We sailed from Marseilles on the “H.M.S Porto” en-route for Constantinople via Malta & Koudros (Greece) at 2pm on Thursday 6th Nov. 1919. We passed the coast of Corsica & Sardinia at 10pm on Friday 7th Nov. 1919. Corsica is an island near Italy where Napoleon was born. We saw a whale spouting at 12-noon on Sat. 8th Nov. 1919. At 9:30pm on the same date we passed the coast of Sicily on which is the volcano “Etna” which destroyed Messina by its tremendous flow of lava in the year 1908.
I wrote a post on the H.M.S. Porto during the week and you can read about it here.
As I write these blog posts I try to remember that the way I see things now is not necessarily the way they were seen then. I found the mention of Napoleon a striking reminder of the different cultural and historical landscape my grandfather occupied. He did not know of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin (or at least not the way we know him), Mao Tse Tung or Pol Pot. The scale of the atrocity of the Great War, on a far larger scale than the world was used to may not have had time to sink into the collective consciousness. This is indicated by the mention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had dominated global affairs for the first decade of the 1800’s yet loomed large in my grandfathers cultural vocabulary (see Messenger(2001) * Roberts (2014)).*
*For those of you who don’t know, some of Bonaparte’s relatives are buried in Waterford city (Waterford Treasures, 2017.)
But it was this entry in the diary that stayed with me when I first read it years ago…
We saw a whale spouting at 12-noon on Sat. 8th Nov. 1919.
The rest I deemed ‘boring’ but the whale…? I saw my first whale about seven years ago off the coast of the south-east of Ireland. My excitement was immense. It was completely by accident that I was walking down to Garrarus beach carrying binoculars when a whale surfaced close to shore. Since then I whale watch every year when they are most inshore, from October to February. There are a number of species of whale in the Mediterranean, most of which occupy the western basin that the H.M.S. Porto sailed through. There are Long Finned-Pilot Whales, Killer Whales, Cuvier’s Beaked Whale and Sperm Whales as well as Fin Whales. Given that the first two travel in groups, the second is deep water and not often seen I think he saw a Sperm Whale or a Fin Whale, the second biggest mammal in the world and the ones I see most often out my door. Back in those days the animals were probably even bigger than they are now (60-90ft) not having been decimated by over fishing. Sadly between 1921 and 1954 many fin whales were captured in a vigorous period of whaling in that area so likely the animal he saw met with a sticky end (Curry, 2016, p.78).
It is always a great thing to see a whale, particularly from a boat. Someone shouts and points, people gather. The force of blow explodes into the air followed by the rolling black back wreathed in rainbows. There are smiles all around, camaraderie with previously ignored ship mates is instant. It must have been a welcome break in a possibly anxious atmosphere.
Knowing my grandfather very (very) little and only then late in life when he lived in Wexford town, I had never considered him as being connected to the sea. I realise now he more than likely will have heard tales about whales and other sea creatures on the Dublin docks where his father, my great-grandfather, worked. That my grandfather mentioned it at all after all his other experiences means it had an impact. His whale sighting would be something he connect him to those back home where he was young and it draws a line that runs from the banks of the Clyde to the port of Dublin to the deck of a ship in the Mediterranean then down through the years to his last home in Wexford town on the sea, to my Dads’ coming to teach in the port town of Waterford and choosing to take us to live beside the the sea, which I could not imagine living far away from. Even when I have lived in cities -Edinburgh and Amsterdam-the sea or water has been visible all around. I guess this should have occurred to me before but what we think is ours alone has its roots alot further back.
At 9:30pm on the same date we passed the coast of Sicily on which is the volcano “Etna” which destroyed Messina by its tremendous flow of lava in the year 1908.
Moving onto the mention of Etna, it occurred to me that the spouting leviathan and the exploding volcano form a sort of gateway into the unknown, marking the line that my grandfather passed from being a boy to being a man, a magically realistic image which reflects the intended nature of this blog. That, is to take what is written and to expand, extrapolate, surmise and imagine the various functions and meanings that writing this type of account had for my grandfather~and other men of the time~and how this can expand my own understanding of him, my family and historical events. As it turns out my grandiose imagining was rather spoiled when researching the Messina tragedy to find it was an earthquake rather than an eruption that caused it. Etna did erupt in 1908 but in April and not December.
Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in Europe. This is as much to do with lava emissions as eruptions. My grandfather’s reference to ‘the tremendous flow of lava’, though not correct in relation to the Messina disaster, points to some sort of knowledge of Etna’s prodigious lava flow. I saw it myself first hand when I was in Sicily in 1994 when I visited Etna in the midst of a very active period. This is a lot less dramatic than it sounds. I remember standing on a hillside beside some ashy smoking rubble that was apparently creeping down the mountain. I say apparently but I couldn’t see it moving at all. I was more traumatised by a visit to a bar in the area. But that’s another story…
The earthquake of December 28th 1908 was devastating. It was the biggest disaster in European history. 7.1 on the Richter scale and created a 40 foot high tsunami. In a city whose hotels were packed for a performance of Aida between 70,000 and 100,000 people died while many were buried alive up to a week or more. 90% of buildings in Messina were destroyed. Fifty years on there were still people living in makeshift housing. All the municipal records were destroyed, skewing the history of the island to the favour of the city of Palermo. There was a massive increase in emigration after the quake and the departure of much of the male population contributed to the death of many villages on the island as well as the rise of the Mafia in America (Norwich, p.318-319). When a butterfly flaps its wings as they say….
My grandfather was only nine years old in 1908 and the news from Messina, which must have been much discussed among adults, would have become entwined with the imagery of other disasters and stories both real and fictional. The combination of the earthquake and Etna reminded me of the account of the eruption of Krakatoa, far away in the Pacific, in 1883. Not eruption was felt around the globe on a number of levels. Initially there was a world wide wave of atmospheric pressure. There were spectacular sunsets over the following eighteen months or more and in fact research has shown that various volcanic eruptions figured in the work of many artists among them William Mallard Turner. Munch’s The Scream is said to have drawn its skies from the sunsets caused by Krakatoa’s eruption. More importantly in the long term, as telegraph cables were recently laid under the sea, media was entering a new phase. The suffering of people far away could be empathized with, something new for those who were not yet overwhelmed by super-charged media (Winchester, 2004). A disaster on this scale would have hit home harder and made deeper marks on the psyche than it does now. More than that, natural phenomenon could be scientifically reported before mythologized versions of events and their causes provided coping mechanisms for the psyche. This is a far bigger subject than can be addressed properly here. Suffice to say the world was changing and people had to develop different ways to cope. Krakatoa, an explosive event was a defining event maybe explaining my grandfather’s mistaken belief that Messinas’ destruction was the result of a volcanic eruption. His cultural landscape was a new combination of historical, mythological and scientific from the rule of Napoleon to the reportage of natural disasters, miraculous inventions and terrible suffering. That my grandfather married images of a whale and a volcano on the same page of his account, albeit in supposed error, perhaps vindicates my excited imaginings. The gateway was real. The monsters on the old maps, taken so literally by us now, would have been once understood as not only the creatures that might inhabit unknown realms but also symbolic of all the unimaginable dangers that could be encountered. For my granddad, whose life straddled two ages, maybe the wonder of the whale, the fiery memory of reports of Krakatoa and the terrible disaster at Messina, images formed when he was a boy, combined in response to the excitement, anticipation and dread in the shadow of what lay ahead.
We arrived at Malta at 2pm on Sunday 9th Nov. 1919.
…the bright colours of Malta. See you next week.
References & Further Reading
Behncke, B., (1996), A Virtual Voyage to some of the World’s Most Fascinating Volcanoes, [online], available at http://www.geo.mtu.edu/volcanoes/boris/mirror/mirrored_html/ETNA_elenco.html[accessed 20/09/2017].
Binding, P., (2003), Imagined Corners:Exploring the World’s First Atlas, London:Headline Book Publishing.
Curry, B., (ed.)(2016), Mediterranean Marine Mammal Ecology and Conservation, Academic Press, [online], available at https://books.google.ie/books?id=tjbZCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA175&lpg=PA175&dq=whales+in+the+mediterranean+1920&source=bl&ots=hbOYCnHrTD&sig=O6w0_FxIkTd74OC2A2afs4BLrp8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwimlrb9xbTWAhWlI8AKHRJ-AxEQ6AEIRTAI#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed 20/09/2017].
Hughes, R., (1991), The Shock of the New, 2nd Ed., London:Thames & & Hudson.
Ibiblio.org, (2008), Earthquake at Messina, December 28th, 1908, [online], available at https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/events/ev-1900s/ev-1908/messina.htm
Lean, G., (2007), Art & science: Turner’s message from the skies, in The Independent, October 6th, [online], available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/art-science-turners-message-from-the-skies-744824.html [accessed 23/09/2017].
Norwich, J., J., (2016) Sicily:A Short History from the Greeks to the Cosa Nostro, London:Hodder & Staughton/John Murray.
Roberts, A., (2014), Introduction, in Napoleon: A Life, London:Penguin Group.
Sturdy, E. W., (1884), The Volcanic Eruption of Krakatoa, in the Atlantic Magazine, September issue, [online], available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1884/09/the-volcanic-eruption-of-krakatoa/376174/
The Sky & Telescope Editors, (2003), Astronomical Sleuths Link Krakatoa to Edvard Munch’s Painting The Scream, [online], in Sky & Telescope, December 9th, available at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/press-releases/astronomical-sleuths-link-krakatoa-to-edvard-munchs-painting-the-scream/ [ccessed 23/09/2017].
Waterford Treasures, (2017), Napoleon Mourning Cross, [online], available at http://www.waterfordtreasures.com/bishops-palace/whats-inside/napoleon-bonapartes-mourning-cross [accessed 23/09/2017].
Winchester, S., (2004), Krakatoa:The Day the Earth Exploded, London:Penguin.