The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 24 August 2008

27. Quick-sighted, sagacious, and bold

Alfred Newton, F.R.S., Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University of Cambridge, had a fascination for ravens, sorry, the Raven. The introduction to his article in volume 20 of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is a splendid flight of impassioned prose:

RAVEN (Anglo-Saxon Hraefn, Icelandic Hrafn, Danish Ravn, Dutch Raaf, German Rabe), the largest of the Birds of the Order Passeres ; and, as already shown (ORNITHOLOGY, vol. xvii. p. 49), probably the most highly developed of all Birds.

Quick-sighted, sagacious, and bold, it must have followed the prehistoric fisher and hunter, and generally without molestation from them, to prey on the refuse of their spoils, just as it now waits, with the same intent, on the movements of their successors ; while it must have likewise attended the earliest herdsmen, who could not have regarded it with equal indifference, since its now notorious character for attacking and putting to death a weakly animal was doubtless in those days manifested. Yet the Raven is no mere dependant upon man, being always able to get a living for itself ; and moreover a sentiment of veneration or superstition has from very remote ages and among many races of men attached to it - a sentiment so strong as often to overcome the feeling of distrust not to say of hatred which its deeds inspired, and, though rapidly decreasing, even to survive in some places until the present day. There is no need to dwell on the association of this bird with well-known characters of history sacred or profane - Noah or Elijah, Odin or Flokki, the last of whom by its means discovered Iceland. The Raven is even said to have played its part in the mythology of the Red Indian ; and none can wonder that all this should be so, since, wherever it occurs and more especially wherever it is numerous, as in ancient times and in thinly peopled countries it must have been, its size, appearance, and fearless habits would be sure to attract especial attention. Nor has this attention wholly ceased with the advance of enlightenment, for both in prose and verse, from the time of Shakespeare to that of Poe and Dickens, the Raven has often figured, and generaly without the amount of misrepresentation which is the fate of most animals which celebrated writers condescend to notice. Notwithstanding all this, however, the Raven has now fallen upon evil days. The superstitious reverence with which it was once regarded has all but vanished and has been very generally succeeded by persecution, which in many districts has produced actual extirpation, so that it is threatened with extinction, save in the wildest and most unpeopled districts.

The editors of the 11th edition of Britannica cut this down considerably, to :

RAVEN (O.E.' hrcefn, Icel. hrafn, Dan. ravn, Du. Raaf, Ger. Rabe), the largest of the birds of the order Passeres, and a member of the family Corvidae, probably the most highly developed of all birds. Quick-sighted, sagacious and bold, the raven preys on the spoils of fishers and hunters, as also on weakly animals among flocks and herds. A sentiment of veneration or superstition has from remote ages and among many races attached to it. The raven is associated with various characters of history, sacred or profane - Noah and Elijah, Odin and Flokki, the last of whom by its means discovered Iceland. It is said to have played its part in the mythology of the Red Indian; and it has often figured in prose and verse, from the time of Shakespeare to that of Poe and Dickens. Superstition has been generally succeeded by persecution, which in many districts has produced extirpation.

(Source: Love to Know website)

The work of later editors in taking some of the essence of the original pieces from the ninth edition has to be admired for its efficiency and practicality, but the over-riding necessity for concision loses much of the depth of meaning and poetry of the earlier compositions. Perhaps a dark glimmering of the professor's insights are preserved in this excerpt from the current edition of Britannica:

Long before it was immortalized in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem "The Raven," the common raven was a near-universal symbol of dark prophecy—of death, pestilence, and disease—though its cleverness and fearless habits also won it a degree of admiration, as evidenced in its noble heraldic roles in the mythology of some peoples.


