Saturday, 27 February 2016

“What military genius possessed these burghers!" - The Battle of Majuba Hill and the First Boer War

27 February 1881, The British under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Majuba Hill in Natal, concluding the First Boer War as the first conflict since the American Revolution that ended with unfavourable terms for the British Empire. 

“What military genius possessed these burghers! What instinctive aptitude they had for war! Here were a few hundred men prepared to assault a position which any professional soldier of the time would have insisted was impregnable. Yet everything was planned by the Boer commander Smit that morning with Napoleonic facility and speed; it was then carried out with an exact precision scarcely equalled in the annals of warfare.” (General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, participant of the Battle of Majuba Hill as lieutenant in the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders)

Sir Richard Caton Woodville Jr (1856 - 1927): "Battle of Majuba" (1889) 

In hindsight, European imperialism seemed to have followed something along the lines of a project plan, with strategic places getting occupied as milestones to control deposits of valuable natural resources and the ensuing trade lines covered until, as project closure, entire continents fell under the sway of one empire or the other, usually the British. It didn’t happen straightaway like that, though, and there were rather few long-term plans in action during the heyday of Imperialism. More often than not, colonial expansion followed immediate threats and opportunities and the Redcoats and jolly tars on site winning against impossible odds and in the end, the Union flag flew over faraway places east of Suez and nobody could exactly tell what had happened and who, in the first place, had ordered to occupy a godforsaken strip of country and why. However, there were dreamers who looked at maps with an entrepreneurial spirit, saw opportunities, connected dots and dreamed dangerous dreams, dangerous for the locals, at least, and the Sons of the Widow who usually suffered the consequences of these men’s megalomaniac fantasies. One of them was Sir Henry Bartle Frere and his supporters with his plan to federate Southern Africa under British rule. Beside the various Black South African states with the Zulu kingdom under King Cetshwayo being the most formidable, there were two white Boer republics west and north of Natal on the eastern South African coast, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, both populated by the descendants of the Voortrekkers, pioneers, who had left the British Cape Colony, basically because they saw their economy threatened by the formal abolition of slavery in the Empire in 1834. Both republics weren’t exactly flourishing and especially the Transvaal, known as the South African Republic since 1856, felt rather threatened by the Zulu on their south-eastern border. Frere, in his role as British High Commissioner of South Africa, actually thought he would put them out of their misery by simply annexing the place, put it under Imperial suzerainity and invade Zululand. The Boers thought differently though. And while they were actually quite happy when the rival Zulu kingdom ceased to exist after the Battle of Ulundi in 1879, the stubborn lot just would not see the light and openly revolted against British rule in December 1880, especially over Imperial taxation without representation, goes without saying. 

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: "Floreat Etona" (1882)
Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: "Floreat Etona" (1882)
displaying an eyewitness account of the Battle of Laing's Nek:

Sir Henry Bartle Frere had been already recalled over his unsolicited imperial adventures that had almost ended in a catastrophe in Zululand and provoked the Boer rebellion. His replacement, Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, was basically an old African hand and had just returned from Afghanistan where he had served as private secretary of Lord Lytton, Governor-General of India, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. En route he thought a Boer rebellion to be unlikely, but when he arrived in Durban, a British column had already been shot to pieces at Bronkhorstspruit and the six forts in the Transvaal were under siege. Imperial authority had to be restored, the Queen frowned, and Sir George immediately marched the 1,500 men at his disposal towards the Drakensberg mountain range and promptly got his nose bloodied at Laing’s Nek by the Boer Commandant-General Piet Joubert and his 2,000 well entrenched, sharpshooting burghers. Before that, Colley had excelled in staff work, logistics, in Africa and elsewhere, and academics, such as a professorship at the Staff College in Camberley and writing 60 pages about the British Army for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Over all that military history and days of past glory, he, of all the people, seemed to have forgotten one important lesson the British Army had learned the hard way a hundred years before: How perfectly dangerous highly motivated peasants who grew up with riding, shooting rifles and learning the lay of the land could be to regular troops. The Boers of the 1880s had no regular army. When necessity arose, they put on their slouch hats, took their highly reliable modern rifles, saddled their sturdy horses and grouped together to form independent commandos, elected their leaders and rode off to meet their enemy. 

"General Sir George Colley at the Battle of Majuba Mountain Just Before He Was Killed"
Melton Prior (1845-1910) for the London Illustrated News:
"General Sir George Colley at the Battle of Majuba Mountain Just Before He Was Killed"

After taking the next hammering at a place called Schuinshoogte near the Ingogo River where Colley and his men again experienced the deadly accuracy of the Boers’ long range marksmanship and their somewhat unchivalrous but highly effective habit of picking off officers first. Seven of them had been killed. With headshots. Often from a range of several hundred yards. The Redcoats themselves, with their white pith helmets and cross belts perfectly stood out against the African landscape and made wonderful targets as well. A lesson repeated when Colley decided to occupy the several hundred feet high dead volcano known as Majuba Hill to checkmate Joubert’s burghers in their position at Laing’s Nek with British reinforcements coming up from Durban. During the night of 26 February, Colley personally led 405 men up the hill, only half of them, the Gordon Highlanders had seen action recently, an elite regiment, actually, the rest was more or less inexperienced. Colley, though, thought he would be perfectly safe up at Majuba Hill, he didn’t even order his troops to dig in and slept in his tent when the Boers came. After their customary Sunday service, they sneaked through the veldt and the foothills of Majuba until their commander Nicolaas Smit ordered them to go at it in what the Boers called "vuur en beweeg", fire and movement tactics, one part pouring a witheringly accurate fire into the Britons up the hill while others climbed up the slopes, firing, when their cover came up until they carried the hill, shooting at long range and keeping out of distance of the feared British bayonets. Ordering a fighting retreat down the hill, finally, after he somehow missed the moment to order at least the Gordons to counter-charge the Boers on the slope, Colley was shot in the head by a Boer marksman and morale collapsed with half of theirs dead or wounded and the British ran away into their most humiliating defeat since Yorktown. Peace was concluded a few weeks later and the two Boer republics remained semi-independent again. But then, gold was discovered at the Witwatersrand in 1886 and another dreamer conjured up dangerous imperial dreams: Cecil Rhodes. The bloody mess of the Second Boer War was about to begin.

Contemporary imagination of Joubert's commandos assembling below Majuba Hill before the peace negotiations
Contemporary imagination of Joubert's commandos assembling below Majuba Hill before the peace negotiations 

And more about the First Boer War and the Battle of Majuba Hill on:

Friday, 26 February 2016

"Michelangelo of caricature" - Honoré Daumier

26 February 1808, the French printmaker, caricaturist, painter, and sculptor Honoré Daumier was born in Marseille.

“L'un des hommes les plus importants, je ne dirai pas seulement de la caricature, mais encore de l'art moderne. (One of the most important men, I will not say only of caricature, but also of modern art, Charles Baudelaire)

Honoré Daumier: "The Amateurs" - In this example, one of several set in a studio, the haughty, aloof artist, looking a bit like a collage of Breton, Decamps and Henner, awaits the presumably enthusiastic responses of his visitors (1865)

Old Egyptian papyri, Greek vases, Roman murals, images in medieval churches and cave paintings from the Stone Age as well, in all probability. Caricatures might be around since time immemorial. However, things really got underway, caricature-wise, around the time, when the Industrial Revolution began and reached full steam in the early 1800s with Hogarth acting as pointsman. Many features of actual caricatures were already part of his satirical, moralising and immensely popular pieces and caricaturists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, a generation after Hogarth’s death, lead the way ahead into modern political and socio-political caricature. The French, more often than not chief target of the British caricaturists’ scorn and ridicule, published the first full-fledged satirical magazines, though, out of spite, who knows, but especially “Le Charivari” with its first edition appearing in December 1832 in Paris, set the pace for all subsequent publications, including the better known British “Punch”. And since most of those in power in the France of the July Monarchy had the same underdeveloped sense of humour as their counterparts before and after elsewhere, one of their best caricaturists had already faced a spell in the tank when he joined the “Charivari’s” staff for poking fun on King Louis Philippe. Four years later, the whole thing was about to get transported to the Devil’s Island when the so-called Roi Citoyen and his court cringers banished political caricature in toto. “Charivari” focussed on the “socio” part of “socio-political caricature” and it became the sujet Honoré Daumier excelled in: holding up a mirror to the bourgeoisie. Starting with his series “Robert Macaire” in “Le Charivari” he began to work out the comic stereotypical exaggeration of a part to typify the sum in earnest. The good people of France were narrowed down to about 100 ridiculous archetypes and Daumier satirised political life on the eve of the Revolution of 1848 with a brilliant masquerade and without actually tackling the issues and principal political players of the day. Honoré Daumier was a master of his trade and the slave speech of satire.

Honoré Daumier: "Un Guerrier Electrise"
 - A public demonstration of the powers of electricity, with a French official as subject

painters with a big heart for social romantic motives usually sport at best only a hardly traceable sense of humour, quite along the lines of those who are responsible for the misery of their subjects. The Barbizon School and the rest of the French Realist movement did not put forth any exceptions to the rule. Daumier was, though, but somehow he sent his wonderful irony, open sarcasm and his biting talent for boiling down betraying details into satirical trademarks to bed early when he reached for his palette and brushes. What remains is satire’s finger-wagging without its considerable other charms. However, Daumier was a pioneer among the French Realists and on equal terms with Courbet, Millet and Corot. And, quite like his comrades, he gave the third estate travelling in third class coaches through a world turned upside down with the upheavals of the long 19th century, a silent dignity, endearing humanity and a longanimity in suffering like that of saints in a masterpiece of one of the Old Masters, a Christ-like “Ecce Homo” typical for the genre, depicted in a chiaroscuro à la Caravaggio. The strong contrasts of light and dark are indeed almost the only recognition effect between Daumier’s paintings and caricatures of the petite bourgeoisie, a self-imposed and probably only half conscious distinction between so-called High and Low Art Daumier shares with quite a few satirists. And, ironically enough, having the bourgeoisie capitalising on topics of High Art created for an audience consisting chiefly of aristos, Greek and Roman mythology chiefly, was one of his favourite themes. At least he did not paint, as he put it, “still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!”, ridiculing the Paris salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Honoré Daumier: "Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage, 1864)

lived almost all his live in Paris and why should he leave, the world came to him and, more often than not, sprung into existence there. The artist was well supplied with topics for his high and low art, a mammoth work of over 500 paintings, 4000 lithographs, 1000 wood engravings, 1000 drawings along with 100 sculptures. Blind towards the rest of his life that he ended in the country, in 1879, when good Americans already went to Paris instead of going to heaven and they had at least the grace to bring him there as well and laid him to rest in a pauper’s grave, highly in debt as he was. The “Michelangelo of Caricature” wasn’t seen as a serious painter for decades, though, until well into the 20th century and, unfortunately never produced a work that encompassed at least most if not all of his considerable talents.

And more about Honoré Daumier on:

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

"a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud” - Ossian and James MacPherson

17 February 1796, James MacPherson, the Scottish author of the faked but immensely influential epic of “Ossian”, died at the age of 59 in Belville, Inverness-shire. 

“Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored. I meet this bard with silver hair; he wanders in the valley; he seeks the footsteps of his fathers, and, alas! he finds only their tombs. Then, contemplating the pale moon, as she sinks beneath the waves of the rolling sea, the memory of bygone days strikes the mind of the hero, days when approaching danger invigorated the brave, and the moon shone upon his bark laden with spoils, and returning in triumph. When I read in his countenance deep sorrow, when I see his dying glory sink exhausted into the grave, as he inhales new and heart-thrilling delight from his approaching union with his beloved, and he casts a look on the cold earth and the tall grass which is so soon to cover him, and then exclaims, "The traveller will come,—he will come who has seen my beauty, and he will ask, 'Where is the bard, where is the illustrious son of Fingal?' He will walk over my tomb, and will seek me in vain!" Then, O my friend, I could instantly, like a true and noble knight, draw my sword, and deliver my prince from the long and painful languor of a living death, and dismiss my own soul to follow the demigod whom my hand had set free!“ (Goethe: “The Sorrows of Young Werther”)

François Gérard (1770 - 1837): "Ossian" (1801)

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool to us Sassenach, once the leader of the legendary Fianna, a band of warriors of old Ireland, was a mighty hero. He wielded the sword Mac an Luinn, had healing hands and grew to be the smartest man of the islands when he tasted from the Salmon of Wisdom, a feat that made him into a poet and a seer. He did heroic deeds and grew into one of the first in a long line of archetypes of a people that are labelled for all their wars being merry and all their songs sad. Fionn Mac Cumhaill never actually died but became one of the Kings in the Mountain, a sleeping hero like King Arthur and Emperor Barbarossa, who will return one day when he is most needed by his folks. And he sleeps a troubled sleep under his hill in County Kildare. Somnambulating into more recent folktales, he became a giant up north in Antrim who had a bit of a quarrel with another colossus on the other side of the Straits of Moyle, the Scottish giant Benandonner. Irate Finn thus built the picturesque causeway from Antrim to the Island of Staffa on the Scottish side to challenge the big Mac until he realised up close that Benandonner was larger than life and twice as ugly. This time, he managed to defeat the Jock, by trickery of Mrs MacCool, truth be told, but the next assault from Highland-wards saw Finn quite defenceless. Now it was his turn to finally grow larger-than-life-sized. And become a Romantic hero on top of it. His name was changed into Fingal and, ironically enough, even a cave on Staffa was named after him, quite the Romantic place as well, and it was all one Scotsman’s fault and fraud and the man’s name was James MacPherson.

J.M.W. Turner: "Staffa, Fingal's Cave" (1832)

of Celtomania date back to the dawn of the modern age in the 16th century and over the next 200 years what was left of Celtic or presumably Celtic culture, like menhirs and other standing stones, place names and the testimony of Greek and Roman authors was re-evaluated and placed into the context of chiefly English and French national identities – while the actual heirs of the Iron Age Celts, Bretons, Welsh and the Irish were labelled as backward barbarians existing beyond the pale of guiding cultural rule had their territories occupied and their own identities and languages supressed on a regular basis. Along came Rousseau with the idea of noble savages, originally coined by and large for ethnic groups on other continents until, with the early beginning of the Romantic Movement, some discovered noble savages right on their doorstep and in their own pedigree, e.g. the Scots. Such as the student of divinity James MacPherson of Ruthven, Inverness-shire. 15 years after the Battle of Culloden, the end of the Jacobite rebellion, “Butcher” Cumberland and the crackdown on everything that was Gaelic in Scotland, the moderately unsuccessful young poet came up with a spectacular manuscript. It was his own translation of tales from the wild Highlands, the story of a 3rd century bard, one Ossian, and the epic of the heroic deeds of his father Fingal, his son Oscar and his fiancée Malvina, Agandecca, flame of Fingal’s own youth and daughter of his sworn enemy, the Scowegian King Starno, blood, thunder and Romantic wildernesses, in Morven, Fingal’s realm in the Scottish Highlands, governed from his castle of Selma, Temair in Ireland and Lochlin, a catch-all for Scandinavia. Some parts of what became known as the epic of “Ossian” evoke the old tales of Finn MacCool, most certainly do not and their authenticity was almost immediately contested after the publication of MacPherson’s “Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language“ in 1760. By Irish scholars, of course, who felt robbed of one of their foremost heroes and by other critical spirits of the Age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Dr Johnson who wrote that Macpherson was "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud” and that the poems were forgeries. They were, but they hit the European mindscape like a bomb and MacPherson became one of the foremost spiritual fathers of the Romantic Age.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: "The Dream of Ossian" (1813)

Goethe himself translated passages of “Ossian” and wove them into the Werther’s sorrowful tale and it is a reading of Ossian that drives him in the key scene with his Charlotte, “They felt that their own fate was pictured in the misfortunes of Ossian's heroes“, and into suicide. Thomas Jefferson certainly had his strengths in other fields than literary criticism but he believed that Ossian “was the greatest poet that has ever existed” and Napoleon thought along the same lines. During the first decade of the 19th century, MacPherson’s fraud had at least been partially translated into most of the major European languages and churned the romantically moved souls of the Charlottes and Werthers from John O’Groats to Tobolsk. Schubert and Mendelssohn set the poems to music, motives from the Kunstmärchen, the literary fairy tale, of Ossian were painted by almost all of the Romantic painters and Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, first described by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, became a pilgrimage site. At least until the 1840s when criticism of MacPherson’s fraud finally gained universal acceptance, the Romantic Movement began to die away and the earlier Celtomania was superseded by other national movements and especially English Celt Scepticism. Today, “Ossian” is an oddity of European intellectual history, in short: by and large forgotten and only the name Oscar remains popular ever since.

And more about MacPherson and Ossian on:

Saturday, 13 February 2016

"On to War" and Revolution - the Peredvizhnik Painter Konstantin Savitsky

13 February 1905, Konstantin Apollonovich Savitsky, painter and member of the Peredvizhniki group of artists, died at the age of 61 in Penza.

“Watching a woman make Russian pancakes, you might think that she was calling on the spirits or extracting from the batter the philosopher’s stone.“ (Anton Chekhov)

Dramatic scenes on a provincial railway station: Konstantin Savitsky: "On to War" (1888)

Other 19th century –isms had caught up with Courbet’s idea of Realism long since during the 1870s. Neither was painting landscapes and its inhabitants en plein air on a larger scale along the lines and tones set by the School of Barbizon quite avant-garde any more and photography began its triumphal march anyway. Highly precise illusionistic brushwork representing things as they actually were receded more and more to the background in favour of the artist’s perception and ability of abstraction. However, choosing sujets beyond the classical canon of the nude goddesses of antiquity and smartly uniformed heroes of Academic Art was still somewhat bohemian or downright revolutionary in the view of the Imperial academies who l had the greatest say in what was high art in their respective countries. Russian art did not constitute an exception in this regard, save that even landscape painting in the wake of pan-European Realism was a revolutionary idea. Especially when the picturesque and actually quite Romantic landscapes were populated with the toiling, sweating and downtrodden populace of Imperial Russia’s backwaters. Serfdom as such was abolished in 1861 by order of Tsar Alexander II, finally, but in a manner that usually left the peasantry without the few hereditary rights they had acquired over the past centuries and in almost complete debt bondage to their former landlords. Seeing and depicting things as they were, with an almost photorealistic brush, the scenes and the people in their silent, rustic dignity, beyond the glamour of St Petersburg and Moscow or the fashionable resorts of the Black Sea Riviera became the objective of the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, who broke away from the Imperial Academy and used their considerable talent along with the excellent education they had received and wandered immeasurable Mother Russia and painted what they saw with a Slavophil eye and moved them – often to tears and almost always to create masterpieces of Russian Realist art. Ilya Repin certainly was the figurehead of the group and arguably their greatest and most versatile master. Others, like Savrasov, Shishkin and the boy wonder Vasilyev specialised in landscapes, Surikov and Ryabushkin in historical and mythological echoes and overtones and there were those who made the people and their daily drama the heroes of their masterpieces, like Konstantin Savitsky and his pre-Soviet “Ecce Homo” sujets.

Shishkin painted the landscape and Savitsky the All-Russian bear cubs: "Morning in the Pine Forest" (1886)

the drama of the predictable foreplay of the Great October Revolution known as the Blood Sunday of 1905 was played out in the streets of St Petersburg, Savitsky, by then a sick, ageing man, already had left the empire’s capital since a couple of years to teach art in provincial Penza, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow. He always had been a prize student himself, in his native Taganrog on the shores of the Sea of Azov, in Lithuania, were he spent the last years of his youth with his uncle’s family after both his parents died and after joining the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg when he was 18, back in 1862. There he met with the other, future Wanderers who already took their first steps as Realist artists. Lifelong friendships were formed, Savitsky accompanied Repin and his family to France to study and paint and collaborated with Shishkin on genre paintings. And, of course, they wandered Russia, far and wide, created masterpieces and organised exhibitions of their work in rural centres to hold the mirror up to both former landlord and serf alike. The 1870s and ‘80s were Savitsky’s most productive years and his best works emerged from that time, from "Repairing the Railway" to the “Icon on the Road” and “To the War”, all brightly coloured, naturalistic and highly detailed to a degree of pedantry, Slavophil and certainly among the best genre paintings of the 19th century, despite or maybe because of their understated but supratemporal political undertones and transboundary humanistic view. Ecce homo indeed. Ironically enough, Savitsky was elected a member of the Imperial Academy in 1897, years after he had settled down and taught drawing and painting in various schools in St Petersburg and Moscow, even if Batyushka Tsar Nicholas II’s ultraconservative rule continued to kindle the fire that burned since his father had ascended the throne and whose roots were depicted by Savitsly and the other Peredvizhniki. Until the Revolution came in 1917. 

Konstantin Savitsky: "Repairing the Railroad" (1874)

And more about Konstantin Apollonovich Savitsky on:

Sunday, 7 February 2016

"... as is usual in the few cases of drawn battles that have occurred, claimed the merit of having forced the other to the measure." - The Action of 7 February 1813

The bloody but indecisive Action of 7 February 1813 was fought on this day on the shores of Guinea between two almost evenly matched frigates, the French “Aréthuse” and HMS “Amelia”.

“This fight leaves well behind that of Belle Poule in 1778, that of Nymphe in 1780 and all the others, that have had more or less fame. I request from Your Majesty permission to commission on government funds a painting of this battle.” (Denis Decrès, Napoleon’s Minister of the Navy)

Louis-Philippe Crépin (1772–1851): "The battle between Aréthuse and Amelia on the shores of Guinea, 7 February 1813" (before 1820)

raiding, the guerre de course, “war of chase” or Kreuzerkrieg, “war of cruisers”, wasn’t exactly a brand new idea when, during the second half of the 19th century, the French Jeune École came forth with their concept of new naval strategies to counter large battle fleets, usually that of the Royal Navy. Sending out independently operating warships to disrupt the enemy’s worldwide maritime trade and forcing him to dissipate his own superior forces while posing a serious threat to economy had been done since the Europeans began to establish their trade empires across the globe during the 16th century. Privately owned and fitted out vessels sailing under a Letter of Marque against the merchantmen of their nation’s enemies were the backbone of the guerre de course well into the days of the US Civil War - and turned pirate often enough – but the regular navies caught up slowly but steady and commissioned their own cruisers. To fight privateers as well as doing their own fair share of commerce raiding. Usually, these cruisers were known as frigates, a word first used in Boccaccio’s “Decamerone” around 1350, describing various types of sailing ships over the next 300 years until the Dutch built the first true oceangoing, relatively small, rakish sailers, ship-rigged and three-masted, with their main armament deployed in a single gun deck broadside-wise, following the shipbuilder’s axiom of being faster and more manoeuvrable than anything bigger and more heavily armed and more powerful than any vessels that could outsail them. By the 1740s the French had developed the design into something of an art form and for the next century, fast, well-armed and crewed sailing frigates became an integral part of European and American naval tactics beyond the lines of battleships and the concluding broadsides that sometimes decided the fate of nations or even continents. With his remaining heavy-weights blockaded, bottled up and rotting at anchor in the various naval bases from Brest to Toulon after Trafalgar, Denis Decrès, Napoleon’s Minister of the Navy, had practically no other choice than resort to the old tradition of the guerre de course and anticipating the Jeune École by 50 years. He had to overcome another challenge, though, since France has lost all her potential supply bases in the West Indies as well as the Indian Ocean. Consequently, in December 1812, a brace of “Pallas”-class frigates, “Rubis” and “Aréthuse”, slipped the British blockade and sailed for West Africa, close enough to home and the trade routes from the Good Hope and South America and still far away from the operational area of the major squadrons of the overly powerful Royal Navy.

John Christian Schetky (1778 - 1874): "HMS 'Amelia' chasing the French frigate 'Arethuse' 1813" (1852) - somewhat twisting the facts, since it was actually the other way around

The skills of the skeleton crews manning Napoleon’s battleship might have grown somewhat rusty after at least seven years of blockade, but the matelots aboard his frigates often played in the same league as their British and American counterparts and so did their commanders. The “Pallas” frigates were well designed and well armed, “Rubis” and “Aréthuse” relatively new and in good repair and the chief of the small squadron, Pierre Bouvet, had stood his ground against superior British forces during the Mauritius campaign of 1810 and almost won against the odds. Now, in January 1813, his two raiders captured at least four prizes south of Cape Verde and brought a warship to bay, the 12-gun brig HMS “Daring”. Her commander, Lieutenant Pascoe, beached and burned her on one of the Iles des Los in the Gulf of Guinea on 27 January to avoid capture. Pascoe and his men rowed their long boats across the bay to Freetown at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River where HMS “Amelia” under Captain Frederick Paul Irby lay, originally a French 40-gun Hébé-class frigate captured in 1796. Pascoe volunteered to sail back to the Iles des Los in a schooner to reconnoitre and establish the proper identity of the French raiders and their prizes and found them happily reprovisioning and throwing of ballast, such as repatriating a captured Portuguese merchantmen, sending British POWs to Freetown on parole and preparing for the next leg of their course. The rest of Irby’s West Africa squadron was somewhere out at sea and without some form of a cunning plan some of his contemporaries like Cochrane or Pellew might have come up with, “Amelia” actually stood no chance in an encounter with the two French frigates. Never the less, Irby followed what he thought was the call of duty, added Pascoe and his men from “Daring” to “Amelia’s” crew and set forth on the 3rd to offer battle to the French. But sometimes, as Virgil once put it, “audentis fortuna iuvat”, luck does indeed favour the bold and unimaginative. Bouvet’s “Aréthuse” struck the bottom in the more or less uncharted waters off the Iles des Los and damaged her rudder just when the French squadron was about to leave. They dropped anchor again to repair the damage and that very night, a severe storm hit the two cruisers, “Rubis” broke from her anchorage, was driven to the shore and wrecked beyond repair. The odds were evened for HMS “Amelia”.

John Christian Schetky: "HMS Amelia in action with the French Frigate Aréthuse, 1813" (1852) - the painting was originally in the possession of Cpt Irby's family .  

