen, so how far it will go is an uncomfortable imponderable.  Nonetheless, it is a contrast to the other item, which reports that Donald Trump is cutting foreign aid just in time to dodge the "world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years."

So, in view of the isolationist stance of the latest administration in Washington, it is probably no wonder that the world is turning in other directions.  Or that the Chinese Premier is shaking the hands of politicians and business leaders downunder.   As commentator Vernon Small remarks in the same paper, the timing of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's three-day visit couldn't be nicer. "With the United States President Donald Trump taking the protectionist route, and China claiming the free trade high ground, he and [New Zealand Prime Minister] Bill English had much to agree on."

And, what's more, Mr. English has received an official invitation to a visit to China.  As Small goes on to muse, "you would have to think he will find that a much more welcome prospect than the normally sought-after gold-standard invitation, the one to the White House."

It is obvious to all that there is not going to be the comradely relationship between Trump and English that was the case with President Obama and our ex-PM, John Key.

There's more than handshakes and barbeque dinners at stake.  As the editorial -- under the headline BALANCING ACT WITH CHINA -- commences, "The visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiant puts a spotlight on New Zealand's need for the superpower."

And, despite all kinds of difficulties, with the abdication of the United States the alternative in the Pacific is China.  The tricky bit is coming to a mutually comfortable agreement.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rare whales in Cook Strait

From Radio New Zealand  

NIWA marine ecologist Dr Kim Goetz and her team put seven acoustic moorings - or hydrophones - in the Strait last June and, after retrieving them in December, are getting preliminary results.

The whales so far found in the audio include humpbacks, Antarctic blue whales and Antarctic minke whales.

Many beaked whales were also recorded.

Beaked whales are rarely seen because they usually dive for long periods. Dr Goetz's team thought their audio of the Gray's and strap-toothed beaked whales were likely the first recorded in New Zealand.

She said she was most excited to find the Cuvier's beaked whale on the recordings.

"So little information is known about these animals and, you know, it's primarily from stranding events ... dead animals that could be sick.

"What we're hearing are the live animals in their habitat and we're hearing them across the entire Cook Strait region. That's really novel information."

Dr Goetz said when she proposed the idea of putting the recorders in the Strait it raised eyebrows at NIWA because of the harsh environment.

They used a computer programme to run through the 14 terabytes of recorded noise and recognise and classify the whales.

As well as whales, many boats and strong currents were recorded. On November 14, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake interrupted the recordings.

She said there could be some interesting results from the data.

"With this we'll be able to tell later on, is there a difference before and after the earthquake in terms of vocalisations.

"There's just nothing really known about how marine mammals might respond to an earthquake.

"So that's something that can come out later."

Cook Strait import for whales

More than half of the world's whale and dolphin species are found in New Zealand waters.

Before now, little was known about their migration paths and their behaviour.

Anton van Helden used to work at the Marine Mammal collections at Te Papa and is the Marine Conservation Advocate at Forest and Bird.

"It just shows what an important area Cook Strait is to these species and perhaps others," he said.

"This is really exciting news now that we get to hear them, hear where they go and what they're up to so that's fantastic."

Mr van Helden said most information about whale movements and populations came from strandings. This was a new area.

"As new technology develops we get more information, so that revolutionises the way that we perceive the lives of animals.

"Just knowing these are present and out there, it also means that we have some responsibility to manage what happens to those animals."

Dr Kim Goetz said the project needed to be more than a one-off so scientists could understand annual variations to the whale songs.

The moors were redeployed in February and would be analysed in August.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mutiny, refugees, and politics

Some years ago, I was given a gripping account of one of the world's most famous (or infamous) mutinies, that on HMS Hermione, in 1797.  Written by Dudley Pope, it was a page-turner.

Now, according to an interesting article in The Smithsonian by

On the night of September 22, 1797, the bloodiest mutiny ever suffered by the Royal Navy erupted aboard the frigate HMS Hermione off the western coast of Puerto Rico. Stabbed repeatedly with cutlasses and bayonets, ten officers, including the ship’s sadistic captain, Hugh Pigot, were thrown overboard.

"In the summer of 1799, [President] Adams ignited a political firestorm by authorizing a federal court in Charleston, South Carolina, to surrender to the British a seaman named Jonathan Robbins—a native son, he claimed, of Danbury, Connecticut, who had been impressed by the Royal Navy. The outrage was fanned in subsequent weeks by news from Jamaica of the sailor’s hanging, not as Jonathan Robbins, a United States citizen, but, the British claimed, as the reputed Irish ringleader Thomas Nash.

"Although his true identity remained hotly contested, that did not put an end to the
martyrdom of Jonathan Robbins. Mourned by Jeffersonian Republicans as a freedom fighter against British tyranny, the incident proved pivotal to Adams’s bitter loss to Jefferson in the monumental presidential election of 1800. The Robbins crisis also contributed to a dramatic shift in United States immigration policy.

"In his first address to Congress, on December 8, 1801, President Jefferson pointedly invoked America’s messianic pledge to afford a haven for persecuted refugees. In stark contrast to the nativism of the Adams years, he demanded, “Shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress, that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?”

"For 43 years after the extradition of Robbins, not one person, citizen or alien, would be surrendered by the federal government to another country, including other mutineers from the Hermione. And when the United States finally signed an extradition agreement with Great Britain in 1842 as part of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, “political offenses,” including mutiny, desertion, and treason were exempted from a list of extraditable crimes in order to avoid reviving the “popular clamour” of the Robbins controversy."

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Believe or not, dragon's blood used to be part of the sea-surgeon's pharmacopeia.  More formally called Sanguis draconis, it was prescribed as an astringent and incrassating tonic -- it thickened body fluids, which was considered a good solution to weeping wounds.

John Woodall, who wrote the first sea-surgeon's medical guide (The Surgions Mate) and published it in 1617, "for the benefit of young Sea-Surgions, imployed in the East-India Companies affairs," listed Sanguis Draconis in his chapter "Of the Medicines, and their uses."

"Sanguis Draconis is colde and drie in the first degree," he wrote; "it is of an astringent quality, it closeth up wounds, and confirmeth the weake parts, and stayeth the fluxes of outward wounds."

Unromantically, however, the "blood" did not come from dragons.  It was the gum resin secreted by the fruits of East Indian climbing palms, once classified as Calamus draco, and now listed as two species, Daemonorops propinquus and D. ruber.  I guess it was called "blood" because the gum renders a deep red color in an alcohol solution.  And, while it left the sea-surgeon's medical chest a long time ago, it is still used as a coloring agent in varnish and paint.

However, there are real dragons in this world, which I found on the Indonesian island Komodo.

And, quite frankly, I found them terrifying.  Not only are they unsettlingly well-camouflaged, but they stink.  And they drool ghastly bloodflecked strings of saliva.  Reportedly, they run very fast, chasing down prey and delivering a nasty bite.  And then they follow the bitten animal (or person) while the saliva in the bite takes effect.  Slowly, the victim weakens, until it can no longer fight back.  And the patient dragon enjoys a feast.

However, it does seem that the blood of Komodo dragons could be very, very useful in medicine.  According to Science Daily, Komodo dragon blood may hold the solution to the ever-growing problem of antibiotic resistance in disease bacteria.

As the article summarizes, "In a land where survival is precarious, Komodo dragons thrive despite being exposed to scads of bacteria that would kill less hardy creatures. Now in a study, scientists report that they have detected antimicrobial protein fragments in the lizard's blood that appear to help them resist deadly infections. The discovery could lead to the development of new drugs capable of combating bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics."

And so, you never know, Dragon's Blood may return to the sea-surgeon's medical chest, hundreds of years after Woodall.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Alaric Bond, master of the Age of Nelson genre

The great advantage of five weeks at sea is the chance to catch up with the TBR (to be read) list, and right at the top of that list were two books in the Alaric Bond "Fighting Sail" series, a treat that I had been putting off for far too long.

The huge advantage was that I was able to read them in sequence, something I really recommend.  So, if you haven't caught up with this series, this is a good time to start.

First, the eighth in the series, HMS Prometheus.

The bloodstirring battles, flamboyant characters, and shipboard lifestyle of the Age of Nelson resonate down the ages.  It could even be said, perhaps, that because of the legendary status of the “little, pigeon-breasted man” — as author Alaric Bond describes Admiral Nelson — that this series of conflicts with the French was the last of the glamorous wars. Since then, mud, blood, and agony characterize battle, and all the gold lace and glory has vanished.

Because of this, too, the era of Napoleon and Nelson is over-populated by novelists. I used to think that C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian had said it all, and the rest is redundant. To Forester and POB, however, I would now add a third, Alaric Bond.  While Bond has not created captains of the mythic status of Aubrey and Hornblower, he has given an eloquent voice to the rest of the floating village at war — the lower deck tar, the surgeon and the surgeon’s wife, the officers, the midshipmen, and the men who served the sails and the guns.  He describes the entire ship’s complement with a kindly and eminently knowledgeable eye. And, most definitely, he can write. 

This, the eighth book in Alaric Bond’s “Fighting Sail” series, begins with Prometheus under repair in the Gibraltar shipyard after what was evidently a savage battle with the French. We are rapidly introduced to a number of interesting characters, such as the enigmatic and relatively elderly midshipman, Franklin, the ship’s captain, Sir Richard Banks, varied and various seamen and officers, and the surgeon and his wife. There are so many people, in fact, that the names become somewhat of a blur, but the reader can relax in the assurance that he or she will get to know them very well indeed.

Back in fighting trim, Prometheus sails from Gibraltar, and not a moment too soon, because antics have been taking place on shipboard and in the shipyard accommodations that are more fitting to a shoreside British pub.  Meeting up with Admiral Nelson and his blockading fleet leads to a challenge, where a daring raid aimed at the destruction of a French ship of line sends the ship’s boats into the range of fire of not one, but two, shore batteries. Action after action follows, as the increasingly damaged Prometheus battles through crisis after crisis.  Then, after another repair at Gibraltar, the motley crew of the war-weary ship meet the greatest challenge yet.  Bond, with masterly control of developing chaos, pictures the final battle with such vivid detail that the denouement, though utterly shocking, seems almost inevitable.

The book has a very satisfying finish – and yet manages to end in a cliffhanger.  I couldn't wait to read the next in this very exciting series, so was overjoyed that Blackstrap Station was waiting on my kindle.

As promised, this ninth book in Bond’s compelling Age of Nelson series, “Fighting Sail,” begins where the last book ended, with the stranding of the crew of the beached HMS Prometheus.  

Christmas Day finds a small group of men, headed by one-armed Lieutenant King, trudging through hostile and barren French countryside in search of food, shelter, and some idea of how to get away without being captured. Then a miracle happens – not just because of a fluke of luck, but because of the extraordinary resourcefulness and courage of their leader.

This novel is a little different, in that King is definitely the major character.  There are other personalities featured, including a strange loner, seaman Weissner, whose character development throughout the story creates a particularly intriguing and satisfying sub-plot. Indeed, there are sub-plots aplenty – the travails of the stranded crewmen, their amazing feat of self-preservation, the humiliating consequences for a young midshipman when his courage fails him, and how he copes with the outcome of his cowardice. Even after King is given a spry little command of his own, there are more side-stories to be told, including the complications introduced by a wicked young siren named Sara. But King holds center stage throughout.  Getting to know him well, to care about him, and having the privilege of knowing what was going on in his heart and mind, was particularly rewarding.

What always strikes me about Alaric Bond’s writing is his obvious love for ships and the sea.  Every word rings true, enhanced by his deep knowledge of the ships of the time, and the seamen who fought to save them from the elements and the enemy.  That there is a glossary is a bonus, but not really necessary, because the author knows his subject so thoroughly, and imparts every detail so well and so accessibly that the reader can share every moment, and participate in every action-packed battle from the comfort of his armchair.

Another inspired and compelling story from a master of the Age of Nelson genre.  The only problem, for me, is that I have to wait for number ten in the series.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Usefulness of Swearing

When something really exasperating and infuriating happens, you can either laugh or swear.  And, as a writer, I believe that both work well, as long as they are not overdone.

It really annoys me when I hear people -- too often young people -- using the F word repetitively and casually, making the word absolutely meaningless.  What do they say when a crisis demands a really emphatic response?   So, while some writers have made brilliant use of repetitive swearing, to demonstrate the mindlessness of their characters or a society (think Clockwork Orange), it is pretty silly of most authors to overuse oaths in dialogue.  As in real life, save the really big words for really demanding occasions.  That way, the F word has maximum impact.

But, believe it or not, people have written books about swearing, and other people have published them.  As reviewer Joan Acocella remarks in The New York Review of Books, as long as there is no cure for cancer, it is going to be awfully hard to get a grant for studying swearing, but there are folks who seem to have managed it.  And they have found that there is a market for profanity.

Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuck that was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuck, bearfuck, fuck the deck, fuckbag, fuckwad, horsefuck, sportfuck, Dutch fuck, unfuck—on that venerable theme.

Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity.

 Another rich source is Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing (2013). Mohr even reads us the graffiti from the brothel in ancient Pompeii—disappointingly laconic (e.g., “I came here and fucked, then went home”), but good to know all the same.

They might even be worth reading, if you can stand the repetitiveness.  The F word has a long and ignoble history.  I particularly like "minced words," the decently veiled oaths beloved by people in the nineteenth century, who thought taking the Lord's Name In Vain was a terrible crime, and which are very useful when writing historical novels -- Good Godfrey and Gemini, for instance.

The review itself is certainly worth a good look.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The White Rajah of Borneo


Guest post from Antoine Vanner, author of the Dawlish Chronicles

James Brooke - The First  White Rajah of Sarawak

This article was written in Sarawak in October 2014, during a private visit.

Sarawak is the portion of Malaysia that lies on the north coast of Borneo. It stretches some 450 miles, roughly south-west to north-east, bordered northwards by its long coast along the South China Sea and southwards by its frontier with Kalimantan, the larger part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia. With an area of some 48,000 square miles (compared with Great Britain’s 88,000) and a population of 2.4 million, Sarawak today is a highly-developed modern state with a thriving economy based on development of large gas and oil reserves.

But since Sarawak is in area only 17% of the vast island of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – how did it come into being as a separate state? The answer lies in the unlikely career of one of the most colourful figures of the 19th Century, James Brooke, who essentially defined its borders, governed it as an independent kingdom, and established a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who were to continue to rule until 1946.

Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and back to England.

Once at home again Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”.  Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.

                                          Contemporary sketch of a Dyak war prahu

It was into this situation that James Brooke sailed his Royalist, arriving at Kuching in Western Sarawak in August 1838, and finding the settlement there threatened by Iban uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke took command of a combined Malay and Chinese force that had hitherto been on the defensive and, leading from the front, and supported by light guns landed from the Royalist, launched it on the enemy. The result was a rout and other successes followed. Brooke’s reputation was now established. Trading opportunities proved less than Brooke had anticipated and could only flourish is piracy was suppressed. Brooke, with local support, now launched a number of anti-piracy campaigns, which indeed were to continue for much of the rest of his life. In 1841, greatly impressed by Brooke’s successes, the Sultan of Brunei, offered him the governorship of Sarawak. The move was a wise one for many Malay nobles in Brunei, unhappy over the anti-piracy campaigns, attempted to depose the Sultan. Brooke came to the rescue and restored the Sultan to his throne. In the following year, 1842, the Sultan ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke, granting him the title of Rajah.

                                     Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei

Brooke now began to consolidate his rule over Sarawak, reforming administration, codifying laws, fighting piracy and ending headhunting. Major cultural shifts were required as the traditions of ages were challenged. One chieftain, named Matari, who came to see Brooke asked if he really intended to punish piracy and headhunting. On being assured that this was the case he asked pathetically if he might have permission to steal a few heads occasionally. Brooke administered justice from the hall of his large bungalow in Kuching, supported by Malay nobles. Once it became obvious that he was prepared to bring in and enforce judgements against the rich and powerful his reputation rose further. Financial challenges proved more intractable as the country proved less productive than he had anticipated. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. It was at best break-even and he was frequently required to dip into his own rapidly dwindling fortune.

                             Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking upriver
                          Pirate stronghold in background (from Keppel's book)

One of the largest anti-piracy campaigns was to be in 1843, when Brooke secured the support of a kindred spirit, James Keppel, captain of the 18-gun corvette HMS Dido. The objectives were three villages up rivers swamped by mangrove swamps where Dido’s draught did not allow her to penetrate. Brooke had had a launch called the Jolly Bachelor built locally for such work and she, with the Dido’s pinnace, two cutters and a gig, carrying 80 men between them, led the expedition. They were supplemented by numerous local craft, which carried a further 400. The first of the stockade villages was easily taken. The flotilla was ambushed as it passed over shallows to the next village, but the attackers were driven off, and this village’s defenders surrendered, promising “to reform their ways.” The third village, Rembas, put up a stiffer resistance but was stormed with little loss and burned thereafter. The defenders, who had fled into the forest, returned to negotiate a truce. Few lives were lost in the entire expedition, and not a single woman or child. In 1846 Keppel was to publish an account of these exploits, drawing heavily on Brooke’s own journal, with the result that he became widely known in Britain for the first time.

                              Brooke's Jolly Bachelor (left) in the thick of the action

Brooke's Sarawak Flag

In 1847 Brooke returned temporarily to England. Now a national hero, he was awarded  the Freedom of the City of London, appointed British consul-general in Borneo and knighted. He was however unsuccessful – as he continued to be thereafter – in getting the British Government to take over responsibility for Sarawak and he continued to bear a heavy financial burden. This was all the worse since he had lost heavily on investments in Britain in this period. He returned to Sarawak to find it well run by the small staff he had recruited in Britain and was warmly welcomed by the Malay and Iban communities. Brooke now provided Sarawak with a national flag – a red and purple cross on a yellow ground.

  The Nemesis had previously distinguished herself in the First Opium War (1840-41)

Pirate activity was again taking off however, leading to the largest punitive expedition of all. On this occasion Brook had the support of Admiral Sir Francis Collier with HMS Albatross (16-gun brig) and the East India Company screw gunboat Nemesis. Once again a drive upriver was required – for this Albatross had too deep a draught, but she provided her longboats – and Brooke brought some sixty “praus” – local craft – carrying a large force. In the battle that followed the pirate force was isolated on a sandspit and was lashed by fire from Nemesis. The prahus cut off escape and the battle raged for five hours under a bright moon. Brooke’s local allies showed no mercy to those who had persecuted them so long. An attempt was made to board Nemesis but the attackers’ canoes were overturned and many of their occupants battered under her paddle wheels. After losing nearly a hundred boats and 500 men the pirates’ main force, some 2000 strong, managed to escape upriver, losing 500 in the process. Brooke refrained from following and in the following weeks the pirate groups surrendered.

The 1850s were years of consolidation and Brooke established a small but capable civil service. Trade grew slowly, although there were further outbreaks of violence to be suppressed, including a revolt by part of the Chinese community. Brooke was reluctant to allow European traders to operate freely as he believed that this would result in exploitation of the inhabitants. Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of the poet Robert Burns.

In these years Brooke invited the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Sarawak. This encouraged  Wallace to decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, one  that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time.

Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him in his later years.

Brooke never married – there is evidence of strong male friendships, but as these were frequent in the Victorian era, without any sexual dimension, it is impossible to come to any conclusions. Brooke did however admit to an illegitimate son, whose mother’s identity was never revealed, and to whom he left money in his will. As successor as Rajah be appointed his sister’s son, Charles Johnson, who changed his surname to Brooke.

Though James Brooke was still active in fighting pirates in the early 1860s, his health was by then failing. He retired to Britain, suffered several strokes and died in 1868. Here were to be two further White Rajahs – his nephew Charles (reigned 1868-1917) and the latter’s son Vyner (reigned 1917-1946). Occupied by the Japanese in World War 2, Sarawak was finally annexed by Britain in 1946, in return for compensation paid to Rajah Vyner and his three daughters. Britain granted Sarawak independence in 1963 and it formed the federation of Malaysia with Malaya, North Borneo, and Singapore later that year. (Singapore later seceded as a separate nation).
So ended one of the most romantic – and unlikely – episodes of British history, all due to one man whose exploits were indeed stranger than fiction.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Book Collecting Mania

From Lorraine Berry with The Guardian

When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my
willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough,
with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and
meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and
joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive
clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.

I realise now that my "jokes" were, in fact, humblebrags. I did love books,
always had, but I also took a certain arrogant pleasure from owning so many.
It was also when my first "To Be Read" (TBR) pile started ­ all those
volumes I had bought with the intention of reading them. And while years
later, adult economics has forced me to stop shopping every time I step into
a bookstore, my work as a reviewer now means that an average of five new
titles arrive on my doorstep each week. My TBR pile is ceiling-high, and
while I'm not going into debt, the visceral pleasure that I get from being
surrounded by books remains the same.

In the 19th century, book collecting became common among gentlemen, mostly
in Britain, and grew into an obsession that one of its participants called
"bibliomania". Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer,
wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance, which was a
gentle satire of those he saw as afflicted with this "neurosis". Dibdin
medicalised the condition, going so far as to provide a list of symptoms
manifested in the particular types of books that they obsessively sought:
"First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper
copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder¹s tools;
illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and
copies printed on vellum."

But Dibdin himself was obsessed with the physical aspects of books, and in
his descriptions paid an intense attention to the details of their bindings
and printings (rather than the content) that betrayed his own love. In a
letter published in an 1815 journal, he beseeched subscribers to bulk up
their subscriptions to help complete a set of volumes called The
Bibliographical Decameron
­ more beautiful than they could imagine. "I
should be loth to promise what is not likely to be performed, or to incur
the censure of vanity or presumption in asserting that the materials already
collected, in this department of the work, are more numerous, more
beautiful, and more faithful, than any which, to my knowledge, have come
under the eye of the publick."

While Dibdin was having new materials created to satisfy the hunger of those
who sought books, the auctions for existing items brought staggering prices.
The bloody end of so many French nobles in the revolution saw an influx of
collectibles arrive on the market as private libraries were posthumously
emptied. In 1812, the auction that released the library of John Ker, third
duke of Roxburghe, represented a watershed moment, according to Michael
Robinson, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. In his
forthcoming book Ornamental Gentlemen, Robinson says interest in the
Roxburghe auction was stirred by advertising, as well as the wartime
shortage of books. Many wealthy Englishmen ­ and a representative of
Napoleon ­ showed up for the auction, which lasted 42 days, and included a
tremendous selection of incunabula (books printed prior to 1500). An edition
of Boccaccio went for £2,260 (around $190,000 in today¹s US dollars), the
highest single price paid for a book up to that point. Dibdin himself
witnessed the auction, recalling the event as having been full of "courage,
slaughter, devastation, and phrensy".

The obsessive pursuit of books did not take place apart from the wider
culture, however. Recent studies have revealed tensions between a nascent
republican Britain and these bibliomaniacs. Even Thomas De Quincey, author
of the addiction memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater, described the
literary addicts he had observed at the Roxburghe auction as irrational, and
governed by "caprice" and "feelings" rather than reason. De Quincey uses the
term pretium affectionus ­ "fancy price" ­ to describe how prices were
decided, transforming the book collector into a dandy ruled by his emotions.

While it may be too early to speak of a "gay" subculture, Robinson writes of
the "uncanny queerness of the stereotypical representation of 19th-century
bibliophiles". Men who collected books were often portrayed as effeminate.
In 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous
attack implying that one of the prominent members of Dibdin's club was

Dibdin¹s language, which has been noted for its sensuality, is full of
double entendres and descriptions of book collecting in sexualised language;
from his Bibliographical Decameron, some characteristic dialogue:

"Can you indulge us with a sip of this cream?"

"Fortunately it is in my power to gratify you with a pretty good taste of

As Robinson told me: "Dibdin¹s mock-heroic discourse about books and
collectors contains language that is hard to read as anything other than
sexual innuendo. The sexiness of this stuff is quite surprising, actually ­
to the point where it can¹t really be called innuendo. These facets of the
subculture suggest the possibility that men who might today identify as gay
or queer were drawn to collecting."

One of the concerns in the early 19th century regarding book collecting was
the fear that by hoarding books, buyers were denying their fellow countrymen
their patrimony. The image of the rich dilettante was one of the conspicuous
consumer of books that would never be read ­ the old TBR pile ­ therefore
keeping books out of an intellectual commons. The collector was often
portrayed as having a kind of antisocial disease that kept him from
contributing to the greater good by sharing his printed riches. But the
origin for many literary anthologies lay in the libraries of these private
collectors ­ who were, in their own way, establishing a national literary

As colonial-era explorers would help themselves to other countries'
archaeological treasures or artworks, book collectors were arguably guilty
of similar cultural theft. But a search of the academic literature of
bibliomania failed to turn up such charges. I did, on the other hand, find a
curious book review from 1855 that discussed the "Arab domination" of Spain
prior to the Reconquista. In the review, a critique of Muslim bibliomania is
offered: while lauding the Moors' preservation of western culture during the
period pejoratively known as the dark ages, "few of their works, however,
are of value to the modern scholar". In full Orientalist language, the book
collectors of the Islamic world are dismissed with the same terms used by
earlier critics of British collectors: "We cannot sympathise with their
ecstatic vagaries of passion, or discover much merit in their over-sensuous
images and descriptions, and their verbose and stilted euphemism." It was
seemingly OK for the Arabs to have saved Aristotle and the mathematicians ­
but their choice to preserve books containing passionate language made
Victorians uncomfortable.

By the turn of the century, as evidenced by a 1906 Metropolitan Museum of
Art article, book collecting was no longer disparaged. Skill was required to
separate the gold from the dross; book collecting was now a "whole science"
and readers were told that they, too, could score a find, as long as they
possessed "keen judgment, faultless taste, inexhaustible patience ­ and
contempt for ridicule". As the author points out, it takes special knowledge
to know that Franklin Evans's The Story of an Inebriate ­ a book many would
throw away ­ was actually Walt Whitman's "first published work, and that it
is rare and valuable". Bibliomania was now a bragging right.

I chose my graduate school based on its library collection: Cornell, in
Ithaca, New York, was cofounded by historian and bibliomaniac Andrew Dickson
White, who spent his life travelling the world and collecting books, and
donated more than 34,000 rare tomes to establish Cornell's library. In that,
his bibliomania was useful to a common cause, despite the fears of previous
critics: to this day, scholars journey to Ithaca to use what would have once
been privately admired on White's shelves. The first time I sat in that
library, holding a book published before 1500, I felt something akin to the
way I have felt next to oceans: tiny, and in right proportion to the world.
Handling books from centuries before is a poignant reminder that, not only
have people loved books for as long as they have existed, they will continue
to do so long into the future. Perhaps today, bibliomania does not feel like
an irrational behaviour, as books have become less venerated and libraries
rarer. Rather, as it was for others before us, it is a careful act of
preservation for those who come after.

With thanks to Don Gilling