Category Archives: science

Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, education, publishing, religion, science, slavery, travel

Ending Satsuma Isolationism

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 172-173:

Like his great-grandfather, Shimazu Shigéhidé, Nariakira was a patron of foreign learning. Shigéhidé had become daimyo at age eleven, in Hōreki 5 (1755). For generations before Shigéhidé’s reign, Satsuma had isolated itself from the rest of Japan, sealing its borders and setting up checkpoints to bar entrance by outsiders (i.e., anyone not from Satsuma). Kaionji writes that Satsuma’s isolationism derived from its fear of Bakufu animosity for the Shimazu’s opposition to Iéyasu at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. But more than two centuries had passed; what’s more, Shigéhidé’s daughter was married to Shōgun Iénari. Shigéhidé concluded that isolationism was a greater threat to his domain than the Bakufu; and that as a result of their being cut off from the rest of Japan, his people had grown stubborn, narrow-minded, lacking in social graces, ignorant of the outside world, and distrustful of outsiders. In short, they had fallen behind the other powerful feudal domains.

Shigéhidé abolished the isolationist policy of his predecessors and set out to gentrify Kagoshima. He invited teachers from other parts of Japan. He built schools, including a medical school, and an astronomical observatory. He encouraged the opening of theaters, restaurants, and inns—none of which luxuries had ever before existed in Satsuma. He even allowed pleasure quarters, populated by geisha and prostitutes. A lover of the Chinese language, he edited a Chinese dictionary and conversed with his vassals in Chinese. He often traveled to Nagasaki, where he associated with Chinese traders and maintained close relations with successive chief factors of the Dutch East India Company. He was particularly close with Siebold, before the Prussian was banished from Japan.

For all of his progressiveness, Shigéhidé pursued personal extravagance to an extreme. The cost of reforming Satsuma combined with his personal extravagance depleted the treasury. He borrowed money and imposed severe taxes upon the peasants. All of this was met with disapproval by many of Shigéhidé’s samurai vassals, who prided themselves on their masculine strength and the simplicity and austerity of their lifestyles, and who despised what they viewed as the feminization of Satsuma.

I find Hillsborough’s gratuitous use of accents over e in romanized Japanese irritating. Anyone who is going to read this much detail about Japanese history is going to know that e in Japanese is never silent or reduced to schwa.

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Filed under China, economics, education, Japan, language, nationalism, science

Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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Filed under Africa, Latin America, Middle East, North America, science

Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

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Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:

It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

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Okinawa Diary, 1975: Scientists

My late brother worked as a guide at the U.S. Pavilion at the Ocean Expo in Okinawa in 1975. While there he typed up many pages of observations about people, places, and words of interest there. I scanned and edited the pages, added Japanese kanji for some of the words, and publish them here as a series.

When I was just about to pull the well padded but light futon over me and return to my dreams, I realized that I had a pretty blue and white ribbon in my book as a marker, and it was really a ribbon for entry into the Aquapolis Ocean Seminar which was to be held this morning. This realization had an effect on me like Spinach has on Popeye and I was in a whirlwind of activity to catch the 9:30 bus.

Since all the bigwigs were there from all over the world there was a tiresome ribbon-breaking ceremony but was over before I got tired of looking at all the scientists who were gathered informally before the ribbon to make the crossing into the lecture hall once the Japanese reps sent their best three forward to scissor the tape in three spots. Lorenz, the Nobel prize winner from Germany, clapped one free hand over the back of the other coat-holding hand every time applause was fitting, and glanced about with very playful eyes during the whole affair. When the blue ribbon was finally sliced, he was the first to lunge forward and cross the sacred ground, but then retreated quickly to herd in with the others slowly.

We all took our seats in the small lecture section which was separated off with a curtain that went across the one side of the seats and, circled in back of the speakers’ podium, only enclosing two sides of the rectangular seminar area.

Lorenz made a comment about Japanese, being natural born gardeners and then made it clear he was interested in aquarium “gardening,” putting in a plug for his friend at the Enoshima aquarium. A little later he generalized again by stating that “most of you are fishermen … I have yet to meet a Japanese that didn’t enjoy a little fishing,” at which time he asked someone from the Japanese audience to volunteer forward and read the name of certain fish that he had in his book. There was an embarrassing moment when no one seemed to realize what he was asking for, and he finally had to ask one of the runabout electricians to read it.

He wanted everyone to start an aquarium, which he claimed is what got him on his road to becoming a scientist, but he wanted people to realize that they had better start an aquarium without fish, and then add fish as nature’s balance could handle it. He talked of eutrophication in English but with a German accent. The water gets stinky and it’s like the Red Tide. Fish suffocate. Lorenz wanted us all to realize the “vulnerability of the sea.” Then he showed films and excused himself.

