Saturday, December 13, 2014

More about Grandma Vera

Last time out I published some pictures I recently rediscovered in an old album of my mother’s, showing our Blackwell grandparents on their wedding day. Along with those pictures was a contact sheet from an undated studio portrait session with Vera as a young teenager. She looks ravishing, with tumbling golden hair. When our cousin Jeremy Lillies in England saw that post, he wrote to remind me that he had earlier sent an even older picture of Vera, with sister Madge, as very young children. Here it is.

The picture, a newspaper clipping, is annotated, “From the Sketch.” It’s dated “January 16 [18]94,” which would make Vera, the child on the left, according to the handwritten annotations, only three years old. She looks older to me.  Her gaze speaks of a keen awareness of her own beauty. The Sketch, I’m assuming, is a long-defunct local newspaper. I can find no trace of it online. 

The image was in remarkably good condition in general, requiring relatively little clean-up. But it is a halftone, composed of quite visible dots of ink. This was the standard way of reproducing monochrome photographs in newspapers right up until fairly recent times. With some Photoshop magic, I’ve managed to make it look a little more like a conventional photograph.

The picture comes from a scrapbook kept by Jeremy’s brother Tim (our cousin too, I suppose). The scrapbook apparently includes mostly clippings about our theatrical great great Lillies uncles. (I wrote about them here.) But Jeremy also found the picture of the little girls and pages from the program for an invitation-only Pupils’ Concert by students of a piano teacher named Miss Frances Osborne. Here they are.

The concert was held in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern, where the Lillies lived, in 1900, at Glen’s Concert Hall on Collins Street. It featured three of the Lillies children, including our grandmother, who would by then have been nine. She and sister Madge played a duet, “A Sleigh Ride” by Loetz.  (Paul de Loetz was the nom de plume of  George Walter Lloyds, pianist, conductor and composer, and founder of an illustrious Australian musical family. His descendants are still making music professionally today.) The full title of the piece, on a theme that must have seemed alien to the little Lillies girls, was “Intermezzo, descriptive of a sleigh ride on the road to Moscow.”

While on the subject of grandma Vera, and jumping ahead several decades, I will also pass on a few brief reminiscences of her from Australian relatives. In an email to Jeremy, our cousin Andrew Lillies (b.1949) who lives near Melbourne, wrote, “She was our Aunt (or Auntie) Vee whom I met when I was very small.  All I remember is that she was very deaf, and used a hearing trumpet which we all used to have to shout in to.  But she only picked up a few words so profound was her deafness.” Rob Blackwell also mainly remembers the ear trumpet. 

Strange and sad to think of that beautiful little piano player, a half a century later, as an old woman with an ear trumpet! She wasn't the only musician who went deaf, though.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Matthew & Vera: New Pictures Discovered

This post is in part a belated response to my cousin Sally in Australia, who in a not-so-recent email asked if I had any pictures of our Blackwell grandmother. At the time, I thought the answer, sadly, was no, but I’ve recently re-discovered some photos in an old album of my mother’s, labeled “John’s mother and father.” 

I had seen the pictures before, but hadn’t really stopped to look at them or taken them in. It’s an old story: the pictures were small, faded and damaged – they hardly registered as pictures of real people.

There are four on the album page. Two appear to be professionally-taken shots, outdoors: one of our grandmother, holding a bouquet of flowers and dressed semi-formally, the other with her arm linked in Matthew’s, with Matthew dressed in tails, holding a top hat. Both are printed with a pronounced vignetting effect, very popular in early photography, and both have residential-looking rooftops in the background. 

Another appears to be a snapshot of Matthew and Vera, with a car in the background. The fourth piece is a contact sheet from a studio session, featuring close-up shots of a teenaged Vera, with flowing golden hair, and in some of them, a feather-adorned tam. My first thought was that she was 16 or 17 in these pictures. I now think she’s more like 13 or 14. 

Do I know for certain the figures in the pictures are Vera and Matthew? 

In the case of the two with Matthew, I can confirm that this is our grandfather (or great grandfather). We have his 1919 passport in which he looks very much the same as he does here, with the same severely centre-parted and plastered-down hair and sticky-out ears. (He’s kind of goofy-looking, isn’t he?) The clincher is the writing on the back of one of the vignetted shots and the snapshot, dating the pictures to July 26, 1916, the date, as we saw in the last post, of their wedding. 

The vignetted pictures are presumably some of the official wedding photos, although the one with both of them in it is out of focus, so if it was taken by a professional, he wasn’t very good. The snapshot, also out of focus, was perhaps taken by a friend, probably as they were about to drive off on their honeymoon.

On the back of the picture of Vera on her wedding day, someone – Vera? Matthew? – has written, “Said to be good.” It’s bound to be one or the other of them. Perhaps a graphologist could tell us if it’s a male or female hand. I’d guess female. But what does it mean? An ironic reference to the bride’s reputation for rectitude – “said” to be good? Or something else entirely?

The scrawl on the back of the snapshot is partly illegible. The closest I can come is, “Fearfully sad you can’t see [illegible] [illegible] which has slipped down onto [illegible.]” The second word I can’t make out looks like it could be ‘skunk’ but that doesn’t seem right. Do they even have skunks in Australia? Anybody else got any ideas?

The pictures are small, not very well taken to begin with, faded, discoloured and damaged. The contact sheet in particular includes eight exposures, each barely the size of a small postage stamp. The others are about 3x5 inches. The scale problem can be partly solved by scanning at more than 100%. The bigger you scan, though, the more pronounced the shortcomings of and damage to the original. I scanned them at between 150% and 300%.  

Enlarged and restored shot from contact sheet

The discolouration problem – yellowing or sepia tone – is solved by scanning in greyscale, which instantly restores them to true black and white. The fading can be largely mitigated in Photoshop using the ‘Automatic Contrast’ command. The damage – dirt, mould, emulsion chipped off, scrapes, etc. – is a more difficult problem. Photoshop has a few tools for tackling this kind of damage. They mainly work by copying adjacent good pixels over damaged sections. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, in some cases, almost magically. It's a tedious and time-consuming process, though. The picture of teenaged Vera took well over 30 minutes to restore.

A note on the last post: both Sally and Rob in Australia have confirmed that the house I showed (in a Google Street View screen shot) is not the house Matthew and Vera lived in. The problem, Rob says, is that there are two 42 Kooyong Roads, in different – but, if I understand rightly, not too widely separated – Melbourne suburbs. The property they really did live in is obscured in Google Street View by a high hedge.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Return to Oz: Matthew Drummond Wed

And so we return at last to Australia, and to the fateful intersection of the Blackwell and Lillies lines, an intersection that produced, with a few additional genealogical detours, the baby-boom Blackwells and Breens, and their progeny.

On July 26, 1916, a cool, cloudy day in Melbourne, Matthew Blackwell, businessman, married Vera Lillies, spinster. The Argus, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, reported the event in fullsome detail, if a little late. Under the heading “Marriages,” this account appeared on September 2:

“BLACKWELL-LILLIES – On the 26th of July, at St. George’s, Malvern, by the Dean of Melbourne, Matthew Drummond, elder son of Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Blackwell, Kooyong road, Toorak, and Vera, younger daughter of Dr. Lillies, Armadale.”

Impressive, I think, that Matthew and Vera were married by the Dean of Melbourne. Deans, though, are not bishops or archbishops. They fit in a different church hierarchy, that of the church “government.” A dean, according to Wikipedia, is “the chief resident cleric of a cathedral or other collegiate church and the head of the chapter of canons.” Other sources note that the dean is responsible for the day-to-day running of the cathedral and its finances. This marriage wasn’t solemnized at the dean’s cathedral, however. It was held at a suburban church, St. George’s, Malvern, established in 1865.

St. George's, Malvern
The Dr. Lillies mentioned is Dr. Herbert Lillies, first-born son of George William Lillies, the naval surgeon whose 1840s African journal I dissected in recent posts. I also wrote about Herbert earlier, here. In the latter post, I mentioned that he had remarried in 1917, presumably after his first wife, Charlotte, whom he’d wed in England before emigrating to Australia, had died. At the time of writing, I didn’t know for sure if or when this had happened. The marriage notice, mentioning only Vera’s father, is another clue that Charlotte was dearly departed before this date. In fact, I now have a record of her death, on December 3, 1911 in  Australia, Victoria, Index to Probate Registers, 1841-1989.

R. H. Blackwell is Richard Henry, founder of R. H. Blackwell & Son, Commission Agents, sole representatives in Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands of champagne maker George Goulet & Co. of Reims, France. I’ve written at some length about R.H., our great grandfather and founder of the Oz branch of the family, starting here.

The Blackwells and Lillies lived not far apart in the same middle class suburban district just east of Melbourne’s centre. The Lillies were at 878 High St., Armadale, also the address of Herbert’s medical practice. The Blackwells lived several blocks away on Kooyong Rd, Toorak.

The Kooyong Rd. residence may have been the house at number 42, where Matthew and Vera were definitely living in 1954, the year Vera died. We know the couple did live other places, i.e. not on Kooyong Rd., in intervening years, but it was here they ended up. Was it the same house as R. H. and Kate and the boys lived in in 1916? 

The house with that number today certainly doesn't look like the home of a successful businessman. (See Google Streetview image below.) It’s more like the home of a modest working man: a middle unit in a low four-wide row house. It’s a marked contrast to the imposing two-storey mansion in which the Lillies lived.

42 Kooyong Rd. (second from right)

I seem to remember stories about the Blackwell family falling on hard times during the Depression. Were Matthew and Vera forced to buy down when the money ran out and just coincidentally chose a smaller house on the same street as the family had lived in 1916, or did they move back into a home the Blackwells had owned all along and rented out during the good years when they were able to live somewhere more opulent?

Perhaps our Australian cousins know the story? Rob? Sally?

I’m assuming too that this 42 Kooyong Rd. house is the one I remember Matthew living in when I met him as a five-year-old in 1955. It has the same low-ceilinged Victorian cottage-y look I recall, but I always assumed it was a single-family dwelling. I do remember our Canadian family being thrilled that citrus trees grew in the back garden. 

But I’m getting ahead of the story again.

Matthew – Matthew Drummond (the origin of whose middle name we looked at earlier in this post) – was at the time of his marriage a mature businessman of 32, with 15 years experience in the family firm under his belt. He was named a junior partner in 1910, when, presumably, the “& Son” was added to the company monicker. According to the 1929 Who’s Who in Australia, Matthew had been educated at Cumloden Grammar School, Melbourne. I can find little about the school. It appears to have closed in 1905, a few years after Matthew left at age 17 to work for his father. He apparently didn’t go to university, or if he did, didn’t finish.

Matthew Drummond Blackwell, as shown in 1929 Who's Who in Australia
About Matthew’s early life before his marriage, I can find little else. We do have a passport for him in the Blackwell Archive, issued in London on March 3, 1915. He was evidently on his way to France, presumably to consult with the George Goulet company, although he may also have been there to talk to the French Mission to Australia. We have a letter from this French government agency, dated a few years later on July 16, 1918, with a retun address of 50 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris. In any case, Matthew presented his passport to the French consulate in London two days after receiving it, and to the British vice-consul in Paris a week later on March 11.

Page from Matthew Blackwell's 1915 passport with stamps from his trip to wartime France
But wait. Wasn’t there a war going on in France at the time? Wasn’t the country over-run by Huns? Certainly the Germans had invaded and were fighting in France, but Paris had not fallen. In fact, unlike in WWII, it never fell  – although the national government did move to Bordeaux, along with the Louvre’s masterpieces, in 1914. (This may be why only a vice-consul was left to look after British affairs in the capital.)

Civilians were apparently still moving freely at least in parts of western France, but in the Champagne region, where George Goulet & Co. was based, there was fairly intense fighting through the first few months of 1915. And the famous Reims Cathedral had earlier been damaged by German shelling in 1914. We can only assume then that the business Matthew needed to transact could all be done in Paris. His passport is clearly stamped, “…not valid for the zone of the armies.”

Reims in 1916 showing bomb damage to houses and cathedral
There is no indication Matthew was anything other than a businessman, or involved in any branch of the military. Still, I’d like to think (on no evidence whatsoever) that he was a spy, using his business dealings as a convenient cover. Why else would he risk life and limb by entering a war-torn country perpetually on the verge of collapse? To secure a supply of bubbly? (As a side note, Matthew's 1929 Who's Who entry notes that he supported the Nationalist Party, which had promoted conscription during the First World War, against strong opposition from Labour. And Matthew's younger brother, our great uncle Richard Marsden, went overseas in 1917 with the Australian Imperial Force and saw action in 1918.)

But back to the wedding.

Matthew’s bride, Vera Isabel Marion Lillies, was 24 when they wed. About her early life, we know even less. She does appear in an electoral roll in 1914, likely the first election in which she was eligible to vote (she would have been 21 or 22). Vera was occupied in 1914, according to the enumerators, with “home duties.”  By the time the next election rolled around, she would have been Mrs. M. D. Blackwell. And no doubt still occupied with home duties.

How did the couple meet? Were the Blackwells patients of Dr. Lillies? Did the Dads, or Mums, belong to the same clubs? The Who’s Who entry for Matthew mentions that he belonged, at least by 1929, to the Athenæum Club, the “V.R.C.” – probably the Victoria [Horse] Racing Club – and the V.A.T.C., probably the Victoria Amateur Turf Club. We know the family was involved in racing, and that the firm stumped up for a race prize at one point.

