Category Archives: world history

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. Centres with a significant British population, such as Calcutta, developed a new Anglo-Indian cuisine of chutneys, kedgerees and mulligatawny – and misapplied the word ‘curry’ to anything vaguely hot. The Portuguese also had amalgam foods in their colonies, such as Goan vindaloo, named for the wine vinegar with which it is made, and chicken piri piri. It’s worth remembering that chilli, now so omnipresent in Southeast Asian food, only arrived in the region with Europeans bringing it from South America.

Some people became converts to Asian food. One businessman I wrote about worked for years for Jardine, Matheson in Canton and Macao, and when he moved to New South Wales in 1848, he brought with him his Chinese cook. Others were less adaptable, complaining bitterly about the nasty foreign food.

What did my man, Walter Davidson, eat for breakfast when he lived in Macao between 1812 and 1822? Just once, he mentions in a letter how much he is looking forward to raspberries when he goes home to Scotland, but otherwise it’s impossible to know. What did  they all eat, these displaced Europeans perched uneasily on the edge of Malay, Javanese or Chinese worlds?

rasperries

In a world where food is global and every city dweller can choose between MacDonalds and yum cha on a daily basis, it’s hard to think back to a time when foreign food was both unfamiliar and disconcerting. Ethnographers distinguish between those who love trying new foods, and those who don’t. Nowadays most people (or at least most of the people with Internet access who are likely to read this blog) are cosmopolitan in their tastes: hence the general enthusiasm to find the latest ‘ethnic restaurant’.

But it wasn’t always so – and it still isn’t necessarily so at breakfast time. Watch people milling around the breakfast buffet in an airport lounge or large hotel, and those differences are immediately obvious. Some people try the unfamiliar, with Westerners enthusiastically sampling congee or pho, and Asians getting stuck into bacon and eggs or lox and bagels. But others will seek out something familiar from the buffet. It’s breakfast, after all, and far too early to be adventurous. On my first visit to Singapore, I ate delicious murtaba roti from a street stall most mornings – but I still needed to retreat for a fix of coffee from the hotel café afterwards.

Nobody talks about normal meals in their letters and diaries – except when they are unexpected. Colonists in Australia, for instance, always mention the oddity of celebrating Christmas dinner in summer – and often make the point of reassuring the relatives that, despite this, they still ate a traditional hot meal with Christmas pudding. Because the other thing about choosing familiar or unfamiliar food is that it is a great signifier of cultural nationalism.

So I was intrigued to find one unusual reference to food in Travers’ diary. In 1816, Tom went back to Britain on furlough, and while there, he married Mary Leslie. They returned to Bencoolen [now Bengkulu in Sumatra] where in July 1818, Mary gave birth to her first child. Tom had spent a long time in the East, but Mary was a new arrival, so I was surprised to read that following the birth,

For twenty-one days she never put her foot to the ground, being [fed] entirely almost on kunji [congee] and giving baby as much as she could take, and she was doing as well as well can be. [97-8]

Tom complains in his journal that they had no success trying to grow potatoes in Bencoolen, so they depended on local ingredients cooked by servants who were unfamiliar with European cuisine. No doubt they adapted, while adhering to the contemporary European belief that women should be kept isolated and on a ‘low’ diet without much meat in the weeks following childbirth, when the risk of puerperal fever was high.

Congee, a rice and chicken porridge, is usually served at breakfast these days. The Chinese find it the ultimate comfort food, and the Internet is full of claims about its restorative value. It would certainly be suitable for a new mother who needs to build up her yang after childbirth, and it is even said to increase milk production. But I wonder how Irish Mary felt about living on it for 3 weeks?

John Bastin (ed), The Journal of Thomas Otho Travers 1813-1820 (Singapore, 1960)

George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading

Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

In Australia, Halloween has recently become popular, at least amongst children – what’s not to like about an occasion that gives kids a socially sanctioned reason to be out at night, wear silly costumes and put pressure on their parents to eat lots of sugar?

The shops love it too. Most Australians, I think, are pretty cynical about this imported commercial event – yet another example of creeping Americanisation.  My favourite example of the way the marketeers have pushed it into our consciousness was the pumpkin I saw in Woolworths a couple of years ago, printed with dotted lines to show kids how to carve it.

Yet festivals morph and merge.  Before there was Halloween (31 October), there was Guy Fawkes Night (5 November). I remember bonfires and fireworks from my childhood, long, long ago.  I wonder if the rise of Halloween in Australia has occurred because nature abhors a vacuum? Continue reading

Two Pioneers of Aviation and the accidents of history

Powered flight has transformed our lives during the last century.  Like many technological breakthroughs, the history of flight is usually written in terms of great men, the heroes of invention like Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the first men to build and fly an aeroplane successfully at Kitty Hawk.  But heroic individuals explain only so much.  Context, circumstances, contingency, all play a role as well.

Which brings me to the story of Igor and Vladimir, and the curious connection between my suburb of Sandgate, on the shores of Moreton Bay, and the helicopter.

Around the early years of the 20th century, many people were experimenting with the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine. In France and Germany, England and America, amateur aviators tinkered with kites, gliders and balloons. Even in Australia, on the remote edge of the British Empire, Lawrence Hargrave played a part with his experiments with box kites.

Russia had its enthusiasts too.  Continue reading

Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum

A special exhibition at the Queensland Museum makes me realise, not for the first time, how much better the Queensland Art Gallery does these things. QAG has just closed Quilts 1700-1945.  I went at the end of June, and wrote about it here.

The Queensland Museum has just opened Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul.  A few of these items were on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City when I was there in 2010.  Although they belong in Afghanistan, and will eventually return to its National Museum, at present they are touring the world.  They have already been to Melbourne and will go on from Brisbane (until 27 January) to Sydney and Perth during 2014.

Treasures of Afghanistan

Hair pendant in gold and turquoise from Tillya Tepe

The treasures themselves are wonderful.  Continue reading

We Warn the Tsar!

The situation in Syria is tragic, and it’s not surprising that people who see these tragedies on their television (or more likely, these days, YouTube) want to Do Something.  Maybe there’s a point to American, or British, or French, or Russian, or Iranian, or Israeli breast-beating over what is going on. I’m not so sure.  I was in Belgrade a few weeks ago and saw the site of the NATO bombing in 1993.  Did it really change anything on the ground?

Here in Australia, though, there’s no point.  We have no strategic interest in Syria, and even if we did, for good or bad we can have no impact on what is going on. Australia is a modest country, with much to be modest about – and thank goodness for that. I doubt if there are many Australians who want to join the Great Powers, especially on yet another expedition of gunboat diplomacy to the Middle East.

Unfortunately, one of them is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  In the middle of an election campaign he is highly likely to lose, the ex-diplomat, ex-foreign minister, takes time out from cooking or campaigning to speak in sober, measured and above all pompous terms about his consultations with Barack Obama and David Cameron and – who knows? Ban Ki-moon?

The excuse for this self-importance is that Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council and this weekend takes over the rotating presidency.  The real reason is that Rudd loves this sort of stuff.

It all feels to me a bit like ‘We warn the Tsar!’ Continue reading

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

learnearnandreturn:

More than 2 years ago, I wrote this post on the historian Crane Brinton and his theory of revolutions. The Arab Spring was just beginning.
In Egypt today, that first phase of revolution is well and truly past now, but Brinton’s idea of phases seems worth revisiting, now that the army is once more engaged in the political process (did it ever go away?) Napoleon Bonaparte notoriously said that it only took ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ to silence popular protests in the streets of Paris. Is the next step the emergence of the Man on Horseback? If so, who? Brinton’s ideas were simplistic and reductive, but influential, and perhaps they still are in driving outside perceptions.

Originally posted on Historians are Past Caring:

‘Alligators and revolutions both eat their children’, wrote one letter writer to The Australian yesterday, one of many commenting on events in Egypt at present.  I suspect this may be a slander against alligators, but it does sum up what many people feel, consciously or unconsciously about the idea of revolution: all revolutions have a lot in common, and it is very easy for the process to go pear-shaped very quickly.

I know just enough about Egyptian history to understand all those cartoons with Hosni Mubarak being fitted for a sarcophagus, and to know that a lot has happened since the last pyramid was built, which tends to be ignored, at least by cartoonists.  (Pyramids are very easy to draw)

But Revolutions are another thing.  Academics in the humanities love revolutions, in art and literature as well as history.  Which is odd, really, when you consider how anti-democratic most universities…

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Drawing Lines on a Map

In 886, having defeated the Danish leader Guthrum at the Battle of Eddington (878), King Alfred of Wessex and his advisors drew a line across England, roughly north-west to south-east.  North and east of this line was the Danelaw, the area inhabited by descendants of the Viking raiders, speaking Danish and ruled by Danish law; to the west and south was Anglo-Saxon territory, Christian like Alfred himself, ruled by English law, and speaking an Anglo-Saxon language in the process of becoming Old English.

Or so the story goes. Continue reading

…neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned…

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor who won a US Senate seat in Massachusetts, is an expert on bankruptcy.  Responding to Governor Romney’s statement that ‘Corporations are people’, she replied:

No…corporations are not people.  People have hearts.  They have kids.  They get jobs.  They get sick.  They thrive.  They dance.  They live.  They love.  And they die.  And that matters… because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.

The quote is everywhere; it even made it into a Doonesbury cartoon here.

Doonesbury cartoon, 7 November 2012

Meanwhile the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, worked as a derivatives trader for corporations – Elf Aquitaine and Enterprise Oil – before he changed course and decided to join the ministry in 1989.  His dissertation at theological college was on the topic ‘Can companies sin?’ – to which he answered Yes.  He recently told the Guardian:

Continue reading

Talking to Asia in the 19th and 21st Centuries

The response to the new white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, just released by the federal government, has been underwhelming to say the least.  Which is a pity.

There’s little doubt that the 21st century belongs to Asia (however that murky geographic concept is defined), and most of the recommendations of Ken Henry’s panel seem worthy, if uncosted.  During the next century, most of the world’s middle class will be Asian, and Australia naturally wants to tap in – in trade, education, tourism and cultural exchange.

So far, so motherhood.  But one issue the report raised, and the PM emphasised in launching the report, has come in for a lot of criticism.  “All students will have continuous access to a priority Asian language – Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.”

Over the years there have other attempts to persuade our Anglophone kids to knuckle down and learn an Asian language, but apart from a few ambitious nerds (Kevin Rudd, anyone?) most high school students baulk at the difficulties, especially when their matriculation results depend on how they go in a variety of subjects.  Dean Ashenden nails the problem here - and goes on to point out that

To the extent that we do need Asian-language speakers for business or other purposes, why on earth get schools to produce them?  We’ve already got them.

According to the census, we have 330,000 Mandarin speakers, 111,000 Hindi, 56,000 Indonesian, 44,000 Japanese, 80,000 Korean, 233,000 Vietnamese and 37,000 Thai.

But if teaching the next generation Asian languages is a flawed endeavour, how did earlier generations of English-speakers deal with the problem of talking to Asia?

Continue reading