Jack London’s South Seas

Grove Koger

Today’s post from the series I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with two collections of stories by American author Jack London, who was born January 12, 1876.

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Jack London’s daring attempt to sail around the world with a small crew on a forty-three-foot ketch, the Snark, began with great fanfare in April 1907 in San Francisco harbor. But it ended when London, who had become seriously ill, abandoned the project in the Melanesian archipelago of the Solomon Islands near the end of 1908. However disastrous, the trip provided the writer with material for The Cruise of the Snark, which I described in my post for January 12, 2020, as well as a number of stories and novels.

Several of those stories are set in Hawaii, the northernmost archipelago in Polynesia, and, given their complexity, they deserve a post of their own. But two other collections—South Sea Tales and A Son of the Sun—reflect London’s experiences in other parts of the Pacific and complement each other nicely in terms of treatment and attitude. (The islands of the Pacific are usually divided into several geographical and cultural regions, including Polynesia, in the eastern and central Pacific, and Melanesia, in the western Pacific.)

South Sea Tales (1911) is made up of eight stories, five of which—“The Whale Tooth,” “Mauki,” “’Yah! Yah! Yah!,” “The Terrible Solomons,” and “The Inevitable White Man”—dramatize the conflicts between cultures in Melanesia. On the whole, these are likely to strike most readers as shockingly, almost numbingly brutal, although it’s difficult to fault their honesty. After all, they reflect what London saw in Melanesia, a region once infamous for cannibalism and, in London’s own day, for “blackbirding,” or slave trading, on the part of European and American interlopers. However, the fifth of these stories, “The Terrible Solomons” actually satirizes the islands’ “savage” reputation.   

The remaining stories in South Sea Tales are set in Polynesia. “The House of Mapuhi” dramatizes the frightening impact of a hurricane on an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago (in eastern French Polynesia), while “The Heathen” is a celebration of brotherly love between a Polynesian and a Caucasian. The best of the stories in the collection, and one of the best that London ever wrote, is “The Seed of McCoy,” in which a descendant of one of the Bounty mutineers pilots a ship whose cargo is on fire through the Tuamotu Islands. A long chain of 78 atolls and low-lying islands stretched across waters notorious for their strong currents, the Tuamotus were once known, with good reason, as the Dangerous Archipelago. Despite his descent from a notably violent man, the pilot manages to calm the ship’s panic-stricken captain and crew through his innate gentleness, and, thanks to his knowledge, saves them all.

The story is closely based on the plight of a real ship, a four-masted barque named the Pyrenees, which underwent a similar ordeal in the same archipelago in late 1900. Like the ship in London’s story, also named the Pyrenees, the actual one initially made for Pitcairn Island when the fire was discovered, but as there was no anchorage there, the captain took on a pilot named James “Big Hunty” McCoy who managed to pilot the burning vessel on to Mangareva, about 260 miles west of Pitcairn. However, the ship in London’s story is forced to sail past Mangareva and finally beach on Fakarava, an atoll even farther west.

Looking back over the past few years, I realize that I’ve written about the Tuamotus before in World Enough. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall set their 1936 novel The Hurricane there, and Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki fetched up on a reef in the Tuamotus after its famous 101-day voyage. It’s a small world …

“The Seed of McCoy” also recalls Joseph Conrad’s autobiographical story “Youth,” which dramatizes a similar situation and which I wrote about in my post for December 3, 2018. London read and admired Conrad, but while Conrad’s almost aristocratic language and attitude are those of an officer, London’s plainer language and attitude are very much those of a sailor, even though the sailor was for a time the captain of the Snark.

A Son of the Sun (1912) has since been republished as Captain David Grief, as its eight stories all involve a larger-than-life character by that name. If the stories in South Sea Tales really are “tales,” which William Harmon and Hugh Holman define in the ninth (2003) edition of A Handbook to Literature as “relatively simple” narratives, then the stories in this collection are even simpler. I’m tempted to call them yarns. Having reread them after a number of years, I can recommend only the story that opens the collection, also named “A Son of the Sun,” and the one that closes it, “The Pearls of Parlay.” In the latter, an embittered French settler plans to auction off a fortune in pearls. But soon after potential buyers have reached Parlay’s atoll on their ships, a hurricane of unimaginable intensity strikes. As the mortally injured Parlay reminds them, “Don’t forget … the auction … at ten o’clock … in hell.”

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The book covers reproduced in today’s post are from first editions, while the photograph of Jack London and his wife, Charmian, aboard the Snark at Apia, Samoa, was taken by A.J. Tattersall. The map of the Pacific is based on United Nations geoscheme M49 coding classification and is the work of Tintazul as modified by Cruickshanks. The photograph of Hirifa Beach on Fakarava is by Julius Silver, and both it and the map are reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Lundy & Its Locals

Grove Koger

Lundy Island, that is, and its local stamps.

I’ve written before about postage stamps, partly because they often have a pertinent geographical aspect, and partly because they’re miniature works of art—sometimes very good ones. Given their diminutive size, they tend to rely heavily on composition, meaning that the best ones usually have striking designs and simple frames that set off the designs nicely. 

Local posts offer their services over a limited geographical area, and while some have been governmental or quasi-governmental, more, I think, have been private concerns operating where and when governmental agencies couldn’t or wouldn’t.

One such private concern operates on Lundy, a small British island off the north coast of Devon near the mouth of the Bristol Channel. Its name is derived from the Old Norse words lund and ey, meaning “puffin island”—a reference to the birds (Fratercula arctica) that gather there in great numbers between April and July.

Lundy had enjoyed British General Post Office service since 1887, but lost it in 1928. The following year, the island’s owner began collecting and dispatching mail free of charge, but on November 1, he instituted privately printed stamps (initially in denomination of 1/2 and 1 “puffin”) that he sold in order to cover the costs of delivering mail to the mainland.

There were rules governing where Lundy’s stamps could be placed, and at first they could go only on the backs of cards and letters so as not to be confused with the official British stamps that would be necessary off-island. That rule changed somewhat in 1962, when users were allowed to place their local stamps on the address side of postcards, as long as they were set apart from the official stamps. The change was extended to all mail in 1992, and eventually Lundy was allowed to print stamps that included a full charge for Royal Mail.

Over the years, Lundy’s stamps have been issued in a number of denominations and designs, but to my mind, the most distinctive have featured the island’s attractive puffins.

Should you be interested in visiting Lundy, you’ll be glad to know that it’s served during the warmer months from the mainland ports of Ilfracombe and Bideford by a small ferry, the MS Oldenburg. And should you wish to stay longer than a few hours, the island boasts nearly two dozen self-catering properties, including a castle and a lighthouse. But you’ll want to bring your own candles, as Lundy’s generators shut down at night! However, the Marisco Tavern, which is always open (although alcohol is served only during “permitted hours”) remains lighted through the dark hours.

The image at the top of today’s post shows Lundy’s first two stamps. The second, created by Jhamez84 and reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia, is a map of Lundy indicating its position at the mouth of the Bristol Channel. The photograph of Lundy’s lighthouse is by andyg7kna (pixabay.com) and is reproduced courtesy of Needpix.com. The fourth image is a 1985 overprint on a 1974 stamp and commemorates the first balloon flight from the island, while the fifth shows the Marisco Tavern along with the island’s church and post office.

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Barcelona’s New Old Port

Grove Koger

Unable to travel overseas for the last couple of years, Maggie and I have been enjoying webcam videos of some of our favorite sites in Europe over coffee every morning. And the one you can see here, of Barcelona’s Port Vell, is one of the best.

I hadn’t given the name any thought, or even realized that a port might need a name of its own, but once I started investigating the situation, I understood that I’d taken most of Barcelona’s extensive waterfront for granted. It turns out that the city actually has several ports, including a commercial-industrial port and a tariff-free industrial park. In addition, there are Port Olimpic and, farther north, Port Fòrum Sant Adrià, both designed to accommodate yachts.

The Catalan word vell means “old” in English, and the contradiction embodied in the title of today’s post is a reference to the fact that Port Vell was actually built just prior to the city’s 1992 Olympic Games. Over the preceding decades, the area had deteriorated badly, but now it presents a gleaming and attractive face to the world, offering a warm welcome to the myriad vessels that visit it regularly. If you’re one of the millions of people who’ve entered or departed from Barcelona by ferry or cruise liner (or even yacht, since it includes a marina), you’ve probably passed through Port Vell.

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This new/old port is also the site of a mall, which we’ve never paid attention to, but at its edge, we’ve regularly admired three older structures (there goes that contradiction again!)—a 197-foot column celebrating Christopher Columbus; the neoclassical Aduana, or Customs Building; and the Port Authority Building. The Columbus Monument was designed by Catalan artist Gaietà Buigas I Monravà for Barcelona’s first World’s Fair, the Exposició Universal de Barcelona of 1888, and stands at the foot of the city’s celebrated, tree-lined avenue, La Rambla. The Aduana was the work of architects Enric Ferran Josep Lluis Sagnier and Pere Garcia Fària and opened in 1902, while the handsome Port Authority Building, the work of architect Julio Valdés, opened originally as a customs house and passenger terminal in 1907.

Port Vell is also adjacent to Sant Sebastià Beach, the first of a long string of inviting man-made beaches stretching for several miles up the coast. (The sand, in case you’re wondering, was shipped from Egypt!)

Our photograph at the top of today’s post shows the entrance to Port Vell; the sail-like structure on the right is the W Hotel, completed in 2010. Our second and third photographs show the Aduana and the Port Authority, while the fourth shows Barcelona’s most popular beach, Barceloneta, and the W Hotel from the north; the ships you see on the horizon are anchored in Barcelona’s roadstead.

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Wintering with Winslow Homer in the Bahamas

Grove Koger

Massachusetts native Winslow Homer had learned to paint watercolors from his talented mother when he was a child, and went on to serve an apprenticeship as a lithographer before turning to freelance illustration. Subsequently, he began working in oils, and by the time Century Magazine commissioned him to provide illustrations for an article about the Bahama Islands by William C. Church, he was a well-known artist. Homer visited the islands, as well as Florida and Cuba, in the winter of 1884-85, but “A Midwinter Resort,” which featured black-and white engravings based on his watercolors, appeared quite a bit later, in February 1887.

The artist spent much of the winter of 1898-99 in the Bahamas again, and this trip was to result in some of his finest works, freer in style than those dating from his earlier visit and vibrant with the intense colors of the tropics. He stayed for the most part on New Providence Island in the colony’s capital of Nassau, but he also visited St. George’s Cay, Eleuthera Island, and Harbour Island.

As Lloyd Goodrich explains in his study Winslow Homer (1944), “As before, Nassau was a liberating experience. The paganism that had tentatively appeared in his earlier Bahaman work found its fullest expression in his new watercolors.” Goodrich goes on to point out that when he was “confronted with the sunlight and color and primitiveness of the Bahamas, [Homer] revealed an unexpected strain of barbaric brilliancy.”

Homer himself wrote prominent collector Thomas B. Clarke in early 1899 that he “had a most successful winter at Nassau” and that he had “many things to work up” into two paintings that he “had in mind.” One of those works seems to be The Gulf Stream, a large oil that he completed later that year. By that time, as he would point out, his voyages had taken him across the famous current ten times.

The germ for The Gulf Stream seems to be an 1885 watercolor from Cuba called Sharks (or The Derelict). There’s general agreement that the final painting itself is one of Homer’s major works, but when I compare it to his modest watercolors of the Bahamas, it seems overloaded with meaning. The Gulf Stream shows a forlorn sailor sprawled on the deck of a boat that’s lost its mast and its rudder and its bowsprit. A waterspout tears through the water in the background, while sharks—Are there two of them? Three?—thrash frenziedly in the foreground. If we look carefully, we can just make out a ship on the horizon on the left, but it’s hopelessly far away.

It’s safe to say that The Gulf Stream is an indication of Homer’s ambitions, but the seemingly effortless watercolors that he painted in the Bahamas (and, later, Bermuda) are better measures of his talent.

