Thursday, 28 February 2013

Handgun diplomacy

Col Frederick Burnaby in civvies, 1876
Col Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was the sort of chap you want at your shoulder in a fight. He was six-foot-four; a first-class boxer; a skilled swordsman; reputedly the strongest man in Queen Victoria’s army.

He was also as brave as a lion, and mad to boot. So the prospect of a happy outcome looked slim when, in 1875, the big man ran into a spot of bother with some testy locals near a remote watering hole in Central Asia.

Fred, a celebrated traveller as well as a cavalry officer, was heading to the ancient city of Khiva, in modern Uzbekistan. Six roughnecks approached looking none too friendly. Matters didn’t improve when a greeting of “salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) was ignored. Then one of the rogues turned to Fred’s guide and called the man an “unbeliever” for consorting with foreign infidel “dogs”.

“The insult was too great to be borne,” Fred writes. Abruptly the guide flew at his accuser, “smiting vigorous blows” on his astrakhan cap with a whip. The Khivan fought back, tearing the guide’s prized “crimson dressing-gown”. The other five ruffians reached for their knives. Fred drew his pistol.

And then a surprising and rather odd thing happened.

“My guide, who was very much out of breath, now blew his nose with his fingers as a sign of contempt for his adversary…” Fred writes. “His foe, not to be outdone, performed the same feat with his nasal organ.” The warring pair, no doubt encouraged by the sight of an Englishman’s revolver, then squatted before each other. And so began “a verbal battle, in which the reputations of their respective female relatives were much aspersed”.

This went on for about five minutes, by which time Fred was tired: “I walked up to them and said ‘Aman’ (peace); then taking hold of their wrists I forcibly made them shake hands.”

A grudging “salaam alaikum” was finally extracted from the guide. “Alaikum assalaam” (and peace be upon you) returned the Khivan, at last. Col Fred then lifted his giant frame onto his small, skeletal horse and was once more on his way.

This episode – subtitled “A Revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker” – appears in Frederick Burnaby’s 1876 best-seller, A Ride to Khiva: My Travels and Adventures in Central Asia

Thursday, 21 February 2013

An unpleasant discovery

Mary Kingsley in jungle dress
Picture the scene. Mary Henrietta Kingsley, intrepid Englishwoman, has been schlepping through a gloomy West African rainforest for hours. She’s tired. Her boots are sodden. Her long Victorian skirt has seen better days.

At dusk she stumbles into a clearing and finds herself standing among a cluster of low huts. This is Efoua, a small town of the Fang tribe. And the Fang, as Mary well knows, are cannibals.

Well, alleged cannibals. They have a reputation. But Mary’s first impressions are entirely positive. Yes, people stare in amazement at her. But on the whole these “fearsome” Fang seem like a friendly enough bunch. They want to trade, they want to palaver. A chief offers one of his huts for the evening, and Mary gratefully accepts.

That night she drifts off feeling “perfectly safe and content”, her head resting on a tobacco sack. But in no time she’s awoken by an appalling smell. The stench seems to be coming from little bags hanging from the roof of her hut. It has, Mary notices, “an unmistakably organic origin”.

What happens next sums up Mary Kingsley. Taking down one of the offending bundles, she unties its string and tips the contents into her hat. “They were a human hand,” she writes, “three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so so, and shrivelled.”

Mary would later learn that Fang folk liked to keep “a little something” of those they dined on “as a memento… an unpleasant practice when they hang the remains in the bedroom you occupy”. But she is unfazed. She simply puts the grisly body parts back where she found them and opens a door to let in air. “It was a perfect night,” she writes, “and no mosquitoes.”

The next morning, after her usual cup of tea, Mary was on the road early. The small party of African porters she was travelling with left Efoua with her – ten men in total, all of them still in one piece.

Mary’s visit to Efoua features in her 1897 bestseller Travels in West Africa. Katherine Frank’s biography of Mary Kingsley, A Voyager Out, is also worth a read

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Percy on song

Amazon explorer Col Percy H Fawcett
Good old Col Percy Harrison Fawcett. Mad as a monkey of course. Who else would devote half his life to looking for lost civilisations in South America? But he was also a professional English army officer of the old school, tough and tenacious. And it’s this curious mix of hard-headed soldier and kooky eccentric that no doubt caused him to react so memorably when, in 1910, he came under attack from Amazonian Indians.

Percy was heading up the Heath River in Peru when it happened. He was in dangerous territory. He’d been warned not to venture there. But off he’d gone anyway, his small party poling its way up the murky river in canoes. And predictably, on the seventh day, the men rounded a bend and ran straight into a group of “Guarayo” warriors who wasted little time in sending their way a hail of poisoned arrows.

Percy and his men found themselves pinned down on the other riverbank, the deadly missiles zipping over their heads and thumping into the ground around them. But they held fire: retaliation would surely only seal their fate. And instead Percy tried raising both hands and shouting “peace overtures” across the water at the bowmen. This proved unsuccessful. “The arrows,” Percy wrote, “flew thicker than ever!”

Then inspiration struck. Among Percy’s men was one Gunner Todd, a musical fellow who happened to be travelling with his accordion (as you do). Todd was directed to sit on a log and start playing, stamping his feet to keep time. A “mad sing-song” followed, strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers, “Bicycle Made For Two” and “Swannee River” bellowing through the rainforest. “Ludicrous…” Percy later conceded, “Anyone coming on this scene would have said we were all roaring drunk.”

Ludicrous or not, it worked. Mystified Indians, their faces painted, began emerging from cover. Seizing the moment, Percy hopped into his canoe and paddled over to greet them. Incredibly, friendly relations were quickly established. Laughter and back-slapping followed. By dusk, Indians and explorers were old pals and Gunner Todd and his accordion once again took centre stage. “We slept well that night,” Percy wrote, “for no one was required on guard.”

You can read more in Exploration Fawcett, an entertaining account of Percy's adventures complied from his letters, log-books and papers