Tag Archives: egypt

Digging up Matthew Flinders

There’s been a bit of noise about Matthew Flinders’ grave just recently. There are plans to extend the very fast train system from London to the north of England, and to do this, a lot of Euston Station and its surroundings will be dug up and redeveloped.

This includes the old graveyard of St James’ Church, where about 61,000 bodies were buried, Flinders included. Some of the graveyard was dug up during the 19th century during various expansions of the station, so many of these bodies have already disappeared. Apparently when his widow died in 1852, her sister looked for the grave but couldn’t find it. The first expansion of Euston Station was then underway.

Matthew Flinders portrait

Matthew Flinders watercolour miniature, c.1800, from State Library of New South Wales

The Victorians tended to take a brutally unsentimental attitude to such things, as the old music hall song suggests:

They’re moving grandpa’s grave to build a sewer,
They’re moving it regardless of expense.
They’re taking his remains, to put in 9-inch drains,
To irrigate some rich bloke’s residence.

In Australia, Flinders is one of the best-known naval explorers, so it’s a bit startling to find a 2014 article in the (English) Guardian announcing the erection of a statue at Australia House ‘to the most famous navigator you’ve probably never heard of’.

I don’t suppose many people these days read Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (1941), a fictionalized life of Matthew Flinders, but when it was first published it was a bestseller, and it was commonly set as a text book in Australian schools. The Esplanade at the end of my street in Sandgate was renamed Flinders Parade at about this time, and Flinders became a common place name. He shares with only James Cook, John Monash, Charles Darwin and Charles Sturt, the honour of having a university named after him.

It helps to have a cat, too.

To the memory of Trim

One of my favourite Flinders stories comes from early in his exploring career. In 1798, he and Bass sailed south to circumnavigate Tasmania. This was an important matter: if the southernmost tip of the continent was a separate island, it wasn’t covered by Cook’s original claim of possession. On their way back, they stopped somewhere along the Ninety Mile Beach, where they came across a group of Aboriginal people feasting on a beached whale.

Soon afterward a man made his appearance. He was of middle age, unarmed, except for a whaddie, or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence. We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in turn presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit. (Matthew Flinders, 7 October 1798)

I like the parallel revulsion of the two men towards each others’ gifts of food – whale blubber and ship’s biscuit – and their equal politeness in trying to spit them out discreetly.

Flinders married Ann Chappelle in 1801, intending to take her out to Australia with him on his next voyage of exploration. It was not uncommon for the captain’s wife to sail with her husband, though it was controversial. (Jane Austen covers the debate in Persuasion, set just a few years later.) In this case the Admiralty chastised Flinders for taking Ann aboard, and she was not allowed to go out with him. On his way home from New South Wales, the French Governor of Mauritius detained Flinders there, and it was 9 years before Ann saw her husband again.

By then she was 40. In 1812 she gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Anne. Flinders managed to get A voyage to Terra Australis published just before he died in 1814, but the book had less impact than he would have hoped, because the record of the Baudin expedition had already been published. (François Péron Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes (1807; English translation 1809).

Flinders’ widow and daughter lived on in genteel poverty. For years they pleaded with the British Government for a pension in acknowledgement of Flinders’ work and early death, but as the Guardian article suggests, Flinders was forgotten in his native land. It was only in 1853 that the two colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria agreed to grant an annuity of £100 per year to the Flinders family.

Ann Flinders had died the year before. That same year, at the age of 40, her daughter Anne married an engineer, William Petrie. Like her mother, she had one child, a son, born at an age – 41 – when childbirth was very dangerous for older women. She named him William after his father, and Matthew Flinders after her own father.

Anne was a scholar of sorts. In 1845, under the pseudonym Philomathes, she published a book, The Connexion between Revelation and Mythology Illustrated and Vindicated, which shows her fascination with Egyptian mythology. She also wrote essays for periodicals under the initials “X.Q.’ Her husband William Petrie was a scientist who took an early interest in electricity and magnetism, and is credited with inventing an early arc light. These two scholarly, aging parents taught their only son at home, using the colonial annuity of £100 per year to enhance his education. He was interested in science and mathematics, but also fascinated, as his parents were, by Egypt. He first went out there in 1880.

He didn’t use his first names, so few people know of the connection, but he eventually became a good deal more famous than his eminent grandfather, in Britain at least. Perhaps there’s an irony in the fact that if archaeologists dig up the graveyard in St James’s Gardens, they will do so according to scientific principles of archaeology that were first laid down by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in his ‘small but epoch-making book’, Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904).

