Dreamtime voyagers: Australian Aborigines in early modern Makassar

The coast of Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia – scene of first contact between Australian Aborigines and Makassan fishermen sometime around 1700.

The coast of Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia – scene of first contact between Australian Aborigines and Makassan fishermen, probably some time before 1700.

If there’s one thing that most people think they know about the early history of Australia, it’s that the continent remained suspended, in unchanging isolation, for countless thousands of years before the arrival of the convicts of the First Fleet early in 1788. Cut off from the rest of humanity ever since the end of the last Ice Age, the Aboriginal population lived on for generation after generation in a hazy, mythic stasis: a “Dreamtime” in which the passage of the years, and even the notion of history itself, had practically no meaning. Theirs was a pure, pristine existence; the first Australians were part of the land itself, rather than living off it and exploiting it. And when the British arrived and claimed the continent, they sullied an Eden, degrading the noble savages who lived in it.

There is plenty that is wrong with this portrait of pre-contact Australia. It owes more to the New Age enthusiasms of the 1970s than it does to the realities of history. It lumps together hundreds of tribes, and dozens of major language groups, into one undifferentiated mass – conflating lives lived in an almost infinite variety of landscapes, from the deserts of the red centre to the lushness of the tropical north – and it perverts a rich, complex mythology, turning what we inadequately term “the dreaming” into little more than a synonym for the whole period before the days of Captain Cook. Most dangerously of all, it imposes striking limitations on the Aborigines themselves. In insisting they were pure, it makes them primitive; in sketching them as absolutely isolated, it encourages us to think of them as people so alien that they were barely capable of interacting with the rest of the world.

"The source of life." A paintig by Zhou Xiaoping from the Melbourne Museum exhibition "Trepang: China and the story of the Macassan-Aboriginal Trade" (2010).

“The source of life.” A painting by Zhou Xiaoping, from the Melbourne Museum exhibition “Trepang: China and the story of the Macassan-Aboriginal Trade” (2010).

All this is a distortion of a less straightforward but vastly more compelling history. Australia was never entirely cut off from the rest of the world; there is evidence of frequent contact with the peoples of New Guinea and, beginning in the 17th century, there were also sporadic encounters with Dutch mariners along the western and northern coasts. Most remarkably of all, the Aboriginal peoples of the far north – what Australians today call the “Top End” – were, for several centuries at least, part of a vibrant and extensive trading system, one that brought them into annual contact with seagoing merchants from Indonesia, and linked them to civilisations as far away as China and Japan.  Continue reading

The last secret of the H.L. Hunley

Submarine inventor James R. McClintock as he looked in the later 1870s, from a carte de visite photographed in New Albany. McClintock was living in the Illinois town when he journeyed to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there. Image: Naval Historical Center.

At a quarter to nine on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was on active duty, blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by a wintry moon that barely illuminated the dark ocean, was a sight so strange that he was not at first quite certain what it was. “Something on the water,” he recalled it to a court of enquiry a week later, “which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby told the Housatonic‘s quartermaster of the object, but it had already disappeared–and when, a moment later, he saw it again, it was too close to the sloop for there to be time to slip the anchor. The Housatonic‘s crew scrambled to their action stations just in time to witness a substantial explosion on their starboard side. Fatally holed, their ship sank in a few minutes, taking five members of her crew with her.

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship–all 1,240 tons of her–had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley‘s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about how the submarine came to be built – of her funding by a patriotic Southerner named Horace Hunley, the construction of two prototypes, and how the Hunley herself was riveted together at Mobile – not to mention the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We also know a little of the men who did the actual work: James McClintock and Baxter Watson, two talented mechanics who were running a steam gauge business in New Orleans when the war broke out. We even have a shrewd idea of the division of labor between the two men, for Watson’s son once confided that while his father had built the Hunley, it was McClintock who designed her. Of the three men responsible for the Hunley, then, it was probably James McClintock who played the most important role–and, as thing turn out, it is McClintock who also has by far the strangest tale to tell. Continue reading

The secret plot to rescue Napoleon by submarine

Tom Johnson, the famous smuggler, adventurer, and inventor of submarines, sketched in 1834 for the publication of Scenes and Stories by a Clergyman in Debt.

Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.

But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.

The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day. In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was imprisoned on the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, at Waterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him. Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
Continue reading

White gold: how salt made and unmade the Turks and Caicos Islands

The remains of a windmill, once used to pump brine into the salt pans of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Photo credit: www.amphibioustravel.com.

Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.

Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.

Raking salt on the Turks and Caicos Islands in about 1900.

All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.

The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. Continue reading

The great tea race

Ariel and Taeping at sea during the great Tea Race of 1866. Oil painting by Jack Spurling, 1926.

Captain John Keay, master of the new British clipper ship Ariel, had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had secured the first cargo of tea to come to market at the great Chinese port of Foochow (modern Fuzhou) in 1866—560 tons of first and second pickings, freighted at the high price of £7 a ton: the very finest leaves available. The cargo had been floated out to him in lighters, packed in more than 12,000 hand-made tea chests, and stowed below decks in the record time of just four days.

Now Ariel was weighing anchor. It was 5 p.m. on the evening of May 28, which made her the first tea clipper to sail for London that season. She was a brand new ship: “A perfect beauty,” Keay recalled, “to every nautical man who saw her; in symmetrical grace and proportion of hull, spars, sails, rigging and finish she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her without exception. Very light airs gave her headway, and I could trust her like a thing alive in all evolutions.”

Ariel was indeed the fleetest vessel of her time; flying the astounding total of more than 26,000 square feet of canvas, she could reach speeds of 16 knots, far faster than contemporary steamers. But the advantage that Keay held over the other clippers crowded in the port was minimal, and Ariel was unlucky with her tugs. The paddle steamer Island Queen, hired to take the clipper in tow, lacked the power to carry her across the bar of the Min River against a falling tide. Stranded for the night, Keay and his crack crew were forced to lie at anchor and watch as their rivals completed their own hurried loading and started in pursuit. That evening the rival Fiery Cross came down the river towed by a more powerful tug, edged her way into clear water, and set a course east across the China Sea. Keay was still negotiating the bar next morning when two other clippers, Serica and Taeping, appeared beside him. The Tea Race of 1866—the most exciting in the history of the China trade—was on. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The king of hard currency

The island of Yap from the air: a wester Pacific paradise where almost everything needed to sustain life grew comfortably to hand.

The island of Yap from the air: a western Pacific paradise where almost everything needed to sustain life grew comfortably to hand.

It was a typhoon, or so it’s said, that cast up David O’Keefe on Yap in 1871, and when he finally left the island 30 years later, it was another typhoon that drowned him as he made his way home to Savannah.

Between those dates, though, O’Keefe carved himself a permanent place in the history of the Pacific. So far as the press was concerned, he did it by turning himself into the “king of the cannibal islands”: a 6-foot-2, red-haired Irishman who lived an idyllic tropical existence, was “ruler of thousands” of indigenous people, and commanded “a standing army of twelve naked savages.” (“They were untutored, but they revered him, and his law was theirs.”) [New York Times; New York Tribune; Watchman & Southron] It was this version of O’Keefe’s story that made it to the silver screen half a century later in the forgettable Burt Lancaster vehicle His Majesty O’Keefe (1954), and this version, says scholar Janet Butler, that is still believed by O’Keefe’s descendants in Georgia. [Butler pp.177-8, 191]

The reality is rather different, and in some ways even more remarkable. For if O’Keefe was never a king, he certainly did build the most successful private trading company in the Pacific, and—at a time when most Western merchants in the region exploited the islanders they dealt with, then called in U.S. or European warships to back them up—he worked closely with them, understood them and made his fortune by winning their trust and help. This itself makes O’Keefe worthy of remembrance, for while the old sea-captain was most assuredly not perfect (he had at least three wives and several mistresses, and introduced the Yapese to both alcohol and firearms), he is still fondly recalled on the island. It doesn’t hurt, so far as the strangeness of the story goes, that O’Keefe ingratiated himself on Yap by securing a monopoly on the supply of the island’s unique currency: giant stone coins, each as much as 12 feet in diameter and weighing up to four and a half tons. But wait; we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start with the convoluted history that brought O’Keefe to Yap. More