Thursday, 28 February 2013

Policing Persia: Swedes Very far From Home

In the early 20th century, some forces in Persia were pushing to modernise the country which had, in regards to organisation and government, changed very little in the past few hundred years.

The Shah of Persia arriving in Ourmiah, 1911 (source: Library of Congress)

In July 1910, the Democrats came to power and one part of their modernisation program was the construction of a national gendarmerie - a sort of paramilitarian force that was part police force and part armed force aimed at keeping the peace by any means necessary. While events soon lead to the program being dropped, the idea of a gendarmerie survived, partly likely because it was in the interest of the two super-powers in the region - Russia and Great Britain - to ensure safe passage through the notoriously dangerous region. As an example, Mr Smart, the British Consul at Shiraz, was attacked in the neighbourhood of Kazerun in December 1912. Grazed by a bullet, and trapped under his wounded horse, he was only saved due to the efficiency of the troop of the Central India Horse that escorted him and the kind care of some of the locals, and the incident led to considerable diplomatic tension. In fact, the Gendarmerie was to be in great part funded by Britain and Russia – for example, in may 1913, the British Government advanced a sum of £100,000 to the Persian government for this purpose, following the Smart-incident.

However, in order to build such a force, Persia needed help from the outside since the country lacked officers with the relevant sort of training. The question was which country to turn to? In 1907, Russia and Great Britain had, much to the outrage of the Persians, divided the country into two speheres of influence; one Russian and one Britain. Naturally, it was unthinkable for either side to allow the other party to organise a national armed Persian force, and they also vetoed Teheran's first choice Italy, because Italy was viewed to be too much of a power in itself.

Sweden, however... Let's face it; while the Russians may once have been trounced by Swedish forces in battles such as Narva, Sweden in the early 20th century was not that impressive. In fact, she had just voluntarily granted Norway independence and was now only a small fraction of the Baltic power she had once been. Nobody needed fear the Swedes – least of all super-powers like Russia and Britain.

Hence, in August 1911, Colonel Harald O. Hjalmarson (helpful tip: 'hj' is pronounced as an English 'y', so he would be 'Yalmarson')  arrived and with the help of several other Swedish officers, began the laborious task of organising a gendarmerie, aimed at maintaining security on the highways and roads. It was called the Persian Central Governemt Gendarmerie (or in Persian, Zhandarmiri-yi Dawlati).

 General Harald Hjalmarson (source: Wikipedia)

The Swedish officers were to a large degree Swedish aristocrats, and the Persian officers were also drawn from the higher social strata and well-educated – many of them spoke French, for instance. At the end of 1912 the Gendarmerie consisted of 21 Swedes and nearly 3,000 Persian officers and men. By the end of 1913, the number of Swedish officers had risen to 36 while nearly 6,000 Persians were employed. According to an article in The Times, around 2,000 of them were mounted, and they were organised in six regiments, or more accurately, nine battalions.

The outbreak of World War I led to a distinct shift in policy. First of all, Sweden recalled all the officers who were on the roll for active duty. Second, Persia was in a very delicate position, finding itself between Germany's ally Turkey and British India. Both sides wooed the Persians, who nominally remained neutral. However, the Gendarmerie had distinct German loyalties. Not only were the Swedish officers by tradition friendly towards their bigger Germanic cousin, but nationalist Persian forces who were still outraged at Russia's and Britain's high-handedness in splitting the country between them, were also in favour of Germany. They accepted subsidiaries from Germany and covertly aided German expiditions, such as the expedition headed by Niedermayer, as well as allowing Wasserman's proslyting among local potentates in southern Persia.

In 1916, the force split; some siding with the nationalists, actively fighting the Russians, while parts of the first and second regiments in Teheran remained neutral along with their Swedish officers. The troops who had remained neutral would later form the nucleus for the reconstructed Gendarmerie, which took part in the campaigns against the Bolsheviks in the Caspian provinces and the Kurdish rebellion in Azerbaijan, as well as keeping up its police duties of guarding the roads.

After the coup d'état in 1921, the Gendarmerie formed the core for the new national Iranian army together with the the Iranian Cossack Division and the remaining Swedish officers returned home. Harald O. Hjalmarson would later head the Swedish Brigade in the Finnish Civil War, and died in 1919, only 51 years old.

And that is how, bizarrely, a few Swedish officers actively aided Germany's overtures to the Muslim World during World War I.


"The Unrest In Southern Persia." Times [London, England] 5 Apr. 1912: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"British Officer Killed In Persia." Times [London, England] 12 Dec. 1912: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"Policing Persia." Times [London, England] 27 Dec. 1913: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"Indian Soldiers Attacked in Dangerous Pass: The Consul Smart Incident." The Straits Times, 26 January 1912, Page 2

Cronin, Stephanie, Gendarmerie, Encyclopaedia Iranica, online edition, 28 July 2012 (available at

Hopkirk, Peter, On Secret Service East of Constantinople: the plot to bring down the British empire, J. Murray, London, 1994

Wikipedia; entry on Swedish Gendarmerie in English, and on Harald Hjalmarson in Swedish.

(This post was originally posted on my old blog)

Monday, 25 February 2013

British Courts in India: Perpetuating Power Or Challenging It?

Bombay High Court, 1902 (source: The National Archive, Catalogue Reference: Part of CO 1069/179)

Having spent the some time reading about the administration and legal system of British India, I came across the following statement by Gandhi:
"Do you think it would be possible for the English to carry on their Government without law courts? It is wrong to assume that courts are established for the benefit of the people. Those who want to perpetuate their power do so through the courts."
Pretentious as it might seem, I couldn't help asking myself if Gandhi was right. Did law ultimately serve the purpose of upholding or undermining the structures of Victorian England, especially when seen in a colonial perspective?

First, law can obviously both be a reflection of society as it is, or as we would like it to be when we make laws trying to accomplish social change (as when established legal systems reflecting the existing social order have been replaced in one fell swoop through Communist revolution in traditional societies, for example). But I would argue that even when "conservative", as in constructed to uphold the existing structures, law will always potentially threaten the very structures it is designed to protect.

Why? Because law is about expressing power in a logical and structural way, and that in turn makes it vulnerable to structured arguments based on logic. While power is hidden, unexpressed and implicit, it cannot really be addressed except through violence. But when it is explained and structured, it is stripped of its almost magical abilities. In that sense, law is to power what exposing a marked deck is to magic.

You might compare it to theology, which is really all about structuring faith in a logical fashion. While theology is more or less necessary in order to justify and uphold a complex belief system, it also makes that belief system vulnerable to attack. Look at Christianity, for example. The most successful attacks on the religious status quo are all founded on what are ultimately theological arguments – for example, Luther's and Calvin's Reformation are both "legal" revolutions in that they use the language and arguments of theology to challenge the tenets of that same theology. Thereby it made the justification for the existing beliefs the very foundation for the questioning of status quo. The same thing could be said for the challenge of science. It would be much harder to attack for science to call faith into question if it had not implicitly tried to justify itself by logic; i.e. through a carefully structured belief system that is rationalised through rational argument (and the truth is that modern scientific thought to a large extent is dependent on the rules for argument that was originally designed within a religious context, such as the tomistic logic).

In the same way, when power is called into question in such a way that it feels it must defend itself by rational argument (as it increasingly did in Britain over the centuries), it also becomes vulnerable to being questioned on the very same premises it uses to legitimise itself. Law forces power to explain itself and no matter if it does so by positivism (it is the law because I say so and I am the power) or by utilitarianism (it is the law because it is the best for the majority) or any other mechanism (it is the word of God, for example), the explicit justification makes it possible to question it. Thereby, it is possible no only to call into question not only the ultimate cause for justification, but also that this justification makes the application of power (law) reasonable in an individual case. By laying claim to rationality, power can be questioned by rationality, and not just in legal theory but in its practical application in courts.

Undoubtedly, British law and legal practices in the 19th century was an expression of power over an underprivileged majority by a fairly small and privileged group of white males, but in order to justify this order, British law and legal practices had long used the application of a set of principles that ultimately allowed its opponents to argue against those same inequalities.

This is also evident in the ambivalence in 19th century British justification for its colonial ventures. The idea of British superiority, which was what was often considered to ultimately give Britain the right to occupy foreign countries such as India, also gave Britain an obligation to act in a "superior" manner and gave her a certain responsibility towards "inferior" cultures, which she had to shoulder if she was going to be able to successfully maintain her right to govern these people. In short, if Britain acted in a cruel, arbitrary and "uncivilised" manner, then the basic tenants underlying British legal thought disqualified her from laying claim to her colonies, unless she was to accept the collapse of the mental cosmology that had been created over several centuries. Since that was clearly intolerable, these principles had to be upheld in the laws and the courts, which in turn made it possible to question inequality before the law and the power of the privileged group over the disfranchised such as women, the poor and the colonial groups.

Just, then, as the very carefully constructed theology of the Church in the Middle Ages, made it possible for Luther to call its tenets into question, the theories of rights and power that ultimately justified the British constitutional and legal order made it possible for the American colonialists to call it into question, and for the tea coolies of Assam to demand equality before the law. You might say that whenever the authorities applied the governmental power in an arbitrary on unjust way, they actually called the entire system into question and to do so too openly would necessarily have lead to its collapse. Therefore, in order to survive, it had no choice but to allow itself to be attacked on the grounds of being unfair and unjust.

By providing both a monopoly on violence and a justification for that monopoly, you could say that the law, and the faith in the law by the oppressed, did serve to uphold the basic unfairness underlying the colonial order, and that if the oppressed had refused to acknowledge this order, they might have hastened its demise. But then, the almost sacrosanct status of the law and courts in the British mind also opened it up for a revolution from within – the demands of the oppressed became not a foreign power trying to force its will on the British, but made them an inevitable consequence of the system itself, which may ultimately have been a greater threat to it. In that context, peaceful protests and British violence in response to it, was a much greater threat to the existing order than separatist violence since the British could very well justify violence in the face of violence, but it was much harder justify violence applied in direct opposition of the justification for the monopoly of violence for the state.

I would therefore argue that all justification for power, and its open and rational expression through laws and legal theories, necessarily makes it vulnerable to challenge, but the form of a successful challenge will vary depending on what that rationale is. In that sense, you could say that all belief systems are vulnerable their own kryptonite. The very different challenges faced by Russia in Central Asia, I think, serves to pinpoint this. Russia had a very different rationale underlying its social order, and thus, it was less vulnerable to protests based on fairness and the rights of the governed people, but was ultimately more vulnerable to open revolution, since the autocratic system could not be justified once it failed to apply its will successfully on the people. 

And thus, I would also argue that British law in India, while striving to uphold the social order actually, ultimately, undermined it. On the other hand, the fact that it contained the mechanisms for challenging it built into the system likely helped the fundamental social order in Britain to survive even the cataclysm of the social change of the 20th century, and survive well into the 21st.

The modern Western law, then, I would say, is a double-edged sword that can be used both as a weapon against inherent unfairness in the system and as a shield to defend those very structural inequalities against radical change. The awareness of this somewhat contradictory nature of Western legal thought is, I think, helpful when discussing the role of law in oppressing and/or liberating marginalised groups in the past. I would be curious to hear if anyone agrees with me, or if I'm coming across as completely spaced out (or just repeating an argument that has been made many times before).


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Baghdad: Worth a Mosque?

The Kaiser; aka "Hadji Wilhelm Mohammed" (Source: Wikipedia)
World War I is usually associated with the trenches on the Western Front. You know; shelling, gassing, the Somme, the Battle of Verdun... But as Germany knew right at the outset; the Allies' weakest spot was not the French border. No, the soft, unprotected underbelly of the Allies was Britain's Achilles heel – India (why, yes, I do like mixing my metaphors – why do you ask?).

Germany had long groomed Turkey for the (officially un)express(ed) purpose of getting a foothold in Asia. When the rest of the world refused to have any truck with the late Sultan Abdul Hamid after his brutal crushing of the rebellion by the (Christian) Armenian minority, Germany had taken Turkey's side against the outraged Russians. Germany had even helped Turkey arm itself by offering military advisors and arms. In return, Germany only wanted a small thing – a railroad, running straight from Berlin to Baghdad. That way, Germany would be well prepared to open up an Asian front in case of a conflict with Russia and Britain without risking that her troop movements were impeded by Russia and her Slavic allies in Eastern Europe.

In order to affirm the friendship Germany felt with the Islamic world, Kaiser Wilhelm even declared himself the protector of the Muslim world. During a state visit to Turkey in 1898, he made speech to that effect which was repeated on postcards that were spread from Kabul to the Bosporus. Islam's cause, Germany declared, was also Germany's.

Example of the postcards described above, with the German text on the left and the same in Arabic on the right

When war finally broke out, Germany urged the Sultan as the leader of the Islamic world to declare a jihad, a holy war, on Britain. The idea was that the vast Muslim population in India would then rise up against its British masters and throw them back into the sea from whence they came. Without India, Britain would be little but a puny island kingdom whose bark was considerably worse than its bite.

Germany was not content to rely entirely on the sultan, however, considering the rather bad relationship between the Ottomans and many Islamic peoples. No, Germany was going to take it one step further and try to persuade India's closest neighbours, Persia and Afghanistan, to join their cause. In order to do so, Germany sent several expiditions in order to treat with the Shah of Persia and the Emir of Afghanistan, as well as to proselyte among the local tribes.

The full story of Germany's jihad is too long and complicated to relate here, but one of the more absurd aspects of it was the claim that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His name, therefore, was given as "Hadji Wilhelm Mohammed", a rather shameless, not to say blasphemous, attempt to exploit the genuine religious feeling of the Muslims. Meanwhile, Germany coldly planned to lay claim to most of the land under Ottoman control as soon as Britain and Russia had been defeated.

It didn't work though,  and perhaps it never could have. Perhaps Germany underestimated her Muslim allies' ability to see through her rather feeble ruse, or maybe they simply overestimated the religious ties and underestimated the political and ethnic tensions within the Islamic world.

Nevertheless, forgotten as it is today, the affair of the German Jihad without a doubt managed to further increase the gap between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia and helped contribute to the dichotomy so strongly and painfully experienced in the century that followed World War I.

(This post was originally posted on my old blog)

Monday, 18 February 2013

George Gissing; Or, Fact Is Indeed Sometimes Stranger Than (Credible) Fiction

George Gissing (source: Wikipedia)

 George Gissing was born in the year of the Indian Uprising and although he survived Queen Victoria by two years, dying in 1903, he is almost the epitome of a Victorian writer, not only in that his books are unmistakably  Victorian in flavour, but also because his personal life contained all the elements of prime Victorian melodrama.

The son of a Yorkshire pharmacist, young George showed promise and scholarly aptitude. However, his budding career in the academic field came to a rather sudden halt at a young age, after he became more or less obsessed with a young prostitute named Nell (she was an orphan, naturally - how could it be a Victorian melodrama otherwise?). Having ruined himself trying to keep her off the streets, he began stealing from his fellow students, but was soon exposed (the shame! the shame!) and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

He tried to get a fresh start in America, but he soon returned to England, propelled by the twin forces of financial failure and longing for his Nell, whom he married. It wasn't a successful marriage (I don't think you can label a marriage in which one party engages in prostitution and that ends with separation and the wife dying from alcoholism and/or syphilis as "successful" even if you try) but at least the 1880s saw the beginnings of his writing career – he was first published in 1880 and kept up a decent productivity with seven more novels published in that decade and 12 in the next.

He remarried in 1891, and to hear his friend H.G Wells tell it, the screening process was rather erratic – he simply picked up a servant girl in Regents Park one Sunday afternoon and married her. His reasons were, according to Wells, splendidly Victorian:

"he felt that to make love to any woman he could regard as a social equal would be too elaborate, restrained and tedious for his urgencies, he could not answer questions he supposed he would be asked about his health and means, and so, for the second time, he flung himself at a social inferior whom he expected to be easy and grateful."

This is obviously not a sound basis for married bliss, and so, rather predictably, the marriage was yet another failure. Mrs Gissing's violent and erratic behaviour led firstly to their children being sent away for their safety, and finally, to her being committed to a lunatic asylum in 1902 (yes, that's one wife who was a prostitute and another who went mad, albeit not hidden in the attic, which gives Mr Gissing 8/10 on the Victorian melodrama scale).

To make it even better, Gissing was, according to Wells, "an extremely good-looking, well-built man, slightly on the lean side, blond, with a good profile and a splendid leonine head" (yes, it's hard to tell behind that moustache, I agree, but we'll have to trust Mr Wells on this one). No wonder then that his insane wife should not keep him from scoring yet again – this time with a Frenchwoman, with whom he lived in "psuedo-marriage" until his death. Even that was suitably novel-esque – he died from pneumonia originating from a cold caught on a winter walk (he had emphysema and was thus in poor shape to begin with). It seems his final relationship was only just better than his former ones, and Wells gives poor Gissing a rather depressing epigraph:

"So ended all that flimsy inordinate stir of grey matter that was George Gissing. He was a pessimistic writer. He spent his big fine brain depreciating life, because he would not and perhaps could not look life squarely in the eyes,—neither his circumstances nor the conventions about him nor the adverse things about him nor the limitations of his personal character."

Gloomy, isn't it? If you don't trust Mr Wells' word, you can become personally acquainted with Mr Gissing's writing, since most of his novels can be found online these days.

If you don't know where to start, the most well-known of his books is New Grub Street, followed by Odd Women.  His style is generally realistic, close to documentary, but at the same time, he was an idealist, deeply in love with the Classical world, and his political stance was certainly not that of a reformer – he looked at the lower classes as doomed and mostly unable to reform. The Nether World is especially bleak, being written after Nell's death and describing the life of London's poor. Not a feel-good author, certainly, but a good choice for a close and unsentimental look at Victorian Britain.

Workers in the Dawn (1880)
The Unclassed (1884)
Isabel Clarendon (1885)
Demos (1886)
Thyrza (1887)
A Life's Morning (1888)
The Nether World (1889)
The Emancipated (1890)
New Grub Street (1891)
Denzil Quarrier (1892)
Born In Exile (1892)
The Odd Women (1893)
In the Year of Jubilee (1894)
Eve's Ransom (1895)
The Paying Guest (1895)
Sleeping Fires (1895)
The Whirlpool (1897)
The Town Traveller (1898)
The Crown Of Life (1899)
By the Ionian Sea (1901)
Our Friend the Charlatan (1901)
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903)
Will Warburton (1905)   


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Tragic Romance: The Story of Elvira Madigan

Elvira Madigan (Wikipedia
In 1888, the Madigan Circus visited the small Swedish town of Kristianstad. There, the young tightrope walker Elvira Madigan, the step-daughter of the circus' owner, met and fell in love with the considerably older Lieutenant Count Sixten Sparre.  Since he was already married and had two children, it was inappropriate to say the least, and during the exchange of passionate letters that followed the meeting, Elvira's mother and step-father did their best to dissuade her.

Love, however, isn't just blind, but infinitely stupid as well, and so, in 1889, when Sixten asked her to, she ran away and joined him. They travelled together to Elvira's home-country Denmark (her real name was Hedvig Olsen) where they lived together until they ran out of funds.

Lieutenant Count Sixten Sparre (Wikipedia)
By then, their situation was desperate; Sixten's family refused to help him and he was wanted for deserting his regiment. Faced with financial ruin, disgrace and without any recourse from friends or family, the future was beyond bleak.

On 20 July, 1889, the couple packed a picnic bag and declared they were going on an outing to Norreskøv. There, they had a final meal, after which Sixten shot Elvira, and then killed himself with his service revolver.

The story naturally caused a scandal when it became public knowledge. A penny-sheet ballad was written about the affair, and I think to this day most Swedes know at least the first verse of it – it was one of those horribly moving songs that made me cry as a child (I loved those). The story has also been filmed on several occasions. The most famous version is the heart-breakingly beautiful film by Bo Widerberg from 1967. It rather famously used  Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 as a theme song – the piece is sometimes referred to as "Elvira Madigan" today though I'm sure many people have no idea why.

Tommy Berggren as Sixten Sparre and Pia Degermark as Elvira Madigan in the 1967 film
If you haven't seen it, I heartily recommend it – it's available on Amazon among other places.

(this is a modified version of a post that first appeared on my old blog)

Monday, 11 February 2013

Review: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Full title: The Prisoner of Zenda (novel) 
Writer: Anthony Hope
First published: 1894
Available: digitally on Project Gutenberg; in print on Amazon 

Quote: "For my part, if a man needs be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave." 

The Prisoner of Zenda is a classic story taking place in the fictional German state "Ruritania"–a word which has come to be a generic term for "small fictional country in Europe which saved the writer the trouble of too much research", so well-known was Anthony Hope's story once. I should probably state up front that I love fictional places; countries, cities, stately homes, the occasional uninhabited island... You name it. That I would sooner or later have to visit Ruritania was obviously inevitable.

The basic story is what I like to call the "Two Peas In A Pod"-plot. You've encountered it before–in Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper, Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, the film Dave... You've surely encountered it in some form before. The idea is that you have two people so incredibly alike that they can switch places and none will be the wiser. In this case, the reason is a common ancestor and obviously very dominant genes, and the result is that Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf of Ruritania look exactly the same. Due to sinister plots and intrigues, Rassendyll is forced to take the king's place while he is imprisoned in the castle of Zenda. This leads to romantic entanglements when the king's future wife and cosuin Flavia suddenly finds herself liking Rudolf a lot more than she ever did before, and swashbuckling adventure as the king must be saved and put safely back on the throne.

Rassendyll isn't a bad sort of character – he's reasonably likeable and not insufferably goody-two-shoes. He's not splendidly charismatic either – the major star of the book is without a doubt the utterly despicable and dashingly handsome villain Rupert of Henzau who kills and kisses with the same flair and splendid lack of remorse. Flavia is nice and not a nitwit at all; she doesn't actually require saving even once, mostly because she behaves perfectly reasonably (take note, modern writers!). There are sword-fights and moat-swimming and the occasional witty verbal exchange so I can't complain. I also find the description of Rudolf's life as a royal fairly realistic in the peculiar mix of power and circumscription.

The plot is obviously over the top ridiculous and the book is clearly not written yesterday, but it mostly shows in a rather charming way. Vintage, rather than mouldy. I especially love the very period realistic touches, such as when Rudolf goes on a  swimming mission at night and describes his dress as: "I was covered with a large cloak, and under this I wore a warm, tight-fitting woollen jersey, a pair of knickerbockers, thick stockings, and light canvas shoes. I had rubbed myself with oil, and I carried a large flask of whisky." Take that, Jason Bourne!

To sum up; a classic swashbuckling adventure that still entertains after all these years and is a must for lovers of the genre.

I gave it 4/5 on Goodreads.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Wilkie Collins Journal Online

Public domain image (source)

For those interested in Victorian literature in general and the great Wilkie Collins specifically, The Wilkie Collins Journal, formerly The Wilkie Collins Society Journal, has recently been relaunched as an on-line, open access, peer-reviewed resource. It contains both articles on Collins-related topics and reviews, and can be found here:

I'm going to add the link to the Resources page as well.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A Visit to Lapland, 1868

Today is the international Sami Day. If you don't know the word, the Sami are the indigenous people inhabiting the far northern region of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsular of Russia that is sometimes called "Sàpmi" or "Sami land". The Sami are traditionally hunters, gatherers and reindeer herders and were continually pushed north from part of their traditional lands by settlers, and their way of life, religion and language has been under threat for hundreds of years. The old Swedish word for the Sami is "Lapps", which is now considered derogatory and no longer in use. The word "Lappland" derives from that, and it is still used for parts of northern Sweden and Finland.

I'm part Sami, and in the 19th century, my family all lived in the traditionally way. They were nomads and reindeer herders and they lived in materially very poor conditions, in lands that were covered in snow and ice for 9 months a year and where there was no daylight at all in December.

In the 19th century, anthropological studies were gaining in popularity, and in 1868 Swedish physician and anthropologist Gustaf von Düben organized the first of two expeditions to Swedish Lapland in order to study the Sami people. He brought his wife Lotten, who helped document the Sami way of life using the still relatively new tool of photography. Her photographs are now in the care of Nordiska Museet of Stockholm, Sweden, who has kindly made them available on Flickr Commons.

Portrait of Maria Persdotter Länta, aged 45, from Sirkas Sami village (from Flickr Commons)
Inga Pantsi, a widow from Tuorpon Sami village, and her granddaughter (from Flickr Commons)
A Sami man carrying a spear (from Flickr Commons)
Portrait of Lars Anders Baggi, aged 25, from Jokkmokk (from Flickr Commons)
Portrait of Karin Savalo, a widow from Tuorpon Sami village, and her daughter Inga (from Flickr Commons)
Please feel free to have a look at the entire collection (which is really rather remarkable), and if you are interested in more facts about the Sami, you can of course find an article on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Added Information and Helpful Links

I have added a page with Victorian-related entertainment. You'll find both period fiction and modern, Victorian-set novels, as well as a tentative list of films set in the period.

I have also updated the page of resources with, among other things, some online research resources. It's obviously embarrassingly incomplete, but please browse and  see if you can find what you are looking for anyway!

Monday, 4 February 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Life in the Time of Cholera

Depiction of cholera from Le Petit Journal, 1 Dec, 1912 (image from Wikipedia)
In circling dances so lightly swinging  
You follow wildly amusement's thread,
With myrtle blooming and music ringing ...
But solemn I on the threshold tread:  
— The dance is checked
And the clang is wailing,  
The wreath is wrecked  
And the bride is paling:
The end of splendor and joy and might
Is only sorrow and tears and blight.

I am the mighty, who has the power,
Till yet a mightier shall appear. 
In deepest pit, on the highest tower,  
My chilling spirit is ever near:  
Those plagues of night  
And of desolation,  
Whose breath of blight  
May annul a nation,  
They slay the victims, which I select,  
Whom shield and armor can not protect.
Johan Olof Wallin, 1834 (translation by A.W. Almqvist)

These lines were written during the first cholera epidemic ever in Sweden in 1834, by J.O. Wallin, minister, orator, poet and Archbishop, and the sentiment is echoed in thousands of accounts from across the world. Cholera struck quickly and fatally, and entire communities succumbed as if an avenging angel had walked from door to door.

Most likely originating in India, the first known pandemic began in the Bengal region of India in 1817and spread across Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, and southern Russia. In 1827, the first epidemic occurred in Europe and America and lasted until 1835. After that, cholera, nicknamed "Jack Morbius" in English, was a recurring and deadly guest for most of the 19th century.

Initially, no one knew how it was caused or transmitted, and the advice given was therefore inadequate and erroneous. The New York Health Board advocated temperance in food and drink, while among the British troops in India, rumour had it that the men who went on drinking heavily had the best chance of recovery. Usually, ventilation was advocated since it was assumed that the disease was airborne. In Flora Anne Steel's The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, first published in 1888, it is claimed that cholera is often "enveloped in damp clouds" why living on mountain ridges is not recommended. She also suggests cutting down "rank vegetation" as "it harbours dirt, and emits injurious gases".

In fact, Dr John Snow had established a connection between cholera and contaminated drinking water already in 1854, and suggested that contamination from human sewage had been the cause of the London epidemic in 1854. In 1883, five years before Flora Steel's book was published, Robert Koch identified the bacteria responsible, vibrio cholerae, through a microscope.

Vibrio cholerae can survive for extended periods in cold, clean water but rarely survives in foodstuff. Humans are usually the only living hosts for the cholera bacteria, and it is primarily spread through the contamination of drinking water by human fecies. The critical dose - ie the amount of bacteria required in order for the victim to be ill -  is fairly high, which means that any epidemic will have a fairly large amount of symptom-free carriers, which helps spreading the disease.

Undernourished people are more likely to catch the disease, as are people with low amount of acid in their stomach, since the bacteria is vulnerable to acidic conditions. Flora Steel claims that the acid treatment is the most successful, and she gives several recipes for different acidic cures - the most basic being the one she claims is used by tea coolies which consisting of a tablespoon each of vinegar and Worcester sauce.

The incubation time can vary from a few hours to five days, but in most cases it is 2-3 days. The symptoms start with acute bowel pains and profuse watery diarrhea (up to about 20 litres a day and sometimes described as "rice water"). Vomiting occurs occasionally, but is not common. Due to the dehydration caused by the diarrhea, circulation collapse frequently follows and untreated epidemics have a death rate of about 50%. The primary treatment is rehydration; i.e. replacing the lost fluid and salts. With the proper rehydration treatment, casualties may be brought as low as 1%.

Though such a frequent and efficient killer, cholera is rather under-represented as a killer in fiction (compare it with the frequent application of "the cough of death"in books and films, for example). I suppose the main reason is the complete lack of romanticism and dignity in voiding your body of 20 litres of diarrhea in a few hours. For realism though, it can hardly be beat as it was the cause of a staggering number of deaths over the 19th century, and it can be used as a handy little mors ex machina for anyone writing fiction set in the Victorian period. Also, the vast host of victims across the world deserves some sort of tribute I think, even if their deaths lacked cinematic appeal.

As consciousness of the importance of proper water hygiene grew over the 19th century, the cholera outbreaks grew less and less frequent, but mortality in the recorded cases remained high. Even today, cholera outbreaks cause a number of deaths around the world, most often in poor regions with severe water shortage. It also tends to appear following natural catastrophies, such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. A donation to an aid organisation for the purpose of supplying refugee camps and disaster areas with clean water is therefore strongly encouraged!

Special thanks to the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control for great and precise information!
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