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What do I do with the Egyptian mummy?

I’ve been going gangbusters writing my book lately. This is why my blog posts have tapered off recently – sorry – but there are some important advantages in staying in the Zone, without any interruptions.

When I have a concentrated spell of writing, rather than fitting it in around other obligations, which is the natural condition of most university teachers (and most women, for that matter), I find that I make connections that I might have missed if I was working my way more slowly from chapter to chapter.

As usual, I’m wrestling with the agony of what to leave out. I’ve always felt that the clearest difference between an antiquarian and a good historian lies in their ability to stick to the wider perspective without getting sidetracked by fascinating trivia.

Biography gives the writer a little more leeway: odd facts can illuminate a personality, and they add colour and movement to a life. But odd facts can be a distraction, a sequence of one-damn-thing-after-another anecdotes, and they have the potential to distort the narrative if it relies entirely on the accident of what documentary evidence remains. Trivial facts need to be odd, as in occasional, not just odd.

So what do I do about the Egyptian mummy? Sadly, I think it belongs in the Kill Your Darlings file – but I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

In 1820, Walter Stevenson Davidson (the subject of my biography, if you are coming late to the party) went home to Britain on leave from his business selling opium in China. He took the ‘overland route’, the fast route favoured by travellers without the patience to sail from India right around the Cape of Good Hope. They took one ship to the Red Sea, then travelled overland, usually to Alexandria, where they took a second ship for the rest of the journey.

The overland route was a well-organized and well-beaten track, and groups of travellers usually went overland in convoy, with plenty of local servants to deal with their voluminous luggage. This route brought a lot of English and Scots into contact with Egypt for the first time – generating a demand for souvenirs on a grand scale.

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy

In A.B.Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies (1825)

Walter Davidson travelled with a friend, Thomas Coats, and in February 1820 they visited Thebes, where they each bought a mummy – as you do.

He purchased a mummy from the excavations near Thebes, at Gournon, in February, 1820, selected out of a dozen which he opened, as the best preserved. It proved to be that of a male. It was quite dry; the hair and teeth were most perfect, the former being very long, in great profusion, and smoothly combed down. The body contained only a large quantity of gum, and there was no flesh, or very little of it, on the bones. Every part was brittle. It was enveloped in cotton bandages to a great extent, and was contained within two cases. [Granville, pp.24-5]

Now, what on earth do I do with this story? It is in no way central to Walter’s life, and would interrupt my account of the events that brought him back to Scotland just then to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death. It would probably give a modern reader the wrong idea anyway: what is he doing wasting time sightseeing in Thebes when he should be hurrying back to look after the family?

Time is a relative concept, of course, but it would take a long exegesis to explain that in 1820, even travellers in a hurry had lots of time on their hands, hanging around waiting for porters or resting their animals – camels? mules? Both human and animal beasts of burden were important, because these travellers did not travel light. I understand why they couldn’t fit everything into a 20kg. suitcase, but how on earth do you get a couple of mummies home?

Thomas Coats later married Walter’s sister – I’ve mentioned this here – and gave his mummy to the Literary Society of his home town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. I’ve no idea what happened to Walter’s mummy. It is hard to imagine it gracing his living room, but who knows?

I’d love to include the story of Walter’s Egyptian mummy in my book, but I’ve no idea where to slot it in. It has no wider significance – unless I can, perhaps, use it to illustrate the commodification of human beings that was part of the 19th century imperial project. That’s a bit tortuous really – but it is a great story.

Note: Thanks to Simon Peers for first alerting me to the story of WSD’s mummy.
A.B. Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies; with Observations on the Art of Embalming among the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1825), is available on Google Books here.
Granville is another of my Dead Darlings – I’ve written about him here.

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

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.

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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Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

‘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 are, and how unlikely academics are to rise in open rebellion against these quasi-feudal institutions.  Pitchforks in the Senior Common Room?  I don’t think so.

So rather than look at Egypt, I want to look at the man who, more than any other scholar of the 20th century, defined the way we think about revolutions.

Crane Brinton was born in Connecticut in 1898.  He went to Harvard, then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, before returning to Harvard where he worked until his death in 1968.  He was an expert on the French Revolution, publishing works on the Jacobins and Tallyrand during the 1930s.

In 1938, he published his most famous work, The Anatomy of Revolution, in which he attempted to trace a general pattern that revolutions follow. Continue reading