Paradise & Perdition in the South Seas

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Grove Koger

Here’s another addition to “Sea Fever,” my readers’ guide to novels, stories, plays and poems about naval life, the sea, the seaboard and islands. This entry deals with  one of the most enduring works of fiction about the South Pacific, The “Bounty” Trilogy, by Charles Nordhoff, who was born February 1, 1887, and James Norman Hall was born April 22, 1887.

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The “Bounty” Trilogy: Mutiny on the “Bounty” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932); Men against the Sea (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934); Pitcairn’s Island (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934)

Fledgling writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall both piloted planes in the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I. Afterward they were asked to compile a history of the unit, and although they hadn’t known each other during the war, the effort went smoothly and the book was published in 1920. Some time later, they were commissioned by Harper’s Magazine to visit and write about the islands of the Pacific, and, as a result, both took up residence on Tahiti. The articles that they had produced for the magazine were published in book form as Faery Lands of the South Seas in 1921, and another joint effect, a now-forgotten juvenile novel inspired by their wartime experiences, appeared in 1929.

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According to their biographer, Paul L. Briand, Jr., it was Hall to proposed that the two collaborate on a novel about the famous mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in 1789. Nordhoff felt sure that the events had already been fictionalized, but Hall assured him that the only account he had seen had been published by the Secretary of the British Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, in 1831.

With the help of librarians at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum and rare book dealers, the two put together a small collection of additional material, including a 1792 account by the Bounty’s own captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. Then, with each writing first drafts of a certain number of chapters, they read their efforts to each other and revised until both were satisfied with the overall effort.

Published by Little, Brown in 1932, Mutiny on the “Bounty” records the dramatic events aboard the ship, which was on a mission to carry breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies. Through the eyes of a (fictional) young midshipman, Roger Byam, we watch Bligh behaving as a sadistic martinet who profits from his command by skimping the crew’s rations. So overbearing is Bligh’s behavior that he eventually drives the proud Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian to lead a mutiny. Bligh and those loyal to him are put adrift in the ship’s launch, but because of the boat’s small size, Byam and several of his mates are forced to remain on Tahiti. Accompanied by a number of Tahitian men and women, Christian and his fellow mutineers sail off in hopes of finding a safe haven, and the remainder of the novel recounts the ironic fate of those who have been left behind.

For the second volume of the trilogy, Men against the Sea, the two writers chose the perspective of Surgeon’s Mate Thomas Ledward, a real figure who accompanied Bligh and the 16 other men set adrift on the Bounty’s launch. Here, Bligh is revealed to be a master mariner who manages to steer his small open boat nearly 4,000 nautical miles over a period of 45 days to the island of Timor in the East Indies. To help them find their way, they have only navigational tables, a quadrant, a compass and a (broken) sextant. Thanks to its short length, the limited number of characters involved, the perilous circumstances of the voyage, and the dramatically restricted setting of the boat, Men Against the Sea is the most artistically satisfying entry in the series.

The final volume, Pitcairn’s Island, is a somber conclusion to the trilogy, describing how the Bounty’s crew and passengers eventually find a new home on Pitcairn Island in the southeastern Pacific. As it turns out, their situation is far from idyllic, as the mutineers and the Tahitian men who had accompanied them eventually come to blows over the Tahitian women. The novel is presented in the third person for most of its length, but is narrated by the final surviving mutineer, Alexander Smith, for most of its poignant final chapters.

The “Bounty” Trilogy is a work of fiction, but commentators have inevitably compared Nordhoff and Hall’s treatment of Bligh and Christian with what we know about the actual historical characters. Should we blame the overly strict disciplinarian Bligh for the mutiny? Or should we assign the blame to the treacherous Christian? So far as I can tell, there’s no clear answer. In any case, the novels can stand on their own as outstanding examples of popular fiction, dramatic explorations of the conflict between discipline and freedom set in a watery region that was both paradise and perdition.

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As we now know, Nordhoff was right to think that the story of the Bounty had already been fictionalized. Jules Verne is credited with writing a short story called “Les Révoltés de la ‘Bounty,’” but it’s alleged that the piece was actually by a geographer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gabriel Marcel, and that Verne, who had been the story’s proofreader, bought the rights to it and published it as his own work in 1879. More importantly, Australian writers Louis Becke and Walter James Jeffery had published a full-length novel based on the subject, The Mutineer: A Romance of Pitcairn Island, in 1898.

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My one-volume copy of the trilogy (top) was published in 1943 and is illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. The black-and-white photograph shows Nordhoff (right) and Hall (left), and is taken from the dust jacked of Briand’s biography, In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956).

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I was delighted to be invited to write the entry about Nordhoff and Hall in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, edited by Jill B. Gidmark (Greenwood Press, 2001).

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Cap Canaille, Cassis & Calanques

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Grove Koger

One of the most striking features of the Mediterranean coast of France is Cap Canaille. Said to be the highest sea cliff in the country, it’s an imposing 1,293-foot headland of grey marl overlain with strata of red and ochre limestone, sandstone and pudding stone (a conglomerate of stones and sand). The Michelin travel guide tells us that the word canaille is derived from the Latin phrase canalis mons, meaning “mountain of waters”—apparently a reference to the fresh water that Roman aqueducts once carried down from its heights. Confusingly enough, the rock face of the headland itself is known as the Falaises de Soubeyrannes, or Cliffs of Soubeyrannes.

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Cap Canaille looms over the bay and port of Cassis (kah-see), which I visited for the first time in 1992 with friends before attending On Miracle Ground VII, the conference of the International Lawrence Durrell Society, in Avignon. Maggie and I were fortunate enough to spend another week there in 2008 in an apartment overlooking the port’s attractive little harbor. At that time, we read a complaint that the port “lacked luxury infrastructure,” an odd phrase that we eventually learned meant that its harbor was so small that it could accommodate only modest yachts!

Cassis has a reasonably large sand beach near the harbor, as well as an assortment of cafes, small groceries and boulangeries (bakeries), so we ate well. Among the port’s cultural attractions is its Musée Municipal Méditerranéen d’Arts et Tradition Populaires, which offers a range of historical exhibits and a small number of paintings of the region. This latter selection is particularly enjoyable, as the talented artists represented are far from well-known and viewers have the opportunity of experiencing artworks whose beauty hasn’t been dulled by familiarity.

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A short distance from Cassis are several calanques (ka-lawnk), deep fjord-like inlets that have been carved out of the area’s limestone. Small boat tours depart periodically from the port’s harbor and offer an opportunity for visitors to see the inlets close-up and spend time swimming off their pebbly beaches.

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Since our visit, French authorities have created a national park, the Parc National des Calanques, stretching from Marseille in the west to La Ciotat in the east.  

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Our photographs show Cap Canaille (at midday and early evening) and Calanque d’En-Vau. The postcards date from early in the last century, and on the back of the second (which shows Calanque de Port Pin) the original owner has written that “the water is the deepest of blues and greens.” The booklet below describes visits by Virginia Woolf and several other members of the Bloomsbury Group to the little port, with Caws arguing that Woolf’s time there played an important role in the conception of her novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Its delightful cover is by Robert Campling.

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The Ancient World’s Most Amazing Invention

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Grove Koger

If it weren’t for the most extraordinary chain of chance, of fatally bad luck and incredibly good luck, no one outside of Greece would recognize the name Antikythera. No one.

Located on the western edge of the Aegean Sea between the larger island of Kythera and the northwestern tip of Crete, the islet (it’s less than 8 square miles in area) was the scene of an extraordinary discovery in 1901. The preceding year, a team of sponge divers had happened upon the site of an ancient shipwreck off its coast at a depth of about 180 feet. Wearing a diving suit and helmet and relying on air pumped down a hose, one of the divers was able to bring up the arm of a bronze statue that he had seen resting on the sea floor.

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Upon being notified of the find, Greek authorities asked the divers to continue their work and sent naval ships to participate in the investigation, which was taken up again the following year. A number of artifacts were eventually recovered, among them several badly corroded lumps of metal. An archaeologist examining the fragments found that one of them contained a bronze gear wheel, but it was only decades later that X-ray examination revealed the presence of all or part of more than thirty such gears. Researchers eventually determined that the fragments had been part of a complex analogue computer capable of predicting the positions of the moon, the sun, and the five planets visible to the naked eye on any particular date. The mechanism would even have predicted solar and lunar eclipses.

Jacques Cousteau and his Calypso crew investigated the Antikythera shipwreck in 1953 and again in 1976, surveying the surrounding seabed and retrieving 300 or so additional artifacts. Then in 2012 the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Greek Navy and the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities pooled their resources to map the site and search for further artifacts. In 2014 the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports initiated a multi-year project called Return to Antikythera to study the shipwreck and the site in even greater detail.

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The ship lying off Antikythera is now estimated to have been about 130 feet in length, making it the largest ancient vessel ever discovered. It was probably on its way from a port in the Aegean to a settlement in Italy when it sank in a storm in about 60 BCE. However, the mechanism itself may date from as early as 205 BCE. It’s assumed that its inventor was Greek and may have lived on the island of Rhodes, although there are indications that he or she made use of astronomical and mathematical principles that had been developed much farther east, in Babylonia. It would be 15 centuries before similar inventions were again developed.

Scientists estimate that the bronze fragments recovered in the first years of the twentieth century represent less than half of the original mechanism, but although hundreds of artifacts have been discovered at the site since then, including a life-sized bronze statue, no further significant pieces of the computer itself have been found.

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Want to know more? See Josephine Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets (Da Capo, 2009) and the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project at http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/There’s also a generous selections of videos on YouTube, including https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5_29GTY-ls&list=WL&index=4&t=1279s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8xVASJl8bw&list=WL&index=8&t=16s.

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Maggie and I took the photos you see above in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where the major fragments of the Mechanism are displayed in acrylic cases.

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I’ve also had the opportunity to write about the Antikythera Mechanism in two recent reference sets published by ABC-—The Sea in World History: Exploration, Travel, and Trade (2017) and The World’s Oceans: Geography, History, and Environment (2018).  

 

 

Herman Sörgel’s Terrible Idea

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Grove Koger

In the long, rich history of bad ideas, a handful stand out as being spectacularly, even colossally bad. It’s in this latter category that we can confidently place the Atlantropa project of Herman Sörgel, who was born in Regensbury, Bavaria, on April 2, 1885.

Sörgel studied architecture at Munich’s Technische Universität from 1904 to 1908, but made his mark only in 1929 when he published a small book with text in four languages, the English title of which was Lowering the Mediterranean, Irrigating the Sahara: Panropa Project. What appear to be revised versions in which his project’s name was changed to that by which it’s remembered today—Atlantropa—began to appear a few years later.

In a nutshell, Sörgel’s plan envisioned the construction of dams across the Strait of Gibraltar, sealing off the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and thus causing the level of the Mediterranean to fall as its waters evaporated. Secondary dams would be built at the Dardanelles (one of the straits connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas), the Strait of Sicily (between the Italian island and Tunisia), and at the mouths of the rivers flowing into the Mediterranean.

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In this mad scheme, the level of the western Mediterranean would eventually fall by nearly 330 feet and that of the eastern by twice as much. As a long-term result, more than 250,000 square miles of what had been “useless” sea bed would become available for cultivation (after a suitable period of desalination, of course), thus creating what would be, in effect a new continent—Atlantropa. Europe’s growing problems of overpopulation and unemployment would be alleviated, and, as a bonus, the various dams would generate untold megawatts of electricity, thus providing for the brave new continent’s growing energy needs.

Over the longer term, Sörgel also envisioned two dams on the Congo River, steps that would fill the Chad Basin of what was once Central Africa and open the region to shipping. (What the region’s indigenous inhabitants might think about the transformation was, of course, of no consequence.)

In the case of the Chad Basin, Sörgel clearly considered the climatological effects of his project, as he anticipated that an expanded Lake Chad would moderate the tropical region’s climate and thus render it more attractive to European settlers. However, he doesn’t seem to have given much thought to the enormous and unquestionably catastrophic changes that the Atlantropa project would have wrought upon the world’s climate and its ocean currents.

Sörgel campaigned tirelessly for his project, publishing thousands of articles and presenting his plan to the Nazis when they came to power, but to no avail. He himself died when his bicycle was struck by a car in Munich in late 1952. Not surprisingly, he was on his way to deliver a lecture.

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The map at the top of the post illustrates the projected impact of the Atlantropa project upon the Mediterranean region, and is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. The black-and-white illustration depicts the construction of one of the dams across the Strait of Gibraltar. It dates from 1933, and was distributed in connection with a short press release, the conclusion of which suggested that “by transforming Europe into Atlantropa, by uniting Europe and Africa and making them one continent under European government, the expansion of Bolshivism [sic] might be prevented.”

Vincent d’Indy’s Conservative Brilliance

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Grove Koger

This review appeared originally in the Nov./Dec. 1993 issue of the late-lamented Disc Respect, published by Boise’s Record Exchange.

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At its best, French music balances clarity and passion with greater ease than the music of any other nation. And Vincent d’Indy, who was born March 27, 1851, was the very personification of that balance. D’Indy was noted in his youth for championing musical drama and program music in France—relatively “advanced” positions for that day and age. But d’Indy was not revolutionary, and by the time he reached the last decades of his life, he had taken to attacking the music of younger colleagues such as Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Today, of course, we “know” that Prokofiev and Stravinsky are major composers, and we recognize d’Indy—if at all—as a footnote. But footnotes are often more fascinating than the text they’re supposed to supplement.

Erato has brought together d’Indy’s two most memorable works, both inspired incidentally by the mountainous Cévennes district of southern France. D’Indy visited the area for the first time in 1864, and was so taken by its wild beauty that he returned at least once a year for the rest of his life. His Symhonie sur un chant Montagnard “Cévenole” (1896, usually referred to in English as Symphony on a French Mountain Air) utilizes a shepherd’s song from the Ardèche region of the Cèvennes. Its limpid melody recurs throughout the work, sometimes plaintively, ultimately as a joyful, triumphant dance. D’Indy heightens the symphony’s color by incorporating a piano, but as an orchestral rather than a solo instrument. The result is a sparkling, thoroughly optimistic piece of music.

D’Indy composed Jour d’été à la montagne (Summer Day on the Mountain) in 1905 on one of his visits to the Ardèche. This “Symphonic Triptych” takes us through Aurore (a hushed dawn), Jour (day, an afternoon spent lazily beneath the pines, and Soir (evening, the sunlight fading fast), but of course another meaning can be read into its program. Although not as well known as d’Indy’s symphony, it marks an advance. The musical content of the symphony sometimes sounds determined by the form. Here the form seems to flow naturally from the content.

There are plenty of good recordings of the symphony; my only reservation with Janowsky’s version with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France is his tendency to push its tempos so hard that the poetry nearly vanishes. On the other hand, the sensuous triptych has no serious competition.

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If d’Indy’s conservative brilliance appeals to you (and it’s a hard heart indeed that doesn’t warm to such sun-drenched sound), sample his Poème des rivages and Diptyque méditerranéen, two tone poems describing the Mediterranean. Both have been reissued by EMI in faultless performances by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo under the baton of Georges Prêtre.

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The image on the cover of the Musifrance CD is a detail from the painting Vue de la plaine de Gresivaudan près de Grenoble, effet du matin by Achille Giroux. The cover of the EMI CD reproduces a detail from Rochers, one of Louis Valtat’s many paintings of the rocky coastline of Antheor on the French Riviera.

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The same region of southern France that inspired d’Indy also attracted Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, whose 1879 classic Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes recounts his 12-day journey. I include it in When the Going Was Good and will be posting my entry about it later this year.  

Richard Burton’s Bold Gambit

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Grove Koger

As I expand and update When the Going Was Good, I’m posting revised entries from the first edition. Today’s deals with a classic account of travels in the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-19th century by one of the greatest explorers of that or any other century, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who was born March 19, 1821.  

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Richard F. Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855–56)

The prodigiously gifted Burton towers above his contemporaries like a human Everest. The preeminent explorer of his generation, he published more than three dozen works of travel and exploration. He also mastered nearly as many languages and dialects, translating an unexpurgated sixteen-volume edition of the Arabian Nights and such classics of Oriental erotica as the Kama Sutra. A master swordsman scornful of the Victorian society upon which he nevertheless depended, “he prided himself,” as a contemporary put it, “on looking like Satan.”

Securing a year’s leave from the Indian army and the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, Burton traveled to Arabia via Egypt and the Red Sea in the company of a band of Muslim pilgrims. He was disguised as an Afghan physician, but carried concealed paper and pencil. Thus he was able to sketch and write descriptions of cities and shrines that were forbidden to non-Moslems, including the sacred black stone—which, in the estimation of Burton as well as most others, was a meteorite—embedded in the wall of the building in Mecca known as the Kaaba.

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Burton clearly reveled in the daring of his exploits. Penetration of his disguise would very probably have meant death, but he could not resist the temptation of engaging in a brawl on the voyage down the Red Sea, precipitating a huge earthenware jug of drinking water over aggressive fellow pilgrims who coveted his share of the deck.

Burton’s two-volume account of his experiences is a treasure-trove of sometimes unfocused information, revealing a rather “tawdry” reality behind the then-storied glamour of the Arab world. Readers today are likely to turn to it not for such dated content but for the self-portrait it offers of a man at great and rambunctious odds with the world around him. As he himself wrote in his long 1880 poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî, “Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause; / He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”

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The literature about Burton is extensive, but two good places to start are Fawn M. Brodie’s The Devil Drives: A life of Sir Richard Burton (1967) and Mary S. Lovell’s dual portrait of Burton and his wife, A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard & Isabel Burton.

The title of the first, by the way, is taken from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well: “I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives.” The second comes from Pope’s Moral Essays: “Wise wretch! With pleasures too refined to please, / With too much spirit to be e’er at ease, / With too much quickness ever to be taught, / With too much thinking to have common thought: / You purchase pain with all that joy can give, / And die of nothing but a rage to live.” Words to ponder …

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The illustrations of Burton show him in disguise on his way to Mecca and posed for a studio portrait. The latter is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

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Majorca’s Dragon Island

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Grove Koger

One of the few landmarks that passengers spot as their ferry makes its way south from Barcelona to Palma is Sa Dragonera, an uninhabited islet less than four miles long off the western tip of the Balearic island of Majorca. I wouldn’t be writing about it if it weren’t for the fact that during good weather, ocean voyages of almost any duration can be monotonous, and the appearance of any speck of land is a welcome event. In this particular case, our ferry had sailed from Barcelona at 1:00 PM, and by the time Sa Dragonera came into view, the sun was low in the western sky and the islet’s imposing western cliffs loomed ever more dramatically out of the haze as we approached.

Sa Dragonera may owe its name to the fact that, from a particular angle, its silhouette looks like a dragon. Or perhaps the name is a reference to the fact that it’s home to a subspecies of Lilford’s wall lizard, Podarcis lilfordi gigliolii, that’s found nowhere else in the world. After doing some research, I learned that the species itself was once common throughout the Balearics. However, the introduction of non-native lizards over the centuries has left the Lilfords living only on the many islets lying off the coasts of the major islands (Majorca, Menorca, and Ibiza) and has led to the evolution of 27 subspecies. In some cases, a particular subspecies can be found on only one tiny islet.

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The famous Ottoman admiral (or notorious pirate, depending on your point of view) Hayreddin Barbarossa (“Redbeard”) used Sa Dragonera as a base for his attacks on Majorca during the 16th century, but today, thanks to untiring efforts by environmentalists, the dragon island is a natural park. Should you ever find yourself in the area, you can visit it on a day trip from either of the nearby ports of Sant Elm or Port d’Andratx.