Thursday, 31 May 2012

Alone on a wide wide sea

                  William Bligh and the seventeen men from the Bounty faced almost certain death. They were crammed together in a 23-foot launch; the waterline was scarcely a handbreadth from the top of the boat, what scant provisions they had were quickly spoiling, they had neither charts nor maps, and the weather was against them. Days and nights were spent frantically bailing, just to keep afloat. Heavy seas, towering waves and constant rain battered the tiny vessel. The men had no room to stretch out, their muscles ached from the bailing and the bone-numbing cold, and despite Bligh’s best efforts to provide rations, they were starving. 

Chart of islands discovered by Bligh in the Bounty's Launch, from Bligh's A Voyage to the South Seas 1792

They passed by the Fiji islands, frightened to land lest they were attacked again, skirted the New Hebrides, and crossed the Coral Sea. Remarkably, Bligh kept up his log, which records their misery in terrifying detail, and he managed to record their approximate position, speed and distance throughout. After fifteen days, on May 24th 1789, the weather lightened and the sun warmed them. Bligh was right to note that the rain had probably kept them alive – they had water from it, and if they had been in constant sun, would have succumbed to the heat and drought. They saw such birds that indicated land must be near, and managed several which were divided between the eighteen of them. They saw driftwood, and heard breakers, and Bligh, relying on his knowledge and what charts he carried in his memory, decided this must be the Great Barrier Reef, lying off the shore of New Holland (as Australia was known then). 

The route of the Bounty's launch, from Bligh's A Voyage to the South Seas 1792

They sought a passage through the reef, and on May 29th made landfall, where they made fire and ate a broth made from oysters and periwinkles. Just as importantly, they slept easily, without being cramped. They made such repairs as they could to the launch, took on 60 gallons of water and collected shellfish, with the plan of island-hopping along the coast. But arguments began to break out, not least from Purcell, the carpenter, who had argued with Bligh on Tahiti. Bligh armed himself with a cutlass and threatened Purcell, who was ‘insolent to a high degree’. Bligh noted seven of the men to be ‘not well disposed’ in his log, including Fryer, the master, and Lamb, the butcher he had flogged for losing his cleaver, (this Lamb would catch, and eat raw, several small birds all to himself, out of sight of his comrades). 

The men began to grow ill, and several had to be nursed carefully, whilst the others gather what foodstuffs they could. Bligh navigated a course to the south of Papua, edged westward through the Torres Strait and to the north of the Gulf of Carpentaria, into the Timor Sea. On June 8th, he calculated they had rations sufficient for another nineteen days. The bad weather returned, along with the cold and the need to bail, but they made steady progress and even managed to catch a dolphin, which they ate. In the evening of Friday June 12th they sighted land, which Bligh thought must be Timor. Making their way along the coast for the next couple of days, on June 14th they made contact with some ‘Malays’, one of whom agreed to pilot the launch to Coupang. Bligh had had a small Jack made from signal flags, which he hoisted, and then had the launch rowed into Coupang. 

Arrival at Coupang, Timor

They came ashore and were helped to the Governor's mansion, where they were given tea and bread and butter;

… their limbs full of sores and their Bodies nothing but skin and Bones habited in Rags, and at last let him conceive he sees the Tears of Joy and gratitude flowing o'er their cheeks at their Benefactors. With the mixture of horror surprize and pity that his mind will be then agitated, were the People of Timor on giving us releif.” (Bligh’s Log, June 14th 1789).

In 48 days they had sailed, in an open boat, 3,618 nautical miles, and had lost only one man, John Norton, stoned to death on Tofua.  They had sufficient rations left for another eleven days.

The Bounty launch at Tofua, with the death of John Norton.

Other men died soon after; the botanist Nelson and the cook, Hall, from the privations of their ordeal. Peter Linkletter, William Elphinstone and Robert Lamb died, probably from malaria contracted in the pestilential port of Batavia, either in the Dutch East Indies, or on the voyage home. 

Eventually, in October 1789, Bligh boarded a Dutch East Indiaman, the Vlijt, which received dispensation to land him in British waters; he was delivered onto the Isle of Wight on Saturday, March 13th 1790. By midnight, he was in Portsmouth; the next morning he took a post-chaise to London, and on Monday morning he was at the Admiralty. 

It had been 321 days since the mutiny on the Bounty.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

From very bad to so much worse

Loading Breadfruit.

              After two and a half weeks at sea, during periods of squalls and heavy rain and even, at one time, a waterspout, the Bounty approached Anamooka, an island known to Bligh from his visit with Cook in 1777. The Bounty landed on April 23rd 1789, and Bligh was pleased to be reacquainted with old friends. He was, however, dismayed at the condition of the natives, many of whom had sores, together with self-inflicted wounds from ritualistic mourning, including amputated fingers, even on small boys. Supplies were bought, including hogs, fowls and yams, and wood and water taken aboard. Whilst filling the water casks, the sailors were surrounded by natives, and during the distraction, tools were stolen and stones thrown. The work party, fearing worse violence, retreated to the Bounty.  A grapnail (a small anchor) went missing, and Bligh threatened to ‘detain’ some of the chiefs onboard Bounty until it was returned. He had precedent for this; Cook had done the same (and worse) when he had been there. But Bligh was not Cook, and at sundown, with the chiefs weeping bitterly and beating their eyes with their fists, he relented, gave them gifts and let them go. 

On April 27th, the Bounty left Anamooka, setting a northerly course for Tofua. There followed an argument about coconuts, Bligh maintaining that some had been stolen, the men denying this. Bligh probably thought nothing of it – it is not mentioned in his logs (Bligh kept two logbooks; an ‘official’ Admiralty log and a ‘private’, more candid, one) nor does he mention it in his A Voyage to the South Seas, and, as was his custom every third evening, invited Fletcher Christian to dine with him, although Christian declined, claiming indisposition. At 11 pm, Bligh went on deck to give Fryer, the master, who was on first watch, his orders for the night, then, about midnight, retired to his bunk. 

Bligh's log for April 28th 1789

At dawn on April 28th 1789, a party of armed men, led by Fletcher Christian, dragged Lieutenant William Bligh from his bed. He was tightly bound, and, clad only in his nightshirt, dragged onboard deck. Crying “Murder”, he was told repeatedly to remain silent – “Hold your tongue, Sir, or you are dead this instant”. The company was divided into those loyal to Bligh and those following Christian. Strong words and threats ensued. Cutlasses, muskets and bayonets were brandished. The armed mutineers made to put the smaller launch in the sea, but it was found to be rotten, so the larger 23-foot launch was put in the water. 

Plan of the launch - from Bligh's A Voyage to the South Seas

Twine, canvas, lines, sails, and cordage were put into the boat, together with the carpenter’s tool box, a compass and a quadrant (but no maps or charts), 150 lbs. of bread, 32 lbs. of Pork, 6 quarts of rum, 6 bottles of wine, with 28 gallons of water and four empty casks (in all, enough for about five days). At great personal risk, the clerk, John Samuel, had managed to bring Bligh’s logs and journals, his commission and some of the ship’s papers. Bligh and eighteen men were forced into the launch (four more men who wanted to go were denied, for lack of room), four cutlasses were thrown to them, and they were set adrift.

Cast Adrift

Bligh’s assessment of the mutineers is astonishingly calm and insightful, given his treatment by them. In his log, he wrote; 
I can only conjecture that they have Idealy assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheitans than they could possibly have in England, which joined to some Female connection, has most likely been the leading cause of the Whole business.
The Women are handsome, mild in their Manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved. The Cheifs have acquired such a likeing to our People that they have rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made promises of large possessions. Under these and many other attendant circumstances equally desireable it is therefore not to be Wondered at tho not possible to be foreseen, that a Set of Sailors led by Officers, and void of connections, or if they have any, not possessed of Natural feelings sufficient to Wish themselves never to be separated from them, should be governed by such powerfull inducements but equal to this, what a temptation it is to such Wretches when they find it in their power, however illegally it can be got at, to fix themselves in the midst of plenty in the finest Island in the World where they need not labour, and where the alurements of disipation are more than equal to any thing that can be conceived.”  
(Bligh's Log, April 28th 1789)

Casting off the launch.

Tofua lay ten leagues to the north; Bligh raised the launch’s sail and a light breeze carried them there, although, due to steep cliffs they were unable to land until the next day. It was hard to find food and water, and they made camp in a cave until some natives approached. They traded what little they had for food, and soon other natives appeared. As the realisation came that these men were alone and virtually unarmed, the situation started to get increasingly hostile. More canoes arrived and their occupants started banging stones together – a sign they meant to attack. Calmly, Bligh led his men back to the launch, when suddenly about 200 islanders struck, hurling stones. With all but one man aboard, the launch started to row away. The quartermaster, John Norton, was attempting to cast off the stern line when he was surrounded, knocked down and stoned to death. Islanders grabbed a rope, which Bligh cut, but about twelve men in a canoe continued to throw rocks at the launch, and, unable to return fire, all seemed lost, when Bligh started to throw clothing overboard. The canoeists stopped to collect the clothes, giving the launch time to escape out of range, and into the open sea. The Friendly Islands were not exactly living up to their name.

Raising a sail for Tofua

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Onward Christian

                     Fletcher Christian was born in 1764, near Cockermouth, Cumberland. His father died when Fletcher was an infant, and his mother, Ann, increased the family debts substantially, moving eventually to the Isle of Man. The teenaged Fletcher spent holidays there, (where, incidentally, William Bligh had lived after his marriage in 1781). He first went to sea in 1783, and had later served in the merchant fleet under Bligh, on two voyages to the West Indies. Bligh seems to have been impressed by the young Christian, who became something of his protégé, and recommended him as a midshipman on the Bounty

The Fleet of Otaheiti

Christian, like his crewmates, took enthusiastically to life on Tahiti. The food was good and abundant, the climate balmy, the women uninhibited, and the men friendly – many became taios, or protective friends, to the sailors, taking them into their homes and families. Several of the men, including Christian, followed the Tahitian custom of tattooing their bodies. Life, it seems, was good on the island Paradise. 

Native Otaheitians

However, even life in Eden has its problems. The Tahitians were inclined to petty theft, and Bligh warned his men to be aware of this at all time, and that the cost of any losses would be deducted from their pay. But things went missing. Bligh had able seaman Alexander Smith flogged when the gudgeon (a metal brace for the rudder) of the launch was ‘drawn out’ on his watch. The Tahitians were appalled by this treatment. Soon after, seaman Matthew Thompson was given twelve lashes for ‘insolence and disobedience’; the cook’s assistant, William Muspratt received the same for ‘neglect of duty’ and the butcher, Robert Lamb, was also given a dozen when his cleaver was stolen. The drunken doctor, Huggan, eventually died, (‘Exercise was a thing he could not bear an Idea of’, was Bligh’s verdict). 

Royal Navy flogging.

Then, the monsoon arrived. 

The plants in the nursery were in danger from the salt-water spray of the storms, and Bligh feared the Bounty herself was at risk in the gales. In a break between storms, he arranged to move both to safer berths, but during the move, on Christmas Day 1788, Fryer, the Master, managed to ground the ship for a short while. During one of the dark January nights, three crewmen went absent, taking with them the small launch, some guns, and ammunition. Whilst onshore, Bligh heard that a native who had aided the deserters was aboard Bounty; he rushed back, only to find Fryer had allowed the man to escape, and no attempt had been made to follow him. Soon after, Bligh discovered the spare sails were wet and rotted, in spite of earlier orders to Fryer to wash and air them. In his log he wrote, “If I had any Officers to supercede the Master and Boatswain, or was capable of doing without them considering them as common seamen, they should no longer occupy their respective Stations” (Jan 17, 1789). 

After three weeks, news of the deserters’ position reached Bligh; he set out immediately, captured them, and returned them to the ship. After reading the Articles of War, Charles Churchill was lashed twelve times, and John Millward and William Muspratt (already lashed earlier, see above) both had two dozen, the whole to be repeated again at a later date. The three were held clapped in irons. 

More flogging

In spite of all this, Bligh was being lenient, by the standards of the day; deserters could expect 100-150 lashes, and the officer of the watch, who had been asleep when they deserted, could have faced execution, whereas Bligh merely disrated him. On February 4th, the Bounty’s bower anchor cable was cut, (by the taio of Midshipman Hayward, who feared his friend would be lashed); she could have drifted onto the reef and been wrecked. A Tahitian stole an azimuth compass, which, with Chief Tynah’s help, was eventually recovered – the thief was given a hundred lashes, clapped in irons, but in the night he picked the lock and escaped over the side of the ship. 

Eventually, the breadfruits were ready to move and the weather had turned fair. The plants were loaded, the Bounty provisioned and, on April 5th 1789, she left Tahiti, bound for the West Indies.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Best Laid Plans ...

                    Lieutenant William Bligh was the only commissioned officer onboard HMAV Bounty – her size meant she had only warrant officers; the master, the boatswain, the carpenter, the gunner and the surgeon, and that there were no marines aboard to enforce order. (This is why she was HMAV Bounty, never HMS Bounty). 

Bligh had written to Sir Joseph Banks before departure that the surgeon, Thomas Huggan, was an unsuitable choice, as he was an indolent, corpulent alcoholic. Nevertheless, Huggan was appointed, although an assistant, Thomas Ledward, gained a position too. John Fryer, the ship’s master, also caused Bligh some concern. He had only been in the Navy for seven years, and his position was similar to Bligh’s own when he served under Cook, the main difference being that Bligh had been a keen nineteen-year-old lieutenant-in-training, whereas Fryer was thirty-five years old and unlikely to advance any further up the ranks. Bligh had no confidence in him, considering him to be superfluous to need. 


The first sign of trouble was on August 23rd 1788, when Bligh entered in his log that the carpenter, William Purcell, had refused to obey an order and that he wanted to confine him, prior to court martial, but could not afford to lose an able man. Bligh began to feel the lack of brother officers and law-enforcing marines. By his own account, Bligh had sought to avoid any punishments on the voyage and was dismayed when the ship’s Master, Fryer, made the complaint against Able Seaman Matthew Quintal of insolent behaviour and contempt, in effect forcing Bligh's hand to order two dozen lashes to be administered. Soon after, Bligh and Fryer clashed when Fryer refused to sign off the bi-monthly inspection of the account books, which required a master’s signature. Bligh responded by calling all hands on deck, where he read the Articles of War, in particular the ‘Instructions relative to the matter’; the ‘troublesome’ Fryer backed down and signed the books. The next day, October 10th 1788, Bligh logged the death of Seaman James Valentine, who had been injured and treated by surgeon Huggan, who had bled the man. The site of the bleeding became infected, the man died, and the drunken doctor seemed to be the cause, although Bligh also suspected his other warrant officers of being at fault for not reporting Valentine’s declining condition to him.

The delay caused by being unable to sail via Cape Horn, and the subsequent longer eastern route, meant that the Bounty arrived at Otaheite later than envisaged by Lieut. Bligh. In the conditions, Bligh was aware that trading between the islanders and his men was inevitable, and he drew up a set of injunctions that were nailed to the mizzenmast; trade was only to be carried out through designated representatives – Cook himself had had problems with barter when one of his men had bought a pig with rare red feathers, thereby establishing the market currency for any future pigs! Playing his cards close to his chest, Bligh did not tell the Tahitians the Bounty’s real mission.

I had fent Nelfon [i.e. David Nelson, the ship’s botanist] and his affiftant to look for plants, and it was no fmall pleafure to me to find, by their report, that, according to appearances, the object of my miffion would probably be accompliffied with eafe. I had given directions to every one on board not to make known to the iflanders the purpofe of our coming, left it might enhance the value of the bread-fruit plants, or occafion other difficulties. 
Wm. Bligh, A Voyage to the South Seas, 1792, p. 67. (The original long ‘ess’ retained). 

The same passage from William Bligh A Voyage to the South Seas 1792

Bligh met with Tinah, the chief, and gave him and his people many presents, 
… on account of their good-will, and from a defire to ferve him and his country, King George had fent out thofe valuable prefents to him; " and will not you, Tinah, fend fomething to King George in return?"— " Yes," he faid, " I will fend him any thing I have;" and then began to enumerate the different articles in his power, among which he mentioned the bread-fruit. This was the exact point to which I wifhed to bring the converfation; and, feizing an opportunity, which had every appearance of being un-defigned and accidental, I told him the bread-fruit-trees were what King George would like; upon which he promifed me a great many fhould be put on board, and feemed much delighted to find it fo eafily in his power to fend any thing that would be well received by King George.” Ibid, p. 73. 

The same passage from William Bligh A Voyage to the South Seas 1792

Bligh knew he would have to wait out the approaching monsoon season, avoiding its fierce storms and gales, and that he would have to stay on for a further five months before the weather would be favourable again for sailing. Tinah would supply Bligh with over a thousand breadfruit plants, but due to the delay mentioned earlier, the seedlings were not large enough to be transported safely immediately, so Bligh arranged for some of his crew to tend the plants in a specially built nursery on the island. The party included Nelson the botanist, his assistant William Brown, and four able seamen. They were placed under the command of Mr Fletcher Christian.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Billy Bligh's Breadfruit Bounty Boat

                     William Bligh was born at St Tudy, Cornwall, in 1754 and joined the Royal Navy at the age of seven, as was normal then for ‘young gentlemen’ hoping to become naval officers. He would have come to ‘know the ropes’, as he became a midshipman at sixteen – an officer cadet who worked and berthed in the middle of the ship (midships), and he would have taken the formal examinations set by the Royal Navy, as he was selected by Captain James Cook to serve as a sailing master on the sloop HMS Resolution

William Bligh

Captain Cook, described as the ‘first navigator in Europe’, had already made two voyages of discovery to the South Seas, and in 1776 he departed on a third voyage, with the primary aim of finding a Northwest Passage, a sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans north of the North American landmass via the Canadian archipelagos. Such a route, if found, would eliminate the risks involved in rounding the southern capes (particularly Cape Horn). Serving under Cook, the young Bligh would have received the finest available naval education in the arts of navigation, surveying, cartography and seamanship. Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, Hawaiian natives murdered Cook in February 1779 and the Northwest Passage remained undiscovered. Resolution returned to England in October 1780. 

Bligh left the Royal Navy and worked for the merchant fleet until 1787, when he rejoined the service to take command of HMAV Bounty, partly in recognition of his experience gained with Cook. The Hull-built collier Bethia had been bought and refitted for the specific mission of transporting breadfruit and mangosteen plants from Tahiti to the West Indies.  

Plan of Bounty - showing how breadfruit plants were stored - from Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas

Bethia was chosen over five other vessels by Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed as botanist on Cook’s first voyage, when he discovered numerous new species of plants, the profusion of which had caused Cook to rename his proposed Sting Ray Harbour as Botany Bay, Australia, the discovery of which marked the beginning of England’s interests in the newly-found continent. Banks had noted the benefits of the breadfruit when Cook’s expedition landed in Tahiti (then called Otaheite) in 1769. The plant offered a nutritional food, with a high yield of about 200 fruits per tree, which could be used as a cheap food for plantation slaves. 

Breadfruit - from Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas

As President of The Royal Society, Banks proposed a money prize and Gold Medal for an expedition to transport the plants, and lobbied the Admiralty for a ship. Lieutenant Bligh assumed command of the Bounty and departed on December 23rd 1787. 

Title page of Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas - 1792

The initial aim was to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific by a western route, but storms at the Cape prevented the Bounty from making progress, and after a month of trying, Bligh abandoned the attempt, turned about and set sail for Cape Horn and the longer, easier, eastern route to Tahiti. His log shows him to have been an excellent sailor and officer; he was scrupulous about cleanliness onboard ship, organised regular exercise for the men to maintain their fitness, and made sure they were served with a varied, nutritious diet. Bounty made landfall in Tahiti on the morning of October 26th 1788; Bligh calculated they had sailed 27,086 miles in ten months, at an average of 108 miles per day.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

Bought 225 Years Ago Today

                  Between 1783 and 1784, Blaydes Shipbuilders built the Bethia in No 2 dry dock on the River Hull. She was a three-masted square-rigger, with a 69 ft 11 inch long keel, was 24 ft 4 inches broad, 11 ft 4 inches deep in the hold, weighed 230 tons, and with a relatively flat-bottom, the Bethia was built to carry coal. 

In 1787, now owned by Messers Wellbank, Sharp and Brown, she was docked at Wapping Old Stairs, on the River Thames, London, where Sir Joseph Banks, who had been commissioned by the Admiralty to purchase immediately a vessel of not more than 250 tons, examined her. The vessel he recommended was to be refitted to carry a cargo of breadfruit and mangosteen trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, where the fruits were to be used as an inexpensive food for the plantation slaves. The owners valued the Bethia at £2,600, officers from the Deptford shipyard estimated her to be worth £1,820 12s 8d, and the Admiralty compromised at the price of £1,920, buying her on May 26th 1787. She was moved from Wapping to Deptford for refitting, which took three months to complete. £1952 was spent on rigging and stores, with a further £2504 on her hull, which together with the purchase price of £1950 brought the total cost to £6406 (well over half a million pounds in today’s money). 

Not Yet Rigged and Not In Sail

When she had been built, the Bethia had been planked against ship’s worm, which means all her underwater parts had been coated with horsehair and tar, with planks nailed over them. The Royal Navy’s policy was to cover the hulls of their ships with copper sheathing, which was expensive because of the price of the copper but it was a better method of protecting the timbers of the ships from the boring effects of teredo worms and barnacles, as they could be scraped off, rather than replanking the whole ship. The Bethia was beached broadside and careened over, the planks removed, all the iron fittings replaced with bronze ones (to counter the galvanic effects of iron and copper in seawater), then the hull was sheathed in copper sheets. She was then refloated, turned around, and the same process carried out on the other side. 

The improvement in speed, manoeuvrability and strength in the Navy ships soon meant that the term ‘copper-bottomed’ came to mean anything that was utterly reliable and trustworthy. 

The Bethia was not large enough to warrant a Post Captain, she would be commanded by a Lieutenant (who would be designated as Captain when at sea, as commander of the vessel), and she was recategorised as His Majesty’s Armed Vessel  (HMAV) when four four-pound cannon were added and ten half-pound swivel guns mounted on the beams. 

The between-deck and great cabin were altered to house the cargo of plants – a false deck was built with holes cut into it for 629 pots – 433 six-inch diameter pots and 196 eight-inch pots. The lower deck was lined in lead, with collection pipes in the corners, to conserve the water used to water the plants; skylights were cut to improve access to sunlight and air scuttles built to improve ventilation. 

A 23 foot launch, a 20 foot cutter and a 16 foot jolly boat were mounted on deck, and other changes made – a flag locker was added, the bell mount changed, a Brodie stove installed, and so on. In September 1787, she was floated alongside a hulk and re-masted, and five anchors were taken aboard – two 13 cwt cast iron bower anchors, and three iron-clad anchors - a 5 cwt stream used as a sheet anchor, and two smaller kedges stored in the hold. 

On December 23rd 1787 the ship left Spithead, on the Solent, bound for Tahiti. She carried 46 men, but her complement also included a ‘widow’s man’, a fictitious sailor who was included on ship’s lists by the Royal Navy to allow for payments to be made to the widows or families of any crew member lost or killed during the voyage. 

She was now under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh and had been re-named HMAV Bounty.

Friday, 25 May 2012

It's Art, Jim

                 In 1975 I was doing an art foundation course and so off we all went one day to That London to look at their pictures in their art galleries, which meant that I also spent some time in gallery bookshops. In one, I forget which, I saw a copy of Celtia, a collection of works by Jim FitzPatrick, an Irish artist whose work I vaguely knew from the cover of Planxty’s album The Well Below the Valley

I fell in love with the book at first sight and just had to buy it, for the then enormous sum of £2.50 – this was 1975, remember, when a pint was 20p and I was earning £1 per hour doing casual work on a farm, so it equates to about £20-£25 in today’s money. The influence of the Book of Kells is so obvious it hardly needs to be mentioned. 

Over the years I’ve picked up other things by Jim FitzPatrick. Here are three books, one bought new in Dublin, another in Blackburn and the other from eBay. 

I have also found greetings cards with designs by him, picked up in ones and twos. 

My prize buy was a portfolio of prints, the first one of which has been signed by the artist. 

And of course, there are a couple of posters, which I think I bought in Bray and I expect I’ll get around to framing one day. 

Here is a link to Mr FitzPatrick’s officialwebsite. Also, his newer flickr site. He has done other, equally interesting work, which is well worth a look.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Most Beautiful Book in the World

                    There are many contenders for the title of the ‘most beautiful book in the world’ but for my money the winner is most definitely the Book of Kells. The book was produced just before 800 CE and currently consists of 340 folios bound into four volumes (some pages have been lost and it has been rebound several times). It is made up of the four gospels, largely from St. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible, with some other passages taken mainly from the earlier Vetus Latina texts. It is the culmination of the Insular Style of illuminated manuscripts. 

The Beatitudes - folio 40 verso

Exactly where the book was made is open to debate, but Iona seems to be the most likely candidate, with the book and other treasures being moved by the monks when the Viking raids began there in 794. It takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, County Meath, where it was housed for most of the medieval period. In 1654, it was moved to Dublin, (as Cromwell’s troops were in Kells at the time…), and presented in 1661 to Trinity College, Dublin, where it remains to this day (on show, and well worth a visit, if you’re ever in Dublin). There are only two single colour pages in the book, the rest have some decoration or other, but the true glories are the full-page illuminations, perhaps the greatest of which is the Chi-Rho page (folio 34 r), one of the treasures of Western Art.  

Chi-Rho page

The intricate knot-work is so dense it can only be properly appreciated with a lens (which, at the time it was made, were not known), and features writhing animals and human figures, interlaced with abstract patterns and strap-work. The first mention of the book is in the Annals of Ulster, in the year 1007 it is reported as being stolen, “The great Gospel of Colum-Cille was wickedly stolen in the night out of the western sacristy of the great stone-church of Cenannas - the chief relic of the western world, on account of its ornamental cover. The same Gospel was found after twenty [nights] and two months, its gold having been taken off it, and a sod over it.” 

Annals of Ulster entry detailing the theft.

It is interesting that it was stolen from the church, rather than a library or scriptorium, suggesting it was being used in worship. The illuminations have had an enormous influence on later Celtic art. 

Here is a pewter pill box, made by A E Williams. 

Of the many other things I have with Kells connotations, I have a plate made by Spode. 

And a plate made by Nexus Pottery, Northumberland, a limited edition of 5000, of which this is number 252. 

The plates on the wall.

This is a small book with illustrations from the book, which I like very much.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Knock Knock

                            The bodhrán is an Irish frame drum, with a skin (often goatskin) stretched across one face of a shallow wooden cylinder, the other face is open, allowing the player to use a hand to control pitch and timbre. There may also be one or two bracing bars inside the frame of the drum.

Bodhráin, (or bodhráns), are relatively new instruments, even though frame drums have been used in Ireland for centuries, and the name itself is also quite new, although an Irish translation of John of Gaddesden’s medical treatise Rosa Angelica (c.1314) mentions ‘re bhualadh mar thimpan no mar bhodhrán…’ (on being struck, like a timpan or like a bodhrán…), in an entry on tympanitis. Some people have tried to link the word to various Celtic words for ‘deaf’; Gaelic – bodhar, Manx – bouyr (the silent Gaelic 'd' is not written in Manx orthography), Cornish – bodhar or bothar, Welsh – byddar, and by extension to deafening sounds, stunning, tumult or (in English) bother, with the Irish being bodhradh. Earlier Gaelic dictionaries give druma or tiompan as the words for drums – druma with the same root as drum, tiompan cognate with tabor, tambourine and tympani

The bodhrán is held vertically on the thigh (interestingly, bòdhan is Gaelic for ham or thigh), and struck by, sometimes, the open fingers and thumb, or, much more usually, a beater – known also as a tipper or cipin

A variety of tippers

The supporting hand is placed inside the bodhrán, and the finger(s) are used to alter the timbre of the skin’s sound. There are two main kinds of playing; the Kerry style, which uses both ends of the tipper, and the West Limerick style, which uses only one end of a slightly longer tipper. Over the years players have introduced other effects, using brushes or playing off the rim. 

Boring Bodhran

I bought this small bodhrán in Clonmel, at the 2003 Fleadh Cheoil there. It’s a nice sound but it’s more of a souvenir than a proper instrument. 

Very Charles Rennie MacIntosh

The larger bodhrán has a much richer sound and also has a nice decorative painting on the skin, making it a pleasant item just to look at.

Being decorations, not instruments.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

La Fée Verte

                          Of all the flim-flam, farradiddle and flummery surrounding drinks, perhaps none shares the levels of notoriety that bedevil Absinthe. The favourite tipple of artists, poets and assorted bohemian types, it has a reputation of being a true devil’s brew, rotting brain and talent alike, a dangerous destroyer of men and minds. Those who partook of the Green Fairy could expect visions, dreams and hallucinations; it was a drink like no other.  The list of aficionados is long and legendary – Van Gogh, Lautrec, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Wilde, to name but half a dozen. With such a pedigree, it is hardly surprising that the drink developed its association with scandal, sin and sinners. 

Degas - The Absinthe Drinker

In 1905, a Swiss labourer called Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and his two infant daughters. He had drunk two glasses of absinthe earlier in the day, and the outraged Swiss called for the drink to be banned. The fact that he had also had seven glasses of wine, six glasses of brandy, two coffees and cognac, and two crème de menthes was conveniently ignored. Absinthe was banned, first in Switzerland, then France, the US, and most other countries (but not, unusually, the UK). 

The taste for anise-flavoured spirits (like ouzo, raki, sambuca or arak) was satisfied by pastis, invented by Paul Ricard in 1932. Other brands, including Pernod and Pastis Henri Bardouin, followed. Like absinthe, pastis goes cloudy when water is added – known as la louche – but unlike absinthe, pastis does not contain Grand Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) or Green Anise. Wormwood contains thujole, a supposed hallucinogen, although thujole is also found in tansy, sage and vapour rub! Other drinks, including Benedictine, Chartreuse, and Vermouth, also contain traces of thujole. Vermouth takes its name from the German for Wormwood – wermut. Closely related is Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), which takes its name from Mu – a bug or fly, and wort – herb or root, in Old English. The Old English called what we call herbalism wort-cunning

In the Ukraine, Wormwood is called Чорнобиль – Chernobyl, which has caused some more literal-minded bible-readers to link the 1986 disaster there to the Book of Revelations and the third star named Wormwood (8:11), and thus an imminent apocalypse. 

To prepare absinthe, and pastis, a measure of the spirit is poured into a glass and iced water is added, to a ratio of 1:5 or so, according to taste. Sometimes, lump sugar is placed on a special slotted spoon and the water is dripped onto the sugar, sweetening the drink. 

A more modern (and, frankly, simply wrong), variant is to soak the sugar lump in absinthe and then set it alight, allowing the melted caramel to drip into the drink. 

Special water carafes, usually bearing a brand advertisement, are common in French bars. 

Verres de Pastis Henri Bardouin

Also available, like these two I bought in Dinan, are special pastis glasses. Recent investigations have shown that Absinthe is no more dangerous than any other alcoholic drink. Thujole is not an hallucinogen, although large amounts can cause muscle spasms, nor is it related to THC, the active element of cannabis. The bad reputation is most certainly due to exaggeration and hyperbole, and the desire of some absinthe drinkers to seem to be ‘different’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘artistic’.

Wormwood - From Botanologica William Salmon 1710