Saturday, 31 January 2015

Fever Trees, Markhor Goats and Paleontology - On Hugh Falconer

31 January 1865, 150 years ago, the Scottish geologist, botanist and palaeontologist Hugh Falconer died at the age of 57 in London.

“...what a glorious privilege it would be, could we live back- were it but for an instant- into those ancient times when these extinct animals peopled the earth! To see them all congregated together in one grand natural menagerie- these Mastodons and Elephants, so numerous in species, toiling their ponderous forms and trumpeting their march in countless herds through the swamps and reedy forests: to view the giant Sivatherium, armed in front with four horns, spurning the timidity of his race, and, ruminant though he bed, proud in his strength and bellowing his sturdy career in defiance of all aggression. And then the graceful Giraffes, flitting their shadowy forms like spectres through the trees, mixed with troops of large as well as pigmy horses, and camels, antelopes, and deer. And then last of all, by way of contrast, to contemplate this colossus of the Tortoise race, heaving his unwieldy frame and stamping his toilsome march along the plains with hardly look ever strong to sustain him. Assuredly it would be a heart-stirring sight to behold!” (Hugh Falconer)

Hugh Falconer in 1844

It was the backing of another man’s claim to the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal that made Hugh Falconer risk his already deteriorating health. Falconer was studying fossil remains found in the caves of Sicily and Gibraltar under the auspices of finding a clue on the origin of human species. Elected vice-president of the Royal Society the year before, his voice would certainly be heard in support of his old classmate and fellow student under Prof Robert Jameson of Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin. Overworked and already exhausted Falconer hurried back from Gibraltar to cast his vote, Darwin got the award in 1864 “For his important researches in geology, zoology, and botanical physiology" and his old acquaintance lay down and died from rheumatic disease of the heart and lungs in London a couple of weeks later. A pity, because he never found the time to publish major scientific works, even though he had every reason to.

"Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, 'Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.'" 

Admittedly, a naturalist in the Earlies had to be something of a jack-of-all-trades and its not surprising at all that a botanist and palaeontologist went to India as assistant surgeon after his graduation. Working for the East India Company in Meerut in the northwest, his interest soon turned from the bones of the living to those of the dead, chiefly those found in the fossil beds of the Sivalik Hills, 300 miles to the east of Meerut. There, Falconer became probably the first palaeontologist to discover the remains of a fossil ape, Ramapithecus or rather Sivapithecus, along with the remains of a rich bygone fauna he would later compare with finds in Europe, thereby thinking already along evolutionary lines that wound be formulated almost 150 years later as “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldredge and Gould in 1972. But that wasn’t enough for a self-respecting naturalist in the 1840s. His research was fundamental for the East India Company’s decision to construct tea plantations in India, thereby circumventing the necessity to import the necessity to import the leaves from China, a policy that played a role in the outbreak of the First Opium War in 1839. Along with the introduction of chinchona trees in India, the “fever trees” whose bark produces quinine, to this day recommended for the treatment of malaria and the saving of teak forest trees, Falconer’s role as botanist at least gained him the lasting fame of having a type of rhododendron named after him.

After his death, the pioneer naturalist was soon forgotten along with other trailblazers of science of the first half of the 19th century, but, along with the rhododendron, the markhor, a large species of wild goat native to the mountains of Central Asia and national animal of Pakistan still bears its scientific name in his honour, Capra falconeri.

Depicted above is a markhor to celebrate Falconer’s memory, image found on:

And more about Falconer on

And the endangered markhor on:

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

“... on Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship" - The Capture of the Fleet in the Ice

28 January 1795,  a major part of the Dutch navy, 15 ships-of-the-line among them, trapped by ice off Den Helder, officially surrendered to Brigadier General Jan Willem de Winter of the French Revolutionary Army after their capture by Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Lahure and his 8th Hussars during the previous week.

“... on Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar." (Surgeon Ahlé of the Dutch ship-of-the-line "Snelheid")

 The French naval painter Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio’s imagination of Lahure’s 8th Hussars closing in on the Dutch ships-of-the-line across the ice off the Texel.

A “Husarenstück” is a daring coup de main accomplished by light horsemen, “hussars”. Daredevilry done by dashing young men in smart uniforms against all odds or probability. The first deed that was later called a “Husarenstück” was the capture and occupation  of Berlin
 by a regiment of Austro-Hungarian hussars for a day during the Seven Years’ War that made Frederick the Great bite the carpet with rage. 40 Years later, during the invasion of the Dutch Republic by armies of revolutionary France, another whimsical “Husarenstück” occurred at Den Helder. It happened during a particular harsh winter, channels froze over, allowing for a rapid advance of General Pichegru’s army. Utrecht fell on January 17th, William V, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces fled from Haarlem to Britain during the following night, the Batavian Republic was proclaimed, Amsterdam was occupied on January 20th by the French and fifty miles to the north, the Dutch navy lay frozen in the Marsdiep between Texel and Den Helder since December. And off rode 23-years old Colonel Lahure with his 8th Hussars and four pieces of horse artillery to capture 15 battleships-of-the-line, with about 5,000 sailors and marines and more than 800 guns on board. More ordnance than the whole French army had at its disposal. The bonny light horsemen rode across the ice, boarded the battleships, many Dutch matelots were rather revolutionary-minded and welcomed Lahure’s men 'de bonne grace' and that was the only event in history when a naval squadron was captured in a cavalry charge. Or so the story goes.

Théodore Géricault’s rendition of a charging French hussar from 1812

In fact, the Seven United Provinces were in quite a revolutionary mood since at least 1785 and the days of Pro-Orange restoration were finally numbered when Stadtholder William V sided against France in the War of the First Coalition. Pro-Orange Admiral van Kinsbergen contemplated an evacuation of the fleet to Britain, not an option anymore when the ships were put on ice and the attempt to blast a navigable channel through the obstacle failed. The waters in the Texel were too shallow to for scuttling the ships and their precious guns and when Amsterdam surrendered, van Kinsbergen was forced by the government of the new Batavian Republic to relay the orders to the fleet that the ships were not to resist a capture by the French. And while van Kinsbergen stepped down from his office in disgust afterwards, most officers and crews of the fleet were Republicans and welcomed the French and after almost two months in the ice, the ships were in a rather lamentable state anyway. Lahure’s daring ride to capture a naval squadron was actually a political formality and the hussars, along with men of the French 15th Infantry Regiment were indeed welcomed aboard. Lieutenant-Colonel Lahure and the most senior captain present, Hermanus Reintjes of "Admiraal Piet Heyn", agreed upon doing nothing until receipt of further orders.

Charles Louis Mozin (1806-1862): “Prise de la flotte Anglo-Batave“

A week later, matters became official when Jan Willem de Winter arrived on the scene, a former lieutenant of the Dutch Navy, who, after having fled to France in the wake of the failed revolt against the Stadtholder in 1787, had become a brigadier in the French Revolutionary Army. Respected by everyone on the spot, the ships surrendered to de Winter, were allowed to fly the flag of the Batavian Republic and keep their arms as long as military discipline was maintained and French orders being followed. De Winter became a sailor again, assumed command as vice-admiral and tried to wrest control of the North Sea from the British. De Winter and the navy of the Batavian Republic were defeated at Camperdown in October 1797 in a brutal battle and most of the 11 still seaworthy ships that had surrendered at Den Helder two years before were captured by the Royal Navy along with their admiral.  

And more about the “Capture of the Dutch fleet at Den Helder” on:  

Sunday, 25 January 2015

"So Gizeric, having ruled over the Vandals thirty-nine years from the time when he captured Carthage, died“

25 January 477, the Vandal King Genseric (or Gizeric or Gaiseric) died at the age of about 90 in Carthage after having led 20,000 refugees to become a major Mediterranean power.

“But at that time Gizeric was plundering the whole Roman domain just as much as before, if not more, circumventing his enemy by craft and driving them out of their possessions by force, as has been previously said, and he continued to do so until the emperor Zeno came to an agreement with him and an endless peace was established between them, by which it was provided that the Vandals should never in all time perform any hostile act against the Romans nor suffer such a thing at their hands. And this peace was preserved by Zeno himself and also by his successor in the empire, Anastasius And it remained in force until the time of the emperor Justinus. But Justinian, who was the nephew of Justinus, succeeded him in the imperial power, and it was in the reign of this Justinian that the war with which we are concerned came to pass, in the manner which will be told in the following narrative. Gizeric, after living on a short time, died at an advanced age, having made a will in which he enjoined many things upon the Vandals and in particular that the royal power among them should always fall to that one who should be the first in years among all the male offspring descended from Gizeric himself. So Gizeric, having ruled over the Vandals thirty-nine years from the time when he captured Carthage, died, as I have said.“ (Procopius)

One of the customary six trading cards published by Liebig's Extract of Meat Company around 1900, commemorating the events of the “Völkerwanderung“, here the rather picturesque imagination of Genseric (Geiserich) and his 20,000 Vandals landing in Africa.

Genseric, king of the Vandals in North Africa, decided it was quite enough. After murdering the rather unpopular Valentinian III, the new Western Roman Emperor Petronius Maximus was about to marry Eudocia, daughter of his predecessor, to his son Palladius. Unfortunately a violation of the terms of the peace treaty of 442, promising the Imperial princess to Genseric’s son Huneric. Ruling from Carthage and establishing the city as a threat to Rome for the first time since the Punic Wars 650 years before, Genseric controlled the western Mediterranean with his vast fleet and used his strategic advantage to land his Vandal army in Italy to show Petronius what's what. Pope Leo I, who had allegedly persuaded Attila to spare the city of Rome three years before, convinced Genseric that he would be met with no resistance by the Romans if he would not destroy the city or harm her inhabitants. Nevertheless, Genseric’s men sacked the place - spawning the term "Vandalism", even though it caused much less destruction than the Visigoth Alaric's visit in CE 410 or the more thorough destruction under Italy's Ostrogoth king Totila roughly a hundred years later. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius at least a church burned down, though. Rich Roman families were carried off to Carthage to be ransomed later, along with Valentinian’s widow and his two daughters, Placidia and the casus belli Eudocia who finally married Huneric and became Queen of the Vandals. Among the other trophies taken by Genseric was the capitol's golden roof and what remained of Jerusalem's Temple Treasure, brought to Rome by Titus in 71 CE, i.e. the parts not collected by Alaric 45 years before, including the original menorah made by Moses for the Tabernacle. Or so the story goes.

Karl Bryullov (1799 – 1852): “Genseric sacks Rome” (around 1850)

The confederation to be later known as Vandals might have gotten its name from a place name in Sweden, Vendel, together with the old Germanic word “wand”, wandering, and the creation of a mythical ancestor, Aurvandil, the “Shining Wanderer”, a synonym for the evening star. After leaving Sweden and possibly Denmark under Aurvandil’s guidance around the beginning of the Common Era, one branch of Vandal ancestors, the Silingi, settled in Silesia in a conglomeration of Germanic, Celtic and Slavic cultural influences. A second branch known as Hasdingi set up their camp in Hungary and Romania, probably accumulating a few additional local ethnic backgrounds as well. Traditionally, the arrival of the Huns and the destruction of the Gothic kingdom in present-day Ukraine in 375 CE marks the beginning of the Migration Period, the Völkerwanderung, when most of the tribal confederations between the Dnieper and the Rhine packed their belongings and moved to the south and west into Roman territory. The Silingi, Hasdingi, Suebi and Alani crossed the frozen Rhine in the night of New Year’s Eve of 406 CE into Gaul. After criss-crossing and plundering their way across the place for three years, they arrived in Spain and founded their own kingdoms, the Hasdingi as Roman allies in Asturia, the Suebi in Galicia, the Alans in Portugal and the Silingi in the South. In 418, Emperor Honorius set his Visigothic allies on the tribes in Spain, some of them still Roman foederati as well. The Alans and Silingi were almost annihilated, what remained joined the Hasdingi under their King Gunderic who led them to Africa in 429 where his nephew Genseric established the Vandal Kingdom.

Heinrich Leutermann's rather vivid imagination of Genseric's "Sack of Rome" (around 1870)

Firmly entrenched in his new capital Carthage in Northern Africa, Genseric set forth to rule the waves and put the fear of god into Eastern and Western Romans alike. Described as warlike yet wise, the Germanic condottiere had achieved what was far beyond the scope of most of the other military successful leaders of the Migration Period – the establishment of an independent kingdom that would last for the next hundred years. An ironic twist of fate was the later association of wanton destruction with him and his folks. Actually, the Vandalic kingdom in northern Africa stuck to Roman civilisation far better than any other place north and west of Italy, added a few cultural notes, practised religious and ethnic tolerance and everything would have been peaches and cream, or almost, until Justinian began his reconquest of the lost territories of the fallen Western Roman Empire. His general Belisarius took the place for Rome in 534. After that, nearly all traces of Vandal culture have disappeared while Genseric’s great-grandson Gelimer, last King of the Vandals, disillusioned and disenchanted, quoted Solomon when he was brought to Constantinople: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

And more about Genseric on: