Batik

Reading this week:

  • Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang (beautiful)
  • In the Waves by Rachel Lance

Look. A couple of things. First, I continue to be impressed with the success of my blog post Joe Biden’s Ties (a success not shared by its short update, Joe Biden’s Ties Update). According to WordPress stats, it got like, slightly over two dozen views the other day. Two dozen! This has made me drunk with fame. Expect a biopic shortly. Second, there is a pandemic going on, which has severely restricted the amount of places I can go and then dryly describe for my myriad followers. This has left me pondering if I could maybe even creep up into three dozen viewers on any given day if I dedicate myself entirely to fashion commentary. At the very least, it would save us from being a Chronicle blog. This has made me decide to dedicate this week’s blog in an ode to the greatest fashion in the world, batik.

First off, I apologize; I’m not going to do batik justice here, either in regards to its rich history or to my deep and abiding love for it. I first discovered batik in the usual way: my grandfather died. He was not Indonesian, nor am I entirely sure he ever went to Indonesia, but nonetheless a shirt made of batik wound up in his closet. My dad was too fat for it (that’s not a dig at dad, I’m also too fat for it now, but I used to work out [because the Navy made me]), so I wound up with it. What a revelation! To back up a bit. In case you didn’t follow the link to Wikipedia the first time I wrote batik, what I’m referring to is cloth that has been colored with a wax-resist dyeing technique. If you’re using batik in that general sense, there are a whole lot of types of batik from over large swaths of the world. Given that other parts of the world use other words for it, batik therefore refers more specifically to cloth produced with the technique from Indonesia. It comes in a variety of colorful designs, and people make all sorts of cool clothing out of it, but in my case I exclusively wear batik that has been crafted into shirts.

And I do wear a lot of ’em. Or at least used to. There’s a pandemic on and I can’t stand to muster anything more than a t-shirt for an online class. The picture at the top is a small portion of my total batik collection; I have stowed a large chunk of it away because as I have just complained about there is a pandemic on and I never go anywhere anymore. I wear them for a few reasons. Probably the biggest reason is that they are bold and loud. I remember one day (before my forays into fashion) that I looked at my t-shirt collection and realized they were all blue. And nearly the same shade of blue. This isn’t just a personal fashion choice; look at men (in America at least), any man, and I am willing to bet that he is probably wearing blue. I don’t know what part of that is blue being a flattering color to wear, men being desperately uncreative, or mass-produced fashion having to cater to the lowest common denominator, but men all tend to wear the same boring stuff. There’s no reason to! We can wear whatever we want! We don’t have to wear blue! So batik for me was in large part a major antidote to uninspired dressing.

Another huge reason I like to plug batik is that at some point I decided that it was worth it to look presentable to the world. Batik shirts are a great way to do that. I made this realization at some point with the help of a PutThisOn article I don’t think is up any longer. That article was talking about Aloha/Hawaiian shirts (when I wear batik, it’s usually mistaken for an Aloha shirt, which I also very much love), but made the point that those shirts are actually kinda dressy. Look, I (probably) wouldn’t wear one to a funeral, but the batik shirts I wear (and Aloha shirts) are button-down and have collars. That certainly puts them a step above the t-shirts that my stereotypical blue-clad men wear. And if I come across another man in a batik shirt or an Aloha shirt, I can tell that man has probably put a lot more thought into what he is wearing than somebody dressed in a t-shirt, and out of sheer favoritism I am also going to put him above the polo-shirt clad crowd. And what is the point of formal dress besides an indication that you’ve thought about what you’re wearing and how it applies to the situation in which you will wear it? Also, I meant to point this out earlier, batik is formalwear in Indonesia anyways, so it’s not sorta-kinda formal, it is formal.

The most difficult part of my passion for batik is that it is hard to get. I have bought nearly the entirety of my batik collection on ebay. At some point, I think I was (I might still be) the exclusive buyer of size-17 batik keris (my preferred brand) shirts on ebay. I have an alert set up. In good times, I get an email nearly every morning. I think the pandemic must have significantly slowed the flow of batik into the United States because pickings have been sadly slim. There have been a limited number of other ways I have been able to obtain batik. At one point, a buddy of mine had long been suffering under a deluge of batik, actually. I was jealous of his lifestyle, which involved having an uncle that sent him boxes of batik shirts unsolicited. Both my buddy and his uncle were Indonesian, as way of explanation. While we were in closer proximity, he would pass his surplus to me. This was amazing.

At only one time in my life have I been able to buy batik shirts directly from a store. This was in Singapore. I did not know I was going to go to Singapore when I set out on this particular trip (it was on a submarine, and things are hush-hush on submarines, and also sometimes disorganized), but as soon as I heard we were headed there I felt my batik dreams were destined to come quickly true. I was crushed to not find every street lined with batik stores, but when I finally found one I ran across the street to shop there. At the time I was under the impression you could be caned in Singapore for jaywalking, but such was my dedication to bright and colorful patterns that I was willing to risk physical injury for it. Based on the reaction of the erstwhile shopkeeper, I am willing to say I was the most enthusiastic buyer of batik he had seen in quite some time. Maybe just the least canny. At any rate, it was heaven.

So, uh, yeah. That’s what I got to say about batik. It’s bold. It’s beautiful. It’s a step up from whatever you’re likely wearing (my super amazing girlfriend disagrees [hi!]). Give it a go! Just not in size 17 from ebay. That’s for me.

James Hemans

Reading this week:

  • Ted Hood: Through Hand and Eye: An Autobiography by Ted Hood and Michael Levitt

One of my current pet projects is going through the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society and transcribing all of their articles relevant to the Central African mission. I realize that this blog is becoming more and more “interesting things I found in the Chronicle” (saving us, at the very least, from becoming exclusively a 3D-printing blog), but I think this project has a purpose. All the back issues of the Chronicle are in various places on the internet, and if you search the right terms various things will pop up on Google Books, but they aren’t really accessible to a casual internet search. This is especially true of the pictures, and I think it is important to put that stuff out there.

While that project is progressing (it’s gonna take a long time), I wanted to put some stuff out there about James Hemans and his wife, Maria. I have mentioned Mr. Hemans before, noting that I should do a deeper dive into that. This is draft #1 of that deeper dive. I went through all the issues of the Chronicle from 1887, when the Hemans are recorded as arriving in England from Jamaica, until 1908, when the Chronicle reported his death. This version is crude; I just did a search for “Hemans” in the PDFs, a technique that fails to capture each and every mention of them. This is why I’m doing the longer project and scrolling through all the issues by hand, to try to capture every mention and put ’em in a more easily searchable document.

Anyways, some background. James Hemans and his wife are notable for being Black missionaries sent to the Central African mission of the London Missionary Society. There is a short biography of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans here, which notes that they were not well treated by their fellow missionaries. The most significant chunk of biographical information on Mr. Hemans in the Chronicle (women in the Chronicle are largely ignored except as the wives of their husbands) comes from the June 1901 issue, which noted that he was “a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica” (I want to make an aside to note I’m not endorsing the language or views of any of the quotes I present). The book Jamaica Congregational Churches provides some more background:

In September of the same year [1887] Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans sailed from England on their way to Central Africa, Mr. Hemans having been appointed a missionary schoolmaster in connection with the L.M.S. mission on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Mr. Hemans from early youth had a strong desire to go to Africa to labor for the salvation and enlightenment of his own race in its fatherland, but his way did not open until he had been trained and has served for several years as a teacher. This training and experience proved to be the best preparation for the important and successful work which, by the blessing of God, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have done in Africa. Mr. Hemans was brought up in connection with the Davyton Church, and Mrs. Hemans with Four Paths, and they were married while Mr. Hemans was teacher at Porus, where he labored for four years previous to going to Africa. Our friends had a well-earned furlough in 1896, a few months of which they spent in Jamaica visiting the churches and telling the story of their life and work in the Dark Continent. They spent some time in England on their way back, and when Mr. Hemans wrote to our late beloved Queen and told her that he and his wife were children of slaves, whom Her Majesty had emancipated in Jamaica at the commencement of her reign, and that they were now engaged in mission-work among the natives of the extreme part of Her Majesty’s dominion in Central Africa, the good Queen could not refuse their request for an interview. She received them very graciously, and presented them with a large framed portrait of herself to take to Africa with them.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 14-15

A later passage from the same book notes:

For a long time Mr. Hemans had felt a strong desire to be a missionary in the African fatherland, and Providence opened the way for the realization of this longing. In the year 1887, the L.M.S. having communicated to our Union the willingness to accept one of our Jamaica colored young men for the post of missionary teacher in Central Africa, the Union felt no hesitation in selecting Mr. Hemans – the more so as Mrs. Hemans was a woman in every way likely to be helpful to her husband in this great work. They accordingly proceeded to England, followed by the earnest prayers of our churches. They were cordially received by the directors, and after a few months’ special training in educational methods were sent to the Dark Continent. We are glad to record that their career has been one of great usefulness and success. They are still laboring at Niamkolo, Lake Tanganyika, and it is our hope that they may spend many years of happy and successful toil. Would that more from our churches would arise to follow in their steps.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 82-83

There’s clearly a lot more to be learned about the Hemans if we dive into the Jamaica records, but that is far outside my wheelhouse, so I’ll have to leave that to others. Let’s dive into what the Chronicle has to say about the Hemans:

The first mention of the Hemans that I found was in November 1887 (pg 495), noting “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans, and Mrs. Hemans, from Jamaica, per steamer Don, at Southampton, October 15th.” Then, in May 1888, Mr. Hemans attended a prayer meeting. Finally, the first substantial chunk of info on them comes in the July 1888 issue (pg 341), where “welcomes and valedictions” were noted during a board meeting of the Society:

The Central Africa party was a strong one… special interest was attached to the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, negroes from Jamaica, who have volunteered for the work. They go out, having, it is hoped, as African by descent and constitution, special qualifications for the field. They will fill a responsible position, and upon the success or otherwise of the experiment thus tried much will depend. The Directors will follow them with great interest, not a little anxiety, and with much prayerfulness, and trust that the new departure will prove a wise and successful step…

They departed with the rest of the Central Africa-bound missionaries on the steamer Goorkha on June 2nd of that year. Mr. Hemans would have been 31. The next news, from the March 1889 issue (pg 83), relays the story of the group’s overland crossing to the lake, with a brief mention of Mrs. Hemans:

A letter from the Rev. T.F. Shaw tells of his safe arrival at Urambo on November 2nd. Mr. Draper and himself were in excellent health. Mrs. Shaw, during the latter part of the journey, had suffered much, but on reaching their destination at once began to improve. Mr. A.J. Swann also reports that on October 18th, he, and the party he had conducted from the coast, had reached Ujiji in health and peace. Dr. Mather, though still far from strong, was very much better. The journey was accomplished in three months and two days, and without the loss of a single package. The chairs for Mrs. Swann and Mrs. Hemans answered admirably, and proved an economical mode of transport. Both the ladies were as well as when they left the coast. The Arabs were glad to see him back again. No news of Stanley had reached them. The party were to cross to Kavala Island in the Alfigiri. Mr. Carson and Mr. Wright both send cheering news from Kavala Island. They were well, and, by medical work, teaching, and public services, were trying to commend the Gospel to the natives.

An update in June 1889 noted that the Hemans were bound for the Mission at Fwambo, and that “On the new station (Fwambo) Mr. Jones has carried on worship with his men, and has sought to make known the Gospel to the people of the neighboring towns. After the arrival of Mr. Hemans the erection of a school-house was at once begun.” In July it was noted (pg 234) that “The party of missionaries at Fwambo, the new station in the highlands, were all in excellent health. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans were delighted with the invigorating, yet balmy, air which, they say, resembles their native air of Jamaica.”

The Hemans’ aren’t pictured, but I think he might have helped build this house.

Having settled in, it seems to me that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans quickly became the most successful missionaries that the Central Africa Mission would see for some time. James seemed especially industrious, doing in his early days a whole lot of building, especially I think of schoolhouses, being a schoolteacher and all. Reading through the various reports, they were extremely popular and well-liked among the people the Mission was trying to convert, and their pupils were by far the best. The two would wind up in Africa for 18 years or so, a remarkable feat in and of itself when most of their Missionary fellows lasted a few years at most. In light of that, it makes it all the sadder that they were apparently poorly treated by the other missionaries. Strikes me as jealousy through and through.

At any rate, part of a letter from Mr. Hemans was published in the January 1892 edition (pg 12):

“In February, 1890,” says Mr. Hemans, of Fwambo, “I planted four quarts of wheat, which yielded about a bushel. The whole was again sown last February. The field was reaped two weeks ago, and we have got about 7 cwts. of clean wheat ready for use. Should a mill be sent out for the use of this station, the missionaries would, I believe, have no need of ordering flour. In fact the two stations could, without any difficulty, be supplied with the required quantity of flour. Wheat and potatoes thrive remarkably. Here, they seem to be in their element.”

I think that Kawimbi and Fwambo are the same place, though there is reason to doubt that.

By 1892, the Hemans had been transferred to Niamkolo, as part of a consolidation of missionary activities towards the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. A lengthy report in the October edition of that year (pg 228) mentions the work of Mr. Hemans a few times:

Niamkolo is of course on the borders of the lake. Some sixty miles south of the lake, on the highlands of the interior, is our newest Central African station. This is called Fwambo, or, since the permanent site of the Mission has been selected, Kawimbi. There again, in consequence of the shifting of the station a few miles to a more commodious site, the work has been to some extent checked, and building necessities have overridden everything else, but the missionaries have secured what bids fair to become a strong center. The Rev. D.P. Jones, who is in charge of the station, reports as follows:-

“The outdoor work of the station has been carried on chiefly by Mr. Hemans. We have done extensive building during the year, and I think I may venture to say that, both in strength and appearance, they are rather superior to any buildings put up by us hitherto, excepting, of course, as such as have been made of brick or stone.

“Including cattle sheds, outhouses, etc, as many as seven blocks have been erectred since January, each block of dimensions not less than 40 feet by 12 feet.

“Wheat-growing was also undertaken by us on a small scale, and with perfect success.”

Some particular praise for the work of Mr. Hemans, from the January 1893 issue (pg 15):

At Fwambo, the Rev. D.P. Jones has been examining his school, and found that only one scholar was able to give intelligent answers to Scripture questions, all the rest having a confused idea that the first man was made of a bone and found by the daughter of Pharaoh in the reeds, and that when he was a youth he killed a giant with a stone.

School work at Niamkolo, under the care of Mr. Hemans, is very encouraging. All the boys in the village are attending the school, and are now having three hours’ teaching every day instead of one hour only as formerly. On August 10th, Mr. Jones examined the school, and was exceedingly pleased with the result. The scholars gave ample proof that learning had become a pleasure to them.

In July a Sunday-school was started for “all comers,” and more than 150 put in an appearance. One night three lads called on Mr. Hemans and told him “that they found out that they were sitting down as fools, notwithstanding that they had been hearing of the love of Jesus; but they have decided to be so no longer, and wish to make known publicly that they are followers of Jesus.”

In November of 1894 (pg 264), there is a report about the missionaries’ attempts to make inroads with the Bemba people (here spelled “Awemba). A famine had struck, and the missionaries were hoping that an offer of aid would open up diplomatic relations. It didn’t go quite as planned, but the presence of Black missionaries intrigued Chief Ponde:

Under the dispensation of famine in the Aemba country, the missionaries at Niamkolo have been seeking entrance through a hitherto closed door. The Rev. W. Thomas and Mr. Hemans agreed to send relief and a promise of abundance of food if the people would send for it. The principal natives at Niamkolo entered eagerly into the proposal, and early in June a number of men started for Luemba with food. In going to Kitimkuru’s they would first have to propitiate his nephew, Ponde. The messengers returned just before the end of the month, accompanied by twelve of Ponde’s men, including his son and his headman or minister of war. The messengers reported that they had been very warmly received and kindly treated by Ponde and his people. He would not, however, allow them to go on to his uncle, on the ground that he had not been well pleased with the white men, though he went himself to show his uncle the presents he had received, to tell him about the missionaries, and of their desire to visit him. He was highly pleased to hear that two of the mission band (Mr. and Mrs. Hemans) were colored people like himself, and sent a direct invitation to them. The Rev. W. Thomas was absent on a visit to Ponde when Mr. Hemans wrote, and we trust he has had a successful journey.

In March of 1895 (pg 78), the Chronicle reports that the Hemans were transferred back to Fwambo as part of a shuffling of missionaries, but that his schooling efforts were going as well as ever:

The removal of Mr. Nutt to the new station has necessitated the transference of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans from Niamkolo to Fwambo. Mr. Hemans opened a school at Fwambo’s village with ninety-three children in attendance, and the number has daily increased, as has also been the case with the school at the head station. Upon the day on which he wrote (November 2nd) there had been 287 children at the former school and 153 (boys only) at the latter.

Also in 1895, the Hemans returned to England for a well-deserved furlough, arriving per steamer Tartar, at Southampton, October 16th. They were welcomed back at a board meeting on November 12th (December issue, pg 324), where “The Directors welcomed the Rev. E.S. Oakley, from Almora; Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika (accepting at the same time some of the first copy-books used in the Mission, and specimens of needlework).” Also that month, the Chronicle published a letter that had been addressed to the Foreign Secretary (pg 330):

“A Letter from Tanganyika School Boys”

When Mr. and Mrs. Hemans (whose reception by the Board is referred to on page 324) were about to leave their station the scholars at Kawimbe were greatly troubled. These colored missionaries had completely won their affection and confidence, and very earnestly did the lads plead that a substitute might soon be sent. In reply to their request Mr. Hemans suggested that they should write down what they wanted to say and address it to the Foreign Secretary of the London Missionary Society. At once they accepted the suggestion, and, retiring to the end of the school-house drew up the following petition, which we give in facsimile with a translation appended. Evidently Young Central Africa is getting on!

“Kawimbe, 5th January, 1895

“Master, – We want a person who knows to teach well like Hemans. We love Hemans because he generally tells good things to people and teaches well. We want a cheerful, loving, and faithful person. In days past we were in darkness alone, but now we are greatly thanking God, who has brought him, and in our hearts we are rejoicing.

“We are not angry with anyone – we love all; but we want a person who should come from Jamaica, like Hemans.

“We write these words on behalf of all the school children.”

(Signed) Kipapa. Ngolwe. Mwamba. Mauluki. Ndalambo. Mutale. Makiende. Kisimba. Kimvyamuti. Kisama. Kilalu. Musatwe. Kombe. Manyika. Kito. Simbwa. Mulinda. Kamimbi. Maliwanda. Tungo. Kizyemu. Swepa.

The Hemans were busy during their furlough, participating in various London Missionary Society events. They participated in a “Children’s Demonstration” (June 1896 issue, pg 126):

Favored by the sunniest Sunday for many weeks past, the Children’s Demonstration at Exeter Hall, on the afternoon of May 9th, was a record gathering in point of attendance. The large hall began to fill soon after three, and the young people waited patiently for the arrival of “notabilities,” just before four o’clock. A warm welcome was accorded the gaily-dressed missionaries, representative of nearly all parts of the Society’s field of operations; and the missionaries’ children, similarly arrayed, were voted prettier than ever. Very conspicuous and popular also were our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika. The huge map used at the September Convention was suspended from the roof, near the organ.

They also got to spend some time in Jamaica, where they did numerous fund-raising events (March 1897, pg 65):

It may be remembered that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who have done good service as school master and mistress at Fwambo, left England for Jamaica last May, to spend part of their furlough in their native land. While there they have been hard at work amongst the churches, not having indeed one free Sunday during their visit, which terminated at Christmas. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have given numerous lectures on their work in Central Africa, illustrated by lantern slides, the proceeds of which have resulted in the sum of £22 7s. 2d. for the funds of the Society. Much interest and enthusiasm have been evoked by the visit of our friends, and they have been the recipients of several addresses, both of welcome and farewell. One of these from the Old Scholars of Whitefield School, Porus, with some forty signatures, stated, amidst many other sympathetic and congratulatory words, that “while England is proud of her Moffat and her Livingstone, Jamaica is proud of her Hemans.”

During that trip, Mr. Hemans got to visit his father, who unfortunately died three months afterwards. Also in 1897 (June, pg 137) was published an article about a Young Men’s meeting where the Hemans are mentioned. It says “Dr. Parker referred to Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who were seated on the platform, as living illustrations of what the Gospel can do for the world, and added a humorous reference to their audience with the Queen two days before.” I just wanted to say that sounds like Dr. Parker was a bit of a dick to the Hemans right in front of everybody, with at the very least a backhanded compliment.

By May of 1897 they were getting ready to head home. A report of a May 25th board meeting published in July (pg 148) notes “Mr. J.H.E. and Mrs. Hemans, who are returning to Central Africa to resume school work, which they have already done so thoroughly well.” During their second stay in Central Africa, the Hemans’ garnered less mentions (that I found) in the pages of the Chronicle, though it does note some nice things. After mentioning in the 1898 issue (February, pg 46) that the latest batch of missionaries had arrived safely, another newly arrived missionary was making a favorable note in the February 1901 issue (pg 41):

Mr. Draper and Mr. MacKendrick reached Kawimbi on September 22nd, and received a very hearty welcome. At the Sunday morning service, conducted by Mr. Hemans, there were over six hundred natives present. Mr. MacKendrick was appointed to work at Niamkolo. After being there for more than a week, he writes: “The more I see of Niamkolo the surer I am that good and lasting work can be done here. I have been much impressed with the work of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans. Indeed, so far as my experience goes, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best mission station I have visited since coming to Africa. The school is attended by about 120 children at present, and some of the work I have seen would be no disgrace to any of our English schools up to the third or fourth standard. On the first Sunday, although the people were packed like herrings in a box inside the church, there were over two hundred left outside. The following Sunday it was just the same. In the afternoon I baptized four women, and there are others waiting for baptism.”

The final substantial note came later that same year in the June issue (pg 131), with the mention (partially quoted in the beginning):

Mr. Thompson went on to say that the Directors regarded the development of industries as a matter of very great importance among such people. It had, therefore, been a very great satisfaction to get from men quite unconnected with the mission most kindly expressions of satisfaction with their efforts in this direction, and to find that a number of native youths were already useful and profitably employed as carpenters, sawyers, bricklayers, etc. Mr. Hemans, a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica, had given special attention to agriculture, and had rendered great service to the community at large by introducing improved and new varieties of vegetables and fruit. The Foreign Secretary stated that on the previous Friday he had received from Mr. Hemans an excellent sample of raw sugar produced by the mission. “I hope we have heard that last of giving up the Central African Mission. The new century has begun under the shadow of death, but the prospects of the work are brighter than they have ever been.”

In 1906 (April, Pg 96), the Chronicle notes under its departure announcements: “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans, returning to Jamaica, on their retirement from work in Central Africa, embarked at Bristol, per steamer Port Kingston, February 23rd.” Then, in 1908 (October, Pg 200), again under announcements: “Deaths – Hemans. -At Hampton, Jamaica, James H.E. Hemans, late of Central African Mission, in his 52nd year. (By cable dated September 4th.)”

That marked the end of the mentions of Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans that I could find in the Chronicle. As I go through my project of transcribing the Chronicle, I’ll find more, and I skipped a lot of mentions of regular monetary contributions that the Hemans’ made to the Society. They were really dedicated to their work, and remarkably effective, spending over a third of their lives in Africa. As reflected back in my Mama Meli update, they seem kind and beloved by the people they worked with. If their colleagues mistreated them, that is a helluva stain on their record. Maybe some of this information is useful to other researchers trying to tell their story. Thanks!

Joe Biden’s Ties Update

In a move that has surprised me, my post Joe Biden’s Ties is far and away my most popular post ever, getting sometimes into even double-digit views on a given day. Pretty exciting I know! Given the immense popularity, I feel obliged to my loyal reader(s) to provide a quick mid-week update on potentially our most fashionable president (I know JFK exists). I was tipped off by an Al Jazeera article, but, as you can guess from the photo up top, Joe Biden at least once wore a tie with little sharks on it!!! Very exciting!!! The above photo was taken in 2015, when the sartorially adventures then-Vice President met Xi Jinping as the Chinese president arrived for a state visit. Here’s the full photo:

New Bedford

Reading this week:

  • The Mind of the African Strongman by Herman J. Cohen
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
  • US Policy Toward Africa by Herman J. Cohen

This past week my super amazing girlfriend and I went to New Bedford. We went there because we both wanted to get away for a bit, she likes Massachusetts, and I like boats, and conveniently New Bedford catered to all of these interests. We drove up there on a chilly winter morning, leaving New Haven to pass through Old Saybrook and Old Lyme before waving at New London and New-port until we finally arrived at New Bedford. That last sentence was meant to make fun of all the things in New England named uncreatively for other places, but at one point we were contemplating visiting a 12th-century castle in Taunton, so maybe the naming convention makes sense. Still, if I was a pilgrim everything in New England would be named Patville and Patricktown and Patford.

Upon arrival in New Bedford, we immediately got lunch. Then, having fortified ourselves, we proceeded quickly to Fort Rodman to enjoy the view. There’s a military museum that we wanted to visit, but it was mysteriously closed. Luckily, though, the views were nice, as you can see from the samples above. I enjoyed looking at the lighthouse and also the fort, and the trawlers that were motoring on by. We saw many dogs and a man playing rugby by himself. On the note of views, I can’t believe that anyone thinks that windmills are an eyesore. They are so cool. They spin and stuff and then make electricity. Maybe they could come in more creative paint schemes, like flame decals or something. The same goes with solar panels. I wouldn’t advocate cutting down trees to install ’em, but fields and fields of solar panels is an enticing view to me. Everyone should get on board.

Next, because Fort Rodman hadn’t killed quite enough time and we couldn’t check into our AirBnB until 4, we went on the New Bedford Harbor Walk. That’s not the only reason we went, we also went because we like walking places together and enjoying each other’s company, and the walk provides lovely views of the harbor. I was somewhat disappointed to discover you weren’t supposed to walk out on the very nice path shown in the above photo, but mollified to discover the feat of engineering this wall was. They also have these big ole gates that normally let cars through, but make it possible to just like, cut off the lower peninsula of the city, which I think gave the whole affair some Game of Thrones vibes. It was also very cold while we were walking, and as we set out a lady warned us about the dangers of tearing up and getting frostbite on our cheeks, so that was on our mind. We eventually hustled off the wall and managed to park at our AirBnB shortly before a brief but furious snowstorm hit. We settled in and had a lovely night after getting some seafood takeout.

The next morning we set out bright and early (well, like 9:45) for our full day of New Bedford adventuring. The first stop was the Seaflower sculpture, because of course we support public art. Also, importantly, it let me check off a thing on Atlas Obscura, which is almost as important. This was a fairly good trip for checking things off on Atlas Obscura, as our next stop was an oozing whale skeleton:

I’m on the left.

The whale skeleton was housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which was really good! We spent a few hours there looking at stuff. They had the first gallery with the whale skeletons, which was neat (and another one later on), and then an art gallery with a bunch of art, only most of which was whaling-related, and then of course a bunch of galleries that showed you a bunch of stuff about whaling. They had clothing and boats and harpoons and stuff like that. I recommend it. One of their major claims to fame is what they bill as the “World’s Largest Ship Model:”

I guess this counts as a model instead of just like, a ship, because it is half the size of the ship they modelled it after. The overall impression is a ship for children. You can see me on the above right steering it from one end of the hall to the other. We didn’t quite make it, but maybe someday.

Man I uploaded more pictures of the place than I thought. One of the more interesting wings of the exhibit, at least as far as my super amazing girlfriend and I’s interests go, was their wing dedicated to the interactions between the whaling fleets as Asia. They had some super cool examples of Japanese whaling stuff, including a wide range of prints, which I was disappointed to find that the gift shop contained exactly zero reproductions of. They were very neat. The museum also of course boasts of the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw, which I have a particular fondness for out of an effort to make myself presidential. My super amazing girlfriend was very impressed by the swifts.

After leaving the museum and getting some lovely lunch, there wasn’t a whole lot else to actually do in New Bedford. This is largely the fault of COVID. But we spent the rest of a very lovely afternoon walking around and admiring the town, reading the various very informative signs and admiring the boats in the harbor. In the evening we had an expansive takeout dinner and then settled in for the night. That left us with our final morning in New Bedford. It dawned bright and clear and we took advantage of it by being lazy and hanging out until we had to check out of the AirBnB. Then we paid our respects to the Joshua Slocum memorial, which was important because Sailing Alone Around the World is a very good book and he was a cool guy (the memorial park is a lovely spot, too, you should check it out), oh and also for Atlas Obscura. Priorities.

Update: The museum tweeted me. I’ve never achieved this level of fame:

Last Resort

Don’t yell at me Amazon for stealing your photo, I’m trying to drive you traffic.

Reading this week:

  • The Democracy Advantage by Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein
  • Civil Wars by David Armitage

In my habit of defending media products that everyone else thinks is bad, and also because it is slow here and I can’t think of anything else to write about (well, I can, but does anyone really want my analysis of why the people getting vapors about Parler getting kicked off of Amazon are dumb?), I want to tell you this week that the TV show Last Resort is the greatest TV show about submarines ever made.

First off, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of competition. I could find two other shows in the general category after some quick Googling. Submarines seem to be made for movies instead. Second off, though, it’s amazing. By which I mean it is absolutely dumb. Exactly zero parts of it make any sense at all. I mean, that photo up top is presented without a hint of irony in the materials for the show. On the cover of the complete series on DVD which of course I bought, in the background there is also a submarine surrounded by explosions and a destroyer also surrounded by explosions and also F-14s coming from behind to do a fly-over. It’s fantastic.

The premise is that a US nuclear missile submarine is attacked by other US Navy ships for mysterious reasons, and the natural response of the captain is to take over a fictional French island in the Indian Ocean that is somehow very well-stocked with lots of supplies but few French people. The submarine tells everyone to stay away lest they start nuking people, which they demonstrate by nuking a patch of ocean off the Eastern seaboard which they claim in the show wouldn’t have any people in it at all, a bit of the story I took personal offense to because I have literally myself been in those very waters they hypothetically nuked. There’s also a drug kingpin on the island. It’s a whole thing. Hijinks ensue.

She is a fully qualified submariner! She would not be naïve! She has seen some shit! Thank you!

Submariners hate the show. At least they think they do. In their defense, everyone else hated the show as well; it was cancelled after 13 episodes. I don’t know when they figured out they were cancelled (I suspect at about the same time they dreamed up this series), but the final few episodes rush towards a conclusion with increasingly bad green-screen acting and the finale is a gigantic explosion. Honestly, not the peak of artform, I’m going to admit that. I have to keep myself from just detailing all the dumb stuff. Like the female lieutenant, who is the star of the show (Daisy Betts as Lieutenant Grace Shepard), who is a longtime friend of the captain and a qualified submariner who also somehow doesn’t know the most obvious things about submarines. Or the fact that somehow the submarine can just pull into and out of port willy-nilly without shore power or reactor startups or tugboats. Or the fact that no one ever seems to do any maintenance on the thing. These are just the things I can remember easily, I haven’t actually watched this show in like 7 years.

Back to my submariners only think they hate it comment. Like I said three paragraphs ago I bought the complete series on DVD and would make sure to bring it underway. Then, I would play it underway in the wardroom. Lemme tell ya what happens. People walk in. They’re like “what is this?” I tell them “It is Last Resort, the greatest submarine TV show ever made.” They would be like “ugh, that show is terrible,” but they would be transfixed. They would watch for about 10 minutes or so, standing up, like they just wandered in for a second, they’re about to leave, really, they just want to see how dumb it is. But after 10 minutes they sit down. Then, when the episode ends and I queue up the next one, they stay for that too. And the next. This can’t go on for too long, there are only 13 episodes, but everyone watches. You know why? Because they love it.

It is a huge mistake to take the show seriously. You have to watch it like a sci-fi show. When you watch Star Trek, it’s loosely based around the concept of a military-type ship, but no yeah Scotty fixes everything pretty much by himself, the bridge crew are naturally the ones that explore dangerous alien planets, and the warp core breaks or fixes at convenient times for the story. We get it. Same with this show. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s absolutely the greatest, which I have said many times now. The show is absolutely bonkers. They blow stuff up all the time. I think there are Russian paratroopers in only like the second episode which the bad-boy SEAL team leader manages to dispatch at the last second after the hot girl tells him he should, saving LT Shepard who was taking on the Russian paratroopers herself. The real star of the show is the COB, who is acerbic and witty and during most of the show trying to overthrow the captain while also keeping junior sailors in line, and is honestly the most accurate part of the whole production. I love him. The show has better people in it than it deserves, like Andre Braugher, who at no point lets on that he is in anything other than an absolute masterpiece.

Our SEAL friend and his hot conscience. You are too good for him Dichen!

Look, a quick review of the Wikipedia page has made me learn that despite being what I can almost certainly state is this show’s #1 fan, even I don’t recall all the crazy stuff they wrote into the script. Episode 6 includes the entire island being dosed with a hallucinogen; maybe the writers were just putting their own lived experience on the small screen. You gotta struggle past the first episode, but watch this show, and you’ll agree with me that it is the greatest submarine show that has ever existed. I’m not going to say it even deserved all the 13 episodes it got, but I think we are all better for them having existed.

COB says watch it!!!

Inauguration 2009

WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2009) Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy marches down Pennsylvania Avenue during the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington. More than 5,000 men and women in uniform are providing military ceremonial support to the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, a tradition dating back to George Washington’s 1789 Inauguration. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Kingston/Released)

Reading this week:

  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly (I don’t disagree with the premise, but I don’t think he makes a very cogent argument)
  • Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth
  • You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

I don’t have a lot of fun and unique thoughts about like, the attempted insurrection or riot or what have you that happened last Wednesday, and for a lack of much else to write about (I have just been trying to read as many books as possible while I have the time in order to reduce my backlog), I thought I would write about marching in the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Back in January 2009 I was a Youngster at the Naval Academy. The inauguration was coming up, and, as you may have gleaned from the caption in the photo above, the Naval Academy marches in the parade. If I recall correctly, each company got to send three or so people to march in the parade, and I remember them sending out an email asking if anyone wanted to do it. I decided that marching in the inauguration of America’s first black president would be a cool thing to be a part of, so I volunteered. There were enough volunteers that my company held a little tryout. I had to remember how to march (I think I even practiced a little?) because I was a Youngster and therefore actively trying to shed all my last vestiges of professionalism. I think I got the gig because I remembered what some particular drill term meant and executed it correctly. So that was cool!

I think we must have practiced once or twice as a whole group before setting off the morning of the inauguration to DC. They bussed us to the Mall, where there were some staging tents, and I remember driving past the crowds and whatnot. That was cool. The parade is very long, and we were towards the back, so the plan was for us to be in the tents for a bit, and then when it was about time for us to go (long after the parade had already started) to hustle out and form up and start marching.

What I remember most about the day is being very, very cold. I have just looked it up; it seems to have averaged about 24F that day. Furthermore, the dress uniform isn’t great for keeping you warm. You’re walking around in leather shoes and there are only so many layers you can stuff underneath that overcoat. No matter though; the plan was to bust out of our warm, heated tent and then just march march march through DC, past the President, and then onto the busses. This did not happen.

Ground-eye view.

After some time in the tent, we were hustled out and formed up. I think we started marching pretty quick. I forget who was in front of us but for some reason behind us they put the US Navy Ceremonial Guard. Maybe this was to make them look extra-good, but they didn’t need it. You see, those guys are professionals at marching, unlike us, who were just a bunch of schmucks. They should have been in front of us, or maybe far from us so we didn’t tarnish their reputation. I spent a lot of time that day looking at them. You see, despite our quick start, the parade was slow. Very very very slow. I don’t know what the holdup was, because I was so far in the back, you see, but it is simply the nature of long parades that towards the back they don’t go so smoothly and we were feeling it. We started off standing at attention for all this time that we weren’t moving, but before long, as we stopped and started our way through DC, we transitioned to parade rest during the stops and then at ease and finally we were just lolligagging about whenever there was a stop in the parade. The Ceremonial guard, however, I think on purpose always stayed just one step above us. If we were at parade rest, they were at attention. If we were at ease they were at parade rest. And so on. They looked great.

But like I said it was very very cold. My primary motivation for wanting the parade to move was so I could finally get to that long-forgotten place that was warmth. I was pretty sure I was starting to get frost-bit on my toes. I came to the conclusion that if I was ever President I probably just wouldn’t have a parade to spare people standing around in the cold so much.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

But finally! Finally we marched past the President. The above photo I got from NASA, which you can tell from the astronauts, but that is about what the stands looked like when we finally marched past too. It was long since dark, and there was almost nobody left in the stands. As a good little marcher, I should have kept my head straight ahead, but I decided to swivel a bit to get a glimpse of the newly-minted President. Much like in the above picture, he looked warm in the reviewing stand, and was very cheerfully waving at us with a huge smile. So that was really neat! I got to be there and be a part of history or whatever! After we walked past him I think it wasn’t far to the busses and I was glad to have made it through with all my toes intact. So that’s my story of marching in Obama’s first inauguration. I hope you liked it.

Dove

Reading this week:

  • Truman by David McCullough (in 2020)
  • Superpower Interrupted by Michael Schuman
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It’s late at night, and I am bereft of ideas of what to write, so I have decided to just make a short mention of what I think is the most significant book I’ve ever read. That book, as you have guessed from the photo at the top, is Dove by Robin Lee Graham.

The came across the book in middle school, when it was assigned to us by our somewhat eccentric geography teacher. I’m not sure what his exact reasoning for assigning it was; I don’t think his reasons had anything to do all that closely with geography. We were supposed to read it over the course of a couple of weeks I suppose, but I devoured it all that night. After I started reading it I just couldn’t stop until I finished it.

The Wikipedia page for Robin gives a short summary of his adventures, so I won’t bother much with that here, except to say that it is the story of Robin sailing around the world solo. When he did that, back in the 60s at age 16, it made him the youngest person to have ever done it.

I am a huge fan of sailing, and being on the ocean and stuff, and while the book is good for that, that’s not what really made it significant for me. What astonished me about the book is that Robin wanted to do something, so he just went out and did it. He wanted to sail around the world, and despite that being something that, by definition at this point, 16-year-olds didn’t do, that didn’t matter, he just made a plan and went about fulfilling it. I’m struggling to come up with a way to say this without being pithy and flippant, but reading the book was the first time that I really figured out that you didn’t need someone’s permission to go out and be who you wanted to be.

There’s a lot of caveats and explaining here. I realize that not everyone can simply do whatever they want to do, and people have responsibilities that make them choose one path or another. I also realize that there are a lot of pursuits that rely on luck and good timing and certainly things like good health. Money really helps too of course. But Robin saw something he wanted to do, and he did it, without someone telling him that he was allowed to do it. The thing he “should” have done is probably finish school, get a job, save up, establish a safety net for himself. But there wasn’t a rule that he needed to do that, nothing that required him to except the societal pressure to conform, and he simply ignored that. I found that amazing.

This isn’t a blog post saying that you should drop out of school; my own experience has demonstrated a lot of value in education. But what I have always found really important is the knowledge that whatever path I have chosen in life, there is nothing that made me do it. I always had other choices; if Robin could just bounce and sail around the world, then so could I. That means that I am in my path by choice, that I want to be here, and that in and of itself makes the path worth pursuing.

I didn’t state that well. It’d take me a lot longer to formulate it eloquently. But Dove still remains important to me all this time later. It’s a good book.

Mama Meli Update Part 3

Mrs. May in 1903

We return for our final update; Meli is to be married, and Mrs. May, having recently lost her husband, decides to organize the wedding herself.

Whatever the reason, when it came time for the wedding, they really made a whole to-do of it. Mrs. May went to Meli’s future father-in-law, telling him she wanted to organize the wedding herself but she wanted to do it in accordance with Mambwe custom, saying “I shall buy the oil, perfume, and flour to anoint her during the wedding.” The one exception was that she said “I will not brew beer.” On the day of the wedding, Mrs. May had invited a whole bunch of people, including Meli’s relatives and her soon-to-be-husband’s relatives, and it seems like it was a great time. There was music and “great rejoicing,” and everything seems to have gone fantastic. Mrs. May got in on the action when, as the bride’s “mother,” she was cajoled into getting up and dancing, and apparently when she got on the dance floor the club really went wild:

“Mother of the girl, why don’t you come and take up the nsimba [finger piano] and let it be heard?” But she replied, “Fellow women, you must show me how.” The forced her and she joined in the dance. When the people saw how she danced they went wild dancing… the house was filled with excitement.”

After the wedding, Meli actually continued to stay at the mission (which… she was probably about 12, maybe 13). The missionaries wanted Jones to escort Mama May to Karonga on Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyassa), where she would start her journey by boat back to England. They probably set out around May in 1902, and Meli joined Jones and Mrs. May on the trip to Karonga. They remained in Karonga for about a month while they waited for other missionaries to arrive. Then, having seen Mrs. May off, Jones and Meli returned to the mission, where Meli continued to spend another three weeks working for the mission before “they finally called my husband to come and take me away.”

To put a coda on these missionary women, it doesn’t seem that Mrs. Purves and Mrs. May travelled together, but Mrs. Purves also returned to England around this time. Mr. Purves had died unexpectedly on November 18th, 1901. I lost track of Mrs. Purves in the pages of The Chronicle after it notes that Mrs. Purves arrived in England “from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Dunvegan Castle, on September 6th,” 1902. It wasn’t until the next month’s issue that The Chronicle noted the arrival in England of “Mrs. May and child, from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Walmer Castle, on September 13th,” 1902. Mrs. May pops up a few more times in the pages of The Chronicle over the next few years. At a Society meeting in June of 1903, she seems to be grappling with the legacy of what the missionaries were doing in Central Africa, berating herself and her fellow missionaries for a “lack of prayer and slackness in habits of devotion,” and worrying about “backsliding on the part of many whom the missionaries had considered examples of Christian life and conduct,” referring to people they had converted. About a year after that, in May of 1904, Mrs. May is noted as speaking at an event where people were assembling “missionary boxes” (kinda like those UNICEF trick-or-treat boxes). The article ends with an especially cute note: “A very interesting box was that of Mrs. May’s tiny daughter, the youngest worker in the assembly” (she would have been about 2½ at the time). Mrs. May also seems to have gained a more favorable view of the Society’s legacy in Central Africa:

Mrs. John May, B.A., late of Central Africa, said she thought that looking back over the twelve or thirteen years since permanent work had been carried on in connection with the present chapter of the history of the Central African Mission, they saw wonderful signs of progress. Intertribal warfare was a thing of the past; slave raiding, at any rate openly, was entirely gone; some of the barbarous heathen practices of the olden days had been swept away through the presence of Christian workers and a more settled government.

I haven’t looked way too hard, but she seems to have stuck with the London Missionary Society, and doesn’t seem to have remarried. She helped to author a report for the Society in 1924. As for her daughter, one day I’ll dig into what The Chronicle has to say about it, but at the end of her story, Meli notes “In 1936 a mishap occurred at Senga. Porrit’s wife died. She was Mama May’s daughter, whom I used to look after, the one I used to call ‘my sister’ because her mother had cared for me as if I were her own child.”

But! This story is supposed to be about Mama Meli. After finally leaving the mission, the first thing that happened is that Meli had another wedding. Apparently for all the people that Mrs. May invited, she had not invited Meli’s new father-in-law, Mutota, who didn’t even know about it. He was so upset that he threw a whole second wedding, and unlike Mrs. May he “soaked a large quantity of millet and made plenty of beer.” There was more drama at this point about the fact that Meli didn’t know how to grind millet (which is the first step in making nshima), but I guess Meli just paid someone else to do it. After the wedding, Meli and Jones went back to Kawimbe, where the mission had built a house for them.

Meli titles the next part of her story “We Become Wealthy.” Since Mrs. May and the missionaries had acted as Meli’s parents during the engagement, they had received the brideprice paid by Jones. I guess they didn’t quite know what to do with it, because they all (the missionaries) got together and decided to give Meli and Jones back the brideprice, plus interest in the form of a cow. The happy couple settled down, and about a year after marriage had their first child in 1903 (making Meli about 13). They name this child Elizabeth, I assume after Mrs. May.

Here Meli mentions a man she calls Heman. This is James Hemans, who was in Africa as a missionary for the society along with his wife, Marcia. I really need to dig up more information about the Hemans, but if you click on that last link the mission did not treat them well. But Meli and Jones went to greet the Hemans at Niamkolo and visited for five days. When they left, the Hemans gave Jones a roll of calico cloth and six shirts, along with “little dresses and diapers” for baby Elizabeth, and then to Meli a “small roll of spotted cloth, fashionable for women, and a bunch of black beads,” and to the both of them “a tin of sugar, three boxes of soap, sugarcane, a bunch of bananas, and a bag of rice.” He had to send two people along with Meli and Jones just to help them carry all these gifts. Jones took these gifts and started running a shop, which set the couple up nicely.

At this point, I have to skim through the rest of Meli’s life, because I am like 4,600 words into this at this point and I will have probably spread it out over three weeks, if not more, and I know my loyal readership is probably tired of Meli. Anyways. Elizabeth unfortunately died in 1905 at age two of smallpox. Meli had a second child, a boy, in 1907, named Satu. In 1910 they had another child named Kela, who died before being a year old, and in 1911 they had a girl named Lukoti. She notes then “the last-born was named Henry.”

They couple had a setback in World War I when the German forces looted the wealth they had, but Jones got a job with the district officer buying mealie meal (corn/millet flour to make nshima with) for the forces, and then later another gig distributing supplies to military carriers, and then a final job hunting for game to feed the soldiers. Meli and her husband got to witness the German surrender at the end of WWI, but shortly thereafter in January 1919 Jones died. According to Mambwe custom, Meli was “inherited” by her late husband’s family, and they chose for her to marry a man named Mbokosi. She objected because he was already married, but he divorced his first wife and Meli married him. Mbokosi squandered all of Meli’s money, leaving the children uncared for, so in 1922 she left him and returned to Kawimbe mission, where she got a domestic job.

In 1925, she then married again, to a man named Harry Sichikandawa. He had told her he was single, but this was a lie because he was already married, but Meli wound up staying as his second wife. While she was living in Kasama with Harry, she was recruited by the hospital to learn midwifery. In 1934, Harry died, and Meli returned to Kawimbe. She would remain there for most of the rest of her life, with interludes living with her children in other places, and held various jobs with the mission. In 1945, Meli became ordained as an elder of the church, and preached in surrounding villages, before eventually dying in 1972. Meli was born long enough ago that she didn’t know what shoes were when she first saw Mrs. Purves wearing them, and at a time when slavers were still capturing children to be sold in the markets in Zanzibar. But she persevered through every challenge and when she died, it was in an independent Zambia, when the future couldn’t have looked more bright.

Mama Meli Update Part 2

Reading this week:

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

We return after last week’s update, where Meli has wound up in the care of missionaries in Kawimbe!

But at last we’re finally to Mrs. Purves. I like this woman a lot. The above photo was pulled from a 1902 article in The Chronicle written by a Mr. Nutter. One of those kids could very well be Meli, but Meli is never, as far as I can tell, mentioned by name in The Chronicle, even though other children are. From what I found, Mrs. Purves joined her husband in the Central Africa mission in 1894, where he had been serving for at least a year. Mr. Purves is described as maybe even a bit abrasive in his outgoingness, and served it seems as a general sorta engineer-type before eventually becoming ordained (if anyone is writing a paper or something off of this, please fact-check that first, I wasn’t too interested in Mr. Purves when I was doing research). Their home base seems to have been Niamkolo, and Mrs. Purves laid I think the first stone in Niamkolo Church. She accompanied her husband when he made an expedition to negotiate with Chief Ponde and try to open a mission there, and would eventually join him as they were the first to preach in Bembaland (again more fact-checking please). She seems adventurous and dedicated, and by the time Meli was in her care she had been in the area for five years, which made her one of the longest-serving missionaries in a place with an alarmingly high death toll for Europeans.

The next event is the one that really caused me a lot of head-scratching about what exactly the missionaries thought they were doing in Africa. Meli, safely ensconced at the mission, was walking about one day when her cousin spotted her. The cousin was pretty stunned, because the family had all thought Meli was dead from a slave raid now five years ago at this point. It was at this point Meli’s sister, “the mother of Mulenga Chisani,” is sent to verify the story, and as Meli tells it, “we sat looking at each other” for two days. With everyone satisfied that Meli is the long-lost Mwenya, Meli’s uncle (I think) sends Meli’s older brothers to retrieve Meli. It is at this point, that the missionaries don’t let Meli leave. They instead say “this person was brought to us. We therefore cannot let you take her. If you really recognize her as your family, go and tell Chief Changala himself to come and bring a cow with him to redeem her.”

From the June 1902 issue of The Chronicle.

The family is unable to muster a cow in payment, and when the Chief protests that other people get to retrieve their family members, the missionaries then reply “you may not take her now because she is very hardworking in the house and at school.” While doing this research, I mostly conceptualized the missionaries of the London Missionary Society as fellow development practitioners. There is a lot of overlap between what they were doing and what modern-day development specialists are trying to do, and however flattering or not you find that comparison I think I would agree with your assessment. Their main mission was of course to save souls and get converts, and at that they were pretty dismal. In a 1903 article in The Chronicle, the mission tallies their success at a whopping 22 converts. They fret about their convert-to-cost ratio, while simultaneously saying that is a terrible way to measure mission success. So I think partially because it is a good thing to do anyways, and also in reaction to their low convert numbers, the Central Africa mission really heavily touts their anti-slavery successes. But here is the head-scratcher: why would a mission that is so proud of their anti-slavery mission refuse to return a little girl to her family unless they were paid, especially since it seems the reason is that she was such a hard worker around the house?

I have a few theories. The one I have the most evidence for comes from an article Mrs. Purves herself penned for the May 1898 edition of The Chronicle, titled “Some of Africa’s Slave Children.” I know she was thinking about whether or not they were enslaving these children themselves, because she notes explicitly that “we did not look upon these children as slave[s because we paid] them cloth or something else equal to it as payment for their work.” But in this article, she relates the story of Maggie, who’s father had died and “according to native custom, her uncle claimed her as his child.” But then that uncle, according to Mrs. Purves, had tried to sell Maggie into slavery before being stopped by the colonial magistrate. This makes me think that the missionaries demanded a cow to ensure that the family wasn’t trying to claim Meli just to turn a quick profit by making it more expensive to get her back from the missionaries than what they could get by selling her back into slavery. I am in no position to judge how much of a worry that really should have been, but I could see the logic. Another theory I have is that they were just really worried about converts. Their first convert in the Central Africa mission was a man named Kalulu. Kalulu had only been baptized in 1891, and was himself a former slave that one of the missionaries had ransomed. Most of their other converts were people close to the mission, either in its employ or employee’s family members. I wonder if the missionaries weren’t just inclined to keep children like Meli close just to up the chances that they eventually converted, as she in fact did in 1910.

But with the ability to go home denied to her, Meli was still at the mission in 1900 when Mrs. Purves leaves with her husband, putting Meli in the care of Mama May. The Mays I dug up a bit more information than I did the Purveses. They were quite the couple, and I kinda really do admire Mrs. May. The above photo comes from The Chronicle (of course), and was published as they were about to set off for Central Africa. If it was a recent photo, John is 31 in that picture (a year younger than me), and had spent some time as a marine engineer working on “men-of-war and torpedo cruisers.” He decided to pursue missionary work, and graduated London University in 1894. There, I assume he must have met his classmate, Elizabeth Burton. I wonder how they thought about what they were getting themselves into. In March 1897, The Chronicle notes that “Mr. John May, B.A., was appointed to the Tanganyika Mission, Central Africa.” Two months later, on May 4th, John and Elizabeth were wed at the Ipswich Presbyterian Church, and two days after that John was ordained as Reverend May. One month after that, on June 8th, they were both outbound on the steamer Illovo, headed for Kawimbe. In the article that published the above photo, The Chronicle notes that “never before had so large a party set out for that distant mission field, a mission which had passed through such various changes and vicissitudes, and for which so many lives had been laid down.”

The Mays would have personal experience with that death toll. By the time Meli was in Mrs. May’s care in 1900, the Mays had already buried one child, a still-born son. By the end of that year, the Mays would be burying a second child, John May Jr, who died at six months old on December 17th, 1900. When I was doing this research I went back and looked through the photos I had taken of that graveyard we were shown in Kawimbe, and the only one I took a particularly good picture of was the above one, which I can now identify as that of John May Jr.

One major aspect I was unable to really come to a conclusion about when doing all this research as about how special Meli was. She was clearly a remarkable woman, as her later life showed, and by the time she was in the missionaries’ care she had been through a great deal of trauma. But she was far from a unique case; like I quoted before, Mrs. Purves detailed a number of enslaved children that had been freed by the missionaries, and Meli never made it into The Chronicle like those other children. Mrs. Purves also describes marrying some of these children off, to people who worked for the missions. Mama Meli is usually billed as something like “the only known freed slave buried in Zambia,” and that “only known” is doing a lot of work because clearly there are other former enslaved people who lived out their lives and died in Zambia. If Mama Meli’s story hadn’t been recorded by her grandchildren and been published in Marcia Wright’s book, I suspect she would be “just” another one of those children that Mrs. Purves posed with in the photo.

It’s because I’m not sure how special Meli was that I find the next episode of her life somewhat confusing. In 1901, Meli says, “Jones Changolo [also known as Silanda] sent word to Bwana Goven Robertson to say that he intended to become engaged to me and sent a nsalamu [token payment to indicate interest in marriage]” (there’s a whole side-drama with his family, who did not approve of Meli because she couldn’t cook nshima, and that could lead to a whole discussion about the sorta cultural upbringing Meli experienced, but alas I don’t know how to shoehorn it in here except for this parenthetical). Bwana Robertson is Rev. W. Govan Robertson, and given that there had been other marriages I am a bit confused about why, as Meli details, he apparently had to go ask the local Mambwe elders how the engagement customs go. But I guess the missionaries viewed Jones as a favorable choice, because he worked as a carpenter for the mission (at least they knew him well, and also he was a carpenter, I am assuming he did some work for the mission). Mrs. May and Rev. Robertson have a meeting with Jones and ask “if his intention to marry [Meli] was serious.” He apparently said “Yes” and went home, coming back the next day with ten sheep as an engagement gift. Meli was also at the meeting with May, Robertson, and Jones, and, as Meli recalls, “as I was dressing, Mama May came to see how I was doing and she gave me some oil to rub on my body.” Meli was probably about 11.

I’m torn here in how to tell the story. If I was writing a novel that was ungenerous to women and had never heard of feminism, the easy spin would be that a grief-stricken Mrs. May had more or less “adopted” Meli as a substitute for her own children (this ties into wondering how special Meli really was to the missionaries). Mrs. May would in fact (according to Meli) say that she wanted to marry off her “daughter” before she left. Mrs. May was not lacking for reason to grieve. It was in the months before Meli was engaged that Mrs. May had lost her second child. It was Mrs. May that called back Jones so they could hold the wedding, which happened in 1902. Mrs. May was leaving Africa because her husband had died on August 21st, 1901, leaving her six months pregnant. She wanted to stay in Africa, but as she would note later for The Chronicle, the conditions at the mission just didn’t support lone women. The story of a grief-stricken woman, however, doesn’t quite jibe with the other evidence in The Chronicle: “Many young missionaries in similar circumstances would have lost heart for the rest of their life-work were they to have suffered, as we know Mr. and Mrs. May did, in the loss first of house and home by fire, immediately after their arrival at their station, and later on in the loss of their two little ones. Not so they, however: it only seemed to make them brighter and more unselfish than ever.”

Join us next week for our exciting conclusion!

Mama Meli Update Part 1

I have some significant updates to the story of Mama Meli! When I wrote about her and trying to find her grave, I was doing most of my research on my phone while living in a mud hut and also mostly just trying to find cool locations to add to Atlas Obscura, so please forgive my mistakes in that post. I’ve been digging back into the story for a final project (Hello Professor Lombard!; I assume you will find this), and whoo boy have I found out a whole lot more information.

When I first read about Mama Meli’s story, I was more than a little confused about the timeline. The story to me read like she had gotten captured, her captors quickly tried to hustle her to the border, and they got caught by one of the types of British colonialists in the area. I thought this happened when she was about 10 or 12, over the course of like a month. Then, I assumed, since her parents had been killed in the slave raid, she was sent off to live with the missionaries at Kawimbe Mission. I lobbied some criticism about the fact that when her relatives came to claim her, the missionaries demanded payment of a cow. And then I mostly busied myself with looking at old gravestones.

I have learned so much more! The first big change between then and now is I have access to a library with a copy of Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life-Stories from East/Central Africa by Marcia Wright. In the last blog post I name-checked Women in Peril; that is Marcia Wright’s first book on the subject, which is wholly included in Strategies, but Strategies includes much more information. The second big change is that the library also has access to The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is an absolute treasure-trove of information on the Central Africa mission of the LMS (I link HathiTrust there, but they’re also on Google Books).

From Strategies, I learned I had very much misunderstood Meli’s story. Wright estimates that Meli was captured in probably 1894 or 1895 when she was about 5. Meli’s story is so very much wrapped up in the story of Kawimbe Mission, and so I find it fitting that Meli was likely born very close to the founding of the mission in 1890. Another intriguing bit was that Meli was probably something of a political prisoner. Meli was the youngest daughter of Mumembe, and was born with the name Mwenya (in her oral history, Meli/Mwenya refers to herself as Meli, so I am going to stick with that). Around the time when Meli was born there was Chief Ponde of the Bemba who was launching raids and attacks into Mambwe and Lungu territory. Meli’s older brothers were often called to fight in defense (I think) against these attacks. Chief Ponde was also having some marital troubles with at least one of his wives. This wife ran away at some point during the course of all this fighting, only to be knocked up by Meli’s oldest brother. This made Chief Ponde mad, and he swore that he would get retribution against this brother. Mumembe, fearing for his son’s life, hustled him way up north into Mambweland so Ponde couldn’t get to him.

Fwambo village, from the April 1897 edition of The Chronicle

A few years later, Chief Ponde was (still?) at war with the Mambwe chief Fwambo. Chief Ponde was set to launch an attack against Fwambo, and the brother decided to actually go fight for Ponde, figuring that if he did well in battle he would be forgiven. The fight was somewhat disastrous. Fwambo was well fortified, and apparently it was cold up on the plateau where Fwambo was, but since Fwambo’s men were used to the cold they routed Ponde when they launched a counter-attack while Ponde’s men were still warming themselves. I also found it pretty intriguing that the missionaries from Kawimbe mission sent armed men to help defend Fwambo as well. This was far from the missionaries’ only interaction with Ponde; they had a range of relationships with the Bemba Chief. The missionaries had been harassed by Ponde, received messengers and entered into negotiations to set up missions in Bemba territory, and Mr. A.D. Purves (watch for his wife later in this narrative) bought the only known contemporary war charm from the man.

Anyways, despite Meli’s brother distinguishing himself in battle, Ponde failed to forgive him, and I guess remembering about his wife having gotten knocked up, vowed to attack Mumembe’s village in retribution. It was in this attack that Meli was captured. It is also likely that Meli’s mother was killed in this attack. After being captured, she was taken (along with other captives) to Chief Ponde’s village, and then given to a family. For the next five years or so, she lived the life of a slave. It’s with this first family that Wright identifies Meli as something of a political prisoner here because when she accidentally burns down the hut of the family she was given to, the father is about to kill her when his wife reminds him that Meli is “the family of a Chief” (uncle maybe? I was a bit unclear).

Apparently her worth drops over time, because after a bit she is sold off to Chona Maluti, an Arab (Wright prefers the term “Swahili” for being more accurate) trader/slaver and elephant hunter. Chona would be killed when he was trampled by an elephant, and Meli would be taken to the encampment of other Swahili traders in the area. It was around this time that she heard that her father had died, and I think she wound up with these traders for about a year. Her nose was pierced “in the Muslim fashion,” and she was renamed Naumesyatu. She was sold to another Swahili trader, who fed her better, and then was sold off again to a set of traders who renamed her Mauwa.

As a bit of an aside, for all the different names that Meli gets, she’s actually a bit remarkable for having an independent identity. From my experience with Mambwe culture, I know that as soon as you have a kid, you are typically referred to as “Father of” or “Mother of” your first-born. So in her story, Meli refers to her older sister as “the mother of Mulenga Chisani.” Later on (I swear I am getting to them), Meli will mention she was in the care of Mama Purves and then Mama May. I found both these women in The Chronicle, but they are exclusively referred to as “Mrs. Purves” and “Mrs. May,” immediately becoming subsumed into their husband’s identity as soon as they are married. Interesting little cultural overlap there, if you ask me.

Anyways. These latest traders who had bought Meli were going to finally try to bring her to the coast, likely to be sold at Zanzibar. During the time Meli had been enslaved, however, the British had set up a boma at Fife (roundabouts modern-day Nakonde, though I’m actually unsure how much they overlap) and declared the slave trade outlawed. And now here is a whole thing I didn’t pick up the first time around. The traders have to get past the outpost at Fife. A man comes along and offers to help the traders out. Turns out, the traders had his kid, and I assume he wanted to use the British people at Fife to get his kid back. So the traders take him up on his offer to lead them past the outpost. Except then this guy just goes to the outpost, and tells them all about the traders, and together they lay a trap. He leads the traders right into an ambush, and during the pandemonium Meli runs into the woods with the other children. They come out later that night when they were hungry, and are picked up by some villagers who bring them to the outpost.

After I assume being fed and taken care of, the children who knew where they were from were sent back home. The rest of the children were eventually sent to Kawimbe Mission. This was about 1899, and the children wind up in the care of Mama Purves. Meli was initially actually identified as a boy and briefly named Jim, before she identified herself as a girl and was dubbed with her final name, Mary. “Mary” winds up getting pronounced as “Meli,” which is how it is written in her oral history, and therefore in every subsequent source, including this one.

Join us next week for the second part of the update! I wrote like 5,000 words about Meli and I am going to milk it!