Category Archives: historiography

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease.

Ebola is not quite a new disease – it was first identified in 1976 – but the current outbreak is far, far worse than anything that has gone before. There must be many people trying to tease out what we can learn about this disease by looking at previous plagues and pandemics. For what it’s worth, here’s my ten cents’ worth:

  1. Epidemics tend to have a far worse impact in cities than in areas with low populations. An epidemic disease can have a devastating effect on people in scattered villages or small family groups, such as the epidemic of smallpox that struck the Aboriginal people around Sydney in 1789, but without a large host population, the disease will run its course. The Black Death (1347-51) had much more impact in southern and western Europe than in eastern Europe, where the population was so much sparser.
  2. Disease follows trade routes – by land or by sea, and latterly by air as well. The Black Death arrived in Sicily on a ship from the Crimea, a key staging post on the Silk Road from Asia. AIDS has travelled along trucking routes wherever roadside prostitution is common. Any large-scale population movements will exacerbate the situation. The Spanish flu went home with demobilized soldiers at the end of World War I – and the pandemic eventually killed more people than the war.
  3. Quarantine is a ruthless deterrent to the spread of disease that suits the prejudices of authorities, since it lays the blame squarely on outsiders for causing infection. Sometimes it works, but it’s not always effective. The name comes from the 40 days of isolation that Venice imposed on incoming ships during the Black Death – but it’s one thing to quarantine ships and travellers, another altogether to keep the rats out, and tens of thousands of Venetians died from plague. The best guess at present seems to be that fruit bats spread Ebola. Unlike ships’ rats, bats are not usually intercontinental travellers.
  4. Epidemic disease is recurrent. There were nearly 800 years between the Plague of Justinian and the return of Yersinia pestis to Constantinople in 1347, but thereafter the plague came back fairly regularly. There was a minor outbreak in Europe in the 1380s, a generation after the first, and intermittent outbreaks after that, but it was less virulent, probably because those people who survived and reproduced had more genetic resistance to the disease than those who had died.
  5. The disease is worst the first time around – not just because of 4, above, but because in the first outbreak, there is nobody with any immunity, so no one to care for the sick or tend the fields or otherwise keep the show on the road. When smallpox struck the Aztecs, every age group was affected, whereas in Europe, where the disease was endemic, there were likely to be some scarred survivors from earlier epidemics who could look after the children and young adults who were its main victims.
  6. In illness, as in everything else, the poor are at a disadvantage. There’s nothing like a good diet, clean clothing and warm, dry shelter to give you an advantage, even in the face of infectious disease. The rich can also afford to run away. In The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote about a group of wealthy young people living in seclusion in a villa outside Florence, while the plague was ravaging the city. It’s always useful to have a Tuscan villa to retreat to.
  7. Despite this, infectious diseases don’t always respect rank and wealth. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. His doctor diagnosed his death as typhoid fever, a disease that was normally associated with poverty, poor housing and poor hygiene. His death shocked the Victorians, for if the Prince Consort was at risk, so was everyone else. Albert’s death didn’t cause the Victorian preoccupation with sanitary reform and urban renewal, which was already well underway, but it certainly helped it along. Typhoid, like cholera, did not discriminate. Neither does Ebola.
  8. Finally, new diseases terrify people and cause panic, and unfortunately, panicky people are often nasty people. Some of the more unedifying videos doing the rounds of social media at present show this clearly enough. Minority groups have born the brunt of such panic in the past: Jews were blamed for the plague in 14th century Europe, Chinese were blamed for leprosy and plague in 19th century Australia, homosexuals have been demonized for spreading AIDS. Even in a scientific world, there are still plenty of frightened people looking for explanations in the Book of Revelation, or its equivalent. The Four Horsemen have a lot to answer for.

*Yes, I know there’s debate about who the Four Horsemen are (except Death, everyone seems to agree on Death), but I base my categories on Terry Pratchett.

Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess

Riddle on the name Elizabeth

in Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955)

I’m struggling with naming conventions at the moment – both the conventions of the late 18th / early 19th century when the characters in my book were alive, and the conventions I should use myself as a historian writing about them now.

The main character in my book is Walter Stevenson Davidson, whom I’ve discussed before (see tag). Walter was named after his mother’s brother, Walter (later Sir Walter) Farquhar, who was his godfather. Sir Walter’s wife Anne had the maiden name of Stevenson, so I’m assuming she was WSD’s godmother. I’ve come across this convention before, where godmothers’ godsons are given the woman’s surname as a middle name. So for instance Sir Walter’s daughter Eliza Farquhar was godmother to her cousin’s son, who was named George Farquhar Leslie.

Anne was a widow when she married Walter Farquhar in 1771, with 2 children, John and Elizabeth Harvie. John died young, but Elizabeth grew up and married Simon Halliday in 1787. As Elizabeth Halliday she features regularly in family correspondence and her husband went into partnership with one of Sir Walter’s sons. They were clearly well integrated into the Farquhar network.

So here’s the puzzle: Anne Farquhar went on to have 7 more children with her second husband, 3 boys and 4 girls, and the youngest girl, born in 1783, was named Eliza. I know that families used to recycle particular names, often reusing the baptismal name of a dead baby to ensure that a name survived if it had particular significance. And every genealogist knows, to their frustration, that a small set of first names are repeated endlessly within the family circle. But surely have 2 living daughters named Elizabeth and Eliza would be a touch confusing?

My friend Jenny Harrison, who is an expert on family history, tells me that families did often use confusing (to us) combinations of names within the family – perhaps a John and a Jack, say, or a Margaret and a Peggy. This doesn’t seem  satisfactory here though, because Eliza and Elizabeth are so clearly versions of the same name. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is called Elizabeth (Darcy), Miss Eliza (sneeringly, by Miss Bingley) and Lizzie (by the family). It’s very odd.

Jenny tells me that there was a particular convention at work in choosing family names, from generation to generation. When the rule worked perfectly (and of course it rarely did), the eldest son was named for the father’s father, the second son for the mother’s father, the third son for the father. For girls, the priority could be for the first daughter to take her maternal grandmother’s name, the second her father’s mother’s name, and so on.

In Walter Farquhar’s family this naming practice works only partially. The eldest daughter was named for his mother Catherine, but his eldest son was named Thomas Harvie Farquhar after Anne’s father and her first husband (unless, of course, the Harvie comes from a godmother somewhere whom I haven’t yet located). The second son, Robert, was named after Walter’s father; the third was called Walter.

The other side of this problem comes in the writing: how do you differentiate between generations of people, all with the same name? WSD was always referred to in his own time as Walter Stevenson Davidson (or W S Davidson) to distinguish him from his cousin Walter Davidson of Calcutta, but referring to him by all 3 names becomes a bit heavy going after a while. That’s why I use the abbreviation WSD for my own convenience, though I’d be wary of doing so in a formal paper. Amongst his business associates, who knew both men, he was referred to as ‘China’ Davidson to distinguish him from ‘Calcutta’ Davidson.

There’s another naming convention that I struggle with. Do I refer to characters by their first name, or surname, or ring the changes somehow? And do I treat men and women in the same way? This is a troubling issue for any feminist historian, made more complicated because our naming conventions are at odds with those of the past.

In WSD’s day, people called men by their surname alone, even – perhaps especially – within the family circle. Darcy is Darcy to his aunt and his cousin, and we wouldn’t even know what his first name was if not for his signature on that letter. Women, on the other hand, were called by their first name within the family – Jane, Lizzie – or more formally with a title – Mrs Bennet. Neither is satisfactory in a serious historical work, and using the surname alone indicates class (Hill is a servant). Nor will many people these days pick up the nuances of ‘Miss Bennet’ (Jane, the eldest) and ‘Miss Eliza’ (a lower mortal altogether in the complex family hierarchy that determined who sat closest to the fire, or walked into dinner first).

Which brings me back to the curse of too many Elizabeths. At the moment I’m writing about society in early New South Wales through the eye of a small group of middle aged women: Elizabeth Macarthur, Elizabeth Marsden, Elizabeth Paterson…. Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here? Around the time these women were born in the 1770s, Elizabeth was clearly a very popular name. Governors Bligh, Macquarie and Darling also had wives called Elizabeth.

So thank goodness for diminutives. I know John Macarthur called his wife Elizabeth, whereas Samuel Marsden and William Bligh called theirs Betsy / Betsey. Governor Darling’s wife was Eliza, as was Elizabeth Macarthur’s goddaughter Eliza Kingdon, who was possibly named after her. John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s granddaughter was Bessie, while a grandniece, daughter of Hannibal Macarthur, was known as Libby. Stay tuned for Beth, Betty and Lisa.

Bioethics in Historical Perspective

During the last month Australia and Thailand have had to confront the implications of a terrible medical dilemma, when news broke of ‘Baby Gammy’, the Downs syndrome twin left behind by an Australian couple who paid a Thai woman to carry their child. When the mother found she was having twins, she allegedly refused to abort the pregnancy because of her Buddhist beliefs. The genetic parents subsequently took the ‘good twin’, a girl, back to Australia with them, leaving the boy behind with a mother too poor to pay for his medical treatment. A lot of this is still ‘alleged’ – but just when it seemed the story couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that the new father had formerly been convicted of child abuse. Both Thailand and Australia have been hastily rushing through new regulations on child surrogacy.

Many medical issues have an ethical dimension. Some, like surrogacy, are self-evidently vexed. Others are subtler.

In the current Ebola epidemic, for instance, why does an American patient get flown home for treatment that is not available for Africans? What are the ethics of administering treatment that is still experimental? And why is the language in which the disease is discussed so charged? There has been a lot of talk about how uneducated Africans don’t obey the scientists when they are told to abandon their traditional burial rites and not touch Ebola victims, or wash the bodies of their dead relatives. Yet the said American patient subsequently credited Jesus, not the scientists, for his recovery.

Sarah Ferber, Bioethics in Historical Perspective

It is against this background that I’ve recently been reading Sarah Ferber’s Bioethics in Historical Perspective (Palgrave, 2013). Continue reading

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway. Continue reading

Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –

Continue reading

How should we deal with racist language?

If you go to iTunes to download a copy of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels, you will find it listed under the name The N—— of the Narcissus (1897). Apple’s antennae are very sensitively tuned when it comes to the use of what Americans call ‘the N word’.

There has recently been a controversy over racist terminology at ABC Radio. A sports commentator, Warren Ryan, was suspended for using the racist term ‘old darky’, and has now quit because he refuses to apologize for something that was taken out of context. He says he was quoting from Gone with the Wind. You can read the details here.

As a completely dis-(and un-)interested bystander regarding anything football-related, I know nothing about Ryan, except that in general I think sports commentators should act in a civilized manner and keep their traps shut as much as possible, but the story does raise the issue of how we deal with racist comments that are not our own, but those of another generation. Continue reading

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Continue reading