Sunday, 31 January 2016

"You've come a long way..." The Premier of another Iconic War Song

31 January 1912, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", written and first performed by Jack Judge, premiered in a Stalybridge music hall in the Greater Manchester area.

“That's the wrong way to tickle Mary,

That's the wrong way to kiss.

Don't you know that over here, lad

They like it best like this.

Hooray pour Les Français

Farewell Angleterre.

We didn't know how to tickle Mary,

But we learnt how over there.” 

(Alternative concluding chorus to a popular tune as sung in the Great War)

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" 
Sheet music cover from a United States/Canada issue (before 1918)

When the first group of males banded together in the grey dawn of time, grabbed their war-clubs and set forth to vanquish the despoilers of landscape in their abominably foreign abodes around the next bend of the river, we can be almost certain that had a song on their lips. When they marched and when they returned, not all of them, though, quite shaken but full of swagger, glossing over the fundamental shock of warfare. Few things tie toiling people together like a song, sung at work, at play, at celebrations, secular and religious, and when a day’s work is done. Soldering makes no exception. “'That's a nice song,' said young Sam, and Vimes remembered that he was hearing it for the first time.
'It's an old soldiers' song,' he said.
'Really, sarge? But it's about angels.'
Yes, thought Vimes, and it's amazing what bits those angels cause to rise up as the song progresses. It's a real soldiers' song: sentimental, with dirty bits.
'As I recall, they used to sing it after battles,’ he said. 'I've seen old men cry when they sing it,’ he added.
'Why? It sounds cheerful.'
They were remembering who they were not singing it with, thought Vimes.” Terry Pratchett pointedly sums up the whole affair in “Night Watch”. Some of these tunes are artificial hideosities, celebrating the great leader, the party, the place one is supposed to get slaughtered for happily and what not. Some belittle the foe one is about to engage, naturally, many satirize the conditions of soldiery, miserable food, long marches, idiotic commanders, many deal with homesickness and yearning for loved ones left behind, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame, the killing and dying and some were once popular tunes from a completely different context that went to war with the men and women struggling far from home. More often than not, they became something of a soundtrack for the conflicts they were sung in and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” certainly belongs into this category.

Jack Judge, to the left, and his partner in composing more than 32 popular music hall ditties, Harry Williams*

"A hundred paces farther and Stalybridge shows itself in the valley, in sharp contrast with the beautiful country seats, ... Add to this the shocking filth, and the repulsive effect of Stalybridge, in spite of its pretty surroundings, may be readily imagined.” Friedrich Engels described the Tameside town near Manchester back in 1844, one of the centres of the industrial revolution, some 200 miles northwest of Piccadilly, Strand and Leicester Square, as the crow flies. Naturally, the place was full of Irish workers and those of Irish descent around 1900 and since it’s a time-honoured tradition in Manchester, Liverpool as well as in New York and Boston to poke fun at Irish immigrants, Pats and Mikes yearning for their Molly and home and other stale clichés, Jack Judge, a Worcestershire-born fishmonger with grandparents from Tipperary had a rather easy job of setting said clichés into lyrics to be sung to a catchy tune and hit the local music hall. Allegedly, Jack had accepted a bet that he couldn’t write a popular tune overnight and he did, in a Stalybridge pub, on 30 January and performed it the very next day in one of Stalybridge’s music halls. One can still imagine the audience singing and whistling the ditty when they left the place that night and Jack had won his 5-shilling bet with distinction. Two years later, the Connaught Rangers marching through Boulogne on their way to Flanders Fields had the song on their lips, a reporter from the Mail saw and heard them, enthusiastically wrote home about it, in November 1914, the famous Irish tenor John McCormack recorded “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and within the year, the tune had gained worldwide popularity. And the somewhat dubious merit of becoming a cheery icon of the Great War.

Postcard from the Great War

band played the tune to counter the panic aboard the sinking “Lusitania”, when the liner was torpedoed by U-20 off the Old Head of Kinsale a year later when more than a thousand died. One of the first sad climaxes in the reception history of the song, along with the remembrance of the millions who would not hear and sing it anymore, fallen in two World Wars and other conflicts since 1914. In 1984, Tipperary set a sign against the town being associated with war and popular war songs by creating the Tipperary International Peace Award, described as "Ireland's outstanding award for humanitarian work" with awardees from Geldof to Mandela along with nominating the annual “Tipperary Song of Peace”. Still, though, the tune and at least the name of the town is best remembered across the world in association with Tommies marching to the Great War, from pop icons like the crew of “Das Boot” to Marcie from the “Peanuts” singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. The welcoming signs on the edge of Tipperary reminding the weary traveller that "You've come a long way..." have disappeared though.

* the image above was found along with an excellent article about Harry Williams on the "Irish Mirror" website:

And more about "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" on:

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

"Soar to higher things" - The Late Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Collier

27 January 1850, the English painter John Maler Collier was born in London.

"Imagination is not antagonistic to knowledge. On the contrary, the highest imagination is that which can assimilate all kinds of knowledge and make use of it as a vantage ground from which to soar to higher things." (John Collier)

John Collier: "Lady Godiva" (1898)

Actually, grim Earl Leofric, who ruled Mercia from his seat in Coventry at some time before the Conquest in the 11th century, was hardly a heartless, dry-witted Medieval version of Ebenezer Scrooge. He left the Church and the abbeys in his domains with rich donations and they don’t seem to have been extorted from starving Mercian peasantry either. But there’s the legend of course, one of the best-known from the Middle Ages at least in the English-speaking world, of his wife Godiva, begging for tax deduction lest the poor peasantry starves to death. Grim, dry-witted Leofric, striding through his Gothic halls with the wolfhounds at his side his only friends, as Lord Tennyson lets us believe, cast a cold eye on the countess’ jewellery and retorted with villainous laughter that he would consider an abatement of tax if she would ride naked through Coventry. And Lady Godiva famously did, her nakedness covered only with her long tresses, riding her palfrey “trapt In purple blazon'd with armorial gold” through the streets while the good and obviously well-mannered Mercians kept to their homes, closed their doors and shuttered their windows to spare their advocate the public humiliation her cold hearted hubby had in view. Or the grim earl himself had second thoughts in regards to public opinion and good family repute and ordered the Coventrians inside before any Dick, Tom or Harry might ogle his wife. One Tom did, though, after drilling a hole in his shutters and was promptly struck blind by the wrath of God, the fate of the original “Peeping Tom”. The story is too good to be true, of course, and whether Godiva’s tale is an allusion to the less chaste days of yore, when the pagan Anglo Saxons or even the Celtic Dobunni before them led the May Queen sitting on a horse through their settlements to ensure fertility or if the tale is just a late Medieval old men’s fantasy is still debated. However, the topic became quite popular in 19th century poetry as well as visual arts and it is somewhat unusual that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with their predilection for sensuous sujets, the Middle Ages and social romantics, omitted Lady Godiva until Leighton and Collier looked into the matter during the 1890s.

John Collier: "A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia" (1893)

Ironically enough, the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt et al had virtually dissolved, when Collier was just three years old. “To have genuine ideas to express; To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote; And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues” was their wonderfully quirky manifesto, vivid colours, Romantic exaltation of mental states and a sometimes ruthless realism their trademark, Shakespeare and Keats, medieval history and legends their counterdraft to the infatuation with the narrative of Classical antiquity of Academic art, imagined life captured and mirrored with the craggy bloom of Gothic architecture and symbolic stylization of Medieval and early Renaissance imagery instead of the accommodatingly curved and mannerly coloured creations of the Academics. Two generations after the Brotherhood had split and “every man for himself” became the motto, the seeds for the development of trends coining the mindset of late Victorian and early Edwardian art were sown, Symbolism, Aestheticism, Arts-and-Crafts, Decadence and Art Nouveau and even the so-called “problem pictures”. With depicting “Christ in the House of His Parents” in 1850, sans transfiguration, realistically, almost like slum dwellers with Mary “ hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England”, at least according to Charles Dickens, Millais had not only caused a scandal but set the pace for depicting realities that existed beyond the walls of the academies and studios or fashionable West End addresses. Nothing too harsh, mind you, but usually everyday drama, contemporary, more often than not, that usually confronted the viewer with a narrative hinting at several possible backgrounds and outcomes of the displayed dilemma. Collier did a few of these, along with portraits of some of the age’s most iconic personages, writers, actors, politicos, soldiery, royalty and besides that, he was one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelites.

John Collier: "The Prodigal Daughter" (1903)

Aside from a personal tragedy or two, Collier led a remarkably uneventful life for a notable 19th century artist. Admittedly, the days, when the artistic approach of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were considered avant-garde and quite shocking were over for at least two decades, but still, marrying first one and then, after her sister’s death, the other daughter of “Darwin’s Bulldog” and grandfather of “Brave New World” Aldous, Thomas Henry Huxley, can be considered as mostly harmless in contrast to, e.g., the exploits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, admittedly, was avant-garde during his life and times. A secular morality, more or less Darwinian views on life and death and a general agnosticism from the Huxley mint did not do his popularity as one of England’s foremost painters at the turn of the century any harm either. It had become quite a custom among the brainy types anyway. The Edwardian wilderness of post-war England and the final triumph of the new modernist age sounded the bell for Pre-Raphaelite narratives and imagery along with those of Academic Art. Rossetti and his successors and epigones, Collier among them, were quite forgotten until the postulated New Age of the 1960s and the newly found and yet unbroken infatuation with myths and epics of the following ages to this day resurrected the images of King Arthur and his Knights, Greek priestesses and moribund medieval ladies from the Brotherhood’s canvasses.

John Collier: "The Laboratory" (1895)

And more about John Collier on:

Friday, 22 January 2016

"Men of Harlech" - the Defence of Rorke's Drift

22 – 23 January 1879, a few hours after the Battle of Isandlwana on the border of Natal and Zululand, about 150 British and colonial troops fought for their lives at the defence of the former mission station of Rorke’s Drift against a vast superiority of Zulu warriors under Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande.

“They have shown, in this difficulty—as they have ever shown—the utmost devotion and bravery. Those who have fallen will be remembered, and will be mourned; but we must not forget the exhibition of heroic valour by those who have been spared.“ (Benjamin Disraeli, “MINISTERIAL STATEMENT“, 13 February 1879)

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1846 - 1933): "The Defence of Rorke's Drift" (1880)

The days of merchant adventurers like Raffles, Brooke or Jardine, the white rajahs, tai-pans and tuans, and the time when vast empires could be conquered east of Suez on one’s own initiative, greed, pluck and sheer luck, months away from communication with the next government agency, were coming to an end. Submarine telegraph cables linked the far flung places, North America, Egypt, India, even Australia were connected with the capital and a cablegram from Bombay would reach London in 5 hours with up to 30 words transmitted per minute. A far cry from the postal service with even military despatches taking a regular 33 days for the same distance. Ironically enough, in his role as chief commissioner of Sindh in what is now southeastern Pakistan, Sir Henry Bartle Frere had founded the modern Indian postal service in 1857. Twenty years later, Sir Henry was High Commissioner of South Africa, one of the few major centres of the Empire that was not yet connected to an overseas telegraph cable and the man could pretty much act like a Roman proconsul of old and dream like one of the empire builders from the earlies. And he had a dream. Uniting the rag rug of British possessions, Boer republics and native states between the Limpopo and the Cape under the folds of the Union Jack and the rule of the White Queen. Nobody else, imperialist die-hards excepted, particularly liked the idea, though. Neither the Disraeli government in London with it hands full of taking care that the Russians shall not have Constantinople, nor did the locals. But with communications from London taking about a month to reach him, Sir Henry thought he had a free hand to create a fact or three. And off marched his commander General Frederic Thesiger, Baron Chelmsford, with the army to establish those facts. The Xhosa of Transkei were the first in 1878 and next in line was the Kingdom of Zululand with 40,000 men under arms, a major obstacle to Frere’s plans. With trumped-up charges and a ridiculous ultimatum ignored by King Cetshwayo kaMpande, a casus belli was established and on 11 January 1879, 7,800 British and allied native troops under Chelmsford crossed the Tugela and Buffalo River from Natal into Zululand to make war on “a bunch of savages armed with sticks", as Frere thought. Unfortunately, the Zulu army was actually composed of the arguably best organised, drilled and disciplined indigenous troops in Africa and a fortnight later, the centre and camp of Chelmsford’s invading army was wiped out by said savages at the Battle of Isandlwana with over 1,300 British, colonial and native troops killed. And Cetshwayo’s younger brother Prince Dabulamanzi and his impi of about 4,000 highly motivated elite warriors didn’t even get the opportunity to wash their spears. A bit miffed, the prince hurried his men to the Buffalo River crossing and British depot of Rorke’s Drift for a bit of a raid into Natal, against the king’s express orders.

From left to right: Sir Henry Bartle Frere, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, Lord Chelmsford (ret.), Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, Lt John Chard, Lt Gonville Bromhead

It’s about 9 miles from Isandlwana to Rorke’s Drift and early in the afternoon, two survivors from the battle galloped past the strolling Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, temporary commander of the depot, the hospital and 140 men of B company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, a few Royal Engineers, Medical Corps and army staff usually found in a depot. The two shocked the bemused lieutenant into action with their news of the lost battle and the approaching impi and Chad, his second-in-command Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department, an ex-sergeant of the 85th Foot, immediately began their hasty preparations to defend against the Zulu, thousands of them. With improvised barricades made of boxes and mealie bags the former farmstead, Swedish mission station and now army depot was fortified and about half past four, the vanguard of Dabulamanzi charged. Legend has it that the 24th Foot was a Welsh regiment. About one fourth of the men behind the defences at Rorke’s Drift actually was recruited in Wales, the rest were English from the industrial centres around Birmingham and a few Irish and they did not, in all probability, sing “Men of Harlech” to counter the Zulu war chants, especially not long after midnight, when the final attacks on the last defences around the storehouse finally began to slacken. Their regimental march in 1879 was “The Warwickshire Lads" anyway. But there was incredible bravery on both sides, from those who ran into the withering fire of British Martini-Henry rifles, dying in their hundreds trying to carry the barricades and those who held and held again and fought, often enough, in close combat, bayonet against assegai, until their enemy could not go on any longer after a full day of quick marching through the high veldt and eight hours fighting. But the defenders of Rorke’s Drift were finished as well and it’s highly doubtful if they could have held against another attack of Dabulamanzi’s men. They never came. Incredibly enough, only 17 of the defenders were dead and 15 wounded, most of them from rifle fire of Zulu marksmen positioned in the hills around the place. About one tenth of the impi had died and about 500 were wounded. Many of them were killed in the morning by British patrols, probably just like the Zulu dispatched the British wounded at Isandlwana and at 8 a.m., Chelmsford’s relief force arrived on the scene. Honour was restored.

Alphonse de Neuville (1835 - 1887): "The Defence of Rorke's Drift 1879" (1880)

Of the 1,355 often posthumously awarded Victoria Crosses for valour "in the face of the enemy" since the establishment of the highest British military decoration in 1856, eleven were given to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, the greatest number won by a single unit on one day, even if the reputation and ability of both Chard and Bromhead was questioned by Chelmsford’s cronies. Most of the defenders, including the two officers, suffered in all possibility from what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on top of it. However, besides saving their own lives, that of their comrades and relativizing the hammering received at Isandlwana by presumably stick-armed savages, the 140 at Rorke’s Drift saved both Chelmsford’s and Frere’s neck in the eyes of the public howling for their blood and Chelmsford at least had the grace of decisively defeating Cetshwayo at his Royal Kraal of Ulundi in July 1879, ending the Anglo-Zulu War and the independent kingdom of Zululand. He somehow weaselled out of the whole reputation-damaging situation, not least by protection of the Queen himself while Frere had laid the foundations that directly ended with the disastrous First Boer War of 1880 and its humiliating defeats for the British. By then, he was cashiered already and Europe was finally connected with the East Coast submarine cable of the South African Telegraph Company, plugged in at Durban in December 1879.

And more about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift on:

Saturday, 16 January 2016

"We have suffered a shameful disaster." - The Battle of Corunna

16 January 1809, the first British intervention in the Peninsular War and John Moore’s subsequent Corunna Campaign ended with the Battle of Corunna and the death of the illustrious general in A Coruña, Galicia, on the coast of north-western Spain.

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.


Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.” 

(Charles Wolfe, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna")

The British retreat to Corunna, by an unknown artist

The Convention of Cintra was an inexplicable national disgrace. With a stroke of the pen on August 30, 1808, the two chinless wonders Burrard and Dalrymple nullified Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro won a week before as well as that of His Majesty’s Spanish allies at Bailén in southern Spain. The Convention allowed the beaten French not only to leave Portugal with all military honours, but keeping their loot plundered in Portugal and offering them a free passage to Rochefort on ships of the Royal Navy on top of it. When the news reached Britain, the two morons were immediately recalled along with Wellesley who really had nothing to do with the Cintra folly. Napoleon joined the ranks of those who found the whole thing to be beyond everyone’s belief, shook his head and quickmarched his Armée d'Espagne made up of more than 250,000 of his veterans to the Peninsula theatre in person to put the world to rights again. In the meanwhile, Sir John Moore, father of the British Army’s light infantry, had assumed command of HM expeditionary force of 30,000 in Lisbon and moved east towards Madrid to support the Spanish, 80,000 disorganised, badly led and worse supplied troops who were just caught in the “avalanche of steel and fire” of Napoleon’s brilliant campaign. Madrid surrendered on 4 December, the Spanish armies in the field were soundly beaten and Moore, now at Salamanca, was about to be put in the sack next, surrounded by three French army corps as he soon realised. He chose the only reasonable option left to him – running back to the coast along the passes of the snow-covered mountains of Léon and Galicia with the French in hot pursuit, virtually the only “hot” thing for the next 300 miles. Spain was facing one of its harshest winters since decades, the weather was abysmal and one of the darkest chapters in the History of the British Army began. While Moore’s Lights skirmished with the advancing French to cover the retreat of the infantry, discipline deteriorated with every force-marched step. Moore’s soldiery wreaked havoc in almost all the Spanish villages in search for food and other supplies and, most prominently, drink. In a village in Léon called Bembibre, locals had locked 200 battered redcoats in a cellar to be collected by French dragoons, a similar fate was suffered by those stranded in Vilafranca, hiding in a wine cellar when Moore’s fleeing army passed by and always Marshal Soult’s pursuing advance guard was close enough to cut up these stragglers, to a point that the British cavalry leader Lieutenant General Henry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge, had to abandon a proper hanging of his own deserters and plunderers because the French just arrived on the scene. Moore’s mob that once was an army arrived in the Galician harbour town La Coruña, journey’s end, on 11 January and the Navy wasn’t there.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 - 1830): "Sir John Moore" (before 1830)

To Moore’s luck, the good people of Corunna obviously hadn’t heard about the events during the retreat. To them, the French still were the invaders and usurpers and they would rather not shout “Viva los Francesces!” and ring the church bells when the French came and rounded up British stragglers. Quite the reverse, the dismal state the British troops were in moved them to tears, they fed them as good as they could and vigorously helped to prepare the defences against Soult’s men who were coming after them. And then the Navy sailed in the bay, Nelson’s “Victory”, Howe’s “Barfleur”, another first rate, the “Ville de Paris” and eight more battleships of the line, frigates and sloops and the transports. Not enough, though, to ship the mounts of Paget’s cavalry. More than 2,000 horses were driven over cliffs and shot and right in the middle of the butchery, Soult arrived and charged. His men were in no better state than the British, intense fighting erupted never the less, concentrated southeast of Corunna around the village of Elvina, the place changed hands several times and in the thick of it, Moore was mortally wounded by a French cannonball. The British held regardless, the embarkation continued and when night fell, Moore lay dying but his exhausted men had pushed back the French and won a victory, more or less. The British general was buried the next day on a spot in the ramparts of the town where Coruña’s university campus is today and the last of the expeditionary army, Craufurd’s and Alten’s brigades who had covered the embarkation to the last moments, were on board on 18 January while Soult had to learn to his dismay that it was not a very bright idea to bring artillery into the range of the hundreds of naval guns in the bay. He was forced to watch the British go.

William Heath (1795 - 1840): "Death of Sir John Moore" (1809)

The remnants of Moore’s army arrived in Plymouth and Portsmouth a week later. “Who the devil’s ghost are you?”, a subaltern was made welcome by his new colonel and a captain of Beresford’s 9th Foot wrote that they had to burn their last scraps of clothing and equipment, “so ragged and verminous that they were not fit to march through a clean, Christian country”. Hearing about the tremendous loss of material and especially the horses, complaints went loud but a spectator summed up the public opinion by and large, as an officer of the 3rd Light Dragoons of the King’s German Legion recorded: “Damn all the horses, Yorkshire has enough horses to mount them again – thank God that the lives of brave men are saved”, and no immediate blame for the disaster was put on fallen General Moore who might or might not have fought more decisive rearguard actions or at least could have tried to hold fortified and well supplied Corunna until reinforcements could be sent. Soult had erected a monument over Moore’s grave and plundered those stores afterwards, re-equipped his own battered troops with them, along with capturing a considerable Spanish squadron of battleships at anchor in Ferrol. Three months later, Wellesley, not yet Lord Wellington, acquitted of all charges laid against him in the inquiry following the Convention of Cintra, returned to Portugal with a new expeditionary force, made up to a large part of regiments who had fought with Moore in the Corunna campaign. Old Nosey had to roll up his sleeves and drive the French from Spain, methodically, brutally, mercilessly and often brilliantly. The Peninsular War had begun in earnest and it would take four years until British troops would march across the Pyrenees into France.

And more about the Battle of Corunna on:

Friday, 8 January 2016

"Le Roi Est Mort" - The Life and Death of Emperor Norton I in the streets of San Francisco

8 January 1880, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, died in the streets of San Francisco.

“Of all our visitors, I believe I preferred Emperor Norton; the very mention of whose name reminds me I am doing scanty justice to the folks of San Francisco. In what other city would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor of the two Americas have been so fostered and encouraged? Where else would even the people of the streets have respected the poor soul's illusion? Where else would bankers and merchants have received his visits, cashed his cheques, and submitted to his small assessments? Where else would he have been suffered to attend and address the exhibition days of schools and colleges? Where else, in God's green earth, have taken his pick of restaurants, ransacked the bill of fare, and departed scathless? They tell me he was even an exacting patron, threatening to withdraw his custom when dissatisfied; and I can believe it, for his face wore an expression distinctly gastronomical. Pinkerton had received from this monarch a cabinet appointment; I have seen the brevet, wondering mainly at the good nature of the printer who had executed the forms, and I think my friend was at the head either of foreign affairs or education: it mattered, indeed, nothing, the prestation being in all offices identical. It was at a comparatively early date that I saw Jim in the exercise of his public functions. His Majesty entered the office--a portly, rather flabby man, with the face of a gentleman, rendered unspeakably pathetic and absurd by the great sabre at his side and the peacock's feather in his hat.“ (Robert Louis Stevenson “The Wrecker“)

A contemporary photograph of Norton I in full fig
and one of his Imperial Edicts from 1879

“One morning my basket was heavy with wares”, Tagore once wrote, “Men were busy in the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth heaved with the mirth of ripening rice.” English-born entrepreneur Joshua Norton must have thought something along these lines when he had invested his considerable capital in a shipload of rice coming to his adopted home San Francisco from Peru. A severe famine and a series of wars in China had resulted in an export ban and, consequently, a shortage of said cereal grain, staple food of ten thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush. And while prices were about to skyrocket, enterprising Mr Norton formed a cunning plan. With the 90 tons of rice unloaded from the “Glyde” he thought to dictate the price and make another fortune. Unfortunately for Mr Norton, several other ships carrying rice from Peru arrived shortly after the “Glyde” in San Francisco and the price dropped to an all-time low. In short: Joshua Abraham Norton of Deptford and San Francisco was buggered. A bit of whining in court followed, Norton claimed he had been humbugged, the Supreme Court of California stated that he wasn’t, in 1858 he filed for bankruptcy, found himself in a working class boarding house and like the traveller from Tagore’s poem, he “went astray in the fairyland of things.” On 17 September 1859, Norton proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States”: “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”, signed Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

The "San Francisco Chronicle's" court jester Edward Jumper's caricature of Norton I, dining with his two dogs Bummer and Lazarus, somewhat irreverently called "The Three Bummers"  (around 1865)

It might be that the Imperial Decree making the use of the word “Frisco” a punishable offence endeared him to the good people of San Frisco or his Imperial Majesty’s high entertainment value en bloc, but Norton I was not put into a quiet place without belts and shoe strings like the rest of the folks with their right hand in their waistcoats à la “Napoleon in his Study”. Quite the reverse, actually. Norton I, strutting down the Streets of San Francisco in his blue uniform, adorned with epaulettes Union officers from the Presidio had given to him and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather, enjoyed an immense popularity. A newcomer to the police force of San Francisco had him arrested once, in 1867, though. Norton I was released soon after a public outcry and a formal apology by Police Chief Patrick Crowley however, since the Emperor, Crowley wrote “had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." San Francisco’s police officers on the beat usually saluted the Emperor afterwards. Not all government institutions were as compliant, though. Winfield Scott, for example, Commanding General of the United States Army, chose not to move and arrest the members of the U.S. Congress and other usurpers in Washington on his Imperial Majesty’s orders. It was one of the few imperial decrees that implicated violent action. Otherwise, Police Chief Patrick Crowley was right. Emperor Norton I lead a surprisingly non-violent regime. Unfortunately, his appeal to the Catholic and Protestant Churches to confirm his reign in 1862 to end the Civil War went off unheard, but once, during the 1870s, the Emperor allegedly stopped a racist riot by standing, with his head bowed, in front of the Chinese targets, saying the Lord’s Prayer until the mob of attackers dispersed.

More bummers: Edward Jump's capture of a scene from the streets of San Francisco, with Emperor Norton on the far right, his two dogs in the centre and George Washington II in 18th century garb displaying one of his banners

was, however, the Emperor’s feud with another British-born nutter of San Francisco, Frederick Coombs, a resident photographer with a knack for burning his own shop down, the inventor of an excavator known as the "Free Ditcher of Napa", and a phrenologist who had lost his marbles and thought himself to be a reincarnation of George Washington. Walking the streets of San Francisco in Continental Army buckskins and a tricorne hat proposing marriages and issuing edicts as George Washington the Second, he finally accused his rival Emperor Norton of tearing down some of his pamphlets fly-postered in Montgomery Street. Out of jealousy over his success with the ladies, George Washington No 2 claimed. Both potentates tried to sue each other out of town and into the loony bin until Washington (# 2) gave up and fled to New York. The Emperor could be certain of his San Francisco subjects’ acclaim and support, local newspapers covering his edicts and exploits, the two stray dogs he adopted, Bummer and Lazarus, became celebrities as well and were given the freedom of the city, this time by a really legal ordinance, after Lazarus was taken by an overzealous dog catcher and had to be freed when community pressure splashed over. Shop owners adorned their stores with “By appointment to his Imperial Majesty” plaques, some of the best local restaurants wined and dined him and the dogs for free and when his uniform got tatty he was presented with a new one by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And then, at the age of about 62, he collapsed on a street corner and died and caused immediate public interest for a last time. “Le Roi est Mort”, a San Francisco Headline ran the very next day along with a front page obituary and 10,000 people carried him to his grave. Mark Twain memoralised him four years later beyond the local memory of San Francisco as the King in the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and every now and then, Emperor Norton I makes his appearance in fiction as one of the most likeable and thorough eccentrics from times out of mind.

And more about His Imperial Majesty Norton I on:

Tagore’s wonderful poem quoted above is called “I Travelled The Old Road” and runs as follows:

“I travelled the old road every day, I took my fruits to the market,
my cattle to the meadows, I ferried my boat across the stream and
all the ways were well known to me.
One morning my basket was heavy with wares. Men were busy in
the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth
heaved with the mirth of ripening rice.
Suddenly there was a tremor in the air, and the sky seemed to
kiss me on my forehead. My mind started up like the morning out of
I forgot to follow the track. I stepped a few paces from the
path, and my familiar world appeared strange to me, like a flower
I had only known in bud.
My everyday wisdom was ashamed. I went astray in the fairyland
of things. It was the best luck of my life that I lost my path that
morning, and found my eternal childhood.”

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

"Les Ombres des Héros français" - The painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's emergence into the Romantic era

5 January 1767, the French late Classicist and early Romantic painter and draughtsman Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson was born in picturesque Montargis in the Loiret.

Anne-Louis Girodet:"The Funeral of Atala”, inspired by François-René de Chateaubriand’s novella "Atala, ou Les Amours de deux sauvages dans le desert" (1808)

“Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its destiny is not merely to reunite all of the different genres and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. Romantic poetry wants to and should combine and fuse poetry and prose, genius and criticism, art poetry and nature poetry. It should make poetry lively and sociable, and make life and society poetic. It should poeticize wit and fill all of art's forms with sound material of every kind to form the human soul, to animate it with flights of humor. Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest art systems, which contain within them still more systems, all the way down to the sigh, the kiss that a poeticizing child breathes out in an artless song. Romantic poetry can lose itself in what is represented to the extent that one might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types. But there is not yet a form which is fit to fully express an author's spirit. Thus many artists who only wanted to write a novel ended up presenting a kind of self-portrait. It alone is able to become a mirror of the entire surrounding world, an image of their age in the same manner as an epic. And yet it is Romantic poetry which can best glide between the portrayer and what is portrayed, free from all real and ideal interests. On the wings of poetic reflection, it can raise that reflection to a higher power and multiply it in an endless row of mirrors. Romantic poetry is capable of the highest and most comprehensive refinement– not merely from the inside out, but also from the outside in. In everything that should be a whole among its products, it organizes all parts similarly, through which a vision of an infinitely expanding classicism is opened. Romantic poetry is to the arts what wit is to philosophy and what society, company, friendship, and love are in life. Other kinds of poetry are finished and can now be fully analyzed. The Romantic form of poetry is still in the process of becoming. Indeed, that is its true essence, that it is always in the process of becoming and can never be completed. It cannot be exhausted by any theory, and only a divinatory criticism would dare to want to characterize its ideal. Romantic poetry alone is infinite, just as it alone is free and recognizes as its first law that the poetic will submits itself to no other law. The Romantic kind of poetry is the only one which is more than a kind – it is poetry itself. For, in a certain sense, all poetry is or should be Romantic.“ (Friedrich Karl Wilhelm von Schlegel, “Athenaeum Fragment #116”, 1798)

Anne-Louis Girodet: "Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes", together with an Imperial eagle that has obviously flown from his standard into Elysium (1802)

Storm clouds gathered in Europe by the end of the 18th century. Not only over the fields and the streets of the cities. With the American Revolution across the sea, one could almost feel the last effects of the Middle Ages drawing to an end and the storm coming up in the very souls of intellectuals, revolutionaries and artists, clouding over the Age of Enlightenment’s reason and prudence. Sturm und Drang, the Germans called it, storm and urge, young Werther suffered, Moor and his Robbers rebelled and the dawn of Romanticism outshone the noble simplicity and calm grandeur of the Ancients that Winckelmann believed to have discovered two generations before, the aesthetic sine qua non of Classicism, in the visual arts. And while German philosophers might have outlined the intellectual superstructure of the Romantic Movement and German poets voiced her first words, English artists visualised them in properly dramatic landscapes and soon painters across Europe populated them with suitably dramatic or sentimental scenes à la Rousseau, who had added the metaphysics of nature to the emotive brewage. And while the good people of Paris glared at Versailles and the Tuileries Palace, began to whet the bayonets, rehearsed dancing the Carmagnole and thought “Ah! ça ira“, a highly gifted young man came to Paris to study painting in the studio of one of France’s greatest Classicist artists, that of Jacques-Louis David. The young man with the somewhat unwieldy name of Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson promptly thrived on the competitive atmosphere in David’s sacred halls where revenge, by all means, had its place, in the depiction of ancient myths, like the famous “Oath of the Horatii“ for example, masterfully copied and enhanced by young Girodet-Trioson in 1786. Three years later, on the very eve of the Revolution, Girodet won a gold medal and the Prix de Rome, only just awarded by the future Citoyen Capet for his “Joseph Recognized by his Brothers“, still a quite Classicist and rather unremarkable work. But then, the monarchy tumbled, Girodet decided to postpone the study tour to the French Academy in Rome to stay in Paris and participate in the inspiringly world-shaking events.

Allegedly, Napoleon himself ordered the paining of "Malvine, Dying in the Arms of Fingal" from the Ossian cycle (around 1801)

Girodet finally went to Rome, though, in 1790 and the six weeks he planned to stay at the Academy became five years. Driven out of the Eternal City by an angry mob in 1793 when the Academy was stormed, he roved through Italy with a friend, sometimes in the wake of the campaigning French armies, sometimes away from the maddening crowds, studied the old masters’ drama, was struck down by a bout of syphilis in Naples and finally returned back home to France in 1795. He might have skipped the Reign of Terror but was in time to witness the decreed end of the Revolution on the 18 Brumaire and the ascendancy of Napoleon. Girodet became an ardent admire, painted battle scenes, adulations and portraits of the soon-to-be Imperial family and became a rival of his former master David. The student seemed to have jettisoned his master’s teachings and arrived, Romantically moved, at new shores. Instead of David’s cool, classic visual narrative, a new design vocabulary told dramatic tales, with forms extrapolated in the chiaroscuro, the bold contrasts of light and dark of Baroque art, suitably charged with classic and contemporary symbols, myths of antiquity, fakes like the immensely popular Ossian cycle of poems and novels by Chateaubriand. Nevertheless, Girodet retained a few of the mannerisms he learned at the feet of David and both masters were caught up in the national hangover when the Bourbon king returned after the fall of Napoleon’s First Empire in 1815. While David was forced to flee the country as the former ardent promoter of the Revolution, Girodet was, more or less, forgiven, but he didn’t paint much anymore. With the financial security of a rich inheritance at his back he withdrew from public life, did a few illustrations and died, exhausted and syphilitic, at the age of 57, a year before David, as one of the trailblazers of the Romantic Movement.

Trailblazer of the Romantic Movement: Anne-Louis Girodet, self portrait, dated 1824

And more about Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson:

Friday, 1 January 2016

"I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man." Haiti's Independence in 1804

1 January 1804, Haiti became the first black republic and second independent country in North America after the United States.

“With factions, suspicions, want of bread and sugar, it is verily what they call déchiré, torn asunder this poor country: France and all that is French. For, over seas too come bad news. In black Saint-Domingo, before that variegated Glitter in the Champs Elysées was lit for an Accepted Constitution, there had risen, and was burning contemporary with it, quite another variegated Glitter and nocturnal Fulgor, had we known it: of molasses and ardent-spirits; of sugar-boileries, plantations, furniture, cattle and men: sky high; the Plain of Cap Français one huge whirl of smoke and flame! What a change here, in these two years; since that first 'Box of Tricolor Cockades' got through the Custom-house, and atrabiliar Creoles too rejoiced that there was a levelling of Bastilles! Levelling is comfortable, as we often say: levelling, yet only down to oneself. Your pale-white Creoles, have their grievances: – and your yellow Quarteroons? And your dark-yellow Mulattoes? And your Slaves soot-black? Quarteroon Ogé, Friend of our Parisian Brissotin Friends of the Blacks, felt, for his share too, that Insurrection was the most sacred of duties. So the tricolor Cockades had fluttered and swashed only some three months on the Creole hat, when Ogé's signal-conflagrations went aloft; with the voice of rage and terror. Repressed, doomed to die, he took black powder or seedgrains in the hollow of his hand, this Ogé; sprinkled a film of white ones on the top, and said to his Judges, "Behold they are white;" – then shook his hand, and said "Where are the Whites, Ou sont les Blancs?" So now, in the Autumn of 1791, looking from the sky-windows of Cap Français, thick clouds of smoke girdle our horizon, smoke in the day, in the night fire; preceded by fugitive shrieking white women, by Terror and Rumour.” (Thomas Carlyle)