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The image at the top of today’s post is Along the Road, The Bahamas (Near the Queen’s Necklace), from 1885, and the second is an engraving from Century Magazine based on one of Homer’s “water-color studies in Nassau” The third image is Nassau (1899), and the fourth is Hurricane, Bahamas, from 1898. The final image is The Gulf Stream.

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Saving Livingstone’s Fruit Bat

Grove Koger

A recent mailing from my friends at Bat Conservation International (BCI) has highlighted the group’s campaign to save the Livingstone’s fruit bat (Pteropus livingstonii), one of nine bat species living in the Comoro Islands.

Livingstone’s fruit bats are large, with wingspans reaching nearly five feet, and, as their name suggests, they eat fruit as well as leaves, seeds, and nectar. They’re also apparently the most endangered bat in the world, classified as “Critically Endangered” on the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Their range is limited to two small islands, Anjouan and Mohéli, in the Union of the Comoros, an island nation lying at the northern entrance to the Mozambique Channel northwest of Madagascar. For a time, the two islands were under French control, and Anjouan in particular has seen its share of political violence over the past few decades. On both islands, population growth and deforestation threaten the bats’ survival.

The Bristol Zoo and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust are both engaged in captive-breeding programs for Livingstone’s fruit bats, but the BCI has initiated an end-of-the year campaign to raise $245,000 in an effort to save the bats in their native habitat. The group’s scientists plan to monitor bat roosts, foraging sites, and shelters with GPS tracking. They’ll then use the information to help them work with local organizations to reduce deforestation and improve the lives of the farmers who would otherwise be cutting down the forests that the bats live in.

I hope that all my readers who are able to do so will contribute to Bat Conservation International’s campaign in their year-end giving!

The photograph of a Livingstone’s fruit bat in the Bristol Zoo, Bristol, England, is by Adrian Pingstone and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, while the photograph of Anjouan’s Lake Dzialandze is by Peioma and is reproduced courtesy of Wikivoyage. The map of the Union of the Comoros (and the island of Mayotte, which remains a department of France) is the work of the United Nations Cartographic Section.

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Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures?

Grove Koger

In light of renewed demands by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that a number of ancient Greek marble sculptures in the British Museum be returned to Greece, it’s worth considering the arguments involved.

First of all, the very choice of what to call the sculptures is fraught with difficulty. Most British and American readers think of them as the Elgin (pronounced with a hard “g”) Marbles. But Greeks in particular speak of them as the Parthenon Sculptures. And it’s right there that the battle’s joined.

The works in question were once part of the Parthenon in Athens but were removed more-or-less under the direction of Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord Elgin. A Scot who served as envoy extraordinary, or ambassador, to the Sublime Porte—that is, the Ottoman Empire—in Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1798 to 1803, Elgin was a popular and hard-working diplomat. But he was also a philhellene who respected the artistic achievements of the ancient Greeks and had serious reservations over the treatment that their monuments were receiving at the hands of Greece’s Ottoman occupiers.  

It was with these concerns in mind that he obtained permission from the Ottoman authorities to send a team of painters and draftsmen to make drawings of Athens’ ancient ruins. Apparently (and it’s here that things get murky) Elgin’s men had also been given permission to erect scaffolding around the Parthenon, Athens’ most important ruin, and to take molds of the monument’s sculptures. The permission came in the form of a firman, or decree (which survives only in a suspect Italian version), but in any case, Elgin’s team ended up cutting out actual sections of the monument’s frieze, metopes, and pediments—elements that embellished its upper portions. In all, the workmen stripped some 60 percent of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures before crating them up and loading them onto barges and ships to be transported to England.

Elgin’s concerns over the damage that Athens’ antiquities might suffer in situ may have been well-founded, but his efforts hardly guaranteed their safety. In fact, one of the vessels loaded with the precious fragments sank near the island of Kythera (Cerigo), and it was two or three years later before the precious cargo was recovered.

Back in England, Elgin displayed the Parthenon sculptures, along with numerous other antiquities he had “collected” in Greece, in a temporary museum. But soon enough, a kind of cosmic fate took a hand. It seems that Elgin had expended his entire fortune in transporting the antiquities to England and was forced to try to sell his collection to the British Museum. However, his asking price proved too high and the legality of his actions was called into serious question. Poet (and fellow philhellene) Lord Byron wrote a biting attack in verse, “The Curse of Minerva,” on what he regarded as Elgin’s desecration of the ancient Greek monument.

Eventually, however, thanks to an act of Parliament, Elgin’s ownership of the sculptures was recognized and the museum purchased them for £35,000—about half of what Elgin had hoped to get.

There’s much more to the saga of the marbles, and you’ll find as much as you care to know online, but the basic elements of the story haven’t changed in some time. The Greeks justifiably regard the sculptures as theirs, and have made repeated demands for their return, but the British Museum, on pretty shaky ground, regards them as its own. Of course, if Nazi officials had given permission to cart away antiquities during their occupation of Greece during World War II, no one would dream of trying to justify the legality of the act.

However, there’s no longer any practical rationale for Britain’s refusal to return the marbles. The country’s arguments, shaky or not, are simply beside the point. It’s now possible to reproduce artifacts in exact detail, meaning that it would be relatively simple for the Museum to create replicas of the pieces before returning the originals. What’s more, the act would be greeted universally as a gesture of good will. The pieces would be displayed in Athens’ stunning new Acropolis Museum, where most of the sections that Elgin left behind can now be seen. And that, at long last, would be that.

As I was finishing today’s post, an article in Greece Is reported that the Museo Archeologico Antonino Salinas in Palermo, Italy, will return a fragment of the Parthenon frieze to Greece, where it will join other sections of the frieze in the Acropolis Museum. Perhaps the move will encourage Britain to reconsider its own position.

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The image at the top of today’s post is a photograph by Urban of one of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, a section of the western frieze; the second is a painting of Lord Elgin by Anton Graff; both are reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia. The third image is our photograph of the Parthenon and the fourth is our photograph of the Acropolis Museum taken from the Acropolis itself; both date from 2016.

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With Bashō on the Narrow Road

Grove Koger

Today’s post from my book When the Going Was Good concerns the most famous work by poet Matsuo Bashō, who died November 28, 1694.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi, c.1689)

We know little with certainty about the poet commonly referred to as Bashō. He seems to have been born in 1644 in Iga province, Japan, some thirty miles from Kyoto, and to have lost his father twelve years later. He became the servant of the slightly older Tōdō Yoshitada, with whom he wrote haiku, but when Yoshitada also died, his servant departed. Bashō’s haiku continued to appear in occasional anthologies and he eventually became known as a master of the form. An admirer built him a house in Edo (today’s Tokyo) in 1680, and when a disciple presented him with a bashō (plantain or banana) plant from China that he greatly enjoyed, he took the name for himself.

Bashō may have begun traveling as an expression of his spiritual state. He was already a student of Zen, and his sense of the transitory nature of life was reinforced by the loss of his house to fire and the death of his mother. He made his most famous journey in 1689, traveling with a disciple to Honshu Island’s little-known northernmost prefecture, Michinoku (today’s Aomori). Bashō and his disciple followed in the footsteps of earlier poets and visited potential patrons and students. Yet despite the fact that Bashō was fêted at many stops, travel in Japan at this time was difficult, and the frail poet realized that he might not return.

The brief account Bashō wrote of his six-month journey mixes prose and haiku in a work of surprising variety, albeit in a measured and balanced framework. Here are not only the expected occasions of transcendent beauty (snow-clad peaks, the cries of geese in flight, cherry trees in bloom) and visits to holy sites, but also events homely and unpleasant. As one verse has it (in Sam Hamill’s translation), “Eaten alive by / lice and fleas—now the horse / beside my pillow pees.” By the time it reaches its gentle conclusion, The Narrow Road to the Far North has become emblematic of the journey we all must take.

If you’re looking for a good edition of Bashō’s masterpiece, the Penguin Classics version published as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches includes a long introduction by translator Nobuyuki Yuasa. Other works by Bashō include The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (1685) and The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel (1688). And for further information about Bashō, see: Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford University Press, 1998); Makoto Sugawara, Journey Into the Heart of Japan: On the Road with Bashō (East Publications, 1993); Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashō (Kodansha, 1982; previously published: Twayne, 1970), and Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press, 2001).

The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Narrow Road at the top of today’s post shows a detail from a portrait of Bashō by an unknown artist in the Itsuo Museum, Ikeda City, Osaka. The second image is a late eighteenth-century portrait of Bashō by Utagawa Hiroshige, and the third is a photograph by Si-take of cherry blossoms and the castle of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Norman Wilkinson’s Dazzling Idea

Grove Koger

I don’t use the terms “dazzle” and “dazzling” often, but today I’m making up for lost time.

It seems that during World War I, Germany’s submarines (Unterseeboots, or U-boats) were among its most frightening weapons, accounting for the loss of nearly 6,000 allied ships and 13,000 civilian casualties. There seemed to be no way for a slow-moving merchant vessel to evade them. Once a submarine’s captain spotted his prey through his periscope and made a quick estimate of its location, speed and course, he knew where to fire his torpedoes. The hapless vessel couldn’t move fast enough to evade them, and a hit in the right spot almost guaranteed that the ship would go down.

There also seemed to be no way to hide a large ship at sea. But there was a way, it turned out, to confuse the U-boat captains by dazzling them.  

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The credit for the concept of dazzle camouflage usually goes to a volunteer in the Royal Navy, reserve lieutenant Norman Wilkinson, who was born November 24, 1878. Wilkinson had attended Southsea School of Art on Portsea Island, which lies off the southern coast of England, and had gone on to teach there. In time, he became a noted (but very traditional) marine painter, newspaper illustrator, and poster designer for several of Britain’s railways.

During the war, Wilkinson was given command of a minesweeper operating out of His Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport in southwestern England. But it was during a weekend fishing trip (which I imagine was an occasion for idly creative thinking) that he realized that painting a ship in bold, contrasting, and irregular stripes and shapes “to break up her form,” as he put it, would make it considerably harder for those German captains to complete their calculations. If they couldn’t distinguish a ship’s bow quickly, for instance, it became considerably harder, from a vantage point just a few inches above the sea’s surface, to grasp where it was headed.

Gratifyingly enough, the potential value of Wilkinson’s idea was recognized and he was transferred to the Royal Academy in London, where he recruited other artists to the project, including Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth. By the end of the year, all British merchant vessels had received the dazzle camouflage treatment.

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Subsequently, France, Belgium, Italy, and Japan adopted dazzle, and Wilkinson himself helped the United States set up its own camouflage program.

As you might guess, the Germans recognized the effectiveness of dazzle camouflage immediately and began using color screens on their periscopes to reduce the image of the target to an outline. In turn, Wilkinson and his team realized that they needed to make their camouflage a little less dazzling; restricting their colors to black, white, and blue rendered the color screens useless.

As I mentioned earlier, the credit for dazzle camouflage usually goes to Wilkinson, but there were several other contenders, including John Graham Kerr, who had developed a similar kind of camouflage. However, after official proceedings, Wilkinson was recognized as the originator and rewarded a monetary prize by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. Among many other honors, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1918.

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The image at the top of today’s post is a poster for the UK’s Imperial War Museum and is based on the painting by Edward Wadsworth at the bottom of the post. The portrait of Norman Wilkinson in uniform dates from World War I and is reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. The third image, a realistic painting by Wilkinson of a convoy in dazzle camouflage on a moonlit night, illustrates how confounding the camouflage could be under under actual conditions at sea.

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Thinking about the Suez Canal

Grove Koger

November 17, 1869, marked the official opening of the Suez Canal. Running for slightly more than one hundred miles through the Egyptian sands, the waterway linked the Mediterranean and Red seas and shortened voyages between Europe and southern Asia by thousands of miles.

On the one hand, the canal was a signal achievement, one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century. But on the other hand, it involved the backbreaking toil of over one million Egyptians, workers who lived in unthinkably appalling conditions and seldom had even enough water to drink. There are estimates that some ten percent of them died over the course of the decade that the canal was under construction—a somber fact that we need to keep in mind when we order goods manufactured on the other side of the world.

The canal began as a joint-stock venture established by French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. The British were initially skeptical of the project’s chances of success, but in 1875, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bought a substantial number of shares when Egyptian Khedive Isma’il Pasha was forced to sell his. Their purchase gave Britain 44 percent of the shares, and the country went on to occupy Egypt itself a few years later during an anti-European uprising.

Whatever doubts Britain may once have felt over the Suez Canal, it quickly became the British Empire’s lifeline, linking the mother country to its colonies in East Africa and especially to its “Jewel in the Crown”—India. And, with the establishment of that lifeline, came a renewed popular fascination with Egypt, particularly its past, which was widely regarded as being “mysterious.”

What’s known as Egyptomania had initially been fueled by Napoleon’s ill-fated military campaign in Egypt (1798-1800), but Britain’s later activities in the same country only added to the phenomenon, as did the discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922.

The Suez Canal has been shut down several times, most recently, of course, in March of this year, when the enormous container ship Ever Given ran aground during a sandstorm. By the time the ship was refloated, the passage of nearly 400 other vessels through the waterway had been delayed, leading to the suspension of nearly $10 billion worth of trade. In the months since the obstruction, Egypt has announced plans to widen and deepen the section in which the Ever Given was trapped. The move is understandable enough, but it’s easy to imagine that it will lead in turn to the construction of even larger container ships. And so on, I’m afraid …

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The image at the top of today’s post depicts the procession of ships opening the Suez Canal, reproduced from The Illustrated London News for December 18, 1869. The second image is a cropped NASA photograph of the canal taken by the multi-angle imaging spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument on the Terra satellite, Jan. 30, 2001, while the third, an image of the Ever Given trapped in the Suez Canal, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data as processed by Pierre Markuse. Copernicus is an observation and imaging program run by the European Union to produce data from Sentinel satellites and other observation points.

To learn more about the Suez Canal, see the Suez Canal Authority website at https://www.suezcanal.gov.eg/English/Pages/default.aspx.

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A Taste of Corfu

Grove Koger

If you’ve ever visited the Greek island of Corfu (Kerkyra), you’ve probably tasted kumquat liqueur at least once, and you may have carried home a bottle or two as well.

Kumquats themselves are a small, orange-colored citrus fruit native to China, where they’ve been cultivated for a millennium or so. But they differ from most citrus in that their peel is sweet and their flesh tart, meaning that you can eat them whole, although it’s wise to chew the peel vigorously in order to balance the sourness of the flesh.

Specimens of kumquat trees were brought to Europe in 1846 by a Scottish plant collector working for the London Horticultural Society, Robert Fortune (1812-1880). Subsequently, English botanist and Olympic sports shooter Sidney Merlin (1856-1952), whose family was based in Greece, imported trees to Corfu in 1924 and grafted them onto a wild variety of citrus, Citrus trifoliata, on his family’s estate near the village of Dassia on the eastern coast of the island.

Today, Corfiotes grow more than one hundred tons of the fruit a year, processing them as marmalade and the like and steeping them in spirits to produce a liqueur known as kumquat (or koum-kouat), which they then market as the signature drink of the island. In some cases, only the skin is used, resulting in a liqueur that’s bright orange and intensely sweet. If the color is paler, then the entire fruit (or only its juice) has been used, and the result is a beverage with a subtler flavor.

Greek food expert Diana Farr Louis has pronounced kumquat liqueur “garish,” but that’s a bit harsh, particularly in the context of a culture that delights in bright colors and whose cuisine features some of the sweetest sweets I’ve ever tasted.

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The image of Corfu Dame kumquat liqueur at the top of today post is reproduced courtesy of Th. Vassilakis & Sons. The portrait of Sidney Merlin (by an unknown photographer) is reproduced courtesy of Olympedia, while the photograph of kumquats is by Abaddon 1337 and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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