Untold lives blog

113 posts categorized "Science and environment"

20 December 2021

The stork in fable and record

In September 1942, a flock of around 200 white storks (ciconia ciconia) arrived in Bahrain, as reported in the intelligence summaries from the country.  A ring on one of them showed that it had come from Lithuania.  They were shot at by the Bahrainis, who did not recognise the species, whereas elsewhere in the Middle East they were never harmed, suggesting that they were very infrequent visitors in Bahrain.  The report continues: ‘it was, no doubt, a coincidence that the same night a son was born to Mrs. Wakelin, wife of the Bahrain Government Director of Education’.

Painting of storks in a landscape surrounded by trees and flowersStorks (ciconia nigra) Or 3714, f 391r  - public domain

Stories about storks have circulated for millennia.  Their size makes them extremely visible and their habit of nesting on roofs of buildings, which also allowed their care of their chicks to be seen.  This, combined with their apparent care of the old and monogamous habits, led the Romans to believe that when they reached old age, they were transformed into human shape as a reward for their piety.

Storks have also been considered extremely lucky birds.  As travellers visited the Persian Empire and the Middle East, they frequently remarked on the presence of storks as the birds were common in mainland Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, but almost unknown in Britain.  They were considered as generally bringing good luck to the house on which they nested, and therefore were never harmed.  In 1758 Edward Ives described the scene in Baghdad: ‘You generally see on the Minarets the Stork, a large bird called by the Arabs Leg-leg, a destroyer of serpents; the Turks never offer to molest it…those who own a house where Storks have nested, are supposed to receive great blessings from heaven'.

Painting of storks nesting on a building Storks nesting on a building Or 2265, f 15 - public domain

Some hints about the origin of this belief can be found in the name sometimes given to them, haji laqlaq, suggesting that they had made a pilgrimage to Mecca.  ‘Laklak’ has existed as a name for storks since the Akkadian period, and as the main noise that storks make is clapping their bills, it is may be imitative in origin.

In the late 17th century, John Fryer visited Persepolis and remarked on the storks present there ‘which may serve to contradict the received Opinion, of Storks abiding only where Commonwealths are; this always having been an Empire’.  One of strangest stories about storks current at the time was that they would not nest under a monarchy, which served to explain why they did not nest in England, while they did in Holland and other places in Europe.

In ‘The Frogs who asked for a King’, one of Aesop’s Fables, a group of frogs ask Jupiter for a king.  He sends a log, which they play with and make fun of, and ask Jupiter for a real king. He then sends a stork, which starts to eat them.  This tale was still used as a metaphor in 1905 for two different ideas of power: King Log and King Stork.

Extract from official document speaking of King Log and King Stork  in reference to the ruler of BahrainKing Log and King Stork, in reference to the ruler of Bahrain IOR/L/PS/10/81, f 105r   open government licence 

And as for the Director of Education’s son arriving with the storks?  Despite stories from Eastern Europe and Egypt of storks having human souls, it is perhaps more likely that the story that storks brought babies was an extension of the idea that storks were ‘lucky’: a baby being the ultimate blessing a house could have.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer - British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
John Fryer’s visit to Persepolis is told in his account of his travels, W 3856 
The arrival of storks in Bahrain appears in IOR/R/15/2/314 ‘File 8/16 Bahrain Intelligence Reports’ 
Edward Ives describes seeing storks nesting, W 4137

 

09 November 2021

Invalids in the Nilgiri Hills

In The Bengal and Agra Annual Guide and Gazetteer for 1841 is a section on the benefit of the climate of the Nilgiri Hills for invalids, followed by hints for those trying to recover their health.

View of the Nilgiri Hills showing lush greenery and an Indian man and woman following a line of buffalos walking downhill.View of the Neelgherry or Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu by Captain Richard Place Barron  - British Library 1784.c.10 plate II Images Online

The Guide stated that the restorative powers of the climate in the hills for those suffering from Indian diseases was evident, but the preventative powers of that climate were overlooked.  It recommended that people suffering from the following diseases should be transferred at once to the hills –
Fever (unknown in the hills)
Dyspepsia (when not connected to a ‘serious derangement’ of the liver)
Debility ‘in every degree’
Habitual constipation
‘Local and cutaneous affections of every description’
All pulmonary complaints
‘All female complaints, properly so called’
Diarrhoea
Dysentery
‘Hepatic diseases in their milder forms’
Rheumatism ‘muscular or mercurial’
Gout – improvements in the condition were possible rather than cure

The hints for invalids recovering in the hills started by stressing that warm clothing was of vital importance.  ‘Every invalid as he values life’ should be provided with a good stock of flannel clothing - banians (jackets or shirts), cummerbunds with strings to tie round the middle, and drawers.  Footwear should be stout shoes and boots worn with worsted stockings.  Cold feet was a general complaint of newcomers, especially females, and could be remedied by wearing lambswool or worsted stockings.

The invalid should avoid exposure to the night air and never be out after sunset.  Early rising was neither necessary nor prudent, and the invalid should wait until the sun had risen sufficiently to drive away the cold and moisture of the night.  However care must be taken to return home before 9am to avoid the powerful effects of the sun.

A diet of light animal food with bread or biscuit was recommended, with vegetables, pastry and cheese.  Port or sherry was preferable to lighter wines, and beer unnecessary.

Exercise should be taken so that it produced ‘a gentle action on the skin’ and not fatigue, and exposure to the sun should be avoided.  Riding was better than walking, ‘it being less exciting’.  Once acclimatized, exercise should be increased gradually.

When recovery was well advanced, daylight hours should be spent in the open air as far as strength would permit.  Those who had suffered from fever should avoid the jungle at the foot of the hills.  If unfortunately detained there, a course of purgatives should be taken followed by small doses of quinine.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The Bengal and Agra Annual Guide and Gazetteer for 1841

19 October 2021

Stanley Cinchona Plantation

While browsing through a volume of India Office Public Works Department correspondence for 1866, I came across this lovely colour sketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India.  Intrigued, I read through the correspondence to find out more.

Colour sketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India showing trees and plants with a building in the backgroundSketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India IOR/L/PWD/3/512 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Cinchona is a tree indigenous to South America which was discovered to have valuable medicinal properties.  In particular, it was the source for the drug quinine used in the treatment of malaria. In the mid-19th century, attempts were made to cultivate Cinchona in various different parts of the British Empire.  The Stanley Cinchona Plantation was named after the first Secretary of State for India, Lord Stanley, who in April 1859 commissioned the geographer and explorer Clements Markham to undertake an expedition to South America to collect seeds and plants, and arrange for their transport to India.

Black and white sketch of a clump of cinchona trees with a man wearing a hat standing beneath themCinchona trees from Clements Markham 's Peruvian Bark ORW.1986.a.2987

The Public Works Department file is primarily concerned with the construction of roads in the Nilgiri and Kundah hills in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu).  An India Office memorandum acknowledged that the absence of roads into such a remote area had hindered plans for opening the Kundahs for cultivation, and stated: 'The formation of a Government plantation in what is now one of the most remote and wild parts of these mountains renders the construction of roads a matter of course'.  It was noted that one Cinchona planter had already been drowned in coming from the Kundahs to Ootacamund 'owing to the neglect of the Public Works Department to repair a bridge'.  An aggrieved administrator in the India Office wrote over this sentence with the comment 'This is rather hard upon the P.W. Dept.'.

Report on roads in the Kundah HillsReport on roads in the Kundah Hills IOR/L/PWD/3/512 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In his report of 6 January 1866 to the Madras Government on the subject of cinchona cultivation, Markham described the Kundahs as the finest hills he had yet seen in India, and wrote that: 'The soil is of extraordinary depth and fertility both in the forests and grass land, and there are abundant supplies of water.  Indeed the scenery of these beautiful hills; the long lines of forest with all the varied tints of foliage; the rich grass land intervening here and there; the magnificent waterfalls and precipices; and the sharp peaked outline of the distant mountains – is far and away the finest I have yet seen in the Western Ghauts'.  However, it seems that the costs involved with building roads into the area proved too great for Government.  In his book Peruvian Bark, Markham noted that the Kundah hills plantation was abandoned in 1872 due to the distance from Ootacamund and the lack of roads, with the cinchona tress which had been planted 'being left to take their chance with the native vegetation', and later ordered to be felled.

Map of Kundah Hills Map of  the Kundah Hills IOR/L/PWD/3/512  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Oddly, nowhere in the papers is the colour sketch mentioned.  Who created it and why it was included in a Government file remains a mystery.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Public Works Despatches to Madras (Original Drafts), 1865-1866, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PWD/3/512.
Public Works Letters from Madras, 1866-1867, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PWD/3/191 – page 333 for Public Works letter No.33, dated 27 July 1867.
Report by C R Markham on the spread of the cinchona cultivation through the hill districts, 16 January 1866, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/3/1356 no.15.
Clements R Markham, Peruvian Bark. A popular account of the introduction of Chinchona cultivation into British India, (London: John Murray, 1880), BL shelfmark ORW.1986.a.2987.
The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XVI Kotchandpur to Mahavinyaka (Oxford, 1908).
Products of the Empire: Cinchona: a short history. Cambridge University Library.
Donovan Williams, ‘Clements Robert Markham and the Introduction of the Cinchona Tree into British India, 1861’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 128, no. 4 (1962), pages 431–442. 

 

23 September 2021

Landscape in law

Archives on the environment appear in unexpected places.

Under the Permanent Settlement of 1793, India’s British rulers fixed the taxes which land-holders in certain regions paid on their land.  But land itself was not permanent.  Across the Sub-continent, rivers and their tributaries were constantly changing the landscape.   They flooded, dried up, and changed course.  They submerged some areas and exposed others; they created bogs, swamps and marshes which were neither land nor water.  Little wonder that colonial officials, intent on extracting revenue from the land, described India’s rivers variously as ‘mischievous’, ‘unruly’ or ‘evil’.

If a change in the river created more land on your land, should you pay more tax?  This was the question facing the Maharajah Jagadindra Nath Roy Bahadoor in 1892, after the great Brahmaputra had changed course and new land had emerged on his estates in Bengal.  No, said the Maharajah: the land, although under water before, had always been there.  Yes, said the government: new land above water was just that - new.

The Maharajah took the government to court.  By 1902 the case had escalated through the High Court of Bengal to the final court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.  Archives about the case survive in the records of the Legal Adviser to the India Office, who acted for the Secretary of State for India.  The Committee found in the government’s favour: you can read the judgment here.

On points of law, the case attracted a certain interest; it is summarised in Indian Appeals.  But what draws the attention now are the maps prepared for the earlier hearings.  Twenty maps show the disputed land at different times in the 19th century.  Some are prepared from old survey maps; others are composites, telling the story on a single sheet like this example below.  It shows the river’s course in 1892 [A] superimposed on its course as measured out in 1852 [B].  The new land is marked out in yellow, with patches of jungle and sand drawn in.

Map of Mouza Garamara, 1895. Map of Mouza Garamara, 1895. Map no 18 in IOR/L/L/8/78 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Bengal the Maharajah had also called witnesses, and their recollections fill out the scene.  'The lands were washed away by the river in eight or nine years.  The river remained current on the spots for a year or two, then receded towards the north.'  ' have seen jute, aus [rice], paddy and mustard being grown upon the land.'

We are currently cataloguing the Legal Adviser’s records and have found other lawsuits arising from changes in river courses.  This is a map from an Appeal of 1928 (for parties and judgment see here).

Comparative Map of Kalaran Chandipur, 1919Comparative Map of Kalaran Chandipur, 1919. Map no 5 in IOR/L/L 26G (210) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These maps and testimonies must have given a diverting glimpse of the natural world to the Privy Councillors while they sat in their Council chamber at no 9 Downing Street.  Today, the documents catch the eye again, especially for anyone interested in the historical river-scape of the Bengal delta.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, India Office Records


Further reading
IOR/L/L/8/78; IOR/L/L (Box 26G (210))
For the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and related British Library holdings, see here
Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History (London: Penguin Books, 2018)
Rohan D'Souza, “Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals: the English East India Company and the Colonial Resource Regime”, in The East India Company and the natural world ed. by Vinita Damodaran, Anna Winterbottom and Alan Lester (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
The Law Reports. Indian Appeals: being cases in the Privy Council on appeal from the East Indies. Reported by W. Macpherson, vol. 30 (London: Council of Law Reporting, 1903)

 

24 August 2021

'A Curious Herbal' inspiring current day creatives

Let us introduce you to a remarkable woman called Elizabeth Blackwell and her book, A Curious Herbal.  The British Library is lucky enough to have three copies of this important book.  Elizabeth Blackwell, born in the early 1700s, was the first British woman to produce a herbal.  She drew, engraved and coloured the 500 illustrations single-handedly.  The unusual story behind the herbal’s creation makes it even more interesting.

Garden Cucumber by Elizabeth BlackwellGarden Cucumber, Plate 4, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s husband Alexander was a shady character.  He practiced as a doctor in Aberdeen but had no formal medical training or qualifications.   When he was challenged the couple fled to London.  Alexander then tried to establish himself as a printer.  However, the authorities discovered that he hadn’t completed the mandatory apprenticeship.  His breach of regulations incurred a heavy fine which he couldn’t pay.  So he was sent to debtor’s prison.  Elizabeth decided to publish a herbal to support herself and her child, and raise enough money to secure her husband’s release from prison.

Love Apple by Elizabeth BlackwellLove Apple, Plate 133, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth published A Curious Herbal in parts between 1737 and 1739.  Several leading botanists endorsed her.  She also approached Sir Hans Sloane who granted her access to the foreign plant specimens in his collection (see the blog post Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane).  There were 500 engraved illustrations in total, all hand-coloured by Elizabeth herself.  Normally this would require three separate professionals.  She drew specimens not only from England but also many from North and South America.  These specimens were brought to England by colonists and botanists who often had links to slave labour plantations.

'Female Piony' by Elizabeth Blackwell'Female Piony', Plate 65, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s plan worked. Her profits secured Alexander’s release from prison. But, despite his wife’s heroic efforts, he was not a reformed man. His debts built up once more and he became entangled in a political conspiracy in Sweden. He was beheaded for treason in 1748. Elizabeth Blackwell faded from the historical record after this – we don’t know much about the rest of her life. But she will always be remembered for being a pioneer in botanical illustration and for her heroic efforts to help her (useless!) husband.

Guinea Pepper by Elizabeth BlackwellGuinea Pepper, Plate 129, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This summer A Curious Herbal is being used to inspire current budding botanical illustrators taking part in the Entangled Sketchbook Challenge organised by Lancaster University.  The Challenge invites people to examine the natural world around them using a series of prompts to make daily notes, doodles and drawings to record details of what they find, including the date, time and weather.  The hashtag for sharing these drawings on social media is #EntangledSketchbooks.

Challenge participants can also ask for their favourite sketchbook pages to be considered for an online exhibition that will be part of the Entangled Festival, a week-long celebration of arts, environment and technologies, which is taking place online and outdoors in Morecambe Bay from 18- 26 September 2021.  To submit drawings for this, please email good quality photographs or scans to entangledfestival@gmail.com using ‘Exhibition submission’ in the email subject line.

Good luck to everyone taking part in the challenge.  We hope Elizabeth Blackwell’s wonderful illustrations provide delight and encouragement for you to draw some nearby plants, flowers and trees.

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom), Digital Curator 

 



29 July 2021

Birdwatching in Assam

One of the fascinating elements of private paper collections is what they contain about people’s hobbies and interests.  The India Office Private Papers are full of such collections.  One example is the papers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne which record her passion for birdwatching.

Overview of papers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne spread out on a tablePapers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Born in Bristol in 1896, she was the first of two children of Edward Tuckett Daniell, a Bristol lawyer, and his second wife Alice Craigie.  She married William Milburne, the manager of Dhendai tea plantation, Darrang, Assam.  Both Dorothea and William were keen photographers of big game, and some of their work was published in the Statesman and the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s.  They left India in 1945, and Dorothea died in Bristol in 1982.

Most of her birdwatching was done in Darrang, Assam, as recorded in her detailed notes and notebooks.  In these papers she carefully recorded the birds she saw, giving observations on their appearance and behaviour, and even giving a numbered reference to the authoritative published guide on the birds of India by Oates and Blanford.  Here are some examples of her observations.

Of the Small Minivet she noted that they were not nearly as common or gay as other Minivets, and comments: ‘I once saw large black velvet & buttercup butterfly chasing an obviously terrified hen Small Minivet round & round peach trees in compound’.

Painting of a Minivet - orange, black and grey feathersMinivet by J Briois, c.1824 – British Library Images Online Shelfmark NHD 47/22 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Painting of a Shama - black and white feathers with a light brown breastShama by J Briois c.1824 – British Library Images Online Shelfmark NHD 47/22 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In recording her sightings of the Shama, she described an experiment she carried out: ‘I made interesting experiments with Shama visiting compound which responded to Ludwig Koch’s Nightingale record (gramophone), hopping across lawn to within few yards of verandah though usually hiding in shrubs, cocking head and responding with snatches of song.  Unfortunately chased right away by compound Dayal & Brown Shrikes & possibly frightened by cutting down of neighbouring shade trees’.

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the BitternDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Bittern - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Fans of the BBC nature programme Springwatch will know of the presenters’ fondness for the Bittern which is known for its distinctive ‘boom’ like call.  This shy bird appears fleetingly on Dorothea’s list: the Chestnut Bittern (‘Never saw settle to take in details’), Malay Bittern (‘seen once only flying through evergreen forest’), and Black Bittern (‘seen flying across a hoolah in garden several times one August’), although she records disappointingly ‘I did not hear one “boom”!’

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Spur-winged PloverDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Spur-winged Plover - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Knowing the call of a bird is essential in identifying it, and Dorothea kept careful notes on the sounds each bird made.  She even wrote the sounds down in music notation.  Of the Spur-winged Plover she wrote of its cry: ‘Gutteral, conversational “Whee whee wew” like beginning of “Did he do it” cry.  Rapid, irregular “Jip! Jip!” on C in flight’.

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the PittasDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Pittas- British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dorothea often shared her passion with other birdwatchers, such as the planter and naturalist Charles McFarlane Inglis, who spent much of his free time in the study of India’s birds, and later became curator of the Darjeeling Natural History Museum.  In her notes she says that Inglis seemed surprised that she had not seen a Blue-necked Pittas, and says ‘Made special point of looking for it cold weather 1944 & early ’45 but in vain’.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Dorothea Craigie Milburne papers, 1933-1945, shelfmark: Mss Eur D913.
Forests and ecological history of Assam by Arupjyoti Saikia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), shelfmark: YC.2012.a.8245
The fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma: Birds by Eugene William Oates and W T Blanford (London,Taylor and Francis; [etc., etc.]1889-98), available online. 
Ludwig Koch on the recording a White-rumped Shama in 1889.
BBC Springwatch,Minsmere round-up - my highlights’ by Chris Packham, 18 June 2014.
Charles McFarlane Inglis (1870-1954).

 

27 July 2021

A captain goes down with his ship!

On 25 November 1865 the ship Great Britain slipped its anchor at Madras and, as directed by the signals from the Master Attendant’s Office, headed out to sea.  It would be the last time anyone would see the ship.

Report of loss of Great Britain from London Evening Standard 3 March 1866Report of loss of Great Britain from London Evening Standard 3 March 1866 - Courtesy of  British Newspaper Archive

There were a few things that made the fate of the Great Britain unusual.  Firstly the weather following the ship’s arrival at Madras on 20 November had been worsening by the day and there was warning of an impending cyclone.  On 23 November the crew had been forced to cease unloading cargo as the weather  conditions had rendered communication with the shore too dangerous.  Only about 55 tons of the cargo had been unloaded, leaving about half of the contents of the hold still on board.

Secondly the deteriorating weather had meant that by the evening of 23 November vessels were unable to pass the surf in the harbour, stranding people ashore.  These included William Murton, captain of the Great Britain.

Under these circumstances, there should have been no reason for the signals to be given for the Great Britain to set sail. But just after 7am on 25 November the ship left the harbour and headed out to sea, despite not having the captain on board.

Shortly afterwards, the weather claimed its victim and the Great Britain sank.  Fortunately there were no casualties and everyone was safely rescued.

For William Murton this would be his one and only commission as captain of a ship.  In February 1866 he lodged a protest with the Notary Public in Madras against the official account of the sinking of his ship which had implied negligence on his part.  He presented his account of the events of 21-25 November 1865, and concluded by stating that:
‘all losses and damage were occasioned by the bad weather and occurrences and not by the inefficiency of the said vessel or the default of the appearer William Murton, his officers or any of his mariners’.

William Murton's mariner's register certificate May 1850IOR/L/MAR/C/666B, f. 14 Mariner’s Register Certificate issued to William Murton May 1850 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

William Murton was born in Faversham, Kent in August 1834.  He had entered the maritime service on 30 May 1850 as a midshipman aboard the Nile, and he rose through the ranks receiving his master’s certificate on 22 September 1864.  He was appointed captain of the Great Britain on 1 February 1865.

William Murton's Master's certificate 1864IOR/L/MAR/C/666B, f. 16 Master Mariner’s Certificate issued to William Murton 1864 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Murton returned to England shortly after the loss of the Great Britain and retired from the maritime service.  He married Charlotte Augusta Emma Grant, daughter of the late Lieutenant Colonel Charles St John Grant, on 28 June 1866 at St John’s Church in Paddington.  The couple had three daughters: Mary, Fanny Seringa and Amelia Augusta, and one son Herbert William Grant.  Sadly Fanny and Herbert both died in 1876 aged eight and six respectively.  Fanny Seringa was named after the ship Seringapatam, in which Murton served from 1860-1862.  This was a surprisingly popular girl’s name which has been the subject of previous Untold Lives blog posts - My daughter Seringa and More girls called Seringa!

Karen Stapley
India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/C/666B – Captain William Murton’s service papers, 1850-1866, including copy of a petition in lodged in February 1866 in relation to the sinking of the Great Britain in November 1865.
India Office Private Papers Mss Eur A184 – William Murton’s papers, 1852.
British Library WD317 – Right profile silhouette of William Murton c. 1857.
British Library Photo 412(1) – Portrait of William Murton, Midshipman, c. 1850/1852.

 

04 May 2021

Gout Raptures – a War among the Stars

Today is May the Fourth – Star Wars Day.  To mark this, we are sharing a dramatic poem from 1677 entitled Gout Raptures … or an historical fiction of a War among the Stars.

Gout Raptures
The author Dr Robert Witty explains in his introduction that he was laid up with gout in his hands and feet.  Unable to handle a pen or turn over the pages of a book, he fell into a contemplation of ‘the Stars and Constellations in Heaven’.  Witty thought up a story of a war amongst the stars since astronomers agreed that there were aspects of planets and fixed constellations which made them ‘contrary to each other’.  The result was Gout Raptures, written subsequently in idle moments and on journeys.

The star war started with a dispute between Saturn and Luna (the Moon).  Saturn was unhappy that a female ruled the night.  Saturn in Capricorn proclaimed war, and Luna in Cancer rose in opposition.

‘In Capricorn old Saturn
the worst of all the seven,
Design’d the Night to rule in spight
of all the Stars in Heaven.

His quarrel was at Luna
declaring his opinion,
None could but vex that the female Sex
should hold so large dominion.

She lowest of the Planets
the other Tropick claimed,
But down she shall, and catch a Fall,
and thus a war’s proclaimed.’

Jupiter supported Luna and sent out the Eagle and Beagle constellations to spy out Saturn’s forces.  On the advice of a council of all constellations, Jupiter raised two armies – a standing army of fixed stars and a flying army of planets.  War was declared and Jupiter found the rebels in Taurus with the Fiends of Hell and the Heathen Gods.  The rebels fled, pursued by Jupiter from sign to sign.

‘In stead of Pike and Pistol
they fought in fiery flashes,
What’s Cannon proof they pierced through
no Sword can make such gashes.’

When the rebels reached Scorpio, Cupid fired an enchanted arrow and put an end to the war.  All the stars fell in love with each other, and peace and quietness was restored.

Witty pointed out similarities in his story to the path of the English Civil War and the restoration of King Charles II.  Gout Raptures had English, Latin and Greek versions in one volume so that schools could use it.

Robert Witty or Wittie (c.1613-1684) was born in Beverley, Yorkshire.  A friend of the poet Andrew Marvell, he became a schoolmaster and then a physician, practising in Hull and York before moving to London.  He also published Popular Errours … in Physick, a translation of James Primrose’s De vulgi in medicina erroribus, and wrote Scarbrough Spaw, a book championing the efficacy of mineral waters.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Robert Witty, Gout Raptures. Ἀστρομαχια. Or an historical fiction of a War among the Stars (Cambridge, 1677).  A verse in English, Latin and Greek.  Available to read online.

 

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