Guillaume Guillon-Lethière's (1760 - 1832) allegoric imagination of
two of independent Haiti's founding fathers, Alexandre Pétion (left) and
Jean-Jacques Dessalines (right) taking "The Oath of the Ancestors" (1822)

1780, half of all the coffee and more than one third of the sugar consumed in Europe came from Saint-Domingue, Haiti’s French half. The island, known back then as Hispaniola, the other half of it was still part of the Spanish overseas empire, had evolved over a period of a hundred years from a pirate haunted backwater into the most profitable single colony of all the European powers. The success was made possible by the rigorous import of slave labour from Africa, begun by the Spanish in the 1500s after the indigenous population of about 300,000 Taíno was wiped out by force of arms, forced labour and epidemics in less than 50 years after Columbus had discovered the place in 1492. Not that the people kidnapped from Africa fared any better than the Taíno. The death rate of slaves forced to work on the sugar cane fields was appallingly high. Every second man, woman or child of the 800,000 people deported from Africa to Haiti over the 18th century died during the first five years on the island. Laws, like the “Code Noir” issued by Louis XIV, might have curbed the worst excesses of the slave-owners, but still conditions as well as the treatment of slaves were harsh. Consequently, around two thirds of 18th century Haiti’s black population was African-born, with their identity as non-slaves as well as their customs still more or less intact, unsurprisingly, syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou developed under the circumstances as well as slave revolts on an almost yearly basis. However, these were local affairs and always put down, even though the black population of 600,000 people living in French Saint-Domingue made up 90% of the colony’s entire population. When the great revolt began in the Mother Country in 1789 though, the bizarre world of colonial Haiti was about to be turned upside down as well.

Charles Thévenin (1764 - 1830), sketch of "The insurrection of the slaves of Santo Domingo extends Paris. The free coloured men entered the Convention and calling for the abolition of slavery in the colonial empire of the Ancien Regime" (1794)

It began in the Forest of Crocodiles, the Bois Caïman. A houngan, a Vodou priest, and leader of a group of maroons, runaway slaves, named Dutty Boukman or “Book Man” to some, probably because he had attained a high level of self-education, called together other chiefs, houngans and mambos, priestesses, for a ceremony that marked the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. "The god who created the earth;“ Boukman prayed, “who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts." A week later, Haiti’s Plaine-du-Nord was in flames, hundreds of “grands blancs”, the plantation owners and “petits blancs“, the lower orders, were brutally killed, along with Boukman, who died fighting the well-armed colonials. But a new leader arose pretty soon, Toussaint Louverture, who led the slaves to conquer the whole of Saint-Domingue until 1799. Meanwhile, back home in revolutionary France, events came famously thick and fast. Basically, abolition of slavery in the colonies was on the agenda of many factions, few were serious and consequent about it though, and not only because of the economic consequences for raw material extraction and food production in the colonies. Nevertheless, slavery was abolished after 1794 and for a while Toussaint Louverture fought as a French Brigadier until he saw himself forced to turn against the colonial overlords again during a period of continuously changing allegiances with the Spanish and British regularly muscling in and tens of thousands died, of violence, disease and hunger. And then Napoleon and the Peace of Amiens came.

"Burning of Cape Français. General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites.", Frontispiece from the book Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions. ca. 1815

was not exactly a top priority in Napoleon’s agenda. Reclaiming the profits of the former colony of Saint Domingue was, though, up to the point that he rather sold Louisiana to the young United States than accept an independent Haiti. And while Louverture had liberated the slaves in the Spanish part of the island as well, issued a constitution and appointed himself Governor for life, Napoleon was free to give his brother-in-law Leclerc his marching orders for Haiti. He arrived with 6,000 crack troops and naval support and fought Louverture to a standstill. General Toussaint L'Ouverture, the man who had led the greatest slave revolt since Spartacus and put the fear of God into slaveholders throughout the New World, surrendered himself, was shipped to France and died in prison, a couple of months after Leclerc himself succumbed to Yellow Fever in Haiti. Leclerc’s express command to reinstate slavery had leaked, though, and when war broke out again in Europe in May 1803, the Royal Navy quickly isolated the French troops stationed in Haiti, those that had not yet died of various tropical diseases, and the island was up in arms again, this time under Louverture’s lieutenant Dessalines. He defeated the last French army, just 2,000 exhausted men under the Vicomte de Rochambeau, in November 1803. Independence from France was declared and Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor in September 1804, a year before Napoleon crowned himself. The new Emperor of Haiti was murdered two years later by his officers and while the country staggered between massacres, general terror, state slavery and a quite sensible foreign policy that seemed to lead to a slow but steady recovery, Haiti’s back was broken when, in 1825, France forced the young nation to pay and absurdly high sum in reparations for territory and property lost during the revolution. Payment continued until 1947 and the island has not yet recovered from the blow.

And more about the Haitian Revolution on: