Walking to utopia

Asutralian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

Australian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.

The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.

I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
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The wizard of Mauritius

Port Louis, Mauritius, in the first half of the nineteenth century

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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Amazons: inside the King of Dahomey’s all-woman army

One of Dahomeys’ amazons, with a musket, club, dagger—and her enemy’s severed head. From Forbes, Dahomy and the Dahomans (1851).

It is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town–Dahomey is renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.

As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two. Continue reading

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

Some experiments with severed heads

Antoine Joseph Wiertz: Guillotined Head (1855). Musée Antoine Wiertz, Brussels.

Antoine Joseph Wiertz: Guillotined Head (1855). Musée Antoine Wiertz, Brussels.

Early on the morning of 18 February 1848, two men and a woman walked into the square in front of the Porte de Hal, in Brussels, where a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They were there to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study, and, by prior arrangement with the Belgian penal authorities, were permitted to climb onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a blood red sack.

One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian painter and also a fine hypnotic subject. With him were his friend, Monsieur D_____, a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose on that winter’s day was to carry out a unique and extraordinary experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be hypnotised and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about to be executed for murder. More

The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors

March 1839: the Japanese cargo ship Cho-ja maru, dismasted and without her rudder, wallows in the Pacific shortly before her surviving crew were picked up by the American whaler James Loper. Artist unknown; Sonkei Archives, Tokyo

When Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of warships into Edo Bay in July 1853 – and compelled the local authorities, under threat of bombardment, to accept a trade treaty with the United States – Japan had been a closed society for well over two centuries. Under the policy known as Sakoku (“locking the country”), practically all trade with the outside world had been strictly prohibited. Christianity was banned, foreigners already in Japan were expelled, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese, similarly, were not permitted to leave. For 220 years, the country remained almost entirely isolated, mostly peaceful, and profoundly mysterious and alluring to outsiders.

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s self-imposed seclusion – they are all too frequently reduced to fear of fast-encroaching Christianity, though inevitably they were quite a bit more complex than that [Boxer pp.308-400; Eiichi pp.21-58] – Sakoku produced peculiar results. Japan’s only formal foreign relations were with Korea; strictly limited trade was carried on, but the only westerners allowed anywhere on Japanese territory were the Dutch, and they were favoured largely because, being Calvinists, they had no interest in converting anyone to their religion. Dutch traders, in turn, were restricted to a single “factory,” or base, located on an island just off Nagasaki and chosen to ensure that there could be no easy intercourse with the locals. A few Japanese, specially trained to act as interpreters, had access to the factory, and one or two Dutch merchants, on special occasions, travelled to Edo, the capital, in palanquins. But all but a tiny handful of Japanese had never seen a European and had no access to western thoughts or ideas. Dutch woollen cloth (the principal import) was scarce and hence fashionable and highly sought-after. For the most part, however, it was easy for the Japanese to believe that their visitors were very different to them – indeed, quite possibly, not human:

Most Japanese regarded foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s-tongues” … More

Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies and the law of murder

Ghost

Thomas Millwood meets his end. From a contemporary book illustration.

Late on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men of his trade: “linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.” Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith – thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.

The Millwood murder is of interest to us because Smith’s motive for killing him was decidedly peculiar. Hammersmith, then a village on the outskirts of London, had been terrorised for more than a month by reports that some sort of malignant ghost or spirit was haunting the graveyard of St Paul’s chapel-of-ease. Today this cemetery stands in the shadow of the A4 flyover and right next to the busy four-lane Hammersmith roundabout, but 200 years ago it was considerably more isolated. St Paul’s was then still surrounded by fields, and the paths that ran past the graveyard were unpaved and unlit. It’s not difficult to see how, in the depths of winter (the Hammersmith ghost scare ran from December 1803 to January 1804), frightening stories could readily circulate, nor why several local men took it upon themselves to patrol the darkened streets in the hope of encountering and ‘laying’ the ghost. Milwood, in his all-white clothes, had been mistaken for the apparition twice earlier that same day. It was his bad luck that the third time the same mistake was made, the man facing him was not just nervous but armed with a shotgun.

Smith, when he realised his mistake, was horrified. He gave himself up immediately and was swiftly charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey less than a week later. More