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Saturday, 1 December 2018


Another excerpt from The Speed of Nearly Everything.

According to Lord Cardigan, the Light Brigade charged the Russian guns in the Crimea at 17 miles per hour, a speed that was quite possible, though we have no idea where he got the figure from. That's about 27 km/hr.

Horses are herd animals, so they are comfortable galloping together at close quarters. The idea of the cavalry charge was to form a line, with the horses close together, and then move forward, first at a trot, and later, over the last hundred yards or metres, at the full gallop, riding down a wretched infantry, terrifying them and causing them to flee.

The theory of the cavalry charge began to come apart when the longbow came into use, because longbowmen could shower many arrows down on the approaching line, injuring the horses and possibly the riders while they were unable to harm the infantry.

Then there were the pikemen, who used long pointy sticks to impale the horses as the charge reached them, palisades and other defences, but the cavalry could often manoeuvre around the defences, which were hard to move around on the churned-up battlefield. Muskets had a practical range of perhaps a 100 yards, and even the best infantryman was unable to fire more than four shots a minute.

In the reload time of 15 seconds, Cardigan’s men would have covered 125 yards between shots, so the infantry had just one chance to kill, wound or stop the cavalry who were hurtling at them, half a ton of thundering horse with a razor-sharp sabre swinging down at their heads and shoulders.

Instead or infantry, Cardigan found himself charging fifty guns that fired grape and round shot over far greater distances, with Russian riflemen on his flanks picking off more riders. The wonder is not that so many were killed (118) or wounded (127) from the 670 men who started out, but that so few were hit.

The tradition of the charge was maintained into the First World War, when infantry were repeatedly sent “over the top” to charge an enemy equipped with machine guns and repeating rifles with a far greater range, and the Australian Light Horse undertook a successful cavalry charge, one of the very last, at Beersheba in 1917.

These were really mounted infantry who rode to the battle and dismounted to fight. Only Poland had cavalry in World War II, but they were mounted infantry like the Light Horse. 

Their Turkish opponents never expected them to charge, and when the ALH did, the Turkish rifles were all set for extreme range, which mean aiming higher, and soon the Australians were riding in, under the bullets, but you could only pull that trick once.

The role of the cavalry passed to the much faster tank regiments, though cavalry ranks like squadron leader (major) and wing commander (lieutenant-colonel) in some air forces reflect a cavalry origin. Tank regiment officers often wear silver insignia, another cavalry tradition.

Aircraft were obviously never used to charge infantry, though tanks were often used, like cavalry, for infantry support in World War II, along with air cover. The charge has largely ceased to be an effective military tactic.

Animals still charge, though. An elephant at 30 mph (50 kph) weighs as much as 12 horses and travels roughly twice as fast. American bison weigh about a ton, but have the same top speed. The bulls of Pamplona, the ones that people run through the streets with, have been clocked at 35 mph (55 kph), the same speed reported for giraffes and African buffalo. We will come back to some of these later.

With the onset of summer, I'm in a bit of a writing doldrum right now, so I thought looking at speed would be appropriate.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Fast music and slow music

I spend a lot of time at my desk, listening to music, and something triggered me the other day to look at something I wrote in my now out-of-print book, The Speed of Nearly Everything. I decided to share it.

Somebody whose music always
seems never to end, even though
the fat lady is singing all the time.
At the age of 17, Mozart composed his 27th symphony, all in a single day. That was fast music indeed, but at least he never had to put up with a sheet music publisher giving it a nickname.

Later composers mostly hated the nicknames given their works, but it is likely that few would have as good a case as Frédéric Chopin with his Waltz in D flat Major, Opus 64, No. 1, known around the English-speaking world as The Minute Waltz.

From a sampling of recordings, it appears that the usual playing time is between one and a half and two minutes, and those who try to play it in less are usually dismissed as “musical gymnasts”. Artur Rubinstein recorded it at 1:48 and Vladimir Ashkenazy at 1:49, and times up to two minutes are not unknown.

Legend has it that Chopin was inspired by the sight of a small dog chasing its tail, and that he called it by the French title Valse Minute, meaning the little or tiny waltz, so time was not involved. All the same, many performers have managed to get through the work in less than a minute: probably the fastest ever was Liberace, who could complete the work in just 37 seconds, and often did.

Sergei Rachmaninoff made an arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee and cut an Ampico piano roll that lasts a fraction over a minute. While Ampico rolls are open to doctoring, accordionist Alexander Dmitriev has been filmed playing this work on a bayan (Russian chromatic accordion) in just over 65 seconds by my timing. Accordionist Liam O’Connor, acclaimed by the Guinness Book of Records for achieving 11.64 notes per second could probably do better.

Gabriel Fauré was once asked how fast one of his songs should be sung. He suggested that if the singer was notably deficient of talent, it should be sung very fast indeed.

Then there is slow music.

Few pieces of musical composition can have an accurate time attached to them. John Cage created 4’ 33”, a piece of absolute silence which lasts exactly that long. Most classical music station engineers loathe it, because networks typically have a system that plays standby music after the transmitter has been silent for 90 seconds, and the very nature of Cage’s work ensures that this fallback is triggered at least once (and often twice) in a playing.

By an odd chance, Cage brought fame to perhaps the longest piece of music ever conceived. Erik Satie produced Vexations, his marathon piece on a single sheet in 1893, and Cage arranged for the first complete performance in 1949. There is a catch: while the music can be written on a single sheet, the theme is to be played 840 times, “very slowly”.

Another piece of French music, from Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, only seems excruciatingly slow. A chorus of nuns sing Salve Regina as they file off-stage to their deaths, with the interpolation, every so often, of the swoosh of a guillotine blade falling. Each time the sound is heard, one of the performers stops singing. To listeners, the chorus seems to go on for hours.

The guillotine, on the other hand, is very fast. It takes less than one second for the 40 kg blade to drop 4.3 metres, by which time it is travelling at just over 9 m/s, 33 km/hr, 20 mph, severing the neck in 2/100 of a second. Death may take a few seconds, then all is silence.

Some pianists may be tempted, after attempting to play Vexations as a solo work, to wish they had lost at least their fingers to Madame la Guillotine.

At least they would still be able to play 4’ 33”.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Bulletin libel case

This is a second extract from e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Villains, a study of Australian post-invasion scallywaggery, with a few slightly more evil characters thrown in. It follows on from my previous entry Shooting the Duke of Edinburgh, because both feature a beach about 3 km from my home, and both feature an apparently somewhat bent judge, Sir William Manning.


This is not so much the story of a riot, as a story about a story about riotous behaviour. Clontarf became well-known after the attempt to kill the Duke of Edinburgh there in 1868, but a dozen years on, it was a place of depravity and debauchery — or so gossips said.

When the newspapers said just that, the Moore brothers, who ran a hotel at Clontarf, sued The Bulletin for £1000 and the case was tried before Sir William Manning, who had been there in 1868, when the Duke was shot.

Perhaps we should look first at what was said in a piece called The Larrikin Residuum, which was written by William Henry Traill, an editor and journalist with the Bulletin. He was an experienced journalist and began this way:

The scene presented by the motley crowd at Clontarf on Boxing Day is one never to be forgotten by an eye witness. Englishmen have been accused of taking their pleasures sadly. The larrikin takes his or her pleasure madly. At Clontarf it was not an excursion – it was an orgy. Large ocean steamers discharged cargo after cargo of young Australians. Young men, young women, lads, girls, and still more sad, children thronged the ground, crowded the dancing pavilion (save the mark!) and jostled at the drinking bars. [1]

Curiously, the Moores’ solicitor was the judge’s son-in-law while their barrister was named Manning (and was almost certainly the judge’s nephew). This was a set of relationships which might have been enough to make the judge step aside, but he did not. It certainly renders some of the judge’s rulings suspect, as he blocked certain lines of evidence brought forward by the defence, while allowing curious material from the plaintiff’s side. Here is how several papers described the case, though the italics are mine:

Mr Salomons, Q C applied to his Honor for leave to prove that the scenes described were of general occurrence at Clontarf, and had been witnessed there for years. His Honor refused to admit the evidence. [2]

Here is sample of evidence that was allowed: it, surely, was bad enough.

Captain Francis, master of Commodore in December last: On Boxing Day she made two trips; I have known the plaintiffs for 20 years; on that morning Mr. William Moore was at the wharf to take care that no improper characters came on board the Commodore, I was on the ground on that day, I know the article in the Bulletin; that description is not true, I saw nothing of that kind while I was on the ground, the class of people who go to Clontarf is respectable.

Cross-examined: I did not see what was going on in the pavilion, I saw no one drinking, I heard no bad language; there was no fighting. [3]
Thomas Bray, examined by Mr Pilcher: I was at Clontarf on Boxing Day; I saw a great number of rowdies there; there was a great deal of fighting and drinking going on during the day; I saw girls fighting and heard them swearing; I saw three fights between men while I was there; from what I saw, I did not think it a respectable place to go to. [4]
John Charles Gleadow, a clerk, deposed that he was camping in the neighbourhood of Clontarf on Boxing Day with some friends. Was at Clontarf from 11 o’clock in the morning until between 3 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Had read the Bulletin article some time ago, and thought it fairly described what witness saw on that day. About 11 o’clock he law a fight between two or three men respecting a girl who had been dancing with one of them. One of the men was cut and bleeding about the face, and the girl took off her drawers and wiped his face with them, and afterwards threw the blood-stained drawers amongst the larrikins, who raised a yell of applause. [5]

There was a great deal more evidence. On one side, there were the proprietors and those dependent upon them saying “I didn’t see any of that”, while on the other side, there were large numbers of independent members of the public detailing cases of girls bathing naked, watched by boys, and boys bathing naked watched by girls, drunken under-age girls fighting and more. The writers of the accounts may have been biased, but there was just too much evidence branding Clontarf as a den of iniquity.

In the end, a jury of four (“a publican, an ex-publican, a grocer, and a nightman”, said the Bulletin later) awarded the Moores a farthing damages. This is almost the ultimate insult to a plaintiff, but it meant the defendants had to pay the plaintiffs’ costs. These amounted to £1500, and as they could not pay, two men, Haynes and Archibald were gaoled for 12 months. In fact, they were released after six weeks, when public donations covered the costs bill. [6]

I will be breakfasting at Clontarf tomorrow. I plan to raise a glass of tap water to Salomons, Haynes and Archibald.

[1] Bulletin, 8 January 1881.
[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1881, 3,
[4] Evening News (Sydney), 9 May 1881, 3,
[5] Evening News (Sydney), 10 May 1881, 3,

Monday, 12 November 2018

Shooting the Duke of Edinburgh

One of our more egregiously stupid (against stiff competition) Australian politicians covered himself in something or other by conferring a knighthood on the present Duke of Edinburgh, a few years ago, but that's not the subject of this study, which is drawn from my e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Villains, a study of Australian post-invasion scallywaggery, with a few slightly more evil characters thrown in.


In August 1867, an enthusiastic Sydney Municipal Council voted £3000 to cover “the entertainment of Prince Alfred”. The whole of Sydney was excited in January 1868, when one of Queen Victoria’s sons, His Royal Highness, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, made a visit to Australia, and honoured the Anniversary Regatta with his regal presence. He was, by then, a captain in the Royal Navy, commanding HMS Galatea.

He had actually been in Australia for some months, spending time in Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart from October 1867. Some of the events that “entertained” him were a little bizarre, like the demonstration of a mongoose killing snakes at the Australian Museum. [1] There were also picnics, railway excursions in a special train carriage with a lavatory (something quite rare in those days), balls, a visit to the Destitute Children’s Asylum at Randwick, and even a concert which featured a waltz composed by HRH himself. [2]

A 22-carat gold trowel, encrusted with jewels, was prepared so the Duke could lay the foundation stone of the new Town Hall for Sydney [3] but that would have to wait until April. First came an almost fatal picnic at Clontarf, not far from Manly. It had been announced almost two months before it was due to take place, said the Illustrated Sydney News:

The committee of the Sailors’ Home have arranged for a grand picnic at Clontarf during the Prince’s stay, and an influential committee have been appointed to carry it out. [4]

A long list of names followed, but we need to concentrate on one: Sir William Manning, because he played two curious roles, at different times, in the history of this sunny beach on a calm and sheltered part of Sydney Harbour.

In Melbourne, there had been scuffling between Catholics and Protestants, and somebody noticed that the proposed date for the picnic, 18 March, was just one day after St Patrick’s Day, which was not to be a public holiday. [5]

A few officials began to feel a little uncomfortable. On 8 March, it was decided, as a courtesy to the Catholic portion of Sydney, to bring the picnic forward to 12 March. The problem with the long time-line for the picnic was that twisted minds had time to prepare.

As we will see shortly in the story of the Bulletin libel suit, Clontarf would, in another dozen years, have an unsavoury reputation, but it was far more refined in 1868. Indeed, just a week earlier, the first festival of St. Peter’s Sunday school took place at the very same location.

On the day, a goodly part of Sydney society was there, including Henry James O’Farrell, a self-styled “Fenian”, as the Irish freedom fighters called themselves (or as the Irish terrorists called themselves, if you disapprove of them).

O’Farrell had a pistol, an efficient one, and he got close to the Duke. A coachbuilder, William Vial, happened to be just as close to O’Farrell as the self-styled Fenian was to the Duke. Vial gave evidence on the first day of hearings, and Empire carried a full report:

I saw a man come from behind, at the side, make four or five quick steps, and before I had time to speak he levelled a pistol at his Royal Highness’s back and fired. Prisoner was about four feet from the Prince when he fired. The Prince fell, and called out, “Oh! my back is broken,”, or some thing to that effect. Sir William Manning turned round, and advanced in the direction of prisoner, who retreated.

Prisoner presented the pistol at Sir William Manning, and called out “ Stand back.” He pulled the trigger, but the pistol missed fire, and Sir William Manning fell. Prisoner then levelled the pistol again in a line with the Prince and Sir William Manning, and as he did so I jumped on his back, and threw my arms around him, and pinioned his arms to his side. He twisted his arm round and tried to point the pistol at me, swearing at me.

Finding he could not level the pistol at me he pointed the pistol in the same direction he had it in at first, and as he did I slipped my right hand down on to his arm and knocked the pistol downwards. This had the result of diverting the direction of the shot from the direction he had intended.

I then tried to throw prisoner, but I was seized by the hair of the head by some by-standers. When I extricated myself I was bleeding from the nose and mouth, and received a kick in the chest, but was not much hurt. Prisoner was taken away. When I caught hold of prisoner first I called out “I’ve got him.” I had a good view of prisoner’s face. I am sure he is the man. [6]

Sir William Manning, mentioned above, was at Clontarf as the President of the Sydney Sailor’s Home, a charity that was to benefit from the day. Before we return to Manning, one other witness is worth quoting:

John Robinson deposed: I am a constable in the city police. I was on duty at the picnic at Clontarf yesterday. I assisted to apprehend and bring the prisoner to Sydney. I heard some shots fired at Clontarf. Just after I laid hold of prisoner, he said, “I’ve done my duty, and I can die for my country.’ On board the steamer prisoner said, “ It can’t be helped now, I’ve made a mess of it.” [7]

Four things are worthy of note: first, the police who were in attendance had a stern fight with the public who wanted to lynch O’Farrell on the spot, said the Sydney Morning Herald. Then some sailors wanted to do the same thing: the Duke was, after all, their commanding officer.

No sooner had Mr. Vial grasped the arms of the man who had fired the shots, than Mr. Benjamin Mortimer (an American gentleman), Mr. Whiting (of the firm of Drynan and Whiting), A. L. Jackson, and other gentlemen seized him; and, had it not been for the closing in around them of the police and other persons, they would speedily have placed him beyond the reach of the Law Courts. The people shouted “lynch him,” “hang him,” “string him up,” and so on, and there was a general rush to get at him.

The police, headed by Superintendent Orridge, got hold of the assassin, and they had the greatest difficulty in preventing the infuriated people from tearing him limb from limb. In this the police were ably assisted by the Chief Justice, Lord Newry, and the men of the Galatea Band.

Both Lord Newry and Sir Alfred Stephen exerted themselves to get the prisoner on board the steamer lying at the wharf, while Mr. Orridge, with herculean strength, kept back the crowd as much as possible. The task of putting the prisoner on board the ship was not an easy one, and it was fully ten minutes before they could get him on to the wharf. By that time all the clothing from the upper part of his body was torn off, his eyes, face, and body were much bruised, and blood was flowing from various wounds; and when he was dragged on to the deck of the Paterson, he appeared to be utterly unconscious.

No sooner was he on board than a number of sailors had a rope ready to string him up, and it was only by the interference of Lord Newry that his life was spared. Some of the police were very roughly used, detective Powell getting about the worst of it. In the scuffle he fell over some stones, and had a chance of being trampled to death…

The people, out of whose hands the prisoner had been rescued, immediately gave vent to their disappointment, and, at, an indignation meeting, summarily convened, determined to bring him back from the steamer, and dispatch him at the scene of his crime.

A rush was then made for the steamer, which had just hauled off a few feet from the wharf, and they shouted to the captain to haul in. For a moment this officer appeared to waver, but the Hon. John Hay, who was on the bridge, doubtless divining the intentions of the crowd, peremptorily ordered the captain to haul off. This he did, and the vessel accordingly proceeded on her way to Sydney. [8]

Second, in all probability, if he went on trial today, O’Farrell would be found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and should have been found so, even by the primitive tests in use back then, but he was quickly tried, promptly found guilty and hurriedly hanged.

Third, the Duke survived because the bullet was deflected by the victim’s thick India-rubber braces, because the bullet struck him where the two straps came together, making a double thickness.

Fourth, unsatisfied by the mere fact of O’Farrell being executed, even if unjustly, patriotic Sydney citizens took up a collection to endow a hospital which still bears his name: the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, or “RPA”.


I will get back to the Bulletin libel case, some time soon.

[1] Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1868, 6,
[2] Sydney Mail, 15 February 1868, 7,
[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1868, 5,
[4] Illustrated Sydney News, 16 January 1868, 2,
[5] The Newcastle Chronicle, 15 February 1868, 2,
[6] Empire (Sydney), 17 March 1868, 2,
[7] Empire (Sydney), 17 March 1868, 2,
[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1868, 5,

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Once in a thousand years

Yes, I've been busy again: there's some teaching happening (I am a volunteer scientific visitor in a local school), and I have been cleaning up two new books.

One of these is called Playwiths, and it is based on a website of mine that has pulled in around 4 million hits over 20 years. The following is a small sample from the completed text, which as the first link reveals, is about STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Consider the number of years between events designated as “once in a thousand years”, such as floods. To the lay person, this immediately raises the question: how can the authorities access data, covering several thousand years. The answer is that they can’t, but they have what is usually referred to as the Poisson distribution to fall back on, and to understand that, we need to consider an old tale of Prussian cavalrymen who were kicked in the head by their horses.

If you know any French, the Poisson distribution has nothing to do with handing out fishes. It was developed by (and named after) Siméon-Denis Poisson. It describes the probability of clusters in random events, given nothing more than the average occurrence of such events. Poisson died in 1840, before the kicked Prussians died. Ladislaus Bortkiewicz published a book in 1898 in which he tried out the distribution of head kicks in each of the 14 corps of Prussian cavalry over a 20-year period, to see if it conformed to Poisson’s predictions.

Basically, the Poisson distribution works like this given a sample average (or better, a population average), you can predict the probability of clusters of, say, breast cancer cases in a workplace, the number of calls to a call centre in a given minute, power failures on a grid, some types of traffic accident, the number of typos on a page and the failure of light bulbs. And given some flood data for a few inundations, the Poisson distribution can predict about how often there would be a flood of a certain level.

Let us consider the Prussian data: there were several cases where a significant number of kicks had happened, and many more where no kicks had happened, and Bortkiewicz got hold of the data for 200 corps-years. In 109 cases, there were no injuries, 65 instances of one injury, 22 cases of two, 3 cases of three head-kicks and one unfortunate corps, in one year, had four instances, a total of 122 cases. That meant the probability of a case in any given corps in any given year was about 6/10, or if you want precision, 0.61.

Bortkiewicz triumphantly showed that the known distribution was an almost perfect fit to the theoretical prediction. After that, people everywhere took up Poisson’s idea enthusiastically.

This sort of thing always catches on with the mob, because most of the world favoured the idea of Prussian cavalry being kicked in the head, but the main point was to say that there would be variation, and a high “score” did not necessarily imply carelessness or anything else. Ask anybody who has done some basic stats, and they will all know about the Prussian head-kicks.

It’s the one that is always mentioned. What is less-mentioned is that you can calculate the flood height that, based on prior data, would happen once in a thousand years. This figure would be approximate, and the estimates would be refined after each flood, and they would be slightly invalidated if the risk is increasing rather than steady, but it’s better than nothing as a predictor.

I actually began looking into this issue, revisiting it after several decades, because somebody was questioning the science behind global warming, and as a throw-away line, poked fun at councils in Australia which have maps showing the limits of one-in-a-thousand-year floods.

Those who know my interests will not be surprised to learn that I point to 1859 as the year when scientists in unrelated disciplines began to be unable to understand one another. The public had started to be lost a few years earlier, but after the 1860s, a great deal of science was either counter-intuitive or relied on obscure methods, and it all got progressively more complicated.

Counter-intuitive science is in some ways the worst source of dissent and confusion: if we know that mathematicians have a clever wrinkle that lets them estimate what a one-in-a-thousand-year flood would be like, we can accept that. Science that flies in the face of uninformed “common sense”, science that causes fears to arise, these are the sorts of science that cause trouble. Even if the ancient Greeks knew that the world was a sphere, peasant minds were happy to say that the world they saw was clearly flat.

In the same way, other equally simple and fearful minds attack the idea of evolution, misrepresenting what evolution is, even as they deny it. Climate is another case: everybody who watches the weather on TV thinks he or she understands climate, which is a very different kettle of poissons.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The drinking of gold

I am knee deep in work, the like of which I will reveal in the near future, but something described on an old-fashioned email list reminded me of a discarded story. Neek spoke of not being able to eat gold, I addressed the question of drinking gold, as follows:

A Roman named Crassus went to what is now southern Turkey to capture Parthian gold, and lost the battle of Carrhae. According to some accounts, Crassus survived, and the Parthian king, Orodes, executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. Another version has Orodes filling the skull of the dead Roman general with molten gold. Agricola certainly believed this story in the 1540s and published it:

… his enemies … poured liquid gold into the gaping mouth of the slain Crassus, saying: “Thou hast thirsted for gold, therefore drink gold”.

Then there was Manius Aquillius, a Roman consul who had waged war on Mithridates VI of Pontus (also in modern Turkey) without getting approval from the Senate. The consul was captured and ridiculed by being paraded on an ass. Then according to Appian, King Mithridates poured molten gold down his throat at Pergamon, as a rebuke against the Romans for their bribe-taking.

This was probably just propaganda, but the theme remained popular. In 1599, a Spanish governor in Ecuador supposedly suffered the same fate. Members of the Jivaro tribe, objecting to Spanish taxation on their gold trade, attacked his town and executed the greedy governor by pouring molten gold down his throat.

The same tale surfaces, again and again. Alleged users include the Spanish Inquisition (accused of using molten lead and pitch), and Mongol invaders who were supposed to have killed Inalchuk, the Muslim governor of Otrar, a town in central Asia when they poured molten silver into his ears, eyes and throat. In most cases, the story includes the victim’s intestines exploding from the steam pressure.

Some critics (including me) wonder if nomadic tribesmen would be carrying the necessary furnace and crucibles to melt gold or silver. And would it really kill—and would the victim really explode? We have some evidence on that from a human case study.

In 1755, Henry Hall, then aged 94, was hurt during the burning of the Eddystone Light. He staggered home and reported in a hoarse voice that melted lead had fallen down and entered his throat. Edward Spry, a surgeon, reported on this in the Universal Magazine for July 1757. According to Spry, after three or four days, Hall was on the mend before he took a turn for the worse, and died.

The surgeon dissected the body and removed a “great piece of lead” which weighed seven ounces, five drachms and 18 grains. Spry explained that Hall had been helping fight the lighthouse fire when a large amount of lead fell from the roof, some of it covering his face and clothes, and some entering his mouth, “then lifted up and open”, and so it flowed into his stomach. There was no mention of Hall exploding, but molten lead is some 600°C cooler than molten gold.

In 2003, some Dutch pathologists wondered if the various accounts, which all stressed the bursting of internal organs, could be relied on, and they decided to test the situation. They made it clear that “no animal was harmed or killed specifically for this purpose”, explaining that they bought bovine innards from a local slaughter house.

They set up some cow parts on a board and closed the lower end of the oesophagus with a wad of tissue paper before pouring 750 grams of molten lead (at around 450°C) into the throat. The results were spectacular, with steam coming out of both ends and the tissue paper being blasted out of the lower end. Within ten seconds, the lead was solid, blocking the throat, which would have meant a tremendous build-up of steam pressure in a live animal. We must conclude that an explosion is possible.

Understandably, people who are being robbed of gold do not take kindly to the theft, because winning gold is hard work. It follows that rough justice may sometimes have been applied. Leaving aside the practical problems of getting enough gold in one place and then finding a furnace to melt it, the punishment would work, but the tales of its use must be regarded with some doubt.

* Reference: F R W van de Goot, R L ten Berge, R Vos, ‘Molten gold was poured down his throat until his bowels burst’, Journal of Clinical Pathology, 2003.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

An initiated man

I'm busy on Playwiths, of which more later.  Here's something from the pile to show that I Aten't Dead Yet.


Many convicts were accepted by the Aborigines at different times, but the original inhabitants were choosy. Watkin Tench wrote, probably about John Caesar:
One of the convicts, a negro, had twice eloped, with an intention of establishing himself in the society of the natives, with a wish to adopt their customs and to live with them: but he was always repulsed by them; and compelled to return to us from hunger and wretchedness. [1]
Tench also reported that Bryant’s party often had to flee when threatened by Aborigines along the coast. [2] Against that, we have the cases of William Buckley (who may be the original Buckley of “Buckley’s chance”), Eliza Fraser of Fraser Island, Barbara Thomson who was eventually rescued from Torres Strait by the crew of HMS Rattlesnake, Clarke the Barber and Tarwood’s party, taken in by the Aborigines at Port Stephens, north of Newcastle.

Nearer to Sydney, the local inhabitants knew about these invaders who failed to understand that Aboriginal tools and possessions, left in the open, were not abandoned. They were also aware that these pale people with their different smell were unable to catch food or be of any use. They must have asked themselves “who would want them?”—and equally reasonably, answered “not us”.

John (called James by Collins) Wilson, a Lancashire thief, probably the same one who is listed by Governor Phillip as being sentenced at Wigan in 1785 to seven years. He must have had some good qualities or skills, because when he had served his sentence, he was accepted among the Aborigines on the Hawkesbury River, who gave him the name Bun-bo-e.

David Collins did not approve of this at all, and later claimed that Wilson tricked them into accepting him as a former black man, pointing out “… a very old woman as his mother, who was weak and credulous enough to acknowledge him as her son.” [3] Collins described him as:
“… one Wilson, a wild idle young man, who, his term of transportation being expired, preferred living among the natives in the vicinity of the river, to earning the wages of honest industry by working for settlers. He had formed an intermediate language between his own and theirs, with which he made shift to comprehend something of what they wished him to communicate… [4]
Wilson was taken on one exploration trip to Port Stephens, not long before Tarwood and his companions were found. Tarwood and his companions said later that at the time of Wilson’s visit, they were some distance inland. That meant he mnissed his first chance to gain a small place in the history books. He won, though, when he was used as a tool to educate some of the more ignorant convicts.

In the earliest days, the convicts had little idea of where they were. For much of the voyage, they would have been kept below-decks, but they were Britain’s poor, and that meant they were badly educated, and often could not read.

Books were expensive, so even the ones who could read, they would be unlikely to have read any books about Australia. There were really only three to read in 1788: William Dampier’s two books, written almost a century earlier and Captain Cook’s journal, almost twenty years earlier. None of them was written as a handy guide for convicts wanting to leave Australia.

I grew up on tales of convicts who thought China was just up the coast a bit, or just over the mountains—somewhere in easy walking distance, in any case. I always thought these yarns made no sense at all, that they were just made-up tales, but a bit of checking made me realise that they were real. Watkin Tench reported that in November 1791, twenty men and a pregnant woman took off into the bush, believing that China was “… not more than 100 miles distant, and separated only by a river…” [5]

One or two of that group never returned, and must bave died in the bush, A some of the others had been wounded by Aborigines, it was assumed that the dead were killed by “natives”. Aside from those who believed in escaping to the north, there were those who believed:
… that there was a colony of white people, which had been discovered in this country, situated to the SW of the settlement, from which it was distant between three and four hundred miles, and in which they were assured of finding all the comforts of life, without the necessity of labouring for them. [6]
A look at a map shows that path would cross the upper Murray, going close to Mount Kosciuszko, ending up in Victoria, somewhere between Albury, Shepparton, Sale and Mallacoota, probably between Falls Creek, Eildon, Sale and Lakes Entrance! In either case, there was a lot of rugged territory to get through.

The governor, John Hunter, formerly of HMS Sirius, worried that many gullible convicts would die in agony or end up returning to an almost equally agonising punishment. He declared that four men, picked by the convicts, were to be taken on the route shown on the map by three experienced bushmen, so they might see that the hope was forlorn.

The convicts were determined not be fooled by the governor. They conceived a cunning plan to hijack the expedition, with a larger body absconding, murdering the guides and then proceeding to the safety of the fabled white colony. Luckily for them, this scheme was uncovered and four soldiers were added to the party, scotching the plot.

Among those sent with the party were Hunter’s servant, the 19-year-old John Price, and Wilson. They set out on 14 January 1798. Ten days later, the soldiers returned with three of the convicts. The soldiers had been instructed to return when they reached the foot of the mountains, but the three convicts said they had seen and suffered enough, and begged to be allowed to return with them. [7]

The rest of the party arrived at Prospect Hill, on the outskirts of the settlement, on 9 February, praising Wilson for keeping them alive. The expedition achieved little. They kept no clear record of where they had gone, though they said they had seen creeks and a large river.

They claimed to have met few natives, but those they saw were dressed in skins from head to foot (unlikely in summer), and they reported seeing a fat mountain wallaroo. They returned with a specimen of a lyrebird and reported dining on ‘a kind of mole’, apparently a wombat, but that was the limit of their achievements. They said the meat tasted like pork, but that it was red meat, coarse and very fatty.

We know very little about Wilson. He was probably associated with the Darkinyung people. He and another white man called Knight were accused of helping Aborigines mount attacks on settlers. David Collins claimed that these two had explained that a musket, once fired, was of no use until it was reloaded, “… and this effectually removed that terror of our fire-arms with which it had been our constant endeavour to inspire them.” [8]

We have Collins to thank for the information that Wilson had been scarred on his breast and shoulders as a sign of initiation, adding that Wilson said it was very painful. Collins also added that Wilson had “… made his appearance with no other covering than an apron formed of a Kangaroo’s skin, which he had sufficient sense of decency remaining to think was proper.” [9]

Collins also gave us the best account of the man’s death. Wilson had taken liberties, laying claim to a young girl in a way that was culturally unacceptable, though we have no way of knowing the details. Perhaps the girl was considered a close relative of the man whose spirit he claimed to be, or maybe it was just that he had not asked in the right way. The result was that her friends speared him, “… and left them to expect his return at some future period in the shape of another white man.” [10]

The story of the First Fleet has to be understood as a clash between cultures and cultural expectations. The free people mainly had a common set of expectations about honesty, the convicts had in most cases, another view, and the people who had been living happily around Sydney Harbour for thousands of years had another. Quite a few Aborigines and a rather smaller number of white people died because others could not understand that no culture is better than any other: each has its rightful place, given the right conditions.

[1] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 144.
[2] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 147.
[3] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 199.
[4] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, online at, p. 341.
[5] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, chapter XV.
[6] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 57 (54 in the print edition).
[7] Extracts of Price’s journal are online in the State Library of NSW’s digitised collection of Banks papers at
[8] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, online at, p. 377.
[9] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 47.
[10] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 199.