Later on in the pavilion I noticed one of the scientists that had been at the Seminar and hadn’t spoken. I got to talking with him and found out that his job was to “deliver nerve membranes to Munich,” which is rather specialized, to say the least. His special concern was in the transport of squid from A to B. Difficulties mainly stem from the nasty habit of the squid to squirt ink that is even fatal to itself, but from which it usually escapes in ample water. I suggested stunning the squid, but he said that that only loosened the ink-releasing muscle while stunning the “push off” mechanism which is the usual source of ridding the salt water pocket of ink that will harm the intestines. I suggested pumping water thru to dilute the ink, but he said that the squid still panicked in enclosed areas and would ink himself to death because he would tire out, and again be unable to use the muscles that usually clear his inner pouch of this poison as he propels himself away. Sad state of affair, I admitted. Then we talked about the difference between jumping on the moon and jumping in an aquarium. Ho-hum.

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Kubary: From Naturalist to Land Grabber in the German Pacific

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 324-329:

The administration of the Kompanie on the Maclay Coast was put in the hands of a certain Herr Kubary, a Polish national of Hungarian origin with a British passport which he had acquired while on a brief visit to Sydney. He had spent many years in Micronesia as an ornithologist and naturalist collecting for German museums. He had been collecting very successfully in the Caroline Islands for the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin when in September, 1885, his contract with the museum was suddenly terminated for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving him stranded on the island of Yap. It is difficult to believe that this sudden loss of his livelihood was accidental. It seems more probably that this was manipulated by the German foreign office. The dismissal notice had come with the visit to Yap of a German warship, the Albatross, which was in the Pacific for the specific purpose of planting the German flag on the various islands of the Carolines. Kubary was offered employment as interpreter and guide on the Albatross, and for this he was ideally suited as there was no one with a more intimate knowledge of this area of the Pacific. Stranded in Yap as he was, he had little choice but to accept.

After the islands had been formally annexed by Germany, Kubary and his family, consisting of a half-caste wife and two children, were landed at Matupit [Rabaul] in New Britain, where he was put in charge of a plantation. After a time, he was transferred to take charge of the Neu Guinea Kompanie possessions in Astrolabe Bay [now in Madang Province] and he established himself in Bongu. Later he was transferred a few miles up the coast to Bogatim when the administration headquarters was transferred from Finschhafen. The latter had been abandoned, more or less in panic, as a result of the fearful mortality from tropical diseases among the Kompanie officials there.

Herr Kubary, who boasted that he was “the Lord God of Astrolabe Bay,” proceeded ruthlessly with the acquisition of land in pursuance of the policy of the Neu Guinea Kompanie for the expansion of plantations. The Kompanie was quite unscrupulous in its methods of acquiring land. The officials superficially inspected large areas which appeared suitable, sometimes merely climbing a tree and inspecting with binoculars, and then displaying a quantity of European goods — axes, knives, beads, cloth, etc. — they offered to purchase the land. The natives, not understanding what was really involved, appeared to agree, and a document was drawn up only vaguely defining the area and magnanimously excluding the village and an undefined piece of land for native cultivation. Each adult male member of the village or villages was required to touch the pen before his name was appended to the document. By such methods the Kompanie became the “legal” owners of vast areas of land, although it was many years before any actual survey was made. In a similar way Kubary acquired large areas around Bogadjim for a few axes and some tobacco. The level fertile land behind Gorendu and Gumbu was soon taken from the natives right up to the Gabenau River, leaving the natives of those villages without land for cultivation. Bongu was somewhat more fortunate in that the land was not so level but had a series of rather steep ridges running down in the direction of the sea and was therefore not so acceptable for Kompanie plantations. The Gorendu and Gumbu people, face with lack of garden land, had to turn to Bongu land and ultimately were compelled to be aggregated with Bongu village, where their descendants live to the present day, still retaining their Gorendu and Gumbu identity.

The concept of individual ownership and free disposal of land was quite an alien one to the natives, and, in any case, they themselves did not own this land. They had been granted the right to use it for cultivation purposes and to dig for clay for pottery-making for which they were famous.

Kubary was discharged from the Kompanie in 1895 and went back to Ponape in the Caroline Islands. It seems to be in the nature of poetic justice that the right to his own plantation on Ponape was disputed, and while on a visit to the Spanish authorities in Manila to appeal for his rights, the plantation was completely devastated in a native uprising against the Spaniards.

In Astrolabe Bay, Kubary left a legacy that was the cause of unending trouble for the German authorities. The natives had been warned by Maclay that white men might come who would not be like him and were not to be trusted, but he also warned that to resist them by force would be hopeless and would only invite disaster. Now, faced with white men whose behaviour at best was unpredictable and often baleful, the only alternative seemed to be to offer as little cooperation as possible without displaying any open hostility.

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