September 28, 2010

Waterboarding in the Seventeenth Century Spice Islands

"[He] poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth was full, up to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but he must suck in all the water."
A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruel and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna (London, 1624). 
I've been reading Miles Ogborn's Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (University of Chicago Press, 2007) (which I recommend very highly, by the way) and, turning to page 125, was surprised to find an apparent depiction of waterboarding in the frontispiece to an English pamphlet from 1624! As you can see in the below image (from a 1671 reprint of the 1624 original) an English merchant is being restrained while a Dutchman pours a jug of water over his cloth-wrapped face.

This page (seemingly an extract or adaptation from Anthony Farrington's Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia) has a good capsule description of the conflicts between Dutch and English merchants in the so-called Spice Islands that gave rise to these acts of torture, which appalled domestic audiences in Britain and the Low Countries alike:
In February 1623 Gabriel Towerson, English chief on the clove island of Amboina, and nine other Company servants (together with nine Japanese samurai mercenaries, some of them from Hirado, and a Portuguese) were executed by the Dutch Governor Herman van Speult on a charge of conspiracy to seize the fort there. The proceedings were marked by horrific tortures to extract confessions and it is likely that the `plot' was a convenient fabrication designed to drive the English permanently out of the spice islands. The news caused uproar in Europe. Pamphlets replete with gory frontispieces and titles beginning A true relation of the unjust, cruell and barbarous proceedings against the English appeared in London, to be refuted in turn by publications from Amsterdam, but the affair was never settled and joined that of Run to bedevil Anglo-Dutch relations for two generations. Soon after the English Company withdrew from Japan and mainland Southeast Asia.
The edition of A True Relation scanned into Early English Books Online contains an interesting marginal annotation, which I've cropped below:

The poor scan quality and general illegibility of seventeenth century handwriting makes parts of this difficult to transcribe, but my guess it reads something like this:

"This Relation is made publick from an MS never before printed & written by Mr Beaumont one of ye Persons who escaped yt to Macassar[?] and with several others made affidavit of this Barbaritey in ye High Court of Admiralty."

September 22, 2010

Early Chinese World Maps

 I recently came across this fascinating world map while researching the history of the Jesuit missions in seventeenth century China. Apparently developed by the Italian Jesuit Giulio Aleni while he was working as a missionary in 1620s China, the map strikes me as being remarkably advanced for its time.

 Witness, for instance, the fact that California is shown to be linked to the mainland of North America - portraying California as an island was a famous error of mapmakers of the seventeenth century and continued to be repeated by eminent cartographers up until the early years of the eighteenth century (for a few examples of these maps see here).  Also interesting is the fairly accurate outline of the northern coastline of Australia embedded in an imagined southern landmass (the Terra Australis Incognita or 'Unknown Southern Land' of cartographic lore).

Perhaps the most telling difference between this map and its European counterparts is the Sino-centric nature of its orientation: here the Celestial Empire stands at the very center of the world map. If any of my readers happens to have any knowledge of Chinese characters, I'd be very curious to learn what the labels and captions say. Could the cross-shaped character visible in parts of Africa and Europe be a sign of Christianity? [Edit, September 30.] An anonymous commentator has kindly informed me that this in fact "a regular chinese character pronounced "ya". It was used as a phonetic here in the name of countries. For example, on northern Africa, you can notice from top to bottom, the three characters "利未亞". In modern chinese, this is pronounced Li Wei Ya, but at the time, the pronounciation was different and more like Li bi ya (Libya)." Thanks anonymous, whoever you are!

Luckily there is a slightly earlier Chinese world map, known as the Shanhai Yudi Quantu, that a Wikipedia user has generously gone to the trouble of translating.
Below is the original:

And here is the same map with translated captions:

I love the caption floating over Iberia: "More than Thirty Countries." And I'm curious about the "Land of Dogs" caption, apparently somewhere near the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the nearby "Coral Tree Islands." I wish more maps of this kind were translated, since they offer such a fascinating glimpse into different cultural modes of understanding space and geography. Its worthwhile to remember from time to time that maps are often as much depictions of a culture and its preoccupations as they are depictions of physical space!

[Edit, September 28]. I just came across an earlier Chinese world map, the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu or "Map of the Myriad Countries of the World,"  created by the famed Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in collaboration with Zhong Wentao and Li Zhizao in 1602. The Wikipedia page on it is quite good, and includes a remarkably detailed scan of this fascinating map. The full image seems to be too large to post here, but I've cropped a couple interesting details:

According to Wikipedia: The brief description of North America mentions "humped oxen" or bison (駝峰牛 tuófēngníu), feral horses (野馬, yěmǎ), and a region named Jiānádá (加拿大, Canada). The map identifies Florida as Huādì (花地), the "Land of Flowers."
If you're interested in this stuff, I've made a couple earlier posts on Asian perceptions of Europeans (see here and here) and can recommend a few books that deal with similar themes: Jerry H. Bentley's Old World Encounters (1993) is a pioneering work that got me thinking about this subject in the first place. Stuart Schwartz's edited volume Implicit Understandings (1994) is also excellent. For those interested in the themes of cross-cultural exchange and travel in Asia before Europe arrived on the scene, I recommend Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony (1991) and K.N. Chaudhuri's Asia Before Europe (1991).

September 15, 2010

A Pirate Surgeon in Panama

  It was in the evening when we came to an anchor, and the next morning we fired two guns for the Indians that lived on the Main to come aboard; for by this time we concluded we should hear from our five men that we left in the heart of the country among the Indians, this being about the latter end of August, and it was the beginning of May when we parted from them. According to our expectations the Indians came aboard and brought our friends with them: Mr. Wafer wore a clout about him, and was painted like an Indian; and he was some time aboard before I knew him.
- William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, (London: 1697)

I spent some time doing research in London this summer, and one of the things I was struck by was the large number of manuscripts written by late seventeenth century buccaneers. One is accustomed to thinking of buccaneers and pirates as illiterate sorts, and to a large degree they were -- but ships captains, surgeons and pilots were often exceptions to this rule, and they produced  some of the most fascinating travel narratives I've ever come across. I posted about one of them several months ago - today I want to share a few images and quotes from another that I'm currently working on: Lionel Wafer's A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of Darien (1699, London).
Wafer (1640-1705) sketches out a brief autobiography in the early pages of this book, in which we learn that he served as a surgeon's apprentice on board a number of British trading vessels as a youth, ultimately braving the hazardous voyage to the Indian Ocean on an East India Company merchant ship.  He next (1677) sought his fortunes on the island of Jamaica, at that time a relatively recent possession of the British crown which was beginning to gain a reputation as a place where working class Britons could make their fortune - largely via the savage exploitation of enslaved African sugar plantation laborers. Wafer seems to have worked as a surgeon for a time on the island, but he appears to have yearned for a more glamorous line of work (if that is the correct word), as he enlisted with a pirate expedition in 1679.
A map of the Darien peninsula (modern day Panama) compiled in part from Lionel Wafer's data, and printed to publicize the Darien Scheme (1699).
Wafer's travel narrative increases in pace at this point, since it was a year later, in 1680, that he enlisted with the famed pirate Bartholomew Sharp on a voyage to the South Seas (i.e. the rich Pacific ports of Spanish America) and became close friends with the fascinating buccaneer/naturalist William Dampier. It was in the isthmus of Darien, the land now known as Panama, that Wafer's troubles began. As Dampier related in the manuscript version of the book quoted at the heading of this post, one day in the jungle
our chirurgeon came to a sad disaster[.] [While] drying his powder a carelesse man passed by with his pipe lighted and sett fire to his powder which scalded his knee and reduced him to that condition that he was not able to march[,] wherefore wee allowed him a slave to carry his things being all of us much dissatisfied at the accident.
After a few days painful march, it was decided that Wafer should stay behind with the local Indians and wait for a rescue ship. One did not arrive for over two years, and in the meantime Wafer became fluent in the local indigenous dialect and made some acute observations about central American Indian medical, religious and political practices. In one episode, for instance, he witnessed a medicinal 'bleeding' of the chief's wife, as illustrated below:
In Wafer's manuscript account of the incident, which I had the opportunity to consult at the British Library in London, he portrays himself as a heroic 'civilized' physician who was able to convince the Indian medical practitioners that the European style of bleeding was far superior:
It soe happened that the day after our arrival at the Kings Pallace one of his Queens being indisposed was to be lett blood which their Drs. thus performe[:] The Patient is seated on a Stone in the River and the Doctors with a small bow shoot their arrowes into the naked body of the Patient from head to foote shooting their arrowes as fast as they can not missing any part[.] [B]ut the arrows are gaged soe that they penetrate noe further then wee generally thrust our Lancetts and if they hitt a veine which is fulle of winde and blood spurt out a little they will leape and skip about shewing many antick gestures in triumph of soe great a piece of Arte. I was by and perceiving their Ignorance told the King that if he pleased I would shew him a better way without putting the Patient to Soe much torments[.] ["]Lett me See[,"] Saith he and at his Comand I bound up her Arme with a piece of Barke and with my Lancett breached a veine...
Its rare to find such a detailed account of early modern Indian practices, and despite Wafer's apparent Eurocentrism on this occasion, he is actually a rather fascinating example of a European who appears to have freely adopted the trappings of indigenous American culture. Although he skirts around the fact in his own writings, Dampier's account makes clear that when Wafer was finally 'rescued,' he was found "painted like an Indian" (complete with large nose ring) and, as Dampier puts it, "he was some time aboard before I knew him." This lack of recognition is a striking and revealing detail, since Dampier and Wafer seem to have been extremely close friends.

Here are two other details of the remarkable images from Wafer's book. I encourage you to click to see an enlarged version, as they are highly detailed images (which I present courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library's wonderful Archive of Early American Images):

I know of no decent books on Lionel Wafer, but Anna Neil has written a great essay on William Dampier (which coins the excellent term "Buccaneer Ethnography") that touches on Wafer's story as well. A free online edition of Wafer's New Voyage is available as well. For those searching for a more in-depth scholarly treatment of British buccaneers in central America, I highly recommend Ignacio Gallup-Diaz's The Door of the Seas and the Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in Darien, 1640-1750.

September 9, 2010

Color Photographs of Vanished Russia

I mentioned the brilliant Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (or Gorskii, as his last name is sometimes spelled) the other week, with a promise to write more about his work at a later date.  In a sentence, Prokudin-Gorsky was a photographer commissioned by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II to document the vast dominions of the Russian Empire using the novel technique of color photography - an innovation so new that Prokudin-Gorsky had to invent his own technical process for capturing color images, which involved taking photographs simultaneously through blue, green and red filters and then combining the resulting tinted images by projecting them on to one another. Between 1909 and 1915, the aristocratic but intrepid Prokudin-Gorsky traveled across Russia and central Asia with a special permit from the Czar and a custom-made railroad car that he had rigged into a mobile dark room. The results of his trip are astonishing, but were lost to public view following the Russian Revolution. Since their purchase by the United States Library of Congress, however, they have begun to find a wide audience.
An example of Prokudin-Gorsky's three color technique: red, green and blue color
channels are combined to form a vivid full color image.
I have to admit that most of what I know about Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) comes from his Wikipedia page, since pre-Revolutionary Russia stands well outside my area of expertise. But his images are of immense value and interest to anyone who wants to gain insights into everyday life in the centuries before the modern era, because they offer such a vivid and intimate glimpse into a world (or, perhaps more accurately, several worlds) that existed before the Industrial Revolution had fully transformed the fabric of society. I especially like Prokudin-Gorsky's images of Central Asian nomads, since their way of life was so irreparably transformed by the enforced modernization programs of the Soviet Union - in many cases, these images might be the only photographic documentation of whole regions, cities or neighborhoods -- indeed, of entire cultures and peoples. Below are a sample of some of my favorites; more can be found on Prokudin-Gorsky's Wikimedia Commons page, in this database hosted on a Carnegie Melon University server, and in an online exhibit by the Library of Congress. For more on his photographic technique and some efforts to restore his photos, see this informative site.

A Dagestani couple in the Caucasus mountains.
The entrance to the Passage of the Dead, Samarkand.
Kebab house, Samarkand.
Fabric merchant, Samarkand.
Prisoners in shackles.

Peasant girls in the Ural mountains.
As you might have noticed already, Prokudin-Gorsky's tri-color technique leaves some visual artifacts in the images - since it was impossible to align the colors perfectly, certain patches of yellow, red, green or blue bleed over from time to time. Some see these as mistakes in need of restoration, but they are actually a big part of why I love these images so much - I really like the combination of vivid, crisp realism and randomly-produced abstraction. Below are a few of my favorite 'damaged' images so you can see what I mean:

September 1, 2010

The True Colors of Classical Sculpture

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868, (72 x 110.5 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK.
 Continuing the theme of the previous entry a bit, here are some fascinating images created by the German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann and his research team. (For more on Brinkmann and his techniques see this 2008 article in the Smithsonian Magazine and a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.) Brinkmann, the former director of the Gylptothek Museum in Munich, carefully analyzes the surface residue of pigments on classical sculptures and then uses this evidence to extrapolate how these works may have originally appeared. The results are, to say the least, surprising:

The Alexander Sarcophagus, 320 BC, as it appears today.
Brinkmann's reconstruction of how it originally appeared.
Trojan archer (490-480 B.C.), from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island Aegina.
Brinkmann's reconstruction.
Another example from the Temple of Aphaia.
Now, as the painting that leads off this entry shows, people had known since at least the nineteenth century that pieces such as the Parthenon frieze once bore heavy pigmentation. But these images are the most complete reconstruction of this painting I've seen so far, and their garishness is almost shocking to a modern eye. As Brinkmann argues in the WSJ article linked above, twentieth century modernism has taught us to glorify the purity, simplicity and blankness of unadorned surfaces -- to which I would add that (in this respect, at least) modernism was taking a cue from the stark Neoclassicism of the Napoleonic era. What's more, Brinkmann notes, the substance of marble itself has an innate appeal:
"In modern times," he explains, "marble has been prized for its surface effect. Sculptors in antiquity knew it as the material that would allow them to do exactly what they wanted. They thought about it as filmmakers today think about their cameras. You got what you paid for. You ordered a block of Parian marble -- the best there is -- and you paid a fortune. But once it was delivered, you could relax. Because in those 12 cubic meters there would never be a fault or a flaw. If the sculptor wanted to make a fold a meter long, he could do it. In limestone, he'd run into a shell or a bump or a hole. The crystal structure of marble is absolutely pure and even. It's the most homogeneous natural material in the world. It's a gift from God. It's perfection."
How strange, one might interject, that ancient sculptors thought it fitting to smother this crystalline perfection in flashy orange, yellow and periwinkle hues! But this is a fabulous example of how easy it is to interpose contemporary intentions, values and aesthetics onto the past. Raised in a society that equates the simple, unadorned beauty of pure white marble with both high art and the edifices that represent both the state and the sacred, we find it hard to grapple with the garish Technicolor of classical sculpture. To me, though, the playful aesthetic sensibility that the work of Brinkmann has revealed actually jibes far better with what we know of ancient Greek culture than the dreary and bland white marble edifices that we find reproduced throughout the cultural centers of the Western world.