To close, Professor Newton's footnote, entirely omitted from later editions, pleading against the persecution of the bird, and bringing in his own experience with a degree of modest forthrightness that ought to have served as a lesson for our old friend Professor Pettigrew, and which leaves us with the delightful image of the dear old bird-fancier excitedly rummaging through Raven vomit on some lost and lonely moor :

That all lovers of nature should take what steps they can to arrest this sad fate is a belief which the present writer fully holds. Without attempting to deny the loss which in some cases is inflicted upon the rearers of cattle by Ravens, it is an enormous mistake to suppose that the neighbourhood of a pair of these birds is inevitably detrimental. On this point he can speak from experience. For many years he had an intimate knowledge of a pair occupying an inland locality surrounded by valuable flocks of sheep, and abounding in rabbits and game, and had ample opportunities, which he never neglected, of repeatedly examining the pellets of bones and exuviae that these, like all other carnivorous birds, cast up. He thus found that this pair of Ravens fed almost exclusively on moles. Soon after he moved from the neighbourhood in which they lived the unreasoning zeal of a gamekeeper (against, it is believed, the orders of his master) put an end to this interesting couple - the last of their species which inhabited the county.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Opposed by all thinking Chinese

Britain's relations with China in the 19th century were based on rather morally dubious circumstances. The basic facts are laid out reasonably succinctly in the OPIUM article by E. M. Holmes.

Opium first came to China from Asia Minor in the 13th century, presumably under the growth of trans-continental trade fostered by the Mongols. Until the middle of the 18th century it was, however
imported in comparatively small quantity by the Chinese solely as a remedy for dysentry, diarrhoea, and fevers, and was usually brought from India by junks as a return cargo. In the year 1757 the monopoly of opium cultivation passed into the hands of the East India Company through the victory of Clive at Plassey. Up to 1773 the trade with China had been in the hands of the Portuguese, but the quantity annually exported to that country rarely exceeded 200 chests. In that year the East India Company took the trade under their charge, and in 1776 the annual export reached 1000 chests, and 4054 chests in 1790. Although the importation was forbidden by the Chinese emperor Keaking in 1796, and opium-smoking punished with severe penalties, which were ultimately increased to transportation and death, the trade continued and had increased during 1820-30 to 16,877 chests per annum. In 1839 a proclamation was issued threatening hostile measures if the English opium ships serving as depots were not sent away. The demand for removal not being complied with, 20,291 chests of opium (of 149 1/3 lb each), valued at £2,000,000, were destroyed by the Chinese commissioner Lin ; but still the British sought to smuggle cargoes on shore, and some outrages committed on both sides led to an open war, which was ended by the treaty of Nanking in 1842 (See CHINA, vol. v. p. 651). From that time to the present, in spite of he remonstrances of the Chinese Government, the exportation of opium from India to China has continued, having increased from 52,925 piculs (of 133 1/3 lb) in 1850 to 96,839 piculs in 1880.

The British Empire's role as international drug-dealers tends to be over-shadowed in the opprobrium-garnering stakes by the business of human bondage, yet when this article was published in 1884, the opium trade was still flourishing, and no Wilberforce was crusading for its abolition. Economic factors were in the process of ending this nice little earner for the East India Company, through the fact that the Chinese were now in the process of growing their own opium, so that a time was "confidently anticipated by the Chinese when Indian opium will be entirely supplanted by the native drug."

[As a curious coincidence of historical economics, the decline in the value of the British opium trade between India and China coincided with the British appetite for tea no longer being dependent on the Chinese leaf. For centuries, the British had looked for tea or sought ways of growing it in India, without success, until the happy discovery of the Assam plant by Mr David Scott, an employee of the Company in Calcutta, in 1820.]

The suggestion of the CHINA article, and presumably a widely held belief and justification of the trade, was that an inherent weakness of the Chinese gave a predilection for opium addiction.

Drunkenness is not a national vice, but, unfortunately, their abstinence does not extend to opium, a drug which seems to have a greater attraction for them than any other people on the earth. They take to it greedily, and when once the habit of smoking it becomes confirmed, the difficulty of relinquishing it is exceedingly great.

The Opium article (which is reproduced in full and well worth the read, at, in addition to much technical information relating to the cultivation and trade of the plant, also contains some interesting observations on its use as a recreational narcotic, including an enticingly detailed account of the manner in which it is smoked, provided by a Mr Theo. Sampson of Canton:

"The smoker, lying on his side, with his face towards the tray and his head resting on a high hard pillow (sometimes made of earthenware, but more frequently of bamboo covered with leather), takes the pipe in his hand ; with the other hand the takes a dipper and puts the sharp end of it into the opium, which is of a treacly consistency. Twisting it round and round he gets a large drop of the fluid to adhere tot he dipper; still twisting it round to prevent it falling he brings the drop over the flame of the lamp, and twirling it round and round the roasts it ; all this is done with acquired dexterity. The opium must not be burnt or made too dry, but roasted gently till it looks like burnt worsted ; every now and then he takes it away from the flame and rolls it (still on the en of the dipper) on the flat surface of the bow). When it is roasted and rolled to his satisfaction he gently heats the centre of the bowl, where there is a small orifice; then he quickly thrusts the end of the dipper into the orifice, twirls it round smartly, and withdraws it ; if this is properly done, the opium (now about the size of a gain of hempseed or a little larger) is left adhering to the bowl immediately over the orifice. It is now ready for smoking.

"The smoker assumed a comfortable attitude (lying down of course) at a proper distance from the lamp. He now puts the stem to his lips, and holds the bowl over the lamp. The heat causes the opium to frizzle, and the smoker takes three or four long inhalations, all the time using the dipper to bring every particle of the opium to the orifice as it burns away, but not taking his lips from the end of stem, or the opium pellet from the lamp till all is finished. Then he uses the flattened end of the dipper to scrape away any little residue there may be left around the orifice, and proceeds to prepare another pipe. The preparations occupy from five to ten minutes, and the actual smoking about thirty seconds. The smoke is swallowed, and is exhaled through both the mouth and the nose."

Holmes concludes with a balanced appraisal of the dangers of the drug, particularly as posed to moral imbeciles:

So far as can be gathered from the conflicting statements published on the subject, opium-smoking may be regarded much in the same light as the use of alcoholic stimulants. To the great majority of smokers who use it moderately it appears to act as a stimulant, and to enable them to undergo great fatigue and to go for a considerable time with little or no food. According to the reports given by authorities on the subject, when the smoker has plenty of active work it appears to be no more injurious than smoking tobacco. When carried to excess it becomes an inveterate habit ; but this happens chiefly individuals of weak-will power, who would just as easily become the victims of intoxicating drinks, and who are practically moral imbeciles, often addicted also the other forms of depravity. The effect in bad cases is to cause loss of appetite, a leaden pallor of the skin, and a degree of leanness so excessive as to make its victims appear like living skeletons. All inclination for exertion becomes gradually lost business is neglected, and certain ruin to the smoker follows. There can be no doubt that the use of the drug is opposed by all thinking Chinese who are not pecuniarily interested in the opium trade or cultivation, for several reasons, among which may be mentioned the drain of bullion from the country, the decrease of population, the liability to famine through the cultivation of opium where cereals should be grown, and the corruption of state officials.

Friday, 15 August 2008

26. (ii)(b) Vir gravis et corpulentis

I hope that readers can forgive the discursive wandering from the subject that encyclopedia-browsing inevitably leads to. In writing about the Beijing Olympics I seem to have lost myself on the ever-appealing subject of the conquering Mongols, which I hope may in part be excused by the fact that that city first became capital of all China under the rule of Genghis' grandson Khubilai, he of Coleridge's opium-dreamt pleasure dome renown.

Colonel Sir Henry Yule's preface to the CHINA article (looked at last week) makes mention of one of the first known western visitors to the Orient, the Franciscan friar Johannes de Plano Carpini. Carpini, who merits his own entry (also penned by the colonel) in the same volume of EB9, made a remarkable journey in the middle of the 13th century from Lyons, France, to the court of the Khaan at Karakoram, in the heart of Mongolia.

In 1241 Mongolian troops scored an alarming victory at Liegnitz which "threatened to cast European Christendom beneath the feet of the barbarous hordes." In fact, the death of Genghis' son Ogudei and dispute over the succession meant that Mongolian interest turned away from further conquest into Europe. "The dread of the Tartars was, however, still on men's mind four years later , when Pope Innocent IV. determined (1245) on sending a mission to the Tartar and other Asiatic princes, the real object of which apparently was to gain trustworthy information regarding the hordes and their purposes."

The 65 year old Carpini, who had been a companion and disciple of Francis of Assisi, was chosen as the Pope's envoy. The delegation left Lyons on Easter Day 1245 (16th April), made a brief visit to seek "the counsel of an old friend, Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia," and from Kiev crossed into Mongol territory, to be escorted to the camp of Batu, the "senior of the Chingizid family."
Here the envoys with their presents had to pass between two fires before being presented to the prince. Batu ordered them to proceed onwards to the court of the supreme Kaan in Mongolia, and on Easter Day once more (April 8 1246) they started on the second and most formidable part of their journey - "so ill," writes the legate, "that we could scarcely sit a horse ; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink." Their bodies were tightly bandaged [ie, Mongolian-fashion] to enable them to endure the excessive fatigue of this enormous ride [...] till, on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene (22d July), at last they reached the imperial camp called Sira Ordu (Yellow Pavilion), near the Orkhon River, - this stout-hearted old man having thus ridden something like 3000 miles in 106 days.

Carpini and his companions were to witness the Kurultai or formal election by tribal consent of the new Khaan Kuyuk, where "3000 to 4000 envoys and deputies from all parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, [bore] homage, tribute, and presents." After the enthronement of Kuyuk, the Pope's envoy was presented to the Khaan.
It was not till November that they got their dismissal, bearing a letter to the Pope in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin, which was little else than a brief imperious assertion of the Kaan's office as the scourge of God. Then commenced their long winter journey homeward[.]

Carpini was able to present the Khaan's letter to the Pope, and his report on the extent of the Mongol empire, still at Lyon, at the end of 1247. He was rewarded with the archbishopric of Antivari in Dalmatia, and at a date shortly after unrecorded by history, died.

Carpini left two documents of his observations on the Mongols, the Liber Tartarorum and the Historia Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus (ie, the "History of the Mongols whom we call the Tartars"), the first reliable European accounts of the Mongol people and empire. His great journey into the East and back is all the more remarkable, as Sir Henry observes, as
John of Pian del Carpine was not only an old man when he went cheerfully upon this mission, but was, as we know from accidental evidence in the annals of his order, a fat and heavy man (vir gravis et corpulentus), insomuch that during his preachings in Germany he was fain, contrary to Franciscan precedent, to ride a Donkey.

While the world watches Beijing in adoration of today's majestic Olympians, let us not forget the achievements of fat and heavy old men.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

26. (ii)The accidents of war, commerce and opportunity

Professor R. K. Douglas' comprehensive study CHINA is prefaced by an account of how China became known to the Western world, written by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, R.E., K.C.S.I., C.B. It is an interesting opening, not least because, contrary to prejudices one might have expected in a 19th century writer, the emphasis is not upon Marco Polo or other 'discoverers' of the East, but on Genghis and sons, who brought the Orient west. In this opening, amongst a great wealth of other material which deserves revisiting, Sir Henry makes a very effective summary of the significance of the Mongol conquest in the wider historical perspective. Should any high school plagiarists have been set homework to "Explain the significance of the Mongol conquest in the wider historical perspective in 200 words or less" then I hope that the following proves of service. For extra credit, change the spelling 'Jenghiz' to 'Chinggis.'

"The name [Cathay] first became known to Europe in the 13th century, when the vast conquests of Jenghiz and his house drew a new and vivid attention to Asia. [...]

The conquests of Jenghiz and his successors had spread not only over China and, as it seemed the adjoining East, but westward also over all Northern Asia, Persia, Armenia, part of Asia Minor, and Russia, threatening to deluge Christendom. Though the Mongol wave retired, as it seemed almost by an immediate act of Providence, when Europe lay at its feet, it had levelled or covered all political barriers from the frontier of Poland to the Yellow Sea, and when Western Europe recovered from its alarm, Asia lay open, as never before or since, to the inspection of Christendom. Princes, envoys, priests, - half-missionary half-envoy - visited the court of the great Khan in Mongolia ; and besides these, the accidents of war, commerce, or opportunity carried a variety of persons from various classes of human life into the depths of Asia."

[EDIT : correction to the accreditation of the above article extract thanks to the vigilant sages at]

Friday, 8 August 2008

26. i) Where the roses have no fragrance, and the women no petticoats

Admirable efforts to strand for bland even-handedness in the BBC's relentless coverage of Beijing's International Sporting Jamboree.

"Is there an atmosphere of genuine celebration, or is it more forced?" the host of Radio 4's Today programme asked a roving sports correspondent. I can't recall the wording of the response to the question, but non-committal would cover it.

Would the forecast rain dampen spirits in the upcoming festivities? "It's not in the Chinese character to show disappointment."

Far be it from me to suggest that these observations tend towards portraying a national character somewhat... lacking scrutability.

From CHINA by R. K. Douglas, Professor of Chinese, King's College, London :

"Turning to the every-day customs and manners of the Chinese, it is passing strange to find how diametrically opposed they are to what we are familiar with. In a country "where," as has been said by Wingrove Cook, "the roses have no fragrance, and the women no petticoats ; where the labourer has no Sabbath, and the magistrate no sense of honour ; where the needle points to the south, and the sign of being puzzled is to scratch the antipodes of the head; where the place of honour is on the left hand, and the seat of intellect is in the stomach ; where to take off your hat is an insolent gesture, and to wear white garments is to put yourself in mourning," it would at first sight seem useless to seek for any point of similarity with ourselves. But it is extremely probable, for instance, that the choice of the left as the seat of honour is in principle entirely at one with our custom of considering the right hand as the place due to the most highly-honoured guest, and that both are survivals of the ancient and almost universal adoration of the sun.[Here follows a laborious proof of this hypothesis : on your behalf I am going to take the professor's assertions on faith] In daily life the Chinese are frugal, sober, and industrious."

More 19th century British opinion on China soon.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

25. Famed, honoured, and ultimately devoured

It is that magical time again, when around the globe the human race are united by staring at television sets for hours on end, as burly young men and women clad in lycra hop from foot to foot and compete earnestly in obscure athletic challenges, hoping to win the praise and adulation of their countrymen, before suffering their scowls and approbation once they fail a test for performance-enhancing chemicals. A fitting time for us to consider the fabulous career and unfortunate demise of one of the first great Olympians.

"MILO, one of the most famous athletes of Greece, whose name became proverbial for personal strength. He lived about the end of the 6th century B.C., was six times crowned at the Olympic games and six times at the Pythian for wrestling, and was famous throughout the civilized world for his feats of strength, such as carrying an ox on his shoulders through the stadium at Olympia. In his native city of Crotona he was much honoured, and he commanded the army which defeated the people of Sybaris in 511 B.C. When Democedes, the physician of Darius, deserted the Persian service, he sent a boastful message to the king of Persia informing him of his marriage to the daughter of Milo. The traditional account of his death is often used to point a moral : he found a tree which some woodcutters had partially split with a wedge, and attempted to render it asunder, but the wedge fell out, and the tree closed on his hand, imprisoning him till wolves came and devoured him."