05/1/13

Waterloo, 200 years later


The BattleThis June we will be a short two years from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo*. It is expected to be a large event, especially since the 100th anniversary was not celebrated because it fell in the middle of WWI. That gives us enough time to reconsider the battle and to read the histories and reports about it. Wouldn’t it be grand to stand on the field that day, 200 years later?

I have been reading about Napoleon’s campaigns and the events of his reign for many decades, since the early 1970s when I first read David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (a book still on my shelves). Dozens of books have been written on the battle, and continue to be written.

I played through many, many wargames of his battles and campaigns, but always for wargamers, Waterloo was a popular and often-played battle. I still have copies of the SPI “Napoleon’s Last Battles” quad game, but, sadly, no one with whom to play it.

As Wellington called it, it was a “near run thing.” The chances for either side to win were close, and if you play the entire three-day campaign in a wargame, starting with the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, you have many strategic opportunities to see how history might have changed, had another path been taken, or a different result developed in these earlier clashes.

Looking back, the battle has become the stuff of legend, with not a small amount of mythology mixed into the tale. It was a relatively literate era, and afterwards many accounts of the battle were written, first-hand and the analysts who followed later. Historians have argued over many points in the day, what effect they had, what mistakes were made, what happened and what might have happened.

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04/28/13

Rasputin: Two Perspectives


Grigory RasputinPerhaps no character stands out in pre-Revolution Russia as much as that of Grigory Rasputin. He was influential, enigmatic, charismatic, secretive, held no office, yet had enormous influence on the events and people of the era. How could a barely literate peasant affect the destiny of an empire?

In many ways, Rasputin was the icon of the changing times, in others he represents the end of the old era, the last gasp of the autocratic, superstitious Russia. Mythologies grew up about and around him during his life, and even more so in death. No matter how you view him, he remains a subject of popular interest and his death continues to generate conspiracy theories, almost a century later.

The period from 1881* to 1921 is one of (for me) the most fascinating periods in Russian history.** While the rest of Europe was hell-bent on progress, development and industrialization (as well as colonialism), Russia was a bulwark of almost medieval attitudes and economics against the tide of progress. The fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Soviets is intriguing.

The same period that saw some of the most brilliant Russian writers and composers also saw brutal anti-semitism, pogroms, and a recalcitrant autocracy digging in to preserve its perceived rights to absolute power.

From a global perspective, given the situation, the Russian Revolution was inevitable, although the resulting Soviet state was not. What it began as, and what it became, are two very different things. But that’s material for another post.

Nicholas Romanov, the last Tsar is one of those great, tragic characters of history; weak and unsuited for the mantle of power in turbulent times that changed the face of the nation and the West. His wife, Alexandra, while stronger, shares much of the blame for his fall from power, in part for her religious interference in secular political issues. And that’s where Rasputin comes into the story.

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04/19/13

The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum - once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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04/15/13

April, the cruellest month


Jackie Chan's movie 1911April, wrote T.S. Eliot in his remarkable poem, The Waste Land, is the “cruellest month.”* And not merely because of the inclement and unsettling weather that seems to mix winter with spring in unpredictable doses. Nor for the necessity of filing one’s taxes before month end, always a painful chore.

I started thinking about April while watching the movie, 1911, about the Chinese uprising against the Qing Dynasty, in 1911 (saw it this weekend). Fascinating period of Chinese history that led to the first republic under Sun Yat Sen, but, I wondered, was it so interesting elsewhere? Yes, it seems so.

April is a month rich in history, with memorable events, births and deaths galore. Memorable, however, is not always pleasant, of course.

April comes from the Latin Aprilis, a word of uncertain origin. For those who know the “ides of March” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you may be surprised to discover that the ides didn’t always fall on the 15th day of the month. In April, it falls on the 13th. The Roman calendar was a complex thing.

April is the month to remember battles. Just to name a few: Culloden (Apr 16, 1746, when the Jacobite rebellion was broken), Vimy Ridge (9-12, 1917, famous to Canadians, so many of whom died there), Lexington and Concord (Apr 19, 1775, starting the American Revolution), Mollwitz (10 Apr, 1741 – the first battle Frederick II ever fought), Okinawa (began 1 Apr, 1945, the beginning of the end of the WWII in the Pacific), Tobruk (11 Apr-27 Nov, 1941), Berlin (20 Apr- 2 May, 1945, the beginning of the end of WWII in Europe), 2nd Ypres (started 22 Apr, 1915), Fort Sumter (Apr 12–14, 1861, beginning the American Civil War), Shiloh (April 6/7, 1862), Mapiu (5 Apr, 1818 – 1818 – decisive battle of the Chilean War of Independence),  Guernica (Apr 26, 1937 – the town was attacked by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War; the planes then machine-gunned fleeing civilians), the Falklands (Apr 2, 1982 troops from Argentina invaded and occupied the British colony, beginning the short Falklands War).

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03/31/13

Culloden and the Family Tree, 267 Years Later


It doesn’t begin with Culloden. History is seldom so neat and precise that a single event can be identified as the start or end of a thing. Rather, Culloden was a hinge, a point at which events changed direction, when the door to the past was closed and one to a very different future opened.

You might say it really begins centuries earlier, in the long, bitter wars between England and Scotland that trace their roots to the Norman conquerors. But that’s too vague and longwinded. It would be better to say it the introduction to the story was written at Glencoe, in 1692, when Clan MacDonald was slaughtered by their guests, the Campbells.

“Ye loyal MacDonalds, awaken! awaken!
“Why sleep ye so soundly in face of the foe?
“The clouds pass away, and the morning is breaking;
“But when will awaken the sons of Glen Coe?

“They lay down to rest with their thoughts on the morrow,
“Nor dreamt that life’s visions were -melting like snow;
“But daylight has dawned in the silence of sorrow,
“And ne’er shall awaken the Sons of Glencoe.”
from Lament for Glen Coe by Mary Maxwell Campbell

That event scattered MacDonalds around northern Scotland, and started the slow burn of anger that would erupt in the Jacobite rebellion, 50 years later.

Some of the MacDonalds fled to Glen Urquhart, Inverness-shire, after Glencoe. From there they would leave for the New World almost a century later.

But it all came to a head at Culloden, the final battle of the Jacobite uprising that had begun so well and was now about to end in that rocky, soggy field. And that’s where I’ll begin this tale.

It was a rainy day, April 16, 1746, when the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie faced the English army under the Duke of Cumberland, across the moor at Culloden. On the left wing of the Jacobite Army were three regiments of MacDonalds – of Clanranald, Keppoch and the MacDonnells of Glengarry, all in the Duke of Perth’s division. Clan Donald had almost 1,000 men in the line, of the 7-8,000 in the Jacobite army that day.

Among them were my relatives, MacDonalds (from Clanranald, if I understand the genealogy correctly). I don’t know yet if they were direct ancestors, or outside the direct line. But they were my blood, family members standing in the cold, wet morning, waiting for the English to arrive. Their fate would eventually spin among the threads of mine, centuries later.

Across the field, among the Royal Army that arrived several hours later, was the Manchester Regiment, a group pressed and recruited form the area where my father’s family comes from. There was a Chadwick in their ranks. I don’t know if he was a relative, but it would certainly be a curious footnote in our genealogy if our family lines met there.*

Between the two lines of soldiers was a swamp, a small stream, and the boggy, soft ground of the moor that made it difficult to move rapidly across the gap. That would play out when the battle commenced. That swamp would force the Highlanders to split their line into two to avoid it. It would reduce the speed and power of the frightening Highland charge, too. Low walls surrounding fields hemmed both sides of the battlefield, further constraining the action and provided shelter for a unit of English soldiers who could safely fire on the advancing Scots.

The Highlanders had been up all night, marching towards a surprise night attack, only to be discovered and forced to return. They were discouraged, hungry, wet and tired. Some had drifted away. The rest waited for the battle to begin.

The Royal troops were fresher, but not much: they had marched 10-12 miles since before dawn to be there.

The MacDonalds must have been angry to see Campbells among the English, but their enemies were on the other wing, and could not be directly challenged. They were more attentive to local issues: a spat between Clanranald and the Glengarry MacDonalds had caused many of their soldiers to leave for home instead of marching together. Plus the MacDonalds felt slighted at having been placed on the left wing, rather than the right.

The two armies began roughly equal in size: 7-8,000 depending on your source, but the Highlander Army was already melting away by the time they clashed and may have had as few as 5,000 soldiers left. Their forces were depleted, and morale was low.

The English had more artillery (including some hefty 6-pounders), and cavalry. It also had the advantages of training, supply and consistency: all of its soldiers used the same musket and cartridge. Plus the soldiers had been fed that morning.

Both sides stood in the open for some time, neither side attacking, while the English guns pounded the Scots from a mere 300 yards away. Casualties were mounting among the Highlanders, so Prince Charles decided to attack. He sent word among his troops and most obeyed eagerly, but the centre was forced to veer right to avoid the swamp, causing a confusion of men on the right wing as they obstructed each other in their hurry to cross the gap.

On the left, the MacDonalds hesitated. Their wing was much further from the English than the right, and the ground between them softer. Their progress was slow, preventing a charge, and the English fire cut into them as they approached. Already suffering many casualties from the sustain musket fire, the MacDonalds broke when Cumberland ordered his dragoons to charge their line as it closed the gap. The left wing crumbled.

The Highlanders on the right had crashed into the English line, but couldn’t sustain their attack. Enfilading fire from their right cut into them. The English line didn’t waver. The Highlander charge started to break.

Soon they all retreated, some of the army falling back towards Inverness, while Cumberland’s dragoons pursued them mercilessly and slaughtered many. An estimated 1,000 Jacobites died, compared to perhaps 50 British (with about 300 more wounded).**

Seeing the battle was lost, Charles Edward Stuart made his escape, fleeing, hiding and eventually making his way to the Isle of Skye and from there to France. The Jacobite cause had ended.

Culloden wasn’t the end of the matter. A brutal massacre followed, with much looting and pillaging of property and cattle. Butcher Cumberland gained his nickname then.

The English were determined to break the backs of the clans, to wipe out the family loyalties and drag the Scots into what the English saw as modernity. The army swept through the Highlands after the battle, driving deep into the clan territories, soon followed by bureaucrats. They set up local overseers, changed tax and land laws, and drove the Scots from the land to make room for English nobles to farm or manage.

The Highland Clearances, as they were to be known, radically changed the face of Scotland for the next two generations. Thousands of Scots emigrated to escape the tyranny and the poverty, or were pushed off their land and had little choice but to board a ship bound for the colonies.

In early July, 1773, 27 years after Culloden, an extended family of MacDonalds – their name is spelled McDonald in later records – boarded a small, aging sloop called the Hector, at Ullapool, Loch Broom, on the western shore of Scotland. Passenger lists compiled later showed 189 Scots on board, including 16 McDonalds from Invernesshire. There were 25 single men, 33 families, a piper and their agent aboard:

Although they were not the first Scots to arrive in North America they were the vanguard of a massive wave of Scottish immigrants to arrive in what is now Canada. In the century following the landing of the Hector more than 120 ships brought nearly 20 000 people from Scotland to the port of Pictou. By 1879 more than ninety-three percent of the region’s rural property owners had Scottish names.

Head of the McDonald family on the Hector was Donald McDonald. His wife, Mary, and two children, as well as some nieces and nephews, accompanied him. John (Iain) McDonald was the other adult male McDonald onboard. He may have been the grandson of another John MacDonald, who fled from Glencoe, in 1692. A John MacDonald of that family served in the Jacobite Army under Prince Charles, but the name was common enough.

The two-week voyage instead took two and a half months, arriving in mid-September. Smallpox and dysentery killed 18 of the children on board. Food had run out. As fall approached, the Hector limped into harbour at Pictou, Cape Breton. The dispirited, hungry and seasick passengers looked at the shoreline with a mixture of despair and fear. Winter wasn’t far away and the land they had expected to occupy was still wilderness, with no arable space for crops, and no shelter. The promised free provisions for a year never materialized. It would be a hard winter for all of them.

Both McDonald men would be granted a parcel of land – 350 acres for Donald, 200 for John – along the Middle River, the next year (all of which took many years to clear). And thus the families would live, and survive, in the wilds of Nova Scotia. Others from the Hector would move to Truro or Halifax. Scots would soon arrive on other ships to take their place.

These early McDonalds were my mother’s family (although it’s difficult to trace them back before the 1850s – in 1817 there were 19 Donald McDonalds listed in the Pictou census, but I may be conflating some data). Her grandmother, Lynn McDonald, married another Scottish descendant of a more recent immigrant family, David Dunlop, in the mid-18th century, merging Highland and Lowland lines. From them came my grandmother, Jean, who would marry William Pudney, son of Sidney, an immigrant from Kent, England, who arrived in Canada with his wife about the time David and Lynn married. My own father would arrive inn 1947, from Lancashire.

While I don’t trace my ancestry back to Culloden, directly (as far as I yet know; I may learn more in future), the battle plays an important part in the family history. It was the hinge that set in motion the events – tragic as they were – that would eventually see my Scottish ancestors arrive in Canada, 240 years ago. So on April 16, I will tip a glass of whisky in memory of that day.

 ~~~~~

*  Lieutenant Thomas Chadwick seems to have been a secret Jacobite, or at least was sympathetic to the rebels, and was later executed for it. I have only traced my father’s line back to Richard Chadwick, of Lancashire, b. 1752. Still looking for older records.

** Another historical footnote: James Wolfe was aide-de-camp for General Hawley, who led the cavalry at Culloden. Wolfe’s military career would end in 1759 as his troops were winning the battle to capture Quebec City and take the New World from the French. Canada was a thread being woven into this tale even at Culloden.

12/13/12

Lost Worlds, Lost Words


Samuel JohnsonMoidered. It sounds like something from the Three Stooges. Or maybe something Tony Soprano would say.”I moidered him.”  But it actually means “crazed,” according to Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary of 1755. It’s long since left  the stage of English usage.

Scan down another few inches and you’ll find “mome.” No, not “mome, mome on the range” or a reference to Mitt Romney’s bizarre religion. Mome means, “a dull, stupid blockhead” according to Johnson. I can think of a use for that right now. Some words deserve to be resurrected.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first dictionary of English – that honour goes back to The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knight, in 1538. That was a Latin-English dictionary. It wasn’t until 1604 that an English-English dictionary was published: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall. Others followed between Cawdrey and Johnson. Many have been published since. But Johnson’s was the first truly scholarly and standardized dictionary. He backed up his list of almost 43,000 words with 114,000 quotations. It took him nine years to complete it.*

Words come into and go from English like species in Darwin’s evolving, ever-changing universe. It’s fascinating to go back even a half-century to see what we’ve lost, and to wonder what will happen to the everyday words we use today in another generation or two. It’s one of the reasons I delight in finding books and websites dedicated to forgotten words; it’s like a doorway into a lost world.**

Just flipping through the pages of Johnson’s magnificent work, I find a wealth of words that no longer find a place in our modern language and yet they are so delightful I want to find a use for them in my conversations:

  • Amatorculist
  • Amaritude
  • Bibacious
  • Consopiation
  • Enubilate
  • Flexanimous
  • Pauciloquy
  • Ruricolist
  • Runnion
  • Tremulent
  • Welkin

and many, many more. Of the above, only welkin appears in my recent edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the only one I recognized from that list. I’ll leave it up to you to learn about them and uncover their meaning.

I’d love to be able to write about the consopiation of viewers watching council on TV.

None of these terms appear in either of Jeffrey Kacirk’s two books on forgotten words (Forgotten English and The Word Museum). I have not yet checked Erin McKean’s two-volumes, however (Weird and Wonderful Words and Totally Weird and Wonderful Words) or some of the other, similar books in my library (like Shakespeare’s Words, which is also fun to peruse, although limited to that period and place in English literature and history).

The COED has its share of words that are either uncommon in modern use or are regional terms seldom heard here in Canada. These include (gathered in under 10 minutes of browsing last night):

  • Boffin
  • Bootblack
  • Flibbertigibbet
  • Lucubrate
  • Noddle
  • Offing
  • Puncheon
  • Quidnunc
  • Socage
  • Younker

I actually know most of them, although predominantly from my reading older works rather than from conversation; I doubt any of them are destined to remain in modern dictionaries for much longer. How many people speak of “in the offing” these days? Or call room service for a “bootblack” at a hotel? But flibbertigibbet still deserves to hang around and might find its way into some future blog commentary about local events.

There are many sites about lost words aside from Kacirk’s (linked above): for a sampling, read 20 obsolete words that deserve to make a comeback for a few, or favourite forgotten words, 20 forgotten words,  30 words, and difficult words (not so much forgotten, but it contains many words not in common use). And then, once your appetite is whetted, Google for more. Or get your own copy of Johnson and dive in.

 ~~~~~

* Reading Johnson’s dictionary today is both a delight and a challenge. He was prone to mix his own comments and apply his wit to his definitions, and to sometimes guess at etymologies (often wildly). That makes it an entertaining read. However, in the original, it’s a bit of a slog for modern readers: the typography is antiquated, with ligatures not common in today’s typesetting, and it uses the extended s that looks like an f (so fishing looks like fifhing and song becomes fong,  which always made reading Izaac Walton in the original tough going).

You can download the original in PDF format at archive.org and work through the 2,300 pages onscreen (remember to download both volumes), or you can purchase a reprint (about $60 for both volumes) from Amazon. I suggest one of the modern abridgments. I like Jack Lynch’s 640-page version, but at 3,100 definitions it has a mere tenth of Johnson’s original work. Lynch’s notes and introduction are, however, invaluable.

** You should also try reading Chaucer in his original, Middle English. It’s a challenge, but for anyone interested in language, it’s also a voyage of discovery. A glossary is necessary, however.