The Athenæum is a private gentleman’s club, established in 1868. It’s still going strong and sounds very posh. Its website says the Athenæum “is one of Australia’s oldest and finest clubs, confident in its heritage and traditions, yet enlightened and contemporary in its outlook.” Meaning presumably that it no longer excludes Jews and people of colour. But would a suburban general practitioner like Herbert Lillies have belonged to a club located in the heart of Melbourne’s business district? Who knows?

Again, do our Australian cousins remember stories about how the two families came together? My sense is that Lillies and Blackwells didn’t have a lot to do with each other after the fact, but I could be completely mistaken about that.

I’ll leave off here, and hope to come back with more about Matthew and Vera and R.H. Blackwell & Son in future posts, as I learn more.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Diary: People Watching, Part II

Summer is over, the sky is leaden with rain. Enough of fair weather frivolities, it’s time to get back to the hard work of documenting our family’s history. 

First task: unfinished business. I left off in May talking about the journal that George William Lillies, maternal great great grandfather on the Blackwell side, kept in the mid-1840s while serving as a Royal Navy surgeon in the West African fleet tasked with blockading slavers.

In that last post, I looked at some of GWL’s ethnographic observations, about the Kru and Bubi people. He clearly had a scientist’s interest in the groups he encountered in Africa, even if his personal attitudes towards them were not always completely disinterested, or complimentary. On February 8, 1846, with his ship, the HMS Styx, anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone, the colony the British founded in the late 18th century as a homeland for freed slaves, GWL wrote briefly about another group he refers to as Fishmen.

“The Blacks who live on this part of the coast belong to a tribe called the Fishmen and are said to be vindictive cruel and very inimical to Englishmen - They are continually at war with the Kroo People and are distinguished from them by a swelling placed over the outer ankle, which is caused by the way they seat themselves in their canoes, the sheaths of the Peronic muscles bursting from their sitting always with their feet turned up under them…”

I can’t figure out which modern ethnic group he is referring to here, if indeed they survive as a distinct group. His remarks are clearly not based on direct observation or interacation, though, which begs the question, how accurate are they? The report of a Royal Navy expedition to the Niger area in 1841 – published in 1848, so not GWL’s source – discusses the Fishmen, which it also refers to as the Grébus, at some length. (The Grébus name has also apparently fallen out of use.)

The 1848 report (which is here in Google Books) confirms some of what GWL says about them, including the common deformation of the ankle and the animosity between Fishmen and Kru. But their supposed vindictive cruelty and antipathy to the English may have been a reflection of the prejudices of Kru people with whom, we know, GWL did interact. The report makes clear the two groups were racially and ethnically pretty much indistinct. 

“If you ask a Grébu the character of a Kru, he says, ‘Kru boy big rogue,’ while the latter replies of the Grébu, Fishman debblish big rogue, so it is merely a question of comparative honesty between them,” the report’s authors – an RN captain and RN surgeon – write. They go on to refer to “the kindly disposition” of both tribes, “a pleasing contrast to that of most other Africans.” This favourable assessment may have much to do with the fact that, as the report notes, “no people on the west coast of Africa labour so well, so cheerfully, or for such low remuneration as the Krus and Grébus, and even the hard unmerited treatment they sometimes meet with will not discourage them.”

Ethnography in the interests of economic development.

The observations about Fishmen are the last substantive passage in which GWL talks about an identifiable group in anything approaching scientific terms. He does mention a later, first-hand experience observing natives. The occasion was a “ball” in Freetown, Sierra Leone in June 1846, at which blacks and whites mixed. The passage makes clear the deeply-held aversion that even educated Europeans like GWL often felt towards Africans. Here is the passage in its entirety. (Don’t shoot the messenger.)

Freetown in 1820
“Hearing there was to be a ball Yule [a friend from another ship] and myself went ashore with him [Oldfield, another friend] and after going to Oldfield's we adjourned with him to the dance, dignified by the title of the Dignity Ball - To see such a sight again or rather to smell the effluvium would kill me: well after nearly breaking our necks getting there (for it was pitch dark and we were obliged to find our way by the aid of Lanterns) we were  ushered into a small room with two recesses or smaller chambers where about twenty black fellows and as many nigger women were kicking up their heels in glorious style – 

“In one of these anti-rooms was stationed the band which consisted of a drum flute and a squeaky grating fiddle, in the other you could get champagne or swipes from an old woman stationed there for the purpose - The only dance that would go down was a Country Dance and notwithstanding our most energetic endeavours to gain a place for the Polka we were quite unsuccessful and came to the conclusion that the Inhabitants of Sierra Leone were far behind the Mother Country in refinement of taste and accomplishment - Attributing their aversion to kicking their legs about or as it is more generally called Polking amongst their white sisters, to their ignorance (as the man very properly did when his Jack-ass kicked him)…

“[W]e put up with their savage ideas and joined in the dance until sickened by miasmata composed of animal effluvia ingeniously combined with the odours of muck Lavender and Eau de Cologne we made one rush for the open street to endeavour to shake off in the fresh air the stench, which seemed to have penetrated every pore of our bodies - Oh these black women, these black women how infernally they stink - If Ovid had lived amongst them for one day he never could have made the assertion that he has viz: ‘Hei Mihi quod nullis amor est medicabilis herbis’…”

By “a Country Dance,” GWL probably means the kind of formal dance for several couples that was popular in 18th century England, but had been superseded by the waltz, polka and other dances by the time he is writing. You’ve seen it in movies from Jane Austen novels: the couples line up opposite each other and prance about, holding hands, switching partners at intervals. 

On the other hand, he may have been describing a dance of native origin that merely reminded him of English country dancing or seemed analogous to it. Either way, it’s interesting to consider the possibility that the “band” was using African instruments. Could the “squeaky grating fiddle,” for example, have been a goje, a one-string fiddle from Nigeria. A goje features a gourd bowl with snakeskin stretched over it, creating a membrane head similar to a banjo. The horsehair strings are stretched along a stick attached to the gourd and suspended over a bridge. The player uses an arched horsehair bow. Check out this video of a modern-day Nigerian folk group with the lead singer playing a goje.

And the flute could have been an oja, a traditional Nigerian flute. Listen to what it sounds like below. There are of course many styles of drums in traditional west African music that might have been used. 

Google translates the Ovid quote (from Metamorphoses) as, “Woe to me that no love is curable with herbs.”  It’s more often translated, “Ah me! love can not be cured by herbs.” Either way, I’m not sure I understand what he means in the context. Does anybody have an idea? I suspect a sexual innuendo. I was also mystified by “champagne or swipes.” What is, or are, or were, swipes? My trusty 1973 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles gave me the answer: beer – “slang or colloq. 1796 Poor weak beer; small beer; hence, beer in general.”

During periods of what modern naval types might call “shore leave,” GWL and his cronies were apt to get up to all kinds of nonsense, and when recounting these experiences, his writing gets a little breezier, even humorous – as witness the last passage about the dance. Here’s another in which he describes a free day spent rollicking about on shore with guns. Keep in mind that GWL was only about 21 or 22 at this time, and forgive his idiocy.

“On returning back Sir Humphrey gave me permission to have a shot at his person which I refused to do partly from compassion partly from a consideration for his friends and family although I allowed him to stoop down and remain in a curious position for some minutes - we got back to Clarence about six - fired over a black fellows house at which he was monstrous indignant went into Mrs. Thompson's the Washerwoman's house had a chat with and saw her Parrotts…”

Rose-ringed Parakeets - example of the type of local parrots Mrs. Thompson may have kept.

I was curious about who Sir Humphrey might be. Another Royal Navy officer? I can find no Sir Humphrey in the lists of naval officers of this period, and no Sir Humphrey who was a prominent civilian figure in west Africa either. He also doesn’t show up in lists of knights of the realm. He may have been a baronet, an hereditary knight. The lists I consulted only mention the first in a line of baronets, and the first wasn’t necessarily named Humphrey. 

Sir Humphrey de Trafford, 2nd Baronet (1808-1886) is a possibility. He would have been 38 at the time GWL is writing, so about the right age. But the scant biographical material on the Internet gives no indication he was ever anywhere near west Africa. 

On the other hand, it may be a knighthood conferred ironically by friends on a crew mate who was just-plain-Humphrey. Sir Humphrey, or Sir Humph, appears a few more times in GWL’s journal. Here’s another funny one.

“After this we walked with Mr. Beecroft's [presumably some colonial official’s] clerk down to the Brook and then returned to the beach expecting to be able to get on board - However we were disappointed as there was no boat there so after waiting for some time the Clerk got a canoe for us and wished us good-night …

“[W]e were all seated and the word was given to shove off when after we had got into about three feet of water the canoe canted and over we all went neck and crop affording a most ludicrous spectacle to any bystander - By dint of good management I got out of the way of Sir Humphrey who I knew would crush me if he had the ill luck to tumble on me and after groping ashore found him deploring the loss of a Penang lawyer he had with him - However by the aid of Cognac we recovered ourselves somewhat and even Sir Humph's grim features began to relax into a pleasant smile…”

Sir Humphrey de Trafford, in the only picture of him I found online (see above), showing him as a much older man, looks stout but not large enough to inflict serious damage in a boating accident. But then GWL may have just been taking the piss. 

A “Penang lawyer?” A type of walking stick of Maylasian origin, usually with a bulbous head. According to Wikipedia, it is “made from Licuala [miniature palm (Licuala acutifida)]. After the bark was removed with only a piece of glass, the stick was straightened by fire and polished. The fictional Dr. Mortimer owned one of these in The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The term probably comes from a mispronunciation of Maylasian words referring to the material from which the canes are made. This gave rise to the idea that a "penang lawyer," which could be lethal, especially if weighted, as in another Holmes story, was a useful tool for settling disputes in Penang.

Penang lawyers

“Neck and crop” is an interesting, now obsolete, expression. The etymology is uncertain, but most likely originally referred to a horse falling and meant more or less the same as “head over heels.” It came to mean completely or disasterously.

That’s it for my gloss on GWL’s journal. There is lots more there for those interested. You can download the entire journal in PDF format here.

Next time? Not sure. Maybe back to Oz and the Blackwells.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dear Diary: People Watching, Part I

George William Lillies was an enthusiastic amateur naturalist who collected specimens he found along the west African coast when his Royal Navy ship was there in the mid-1840s. He even did his own taxidermy on the spot. It’s unlikely, however, that he was making original scientific discoveries; it appears to have been more a hobby than a serious vocation.

GWL’s 1846-47 journal also includes occasional observations about the geology and climatology of the region. But most intriguing are his commentaries on the indigenous cultures he encountered.

His attitudes towards Africans could, as we’ve seen, be regrettable. But GWL also shows flashes of a more disinterested, scientific perspective. It’s not clear in these entries whether he’s repeating what other Europeans have told him, or reporting direct observations and results of his own enquiries. In some cases, it’s definitely the latter. But again, there is no sense that he was doing serious or original research. He was just curious about and interested in everything he saw, and had a trained scientific mind.  

His first and most extensive excursion into ethnography comes five months into his tour, in November 1846. His ship, the HMS Styx, had anchored at Fernando Pò Island in the Gulf of Guinea, off present-day Cameroon. The island is part of Equatorial Guinea today, and officially named Bioko.

Gulf of Guinea showing Bioko (Fernando Pò Island) and mainland Equatorial Guinea
“The natives of the island,” GWL tells us, “are called Bushmen or Boobies - they live in the Bush in small villages consisting of huts – each Village has its chief - they subsist on what they procure by hunting which is their principal occupation - Their faces are disfigured by numberless scars the result of incisions made on them when young by their parents - The men wear Bracelets on their arms high up in which they carry a knife and pipe.”

19th century image of Bubi man with knife held in bracelet
GWL can’t resist concluding this little introduction with some Victorian moralizing. “Their dress,” he sniffs, “is anything but becoming or civilized[. M]ost of them wear hats with the feathers of some wild fowl in them.” Tsk, tsk.

The Bubi People (as they spell their name today) are a Bantu-speaking group indigenous to the island. The name was given them by pre-colonial (probably European) visitors, a corruption of the group’s own word for man. The Bubi have since adopted the name themselves.

Bioko scene (courtesy of A Pocketful of Wanderlust) 
The ancient Bubi kingdom by some accounts lasted 3,000 years. The monarchs, from colonial times, are well documented. GWL may not have realized they had a king at the time he wrote his first entry, but he did by the time he continued his account a few days later. In the next entry, he adds more detail about the Bubi way of life and culture.

“[T]hey have a kind of shed where they live during the day and where they cook etc. Close to this are built their huts which are more like dog kennels than anything else - they are very low so that one must creep into them and are just large enough to hold two or three persons – “

Bubi children today
“Polygamy is common among them - The man we saw had three wives - they curl their hair behind and smear it over with palm oil and red clay - their spears are made of wood, have no iron about them and irregularly notched towards the point - they are very civil and inoffensive creatures they pressed us to take some yams which we declined – “

And then he mentions the monarch. “Their King is called by some Glory, by others Cut-throat - he was formerly a troublesome character but now they say he is much improved.” According to the historical record, King Möadyabitá was on the throne in 1846.

Fernando Pò Island circa mid-1800s
The Styx appears to have been on an extended break during this period. Fernando Pò was a Spanish colony, but the British leased bases for its anti-slavery patrols at Port Clarence (Malabo today) and San Carlos. GWL’s journal entries, about the Bubis and other topics, tend to be longer during this time, and he is relaxed enough to wax comical on a couple of occasions. A few days after the King Cut-Throat entry, he adds more interesting, and gruesome, anthropological detail about the Bubi.

“Adultery is punished amongst the Boobies by cutting off the offenders hand for the first offence and scarifying him with a  long knife from the spot where he committed the act to his own hut - a second offence is punished by amputating the other hand – 

“In most of their villages they divide themselves into two parties or sects one of which spend their time in fishing, the other in cultivating yams [Hmm. What happened to hunting as their main occupation?] - Each is obliged to stick to his own employment and is not allowed to occupy his spare time in doing any work but what he has chosen as his trade.”

This is the last GWL mentions the Bubi. In January 1847, with the Styx now in Sierra Leone, he turns his attention to the “kroomen.” Kroomen were recruited locally to serve on West Africa Squadron ships, and the ships of other navies in the region. According to GWL, “a certain number of their men are allowed to the British Cruisers on the Coast -  they are very useful as they do all the hard work and when in harbour all the shore work which would otherwise prove highly prejudicial to the health of our men[.]”

Kroomen, some in uniform, on USS Sacramento, an American ship, 1867 (Surgeon H.P. Babcock, USN)
I had assumed, not unreasonably, that the kroomen were so-called because they were “crew men.” Not so. As GWL’s entry makes clear, and Wikipedia among other sources confirms, they are a separate ethnic group. “The Kroomen were experienced fishermen from the Kroo or Kru tribe in Sotta Krou, in what is now Liberia in West Africa,” Wikipedia tells us. “Because of their knowledge of the west African coast they were sometimes employed as pilots.”

GWL referred to them early in his journal as “extraordinary looking Animals,” adding that “some of them are exceedingly fine men.” In the January entry, he expands on this.
Mid-19th century print
“Kroomen,” he writes, “are tattooed - a broad bluish line passes from the roots of his hair over the forehead terminating at the tip of the nose - At the outer angle of each eye there are occasionally a few crescentic lines concave and having a dart pointing towards the eye  - The body is covered with all sorts of figures, comprehending human heads, fish, ships, arrows and Palm Trees - an Ivory wristlet and Leopards tooth or a piece of fish skin are especial articles of Gree Gree, their God of medicine – ”

It’s worth noting that none of the 19th century pictures of kroomen that turn up in Google searches come close to living up to GWL’s outlandish-sounding description. But perhaps by later in the century when these images were made, the kroomen had already begun to be Europeanized – or “civilized,” as GWL would likely put it.

He goes on to talk about language, culture and working methods, but as in other passages, can’t resist moral judgements.

“They are very superstitious and are generally found faithful in a strange country although they cannot be trusted in their own… Their language is principally a combination of vowels and from the peculiar nasal pronunciation can rarely be acquired by Europeans - A different language is spoken amongst them at every 10 or 12 miles, but these different languages are generally understood by the natives all along the coast…”

The kroomen apparently practised a form of employment contracting that bears similarities to modern temp agency practices and, as GWL notes, traditional European apprenticeships.

“The Kroomen have a singular custom peculiar to themselves which is a system of apprenticeship,” he writes. “A number of young men will attach themselves for a certain period to a Headman - This Headman has made one or more voyages to leeward to the Oil Rivers [delta of the Niger River in modern Nigeria], before he can obtain a name or be allowed to build a house or trade, and it is the duty of this Headman to ship the boys off for the Oil Rivers on board of any vessel he can, and for this service the Headman is entitled to the one month's advance always paid by the ship - He is also entitled to a certain portion of the Boy's Wages, when he returns - When the boy has made two or three voyages and can speak English fluently he becomes a Headman himself – ”

Next post: the Fishmen, a visit to a dance and comical interludes with Sir Humph.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Dear Diary: The Science Nerd

Our great great grandfather George William Lillies was a medical doctor by training, but also a naturalist of wide ranging interests. All through the journal that he wrote during his time as a Royal Navy ship’s surgeon in West Africa, he makes observations about the flora, fauna, geology, ethnography and climatology of the region, and reports on his efforts to collect and preserve specimens.

It starts early with observations of the exotic flora of the Cape Verde Islands which his ship visited en route to its posting in Sierra Leone. “The island is very fertile,” he writes, “but very unhealthy. On it grow Cocoa Nut trees, Tamarinds - Pine Apples - Oranges -Lemons - Limes - Bananas and a curious kind of fruit called t[h]e Mammy Apple.” It’s not always easy to figure out what it is GWL actually saw. Mammy Apple? This is almost certainly Mammea americana, a fruit native to tropical South America that was introduced to other tropical regions, including west Africa, after the Spanish Conquest.

