Black Samurai

I’ve written before about the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration in East Asia, including the possibility of a group of Portuguese sailors being the first Europeans to land in Australia.

These early european sailors had in part been driven to find a sea route to Japan, a country that had acquired near mythological status in the late medieval and early renaissance imagination.

Of course, when they got there, they found something different from the myth, but equally fantastic. No gold roofed pagodas waiting to be plundered, but instead a wonderfully exotic culture and a set of feuding polities, whatever their nominal loyalties, as interested in expansion as the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Both the Spanish and the Portuguese armed and used Japanese mercenaries in their wars of exploitation in East Asia, and introduced the use of firearms into warfare in Japan.

At the same time we find stories of Japanese going the other way, either formally, as in the Tenshō embassy, or less formally as in the story Christopher and Cosmas, two Japanese men who were captured off the coast of Baja California when Thomas Cavendish’s commerce raiders intercepted a Spanish galleon bringing cargo from Manila.

The two Japanese were captured, and there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that the spent time in England before setting out on a second voyage, on which they disappeared from the historical record.

However, the traffic was not all one way. Those of us of a certain age will be familiar with James Clavell’s Shōgun, a fictionalised account of the life of William Adams, an Elizabethan sailor who rose to prominence in Japan.

William Adams was not the only one, but this weekend I happened over an even more remarkable story, that of a Black samurai. In its telling the story is not that remarkable – a black youth, taken as a slave in Mozambique, or perhaps Guinea or the Congo, becomes a page to a Jesuit official who is visiting Jesuit missions in Japan. A Japanese warlord, known to be fascinated by all things Western, is fascinated by the black page and somehow acquires him, perhaps as gift from the Jesuit official.

The page, the Japanese called him Yasuke, we don’t know his African name, somehow became a member of the samurai class and served as a warrior.

A fascinating story, and perhaps there were other instances. And of course there’s a tenuous link to the story of the Kilwa coins – coins from the coast of East Africa that somehow ended up on an island off the coast of northern Australia.

I’ve speculated on various possibilities in the past, one of which was that there were black sailors from east Africa and Somalia working on Portuguese and Dutch ships sailing to the spice islands, which are now part of present day Indonesia. The story of Yasuke, while fascinating in itself, also provides indirect evidence of the presence of black people from Africa among the Portuguese and Spanish mercantile and religious community in early renaissance east Asia ..

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Wilkie Collins and Physiology

Before I go to sleep in the evening I like to read for twenty or thirty minutes with a hot drink – probably a sign of growing old.

I usually read stuff I find entertaining and relaxing rather than serious stuff and currently I’m reading Wilkie Collins Moonstone – google for it if you’re interested, it’s on Gutenberg with synopsis in Wikipedia.

It’s a long complex epistolatory novel, ie one in which lots of individual narratives combine to make one story – a bit like The Bridge or the Killing if you like Scandi-noir TV.

The plot is actually quite fantastical, but as with all good writing, the story, not to mention Wilkie Collins’ often highly humorous turns of phrase, carry you forward.

What I also found interesting was the way that Wilkie Collins brings in what was then a very early understanding of biopsychology and physiology to legitimise the slightly improbable end of the story, in much the same way as Bram Stoker referred to the use of  typewriters and Kodak cameras in Dracula to give an air of scientific modernity to the investigation of the mystery.

What’s of course interesting is, for this literary device to work, Wilkie Collins must be drawing on what was then common knowledge in his readership and thus implies a degree of scientific curiosity among his readers, which is not perhaps what we first think of when we think of the early 1860’s …

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A little bit of history in Beechworth

Beechworth, in Victoria, is an old gold town, and quite historical.

Hidden in plain sight is a little bit of world war one history. If you go to the public loos from the main street you walk down the side of the RSL which has a couple of old guns on display.

One is a German second world war anti aircraft gun, and the other is a 75mm Krupp field gun made in Essen in 1904. There’s no mystery as to why these weapons ended up in Beechworth – after both the first and second world wars Australia distributed captured weapons to be used as memorials.

Now you might expect that the Krupp gun was captured from Ottoman forces, or possibly from German forces on the western front, but, when you look at it, the markings are most definitely not Ottoman, and simply don’t look right for German weapon – the crown is wrong and no German Kaiser had a name starting with C.

So, what’s its provenance? My first guess was that it had been an AustroHungarian gun and had been captured after being loaned to Ottoman forces in the closing days of world war one – and this was based on the fact that the crown looked vaguely east European and I though it might be one used by AustroHungarian forces.

I was however a bit troubled by the CI cipher on the barrel – Krupp stamped the date of manufacture on all weapons and there was no Emperor Karl until 1916, and anyway, his name starts with a K in both German and Hungarian.

The truth is a little more complex. The cipher is that of Carol I of Rumania, as is the crown. In 1916 Rumania joined the first world war on the side of the allies in order to make a landgrab for territory with a Rumanian majority that was formally part of AustroHungary. It did this because on the southern section of the eastern front Russia was successfully pushing back the Austrian forces.

It wasn’t a particularly successful action and Rumania was defeated by the Central Powers after the collapse and disintegration of the Russian army in the months before the October revolution in 1917.

This meant of course that the Central Powers (Germany, AustroHungary and the Ottoman empire) captured a lot of munitions and weapons from Rumania. Ottoman Turkey had previously purchased a large number of Krupp 75mm guns from Germany that were of the same design as the captured Rumanian 75mm guns making is a no-brainer for the Ottoman forces to redeploy the captured guns – they had the ammunition – they had men trained to use them – they had spare parts, etc etc.

The Ottoman 26th division had been deployed to the Rumanian front, and after Rumania’s collapse was redeployed to Palestine where they met with Australian forces. The implication is that the Ottoman 26th division brought some captured Rumanian guns with them.

At some point the Beechworth gun must have been captured by Australian forces during the end game of world war one in the middle east …

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Private pictures and public knowledge

A week or three ago I blogged about the great selfie crisis. Since then I’ve come across an interesting little problem.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that one of my interests is that chaotic period of Russian history between the February revolution and the end of the civil war in 1923.

I was putting together a little presentation about the roles of various fellow travellers and was looking for a photograph of Louise Bryant – who was the wife of John Reed – he of Ten days that shook the world – and a journalist and writer in her own right, and continued to report on the revolution and civil war after Reed’s death.

In the course of my searching I came across a picture of Louise Bryant sunbathing naked on Provincetown beach in 1916.

Provincetown is at the tip of Cape Cod and in the early years of the twentieth century was a summer time artists colony. Louise Bryant had a play performed there, and in the summer of 1916 had an affair with Eugene O’Neill while holidaying there with John Reed.

Given that Louise was a free spirit it’s hardly surprising that she did such a thing as sunbathe naked, and the existence of such a photograph confirms things that we might well suspect about goings on within the artistic community in Provincetown a century ago.

The picture itself is not a particularly high quality image, slightly grainy, suggesting it was taken on a fairly basic camera – it’s also almost certainly posed, which is not surprising given the slow film (and forgiving) emulsions in use at the time, especially for amateur roll films, suggesting that Louise both knew her photographer and knew she was being photographed.

The (probable) use of roll film is also interesting – at the time most serious photographers used large format cameras to get the sharp image quality they wanted – suggested that the picture was most definitely taken by a friend, but who ?

Even in liberal Provncetown, it’s probably not the sort of thing that you get processed at the corner drugstore suggesting that Louise had an accomplice both in the taking, and the processing of the film.

We know from Louise and John Bryant’s correspondence it was taken in the early summer of 1916 just before her affair with Eugene O’Neill turned serious.

Intended as a private picture, sent to John Reed while he was working on a journalistic project in Chicago, the picture surfaced among John Reed’s papers after his death.

We know he received it, as in his letters back to Louise he makes a number of references to both the photograph and the Provincetown dunes.

This is not the first time and certainly not the last time that someone has sent a nude photograph of themselves to a lover, but it does raise a number of interesting questions about when the private becomes public.

Given that the picture is almost a century old, and that Louise Bryant died in 1936, and her daughter, who did not have any children is also now dead, it probably doesn’t matter, but it does raise the question as to at what point private photographs can freely be considered to be in the public domain …

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If you have read any British Victorian era literature, you’ll have come across references to a Bradshaw – a guide to train times. So named because George Bradshaw compiled a compendium of the various and often competing companies train timetables as an aid to the nineteenth century traveller to find the best combination of train times and fares – just as we use flightfinder websites today to find the best value flight at the most convenient times.

They also tell us other things which we might not immediately guess – for example at the start of the railway era rail travel was expensive, and services were sparse.

For example, in 1843, a first class ticket from Edinburgh to Glasgow cost eight shillings (GBP0.40) and a third class ticket half that, at a time when someone in a would be middle class position with some responsibilities would be fortunate if they were paid GBP 150 a year (in comparison, Branwell Bronte, before he was sacked from his job as a station master in 1842 was paid GBP 130 a year by the railway company).

The other thing that stands out is just how few trains there were. Again in 1843, there were only four in each direction, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, plus as first train out, leaving at an inconvenient 7am, a parliamentary (public service obligation train) train, in which a third class ticket cost a mere 2s6d (GBP0.125) each way – although there was only one parliamentary train in each direction, meaning that while you could travel on a cheap (and slow) train in one direction, you couldn’t return the same way.

What this of course shows is that the adoption of new technology was slow – while the mine owners and industrialists probably appreciated the reduced cost of transport, people had to learn the habit of travel – after all if before the railway it took you a day by mail coach to travel between cities, you are not going to suddenly start travelling to meetings just because you can.

Bradshaw’s form a rich source of period information – and not just from the timetables – the adverts also are a rich source of source of social history with adverts for water proofs and travel coats, steel nibbed pens, essential for any nineteenth century office, pencils, patent medicines and so on

Now I know this because I found a digitised copy the March 1843 guide online. What was interesting was just how difficult it was to find other editions online – there are very few publicly available scanned editions.

Searching second hand book websites was no better. Very few original editions for sale although there were quite a few recent reprints of selected years available via the nostalgia trade. Yet this was a well known, widely available , widely used, culturally significant publication throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

What this means of course is that the survival rate for printed ephemera is very low, as who, other than a few obsessives, would keep old outdated timetables?

And yet this has quite major implications for social historians among others. Digitising ephemera has never been a priority, newspapers and books have always seemed more important, while something culturally important to nineteenth century Britain is being lost …

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Selfies …

Well this week we’ve had a bit of a moral panic over selfies of clothing challenged people, not in the least because a number of pictures of media starlets have been stolen from Apple iCloud servers, perhaps by brute force password attacks or perhaps not – time will tell.

A lot of the moral panic revolves around why people take and share photographs of themselves with less than the usual amount of clothing and shades into that other moral panic around sexting.

Without getting into the moral argument, lets just say that as long as photography has been around people have taken pictures of other people in the nude, whether for artistic, erotic, or just plain pornographic reasons. An image search for ‘nineteenth century nude photographs’ will bring up a fairly wide selection of images, albeit with some Edwardian images mixed in plus the inevitable leavening of contemporary pornography – in other words don’t try this in public or at work.

If you look at the images, you can see the whole history of photography laid out – in the 1860’s, when exposure times were long, and emulsions slow, the images tended to be of either reclining or posing nudes. It’s worth noting that the diarist Francis Kilvert on one of his trips to London goes to look at some photographs in a gallery ‘owned by a Frenchman suspected of selling obscene photographs’ towards the end of the 1860’s, suggesting that there was already a market for such images.

One, of course, always needs to take accounts of differing attitudes in differing times – Francis Kilvert, despite being a Church of England clergyman, enjoyed nude sea bathing and rails against resorts increasingly requiring gentlemen to wear cotton shorts for swimming, so it’s not necessarily the case that nude images were automatically viewed as obscene.

The other thing that is noticable about the early images, is just quite how many were of naked men – whether this is a result of the suppression of male homosexuality in Victorian times or contemporary preferences for digitising such images is an open question

Then, as film, and technology improves, including advances such as the cable release and the shutter delay one starts to get pictures which are more recognisable as what today we would call ‘selfies’.

And of course, as technology improved, it became cheaper, making it easier for people who were reasonably well off to take up photography as a hobby, and develop and print pictures at home. And as a consequence, from the mid 1880’s onwards they become more normal – private skinny dipping parties, amateur erotica and the like.

And as women started to be amateur and professional photographers in their own right one starts to get the occasional naked (female) self portrait.

So, we can say with some degree of confidence that as soon as technology allowed, those who could, did.

The difference between then and today was of course one of privacy. Intimate pictures would have to be developed and printed at home, which meant having the space to do it in, and the income to invest in equipment and chemicals and film. When I used to take a lot of black and white photographs in the seventies and eighties it was still a reasonably expensive business, even buying second hand tanks or getting access to the student photography club lab.

And for that reason the absolute number of such images was probably pretty low, printed at home, and kept securely locked in a folder in a filing cabinet.

What’s different today of course is that almost everyone in the developed world has a smartphone and can take pictures of their cat, their lunch, their partner showering, or whatever on a whim, and without complex processing, store their picture, quite often on a cloud based service, because after all it’s so easy to set you phone to backup your pictures, and of course the autobackup service does not know if it’s a picture of your cat, or something completely different.

And of course people choose insecure passwords, make mistakes on sharing permissions and the like, so it’s not in the least surprising that the odd private photograph gets out into the wild.

As for the moral panic – well for whatever reason, people have always seemed to want to do it. Why, I’m not sure, but my guess is it’s related to the urge to display, to stand out, to be attractive to the opposite sex, in the same way as some people seek to dress attractively or even provocatively to attract the attention of that special someone …

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I’m going to make a confession here.

I like trains. Or more exactly, I like the social history of trains and railways.

Admitting you like trains is always dangerous. It gets you lumped in with these people who wear unfortunate trousers and have a deep fascination with valves and train schedules, or even worse these people who stand at the end of railway platforms in England collecting engine numbers – something that makes these people who flock to see rare birds almost rational.

That’s not what interests me. What interests me is how railways changed society in the nineteenth century, much as the internet has changed ours by providing new ways of doing things, and new forms of interaction.

These changes were immense – they defined the way of doing things. It became possible to order goods from afar and have them delivered, to travel, even though initially it was slow, expensive and unpleasant.

It also meant that letters no longer went at the speed of a horse, and in time the needs of signalling systems and communications gave birth to the telegraph, arguably a precursor of today’s internet.

One could go on and on, but perhaps a single example can explain.

Branwell Bronte, brother to the Bronte sisters, managed a railway station for a few months in the 1840’s during his decline into alcoholism and laudunum addiction.

Which is kind of interesting

1) Branwell had a job which was new – ten years before managing a railway station probably didn’t exist as a job

2) Working for the railway was acceptable for sons of gentry – Branwell’s other jobs appear to have been the more traditional genteel ones of tutoring and schoolmastering

3) Railways needed middle class people to do mangerial jobs and were recruiting the poor sons of local gentry – in effect building a middle class reliant on paid employment rather than land and rents

Branwell didn’t last at the paid employment thing, but these three observations tell us a lot about the impact that railways were having on rural England and the social changes accompanying them.

And that’s why I like trains …

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