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Thursday, 2 January 2014

Dogs and navigation

As the year turns over, I am currently engaged in trying my hand at something new, YA historical fiction. Usually, I write factual material, but I have been aiming since 2005 to fit some of the many bits and pieces I have read and written about, into a coherent fictional narrative.  Where will I publish it?  Dunno: I have genial interest from one publisher, but I may just go to e-book

Dubbed (in my head) The Cornish Boy, the series involves a teenager who acquired the basics of science and technology before being forced to flee Cornwall for Australia, where he does the things teenagers did in those days, like going exploring, digging for gold, and other stuff. The other stuff is all determined and drafted, but as yet, under wraps: suffice it to say that pirates and lost treasure are involved, as are paddle steamers, but everything is closely related to reality.
Mary Reibey, who is on our $20 note.

For example, women in the 19th century often wore male clothing for a variety of reasons (including disguise, practicality and safety), and one of my female characters will be given advice in wearing male clothing by an elderly Mary Reibey, who was sent for trial as a male horse thief named James Burrow, before her gender was discovered.

Book 1 includes a degree of setting-up, and as he needs, in book 2, to be able to navigate, and because he may need to be able to manage dogs in a later book, dogs appear as well.  Mainly, though, this yarn is a simple way of explaining the longitude problem: in book 2, the Cornish boy and his employer use the satellites of Jupiter to determine their longitude.

Sir Kenelm Digby (Wikimedia Commons)
That tempted me to slip in a true tale. It relates to a hypothetical dog based on an invention credited to Sir Kenelm Digby, who was both a naval commander and a diplomat. His father was involved in Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot, but the son was only two years old and suffered no taint.

As a naval commander, he understood the need for portable time, but as he died in 1665, long before somebody put forward the invention I am about to describe, he ought to escape any taint once again.

Digby developed a nostrum called ‘a sympathetic powder’ for the cure of wounds. This powder was to be put on the weapon that caused the wound, not the wound itself. He claimed that when a dressing from a wound was placed in a basin of the powder, the person jumped.

Digby died in 1665, so he is innocent of what happened next. In 1687, an anonymous inventor proposed that each ship putting to sea be provided with a scientifically wounded dog, which was to travel on the ship while the dressing remained in the home port.

Each hour, day and night, some careful person in the home port would take a dressing which had been on the wounded dog, and place it in Digby’s sympathetic powder. This would cause the dog to yelp, thereby indicating for those on the ship the time back in the home port.

Sadly, the sympathetic powder time system never worked, so explorers needed to load up with sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers and more—and use them a good deal.

But it gives a whole new meaning to the watchdog—or at sea, to the dog watches.

Now about dogs in exploration, Ludwig Leichhardt’s last kangaroo dog died almost at the end of their expedition, but their terrier, taken as a pet and watch dog, died of heat exhaustion much earlier. Leichhardt commented:
"During summer, the ground is so hot, and frequently so rotten, that even the feet of a dog sink deep. This heat, should there be a want of water during a long stage, and perhaps a run after game in addition, would inevitably kill a soft dog. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance to have a good traveller, with hard feet: a cross of the kangaroo dog with the bloodhound would be, perhaps, the best. He should be light, and satisfied with little food in case of scarcity; although the dried tripe of our bullocks gave ample and good food to one dog. It is necessary to carry water for them; and to a little calabash, which we obtained from the natives of the Isaacs, we have been frequently indebted for the life of Spring."
Both John McDouall Stuart and and Ernest Giles' companion, Alfred Gibson had dogs called Toby, which was a popular 19th century dog's name. Stuart’s Toby died of the heat, Gibson’s dog wandered off into the desert while both Giles and Gibson were ill and Toby was never found. Gibson died later in what is now Gibson's desert.

In 1876, a few years later, Giles was taking better care of his dogs, as this tale reveals:
On this occasion a tall, gaunt man and his wife, I supposed, were gazing at Tommy's riding camel as she carried the two little dogs in bags, one on each side.
Tommy was standing near, trying to make her jump up, but she was too quiet, and preferred lying down. Any how, Tommy would have his joke - so, as the man who was gazing most intently at the pups said, "What's them things, young man?" he replied, "Oh, that's hee's pickaninnies"...
Then the tall man said to the wife, "Oh, lord, look yer, see how they carries their young." Only the pup's heads appeared, a string round the neck keeping them in; "but they looks like dogs too, don't they?"
With that he put his huge face down, so as to gaze more intently at them, when the little dog, who had been teased a good deal and had got snappish, gave a growl and snapped at his nose. The secret was out; with a withering glance at Tommy and the camels, he silently walked away - the lady following.
Somehow or other, that tale may well seep in.  All I need is a bigger shoehorn.
Within 48 hours of my posting this, Mary Ludwick in Texas shared a link from the Christian Science Monitor to an old-fashioned email list we are both on, which offers another possible reason why explorers may have taken dogs with them.  I wouldn't bet on it, though...

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