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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Of gums, gold and a good-time girl

Gold and gums
One of my favourite analogies for the internet is the Penny Post.  It's an idea that I acquired from reading either James Burke or Jacob Bronowski.  Essentially, whoever it was said that the Penny Post made it possible for people to unite, to organise, to fight the Corn Laws in Britain.  In a similar way, the internet lets us spread ideas further and faster.  This can be good or bad, depending on how you trust your sources—and how wise you are to trust them.
Rome-Frascati rail line:
unidentified Eucalyptus species.

Argostoli, island of Kefalonia,
Greece: Eucalyptus camaldulensis
or river red gum.
The other analogy that I like is Marin Mersenne, a science gossip who spread ideas and information everywhere—though in his 90th year, Alexander von Humboldt was answering 2500 of the letters he received each year, and you only need to look at the Darwin Correspondence Project to see how they did things in the 19th century.

Ferdinand von Mueller, bust
outside the National Herbariun,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
We superior moderns curl our lips at the ignorance of the past, when people thought bad smells caused disease—but that was an OK theory for its day.  We might even snigger when we see Eucalyptus trees like the ones on the left, planted in Rome's Pontine marshes in the 19th century or the lagoons of Kefallonia, if we know that the idea was that their sweet smell would prevent malaria.
River red gum, Baths of Aphrodite,
western Cyprus.

I have just recently discovered that one of the main supporters of the spread of gum trees was Herr Doktor Doktor Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, K.C.M.G., with more foreign decorations than you could shake a stick at, a German-born Australian botanist, but more of him some other time.  My photo was snapped from a train between Frascati and Rome, in July 2010 (but note well: these were NOT the Pontine Marshes).

Von Mueller, by the way, is one of the curious minds that I have written about in my other up-and-coming book, Curious Minds, which is due out on October 1.

River red gums in their native home. This is the Campaspe River, just before it flows into the Murray, and you can see here that
E. camaldulensis really doesn't mind getting its feet wet. Sooner or later, the trees fall into the river, causing snags that provide a
shelter for the fingerlings that become the mighty Murray cod, bit also causing problems, back in the days of paddlewheel river 
boats,  an item that will become a plot feature when I get around to writing the Cornish Boy series. No research is ever wasted!
And now I'm back to the methods used to locate gold under glacial till in Canada, because a few years back, the CSIRO estimated that there's probably twice as much gold under the Murray valley and plain as was ever dug up in the 1800s.  It's under a lot of overburden (just as it is in Canada), but with the present price of gold, it would be nice to locate some of it.

The Canadians hover around in helicopters, snipping bits off deep-rooted conifers.  They locate each specimen accurately, assay them for gold traces, and where the trees show a local concentration of gold, they can send down a bore to sample the rocks below.

Now I wonder how deep the roots of Eucalyptus camaldulensis grow?

Afterthought (just the stuff in red): this was lurking in my notes for the gold book, but only emerged a week or two after I posted this: the writer is Richard Burton, the African explorer and Arabist, not the Welsh actor, and he was writing of Freetown in Africa.
In this section of the nineteenth century it is the custom to admit that the climate is bad and dangerous; but that it has often been made the scape-goat of European recklessness and that much of the sickness and death might be avoided. The improvement is attributed to the use of quinine, unknown to the early settlers, and much is expected from sanatoria and from planting the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), which failed, owing to the carelessness and ignorance of the planters.
Richard F. Burton, To The Gold Coast for Gold (1883), Vol. I, chapter XI.

Now here is that same species, E. globulus, Tasmanian bluegum, above the town of Muros near Cape Finisterre, north-west Spain.  It is grown for its timber, not for any anti-malarial properties.

Now back to the main story!

The good time girl
I have been flat out on a difficult technical editing task this week, and there hasn’t been much time for blogging, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

In my spare (ha!) time, I have been teasing out the story of Lola Montez, because I wondered how well she was known before she came to Australia during the gold rush.  I thought there might be a story there.  I was right.  The answer was there in the National Library's historic newspapers collection.   You can enter search strings there like "Lola Montez" (in quotes, like that) to see her appear.

Lola springs into view in print in 1847, and my search shows 1287 entries (that number will increase, over time).  She was the mistress of the King of Bavaria, and by 1848, as Europe was revolting, he abdicated in her company, but two weeks later, she was in Berne, under the protection of the British Charge d'Affaires, one Robert Peel, the son of Sir Robert Peel.

She was then in her thirties, they say, and probably realised that her clock was running.  There had been a husband, whom she had left in India, and he divorced her for adultery with a Mr. Lennox, but it was one of those tricky divorces which forbade either party to remarry.

I don't think this was the image
being sold to the bourgeoisie in
a maple and gold frame in 1848.
Lola didn't recall that part at all.  By November 1849, she was in court in London, charged with bigamously marrying a young lieutenant,  some eleven years her junior, and with some £6000 or £7000 a year.  She posted £1000 bail and skipped off to the continent.  Later, it appears, the lieutenant was forced to resign his commission and may have made a settlement on her (I still have to look into that), but she was already off on the next adventure.

All of this saga was retailed in the Australian newspapers, and in May 1848, Syney art lovers had the chance to acquire at auction in Sydney, engravings of Pope Pius IX, Jenny Lind, Jephtha's daughter, or Lola Montez, in a maple and gold frame.  (By the way, some of these links are to whole pages.  If you use control-F for Find and enter the name Lola, you will find her.)

And so it goes.  She did a tour of the Californian goldfields then hit Sydney and Melbourne.  Oh yes, I forgot the horse-whips: newspapers tended to say things about her, and as a consequence, editors tended to get horse-whipped by her—well, at least one Ballarat editor suffered that date!

As I hope to write about here, I guess I'm glad she's not around any more, though I think I may be less derogatory than that editor. After all, she was just giving her public what they wanted, a dream of a good time.  A bit like writers, I suppose.

I can definitely see why struck-it-rich and deprived-of-female-company males on the goldfields might find her interesting.  But the more I burrow into the 19th century, the less I get the feeling that these were times when self-styled "naice people" didn't mention sex and stuff.  They hinted at it, they nudged and sniggered, but things were left unsaid.

It's always been my ambition to have a book banned somewhere.  I think that this time I may be on a winner. Sadly, I think that Lola may not make the cut, as I have already as many words as I want, and half the story remains untold.

It's a big yarn.

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