30 March 2012

Robert Drury - Madagascar

The Monday night lecture at the Royal Geographical Society this week was given by Thomas Elmquist, Professor of Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University. Dr Elmquist spoke on the subject of the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. It was a fascinating lecture about a unique ecosystem of many endemic species which showed how the presence of human societies actually contributes to regeneration in this unique natural environment. 

Whilst examining the historical continuities and changes within this particular region, Dr Elmquist mentioned an interesting source, a little known text which was first published in 1729, entitled Madagascar: or Robert Drury’s Journal During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island.

My interest was piqued and the following day I tried to find out more about this book and its author. Robert Drury (born 1687, died between 1743 and 1750) was a Midshipman aboard the Degrave, an East Indiaman which was wrecked off the southern coast of Madagascar in 1703. Aged just fifteen at the time, he and his fellow survivors were held captive by the people of Antandroy. Managing to escape they were pursued by some two thousand warriors. Eventually they succumbed and the majority of the unfortunate crew were massacred. Drury’s life, however, was one of only four, all of them young Midshipmen, who were spared. He was made a slave serving in the Antandroy royal household, eventually rising to a trusted position in which capacity he was later allowed to herd cattle and fight in battle. After many years he made a bid for freedom, journeying north-west towards another kingdom which was known to be more tolerant and accepting of Europeans, and where English ships occasionally called to trade and replenish provisions. He was hoping to be rescued by one of these ships but was again captured, this time by the Sakalava people, whose kingdom controlled much of the western half of Madagascar. Here his life was less harsh than before, and again he became a cattle herder, until he was eventually rescued by an English ship. He returned to London, but within a year he boarded a ship bound for Madagascar – ironically this time returning as a slave trader.

In the three hundred years since Drury’s ‘Journal’ was first published scholars have debated the authenticity of the book. It had been published just ten years after Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, and some have seen the famous writer’s influence, if not his actual hand, in the work. Indeed, some maintain that Defoe may have helped to bring the book to publication as its editor. The case for the book’s authenticity has recently been strengthened by the researches of the British archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson. Pearson has managed to show how the author of the book, despite all its embellishments and exaggerations, did indeed have a genuine and intimate knowledge of life, language, and local geography in these arid southern regions of Madagascar, and as such he believes the book can, on the whole, be trusted as a historical document.

By a curious coincidence, my interest in far off Madagascar which had prompted me to attend the lecture, lead me to seek out the story of Robert Drury for myself – only to find the man much closer to home. For I discovered that each day on my way to work I walk past the church in which he is buried, St Clement Danes in the Strand. But, yet even more curiously, the day after the lecture I found myself walking to another RGS event, this time near Fenchurch Street, whereupon I turned a corner into Crutched Friars – the place where Robert Drury was born.

Mike Parker Pearson has published a book (co-authored with Karen Godden) entitled, In Search of the Red Slave (Sutton, 2002), plus several articles on his research into the life of Robert Drury and the corresponding archaeology of this part of Madagascar. Shipwreck into Slavery is a short article which appeared in the magazine, British Archaeology (Issue 67, October 2002). He also published a more in-depth article, Reassessing “Robert Drury’s Journal” as a Historical Source for Southern Madagascar, in the academic journal, History in Africa, Vol. 23 (1996), which is available on JSTOR .

_ _ _ 

AFTERWORD (September 15, 2012): I'm now part way through reading Robert Drury's "Journal" and I thought I'd add my initial impressions of the book as a postscript (especially as it's not at present widely available). It's quite a dense and heavy tome, not helped by the fact that it is a single unbroken text. There are no chapters, it is presented as a continuous stream of direct reportage which goes into minute detail of the events it describes, almost as if it's reporting in real time! Consequently, I can see why some readers have questioned the authencity of the piece or speculated that it has been finessed by an experienced editor or co-writer. However, whilst it's not an inaccessible book, it flows well even for the modern reader, it does demand some concentration and sustained effort - it's not a book to be dipped into lightly, but rather it requires some stamina and time in order to derive the best effect from reading it.

The edition I am reading (borrowed from the Library at SOAS) was published in 1890 and consists of 398 pages of quite small tightly packed type. Appropriately enough the book has stamps showing that it was once owned by Stoke Newington Library. I used to live in Stoke Newington, and I used to use the old Library on Church Street regularly. One of Stoke Newington's most famous former residents was Daniel Defoe. And his tombstone (salvaged from some oddly obscure place) used to be on display in the Library's entrance hall, set in a glazed mahogany showcase it was the first thing you'd see as you entered the building. I've not been to Stoke Newington in quite a while, so I'm not entirely sure if it is still there, but if it is - it's well worth a look to the curious passerby.

18 March 2012

A Visit to Tula - Mexico

Some 50km north of Mexico City, on the edge of the Valley of Mexico, is the old Toltec capital – Tula. The Toltecs flourished around 950-1150 AD, inheriting their gods from the culture who built the vast temple complex at Teotihuacan, and eventually passing them on to the Mexica-Aztecs who founded the city of Tenochtitlan – the precursor of today’s Mexico City.

Last month I visited Tula. The drive out into rural Mexico Valley left the urban sprawl far behind giving way to corn fields, cactus scrublands, distant hills and clear blue skies. I saw an eagle gliding down to perch atop a tree, and as we neared Tula a vast thermoelectric power plant, the tall chimneys of which were belching a mixture of black smoke and white steam into the sky. A small secluded road leads up to the visitor centre of the archaeological site at Tula. Here a small museum displays some of the artefacts from the site, after which a path meanders up - amidst a myriad of different cactus types of all shapes and sizes - through what was once the Toltec settlement around the ceremonial centre. By this route one approaches the ceremonial plaza from behind the main temple building, catching a glimpse on high of the backs of the famous Atlantes – 5 metre tall carved basalt columns which once would have supported a roof. The rear of the main temple, or to give it its proper name, Templo de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (try saying that after a few tequilas, it might actually help!), is surrounded by a metal scaffold with a corrugated iron roof which shelters the last remaining reliefs depicting skulls, jaguars and plumed gods or warriors; the scaffold also offers the visitor some welcome shade in such an exposed spot.

Just behind the temple there is the smaller of two ball courts found at Tula. I took a look round this ball court first and found an equally fascinating highway of large red ants toiling back and forth, carrying in convoy huge slices of green leaves. The smaller ball court is better preserved than the larger one, still retaining a few of its original sculpture decorations. The second ball court, however, bears some intriguing parallels to the ball court at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza far away in the Yucatan peninsula, suggesting contacts between the two cultures which have yet to be fully understood by archaeologists. The second ball court is exactly aligned and built to exactly the same dimensions as the ball court found at Chichen Itza.

The main temple building, which was once dedicated to the god, Quetzalcoatl – the Plumed Serpent, is surrounded by the partially restored stumps of a vast colonnade, overlooking the ceremonial plaza which itself gives way to a view down to the modern settlement of Tula de Allende, with its impressive 16th century Franciscan monastery and church. Ascending the steep steps of the temple one is confronted by a row of four Atlantes, the outermost figures being replicas. Each is styled to look like a warrior wearing a butterfly breastplate and bearing arms; a spear thrower or atlatl in his right hand, and arrows or javelins in his left. The top of the temple gives the visitor superb views of the site and the surrounding landscape. It’s here, atop the temple, that you first see the true extent of the modern town in the valley below and the archaeological site suddenly seems pulled out of its seclusion, back into the modern world. On the day I visited I was lucky because there were relatively few other visitors and so I was able to wander around the ball courts and the other temples, platforms and buildings in relative isolation. At the foot of the temple building stand the remains of two Chacmools – reclining stone figures (both missing their heads) on which the still warm hearts of sacrificed prisoners of war would have been placed, attesting to the bloodthirsty warlike culture of the Toltecs; these religious traditions of human sacrifice were carried on by the Aztecs, and later witnessed by the Conquistadors who routed Tenochtitlan and who eventually brought the country under equally brutal Spanish colonial control in the 16th century. Tula was already ancient in Aztec times, and was a revered and holy site to them. They too explored amidst its ruins, and they took its antiquities back to their own temples. The Museo Nacional de Antropologia, where I was working, has Toltec objects and sculptures on display.

Mexico is a country I have long wanted to visit. When I was younger I was fascinated by the cultures and civilisations of Mesoamerica. In particular the Maya fascinated me most. The National Geographic Magazine always seemed to have articles describing some new archaeological find somewhere deep in the Yucatan. I remember reading with wide eyed wonder of the discovery in 1952 of the tomb of Pacal deep inside the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, and it was with equal if not more wide eyed wonder that I stumbled upon his jade mosaic face mask on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia on my first visit there last year. One day I hope to return to Mexico and explore the Yucatan. In the meantime though, I’m content to flip once again through the long familiar pages of those same books I read so avidly when younger and see there again pictures of places which are now familiar in a different way, having finally managed to visit them – the Atlantes of Tula, and the Avenue of the Dead, with the Temples of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan.