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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Icebergs threatening commerce by sea

From Old Salt Blog

Hundreds of icebergs have drifted into major shipping lanes off Newfoundland, forcing ships to go far out of their way to steer clear of the massive ice mountains.
“It’s the only place in the world where icebergs intersect in a major shipping lane like that,” Gabrielle McGrath, commander of the United States Coast Guard International Ice Patrol, told the from her office in New London, Conn. “The ships are having to go out of their way to get around that iceberg limit … so it’s taking them a lot longer to get across the Atlantic.”
McGrath said 616 icebergs have already moved into the North Atlantic lanes so far this season, compared to 687 last year by the late-September season’s end. The influx started in late March, she said.
At the same time, an iceberg which has grounded in Newfoundland’s Iceberg Alley near the town of Ferryland, about an hour south of St. John’s, has become an instant tourist attraction, attracting thousands to see the towering blocks of ice. 

It's official -- neo-liberalism is a failure

From RNZ

Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister who ran with the privatization movement, now deeply regrets his actions.  New Zealand has fared badly, he says in Guyon Espiner’s excellent RNZ series The 9th Floor, which consists of interviews with five ex NZ PMs: Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark.

Bolger says neoliberal economic policies have absolutely failed. It’s not uncommon to hear that now; even the IMF says so. But to hear it from a former National Prime Minister who pursued privatisation, labour market deregulation, welfare cuts and tax reductions – well, that’s pretty interesting.
“They have failed to produce economic growth and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top,” Bolger says, not of his own policies specifically but of neoliberalism the world over. He laments the levels of inequality and concludes “that model needs to change.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Russian hackers targeting French election

From the New York Times

History is repeating itself.   And Russia is determined to weaken Europe, NATO, and America, for reasons that can be guessed but are unrevealed.

Macron, opponent of Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate for the French presidency, is being targeted by Russian hackers.  As the newspaper describes:

The campaign of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has been targeted by what appear to be the same Russian operatives responsible for hacks of Democratic campaign officials before last year’s American presidential election, a cybersecurity firm warns in a new report.
The report has heightened concerns that Russia may turn its playbook on France in an effort to harm Mr. Macron’s candidacy and bolster that of Mr. Macron’s rival, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, in the final weeks of the French presidential campaign.
Security researchers at the cybersecurity firm, Trend Micro, said that on March 15 they spotted a hacking group they believe to be a Russian intelligence unit turn its weapons on Mr. Macron’s campaign — sending emails to campaign officials and others with links to fake websites designed to bait them into turning over passwords.
The group began registering several decoy internet addresses last month and as recently as April 15, naming one and another to mimic the name of Mr. Macron’s political party, En Marche.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Diagnosing a psychopath

Some years ago, I wrote a book about a whaling captain who was a serial killer.  

It began with stumbling over a semi-literate journal in very bad shape, which had been written by the cooper of the whaleship Sharon.  It was not easy reading, being a rough daybook, revealing little despite the daily entries.  But then, suddenly, I was reading a grueling description of the young black steward being beaten to death.  By the captain.  While the rest of the crew stood by and watched.

It led to a great deal of research, involving a lot of travel and asking a lot of questions that I had never expected to be asking.  The plot thickened when I found logs of previous voyages with the same captain -- voyages in which there were unexplained deaths.  So, was this captain a serial killer?  And, if so, was he a psychopath?

How can you tell if a man or a woman is psychopathic?  I found a book called Without Conscience, written by the psychologist, Robert Hare, which contained a fascinating checklist.  

The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of "revocation of conditional release" (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.

The scary part is that most people you know display one or two of these characteristics.

Interestingly, a lot of this is echoed in an article by Tom Chivers in the New Zealand Herald, called Born to Kill?  An interview with Robert Hare reveals that he is still working away at the problem.

"Real" psychopaths score a lot more of the list, he says.

A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy.
Hare says: "A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: 'Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.'
The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end."
Just in case your mind is wandering in the same direction as mine, this discussion in the newsletter of the Secular Buddhist Association will be of interest.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Life-saving medieval medicine

A hero of mine is John Woodall, who featured boldly in my story about sea surgeons on whaleships, Rough Medicine.

Born about 1570, Woodall was apprenticed to a London barber-surgeon at about the age of 16, and served in Normandy during one of the interminable wars of the time. In 1599, having been inured by then to the sight of blood and dismembered limbs, he returned to London to become a member of the Company of Barber-Surgeons, earning the right to have a red-and-white striped pole (symbolizing blood and bandages) outside his establishment.  He went to the Netherlands after that, to learn chemistry by working with an apothecary-alchemist. His adventurous and rather gory career carried him on through a plague and a voyage in the tropics, to an appointment as the Surgeon-General of the East India Company.

It was a job he held down for thirty years, and is important because (a) he was the first man to devise and stock a medical chest for surgeons at sea and (b) because he wrote the first manual in history for seafaring medics, The Surgions Mate, which was first published in 1617.

It is an odd and intriguing volume, remarkable for its kindly attitude to ailing seamen, and its very strange recipes.  It's impossible not to wince at the prospect of being dosed, for instance, with "Worme-wood Water" (absinthe, a poison), which he considered "gratefull to the stomacke," in that it "consumeth and breaketh winde mightily, killeth the wormes"  -- but, according to a marvellous paper in The Smithsonian, medieval medicine such as practised by Woodall and his contemporaries could provide a solution to modern antibiotic-resistant bugs.

"Medieval medical books could hold the recipe for new antibiotics," writes Erin Connolly.  As she goes on to say, she is "part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

"To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to create a medieval medicines database in this manner and for this purpose."

A recipe for an eyesalve from ‘Bald’s Leechbook.’ © The British Library Board (Royal MS 12 D xvii)

An exciting discovery was a recipe for a salve for a stye in the eye.  As Connolly describes, "In 2015, our team published a pilot study on a 1,000-year old recipe called Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook,” an Old English medical text. The eyesalve was to be used against a “wen,” which may be translated as a sty, or an infection of the eyelash follicle.

"A common cause of modern styes is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) is resistant to many current antibiotics. Staph and MRSA infections are responsible for a variety of severe and chronic infections, including wound infections, sepsis and pneumonia.

"Bald’s eyesalve contains wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion) and oxgall. The recipe states that, after the ingredients have been mixed together, they must stand in a brass vessel for nine nights before use.

"In our study, this recipe turned out to be a potent antistaphylococcal agent, which repeatedly killed established S. aureus biofilms – a sticky matrix of bacteria adhered to a surface – in an in vitro infection model. It also killed MRSA in mouse chronic wound models."

Interestingly, the method laid out in the Leechbook had to be followed exactly.  It seems that though we now deride those old practitioners for their reliance on bloodletting and balancing the "humors,"  they often did know what they were doing -- and the lore of the old barber-surgeons, apothecaries and alchemists of the medieval past is still of value today.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Secret tomb of five archbishops

From The Smithsonian
The Church of England doesn’t have a pope, but it does have an Archbishop of Canterbury.

Historically, the Archbishop has wielded lots of power, so you’d think historians would know where every one was buried.  But that’s not exactly true—as the BBC reports a recent discovery uncovered five buried archbishops.

The remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury were found in a hidden crypt beneath St. Mary-at-Lambeth, a medieval church in London. The structure is located next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence for nearly eight centuries. While the church hasn’t been used for religious worship since the 1970s, but it once was noteworthy not just because of its famous location, but because of the rich history within.

Part of that history was uncovered by builders busy doing a restoration project on the church. They were lifting flagstones from the ground when they uncovered a hidden tomb. A glimpse of an archbishop’s red and gold miter—the traditional headcovering of a bishop—greeted the builders, the BBC reports. When they went inside, they found a stack of coffins, many with nameplates that point to famous residents.

Among the dead uncovered are five Archbishops of Canterbury, including Richard Bancroft, who played a role in the creation of the renowned King James Bible. Bancroft violently objected to the translation of the bible—the third and most famous English translation in existence. But later on, he ended up overseeing the entire contentious project, and was the man who laid down the guidelines.

As The Smithsonian described in a previous issue --

Forty-seven translators and scholars produced the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611. The project dates back to 1604, when King James I decided a new version could help consolidate political power. A popular Puritan bible had downplayed the divine right of kings — greatly offending James — and James manipulated different Christian sects until they agreed to produce a different translation.

The result became an incredible, long-lasting success. The King James Bible has influenced language, literature and culture for more than 400 years.

Wry commentary on NZ politics

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shipwrecks and Lost Barbeques in the Marlborough Sounds

From Radio NZ news

Story by Tracy Neal

 Mapping the seafloor in Marlborough has thrown up one or two surprises, not least the discovery that it has shifted slightly since the Kaikōura earthquake, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) says.

Its national hydrographer Adam Greenland said they have also found a shipwreck in shallower waters than first thought, and a selection of barbecues, fridges and bottles most likely tossed overboard from boats.

And Mr Greenland said shore-based observations showed a minor horizontal shift in the land due to November's magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

"In terms of the seabed and the survey we're carrying out we have seen some minor changes but we're still analysing that data, however it's nothing as extreme as in Kaikōura," Mr Greenland said.

The project uses multibeam echosounder technology from a ship and is a joint effort between LINZ and the Marlborough District Council. Sonar readings were used to create 3D digital maps and shipping charts to show the land formation of the seabed and the marine ecosystem.

The $1.5 million project began last year, and will soon finish with a final report to be released next year.

The focus was 43 hectares of seafloor in the Queen Charlotte Sound and in Tory Channel. Mr Greenland said the aim was to update navigation charts especially as shipping and cruise liner operations were expected to increase. The research would also provide data for the council to help it manage the area's marine wildlife.

LINZ said the areas being mapped were identified as a national priority for updating navigation information as they were last charted about 70 years ago.

"It's really looking at the future, for shipping and cruise tourism, and the need for good charts for the (Captain James) Cook anniversary celebrations," Mr Greenland said.

Planning is now underway for an event in three year's time, to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook sailing into Ship Cove, in the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Jetty at Ship Cove -- the entry to the Cook Memorial

Friday, April 14, 2017


Money ships were wrecks of treasure-galleons belched up from the bottom of the sea after tremendous storms, yielding doubloons and all kinds of precious treasure ... gold bars and bullion, chests of brilliant gems

Oriental adventurer Captain Rochester spun an entrancing tale to Jerusha, seafaring daughter of Captain Michael Gardiner — a story of a money ship, hidden in the turquoise waters of the South China Sea, which was nothing less than the lost trove of the pirate Hochman.  As Jerusha was to find, though, the clues that pointed the way to fabled riches were strange indeed — a haunted islet on an estuary in Borneo, an obelisk with a carving of a rampant dragon, a legend of kings and native priests at war, and of magically triggered tempests that swept warriors upriver.  And even if the clues were solved, the route to riches was tortuous, involving treachery, adultery, murder, labyrinthine Malayan politics … and, ultimately, Jerusha’s own arranged marriage.

An epic drama of fortune-hunting in the South China Sea during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, The Money Ship is a fast-moving novel on a sprawling canvas that spans three oceans and a myriad of exotic ports. As the pages turn, Jerusha voyages from the smuggling and fishing port of Lewes, Sussex to Boston in its glittering heyday, then back to newly settled Singapore, until her quest for love and pirate treasure comes to a spine-chilling climax in the benighted lands of Borneo.

eBook available on Amazon,  in print soon.

What Australia sends little New Zealand

Thursday, April 6, 2017

US tourist trade suffering from Trumpism

Talking to other cruisers on Cunard's beautiful Queen Victoria last month, I was struck by the number of horror stories from people who had flown into the United States to board the ship in Fort Lauderdale.  Before they could get to Florida and ultimately the wharf, they had to land in LAX, and go through the formalities.  Which turned out to be a nightmare.

I heard stories of harassment by immigration and customs officials.
Stories of husbands and wives being taken into different rooms for separate interrogations.
Stories of four-hour queues for customs and immigration attention.
Stories of an Air NZ plane being kept waiting on the (expensive) tarmac for nearly two hours after boarding time, because transit passengers could not be found.

And these were New Zealanders, Australians, and British.  Men and women in late middle-age or even much older, affluent people who can afford a pricey cruise, and must be the most unlikely terrorists possible.  One Chinese-Australian couple (fourth or fifth generation Australian) visibly shook with rage as they told me about it.

Every single one swore they would never set foot in the States again.

Talking with a well-traveled friend yesterday about her next trip, she revealed that she and her husband are deliberately planning not to fly through the United States, which set me to thinking. What if this is a massive trend?

And I find that it is.  According to the Boston Globe, tourist numbers are diving. The story likens the situation to the disaster that crippled the US tourist industry after the attack on 9/11.

The story, by Christopher Muther, is headlined, YOU COULD CALL US TOURISM A VICTIM OF TRUMP'S TRAVEL BAN.

He writes:

President Trump’s travel ban targeting nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries may not have held up in court, but it appears quite successful at keeping plenty of other people out of the United States.

Trump’s order brought with it a swift decline in the number of worldwide tourists and travelers looking to visit the United States, say people in the tourism industry. Some say it could be as damaging to the US tourism sector as the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Online booking websites reported that flight searches from international points of origin to the United States were down anywhere from 6 percent to 17 percent since Trump signed the executive order on Jan. 27. But experts say what’s more alarming is the icy message it sends to the world.

“The US is in danger of taking the same path it took after Sept. 11, which led to a decade of economic stagnation in the travel and tourism sector,” said David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. “Strict visa policies and inward-looking sentiment led to a $600 billion loss in tourism revenues in the decade post 9/11.”

And what is that going to do for American jobs?

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.