Sometimes, GWL’s interest in local flora and fauna isn’t purely scientific. In the same passage about Cape Verde, he adds, “Plenty of Turkeys and fowls can be got here and at a very cheap rate - The Inhabitants are very fond of exchanging provisions for old clothes - I got this morning as fine a Turkey as ever I saw with Pine Apples, a cocoa nut and a dozen eggs for an old rusty pair of trousers, not worth I should think at most two shillings.” He often segues abruptly in this way from the disinterestedly scientific to the down-to-earth and practical.

Most of the time, GWL is simply observing and cataloguing, and sometimes his interest seems as much aesthetic as scientific. On a visit to Prince’s Island (part of the Portuguese-speaking Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe today), he describes walking through a plantation with “a beautiful avenue formed by Guava Trees Coffee Shrubs Palms and a species of Creeper bearing seeds that resembled chestnuts.” GWL, like most first-time visitors to tropical and semi-tropical climes, is attracted to the picturesque hanging vines. “The creepers are exceedingly beautiful,” he writes. “[T]hey climb to the tops of the tallest trees and then hang down in graceful festoons.”

Modern tile mosaic depicting São Tomé and Príncipe coconut plantation
He is perhaps most interested in birds, mentioning “Palm Birds,” in particular, on several occasions. GWL describes them as “beautiful plumaged birds [so] called…from their building on the Palm tree and forming their nests of strips of its leaves - Their nests hang from the stems under the leaves and resemble in shape a wren's nest - The cock bird has a beautiful plumage bright yellow and black with scarlet eyes and black pupils - they live on insects principally and are called by the natives Snowdies - The Hen bird in plumage resembles much the yellow hammer.”

Allied Hornbill
It took some digging to figure out which bird he was talking about. The term palm bird has apparently fallen out of general English usage. But I found it in a couple of specialist lexicons of Liberian English, in one case rendered phonetically as “palm boid.” Both define it as a hornbill, of which two subspecies are common in Liberia, and presumably in nearby Sierra Leone where our man reports seeing them: the Allied and the Yellow-Casqued. But neither hornbill exactly matches GWL's description (see illustrations).

Yellow-Casqued Hornbill
He is not always content merely observing, in fact appears to have been a compulsive collector. About the time of those first palm bird sightings, he reports, without further elaboration, “skinned my birds in the evening.” (Of course, they may have just been dinner!) On another occasion he mentions stuffing a rook specimen in the evening. “Stuffed a Kingfisher in the evening,” he tells us another day. Taxidermy evidently was an evening occupation. I can imagine him working away by the light of an oil lamp in his cramped cabin. 

GWL wasn’t satisfied with observing the “beautiful plumaged” Palm Bird either. He casually mentions going for a walk and “[getting] some nests of the Palm bird.” On another occasion he “killed some Palm Birds,” adding with relish, “frightened an old woman out of her wits - she did everything but swear at us.” (Stamped her feet?) So much for the modern-day naturalist’s mantra of “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

West African Seahorse

It seems that news of his interest in local flora and fauna spread because people started giving him specimens. A Spaniard, he reports, “gave me a wild cat and a Hippocampus.” Hippocampus? Latin scholars and marine biologists will already know it’s a seahorse, of which there is a distinctive subspecies found in the waters off Sierra Leone. “Wild cat” seems a frustratingly vague descriptor on a continent with so many wild cats, but in fact there is one called a Wildcat that is found in west Africa, and Europe and Eurasia. It looks like a large house cat.

You begin to see why GWL was so busy with taxidermy. His quarters would have stunk to high heaven if he hadn’t stuffed the dead critters he collected.

I was stumped initially by his mention of the “Physalia pelagica” that someone gave him. Turns out it’s the scientific term, or one of them, for a Portuguese man o' war. One blogger I read claims the term came into English as an implied insult to the once mighty but by then weak Portuguese navy. When washed up on the beach, the animals supposedly looked like capsized Portuguese war ships. 

West African Pelagic on the prowl
Other puzzling references include “shore plums” and “a variety of the beaver,” both observed in the Cape Mount area of Liberia. Beavers in Africa? Really? I could find no information about beavers in west Africa, but the cane rat (genus thryonomys), a vaguely beaver-like water-dwelling rodent, is found everywhere in Africa south of the Sahara. And is raised for eating in some.

West African Cane Rat - GWL's "beaver?"
The shore plum is a stumper. The “beach plum” grows on a bush, as GWL describes, but it’s native to the eastern seaboard of the United States. There are some other bush-growing fruits or large berries in west Africa, but I’m wondering if freed slaves, who settled Liberia starting in 1820, might have brought the beach plum back with them from North America.

You get the idea. GWL was fascinated with the biology of the lands through which he travelled. He was interested in much more besides, commenting less frequently, but just as earnestly, on the geology and climate of the region, and most interestingly, the ethnography – which I’ll turn to in my next post.