Like two knights opening their visors before the joust, Bouvet fired a gun and let the Tricolour fly when “Amelia” hove in sight and Irby followed suit, broke out “Amelia’s” colours and acknowledged “Aréthuse” as opponent with a gunshot of his own. Irby didn’t take what he believed was still an intact French squadron head on, though, but tried to lure “Aréthuse” away from her sister that actually lay dead on the beach already. Bouvet gave chase, the two frigates manoeuvred all day through the Gulf of Guinea and away from the Iles des Los and the wreck of “Rubis” until Irby decided that was quite enough, hove to and charged “Aréthuse”. Nelson himself had once written that “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy” and fight. Bouvet and Irby obviously were of the same opinion, their ships rapidly closed to point-blank range without wasting any more shot and fought it out. For one and a half hour, the two entangled frigates battered at each other: “The Amelia ... in attempting a second time to cross her antagonist, a second time fell on board of her; and the two ships now swang close alongside, the muzzles of their guns almost touching … and a scene of great mutual slaughter ensued. The two crews snatched the spunges out of each other's hands through the portholes, and cut at one another with the broadsword. The Amelia's men now attempted to lash the two frigates together, but were unable, on account of the heavy fire of musketry kept up from the Aréthuse decks and tops; a fire that soon nearly cleared the Amelia's quarterdeck of both officers and men ... Here was a long and bloody action between two (taking guns and men together) nearly equal opponents, which gave a victory to neither. Each combatant withdrew exhausted from the fight”, as the contemporary British naval historian William James summed up the engagement in 1822. Both crews suffered one third of their company dead or wounded, Irby himself and two of his lieutenants among the latter, his third lieutenant was killed and so was Pascoe. After sundown then, the two battered, unmanoeuvrable frigates drifted away from each other and into a dense fog but still fired until they were finally out of range, neither side was willing to call it a draw and accused each other of running away and being yellow bastards about it. They weren’t able to return and try to bite each other’s legs off either, but the French guerre de course off West Africa was over. Or almost. Before “Aréthuse” returned to St Malo in April, Bouvet captured a few more prizes along with the British privateer “Cerberus”. HMS “Amelia” arrived at Portsmouth in March. The old warhorse was paid off in May and broken up when the war was over. Wounded Irby saw no further active service either, but one conciliatory footnote of the Action of 7 February 1813 remained beyond the bloodshed. On 6 June 1813, the Exbury parish register recorded the baptism of “Irby Amelia Frederick, aged 9 or 10, a native of Poppoe near Whidah, Africa, who was stolen as a slave, but rescued at sea by HMS Amelia”.

And more about the Action of 7 February 1813 on:

Thursday, 4 February 2016

"In neighboring Neanderthal, a surprising discovery has been made in recent days." - The Discovery of the Neanderthal

4 February 1857, Hermann Schaaffhausen presented his ideas about the origins of fossil bones found a year before in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in a meeting of the Niederrheinische Gesellschaft für Natur- und Heilkunde (Lower Rhine Society for Natural History and Medical Studies) in Bonn. It was the first public scientific recognition of the human species later known as Neanderthal.
“…Man's ancient arms Were hands, and nails and teeth, stones too and boughs-- Breakage of forest trees--and flame and fire, As soon as known.” (Lucretius “Of the Nature of Things”)

The Czech painter and illustrator and arguably most influential modern paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian's (1905 - 1981) imagination of a clan of Neanderthals (c 1977)*

Fossils from the dawn of mankind found in the grounds of the mother country did involve a not insignificant amount of national pride during the 19th century. Especially since England was not able to produce an osseous testimony of the first Englishman while even the French had unearthed their earliest ancestor, about 60,000 years old, somewhere in Aquitaine in 1908, and the place famously wasn’t English anymore since the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Four years later though, the jack-of-all-trades Charles Dawson found the remains of the far older Piltdown Man in Sussex along with a tool made from elephant bone that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat. A hoax, but one readily believed until the 1950s. The same year Dawson hid his fake fossils in the Sussex soil, back in 1912, the Red Lady of Paviland, formerly believed by her creationist discoverer to be a Romano-British burial, was backdated to 33,000 BC and found out to be a male but still a member of the Homo sapiens species. It would take until 1935 that real fossils of early humans, Homo heidelbergensis, about 400,000 years old, were discovered in Britain but by then, perception of our forebears under the national perspective had refocussed towards primitivism in contrast to the imagined superiority of our direct ancestors, preferably those of Caucasian stock. A fate the poor, underestimated Neanderthals shared almost since their rediscovery in August 1856, three years before Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, Colliers had found the eponymic remains in a pit in the Neander valley (Neanderthal) a couple of miles east of Düsseldorf. The mine owner thought they were the bones of a cave bear and gave them to the Wuppertal school teacher and naturalist Johann Fuhlrott for further appraisal. Fuhlrott immediately recognised them as the remains of a human being and speculations about the identity of their original owner began to spread like wildfire, from having belonged to a member of a “tribe of the Flat Heads, which still live in the American West and of which several skulls have been found in recent years on the upper Danube in Sigmaringen”, as a local newspaper wrote to “one of Attila's roaming horde's men" to a Cossack who might have died in the Bergisches Land during the Napoleonic Wars. Fuhlrott had his own ideas, though, and believed the finds to be far older. There were the strong mineralisation and dendrite formations on the surface, quite like those found on the bones of cave bears and the skull fragments reminded him somehow of a great ape. He reached out to the anthropologist Hermann Schaaffhausen who had published an article “On the Constancy and Transformation of Species” already in 1853. During his presentation at the meeting of the Niederrheinische Gesellschaft für Natur- und Heilkunde in Bonn consequently claimed that the fossils found in the Neander Valley belonged to a species of proto-humans that had inhabited Europe before and during the Ice Age. An assumption that was, by and large, correct.

From left to right: Johann Carl Fuhlrott (1803 - 1877), Hermann Schaaffhausen (1816 - 1893), a reconstruction of a Neanderthal from the local museum, Rudolf Virchow (1821 - 1902) and Ernst Haeckel (1834 - 1919)

flawed reconstruction of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints’ spine led scientists to believe for decades that Neanderthals had a natural posture of something along the lines of Richard III. The somewhat ungainly bulges above their eye sockets, the protruding face and their skeleton’s coarse seeming structures did the rest to outclass Homo neanderthalensis as inferior to Homo sapiens. Up to a point that some refused to believe any closer relationship with us until well into the 20th century. The “pope of medicine” and “father of modern pathology” Rudolf Virchow, admittedly an ardent anti-evolutionist who called Darwin an “ignoramus”, refused to admit that the fossils found at the Neander valley were anything but the remains of a deformed modern human, buried there in historical times. And even his former student Ernst Haeckel, Germany’s foremost advocate of Darwinism, who firmly believed that Neanderthals were something lower on the tree of evolution than Homo sapiens, did not hesitate to come forward with the scientific name of Homo stultus, stupid man, for the poor things. In fact, Neanderthals had populated Europe and the Near East below the ice limit of the Pleistocene for several hundred thousands of years, obviously came up as the first sentient beings with a coherent language beyond phonetics, metaphysics as well as tool-working well before the advent of Homo sapiens, braving the hardships of the Ice Age with their bodies developing their large, stout frames and bigger brains in conformance with Bergmann’s rule. Their dwellings were not exclusively caves but adapted to their specific surroundings. We can assume that they even used floats or boats to reach isolated off-shore islands as secure places to live in. For a few thousand years, Neanderthals and modern humans shared the same lebensraum and probably learned from each other and shared, willingly or unwillingly, knowledge and more. Up to 4% of the genetic material of modern Eurasians comes from Neanderthals, they might even be responsible for the white skins of European Caucasians.

Footprint of a Neanderthal from the Natural History Museum in Prague**

Despite all their survival capabilities and their cultural achievements, Neanderthals famously disappeared from the face of the Earth around 30,000 years ago, leaving the field to Homo sapiens. It was certainly not a war of extermination they had lost against modern humans, but a suppression process that lasted for at least 5,000 years until the last Neanderthals died in Gibraltar, of all the places. It’s not that armed conflicts between the two groups of humans can be ruled out. Judging from Homo sapiens’ later behaviour, they might even have been a daily fare, over resources, places and because the other subspecies looked funny. Homo sapiens had a few soft advantages over the Neanderthals despite the latter’s average greater strength and resilience. There was their reliance on heavy thrusting spears, used for bringing down big Ice Age game at close quarters, against the javelins and spear-throwers of modern humans, of course. However, the trait of forming large groups, man-herds condemned by Nietzsche as the beginning of all evil, might have been the decisive advantage Homo sapiens had over Homo neanderthalensis in the earlies of the Pleistocene. That and the ability to share technological discoveries, knowledge and ideas in a comparatively short time across the continent against the isolationism of Neanderthals who obviously tended to stay in clannishly small groups who kept largely to themselves. And, who knows, maybe the Neanderthals were just absorbed into the vastly expanding bands of modern humans, peacefully and quite without any cataclysmic events.

* Image was found on:

More about Zdeněk Burian on:

and, with a small monographic show, on:

** Image was found

And more about Neanderthals on: