It Isn’t the Veteran

I’m going to backdate this (I’m on vacation, which has involved a lot less free time than I anticipated and so I am behind on posts), so I think this post will “officially” come out around Memorial Day but I will note it is “actually” several weeks later. I wanted to talk about what I think is a particularly pernicious sort of attitude I tend to see around the holiday. I wish the following paragraphs were more elegant.

The attitude is that every single right you have as an American or even as a person is because a veteran fought for it and, especially on Memorial Day, died for it. Maybe it doesn’t pop up on your Facebook feed but it pops up on mine. A quick googling brought me “It is the Veteran,” a particularly direct and all-encompassing version of it. Credited there to Sarah Palin’s uncle (?), I’ll quote it here:

It is the veteran, not the preacher who has given us freedom of religion. It is the veteran, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the veteran, not the politician who has given us the right to vote. It is the veteran who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag and whose coffin will be draped by the flag.

I think I first heard some version of this sentiment during my Plebe year at the Naval Academy. Even then I didn’t like it, but that might have been because I’m just a contrarian instead of some precocious political awakening. I don’t quite get why military veterans and their fans are so eager to claim every good thing that’s ever happened. Veterans are already pretty well lauded, why not let some of the love be spread around?

I think “It is the Veteran” is wrong, and so wrong that it is a full 180 degrees out. I don’t think you get rights because a veteran fought on the battlefield. I also don’t think you get rights just because someone says you have them or because they’re written down on some piece of paper. I think rights come from exercising those rights. Freedom of the press comes from the press writing about politicians that don’t want to be written about. The freedom to assemble comes from assembling when someone doesn’t want you build a movement. And the right to vote comes from voting when vested interests do everything they can to keep you from being heard.

More importantly, the attitude isn’t pernicious just because it is wrong. It is pernicious because it implies that people didn’t really earn their rights. The majority of people aren’t veterans and never will be. Saying that rights come from what veterans did means that the majority of people didn’t earn their rights, but owe their rights to the actions of this very small minority. Their rights are therefore far from being inalienable but instead have been granted.

The eagerness to claim that all rights stem from veterans is therefore I think an eagerness to be able to claim who does and doesn’t get them, or how people get to use them. If rights come from the sacrifices of a group most people will never be in, then it’s valid to say that freedom of speech doesn’t apply when supporting Black Lives Matter. It makes it valid to say that the freedom to vote is only really for people who vote the “right” way. It makes it valid to systematically deny whole groups of people their rights because in your eyes they simply don’t deserve them.

I suspect most people that share the sentiment that we should thank veterans for our rights aren’t thinking about what that actually implies for their rights or for the rights of others. But it is another part of an American way of thinking that allows us to say we’re the greatest nation on Earth without thinking about for whom that is and isn’t true. We are still in an era where people have to struggle every day to attain those rights that Sarah Palin’s uncle would say veterans already granted them. When those rights finally come, it won’t be because they shot enough people. It will be because they broke through the forces holding them down to stand up and exercise those rights.

Hore’s Tanganyika Pictures

I quoted the book at length when I wrote about the building of the SS Good News, but I wanted to present some pictures from Edward C. Hore’s book Tanganyika: Eleven Years in Central Africa. I had meant to actually read the book in it’s entirety and then present my thoughts on it, but I didn’t manage to finish it in time and this post is already late so I’m just throwing these pictures up there so the world gets to see ’em. You can just download and read the whole thing online via Google Books (the previous link), but the picture scans aren’t very good. Turns out Yale Library has an original copy, now like 130 years old, and will just let you borrow it, so I did and then I also scanned in the pictures. I hope you like them!

PEZ Factory

Sorry I made you suffer through Sandwiches last week, but this week my super amazing girlfriend and I went to a place! Specifically, we went to the PEZ Factory which is nearby us here in New Haven. We went because a little while ago when pandemic restrictions were slightly more restrictive and we were less able to travel, I had driven by it and thought it might be interesting to go. We just only got around to it, and there will be more adventures in the coming weeks, but still it was a pretty nice little visit.

The PEZ factory, in a way that makes absolute total sense, is very very into PEZ. When you enter you are immediately greeted with a wall of 700 or so PEZ dispensers, and there are so very many more to come. The place is not large and in some sense is more of a gift shop with some overzealous displays than anything else. This is not meant to undermine it! PEZ is a collectible commodity and they embrace this fact!

I think we learned a lot at the PEZ factory. Certainly stuff we never would have looked up on our own. For example, we learned that PEZ is Austrian and “PEZ” is an acronym for “mint candy” or somesuch! We learned the bestselling PEZ dispenser ever is Santa Claus! We also learned that the little things on the bottom of the PEZ dispensers that look like feet and help them stand up (like feet do) are referred to as “feet!”

The vast majority of the displays at the PEZ factory are various PEZ dispensers and other PEZ paraphernalia from throughout the ages (well past century or so, PEZ hasn’t been around all that long). One thing I found curious is that a lot of the displays (such as the one up top) mention how rare and hard to find they are. I don’t think I could ever be a PEZ collector. There is just about no way to even get close to collecting them all. There are limited edition Star Wars sets only given to Lucasfilm executives and PEZ executives! There are umpteen versions of like, Popeye from throughout the decades! Various ones only attainable from exclusive giveaways! There are a lot!

I was delighted to learn, however, that there is a subculture of PEZ lapel pin collectors. I collect lapel pins myself as my preferred souvenir when I go places (picked one up from the PEZ factory, don’t worry). Apparently there are enough PEZ collectors out there from around the world (they had a whole Japan display at the factory) that conventions come hard and fast, and to remember what conventions you’ve gone to as a PEZ collector the thing to do is to get a lapel pin. I want to see how deep we can make this rabbit hole go. Anyone want to have a convention for PEZ collector lapel pin collectors? We’ll issue souvenir spoons to keep the train going.

Inside the visitor’s center area you get a view into the factory floor itself, which is pretty neat. We visited on the weekend, so the factory wasn’t operating, and I can’t say I’m disappointed because that means employees get weekends off which is nice. They had a virtual tour thing you could navigate a la Google Streetview via a touchscreen, and a video showing you the candy production process. Industrial food production is always interesting.

On top of all this, the factory provided ample photo opportunities. On the left is my head on a PEZ dispenser, though now that I look at it, awfully phallic, ain’t it? On the right is a picture of me with the world’s largest PEZ dispenser. I was hoping for equally gigantic PEZ to pop out of it, but alas it appears to have been empty. Is it really a PEZ dispenser if it doesn’t dispense PEZ? Philosophers will have to battle it out for the ages.

Aaaaaand with that our visit was largely over. The place is not gigantic, but the entry fee is $5 and you get a $2 discount on anything in the place, and since the PEZ dispensers they sell are mostly $1.99, it’s really as though you get a free PEZ dispenser thrown in with the (self-guided) tour. Not a bad bargain! Besides all the dispensers, another remarkable thing is all the old candy they have. They have a whole bunch of decades-old candy just sitting in these display cases (one package from the 1930s, even), and it seems just fine. I guess then the major thing we learned is that when the apocalypse hits, the canned food might expire in a few years, but we’ll always have PEZ.


Reading this week:

  • Where the Evidence Leads by Dick Thornburgh

An informal survey of the dates associated with the google search results (and I guess some trend analysis) indicates there’s been a recent uptick in sandwich-related scholarship. I’m not going to claim to be treading new ground here. But I have a blog to fill and I haven’t been able to travel lately to bring you more colorful stories), so I wanted to talk about sandwiches.

The first time I thought seriously about sandwiches was when my Spanish roommate Francisco brought them up. Our senior year at the Naval Academy, my buddy Tom and I had grandiose plans for a two-man room, a privilege earned by our several years of continuing to exist at the Naval Academy. Lo and behold, when we went to go move back in for our final year, we discovered we would be placed in a three-man room, which as you’ll recall is one more man than Tom and I put together. Our mysterious new roommate, who neither of us had been consulted about, was… “Spain.”

Or apparently only that country’s representative. The Naval Academy has international exchange students, and Francisco was one of them, from the Spanish Naval Academy. He was quite the character. He was 29, and back then, in my youth, therefore unimaginably old. He was married, which is prohibited for American midshipmen, and so was quite an exotic status to have. The first night we were together, when we had barely known each other for a few hours and our biggest adventure together had thus far been finding Francisco a blanket, he was telling us the many stories of his worldly travel when his eye adopted a particular glimmer.

“Ah yes, Rio,” he said, “how do you say – I fell in love with Rio.”

“In Rio,” he explained, “you can fuck a girl for twenty dollars. For the whole night.” And, he emphasized, “including the hotel.”

Our most heartfelt moment of cultural exchange was probably his birthday. He had mentioned off-hand I think that he was missing olive oil, so I managed to track down a bottle of “Spanish” (so said the label) olive oil, and presented it to him as a gift from me and Tom. A few days later, Francisco pulled me aside. He wanted to thank me for my thoughtfulness and generosity. After I had given him the olive oil, he had gathered all the other Spanish exchange students, and together in King Hall they had all had salad – with olive oil. I think the man was nearly in tears, he missed olive oil so much.

In return for my gift, Francisco shattered my entire world. I don’t think he knew what he was doing. It was simply that one day, he said to me (apropos of something, not exactly out of the blue) “Americans – all you eat is sandwiches.”

And with that my world was quite simply ruined. The curse of knowledge was downright unbearable. He was right! I think the very next day, the Naval Academy served us breakfast sandwiches, followed by roast beef sandwiches for lunch, and then with hamburgers for dinner. I began to count the sandwiches in the weekly meals. Seven days in a week, three meals a day, for a total of 21 meals, and out of those, 15 or 16 – or more! – would be sandwiches. This is why you get to know other cultures, people.

I mean, I love sandwiches, but once you think about your tongue, you know? After the Naval Academy, in honor of Francisco, and to buck the trend, I scrubbed sandwiches from my diet. Scrubbed them! Sorta anyways. I would avoid making a sandwich. I packed my lunch most days to go to nuke school, and whatever I made, it would never be a sandwich. I would, however, happily go to East Bay Deli (my favorite Charleston deli) all the time, typically getting the Reuben. But… I would think about Francisco.

The next time where I wound up thinking about sandwiches a lot was probably Prototype. After nuke school, which is classroom stuff, comes Prototype. “Prototype” has long been a misnomer, but it is where you spend six months operating a real nuclear reactor. Very little of the second half of that last sentence is true, but the important part here is that Prototype (in Charleston anyway) has a very large building in which you spend much of your time. I spent a total of eight months at Prototype on rotating shift work with 12-hour shifts, largely unmoored from rational time or normal conventions. This building is no ordinary building. It is a half mile away from a weapons loading dock that is rated to have I think half a kiloton of explosives on it, or something like that, and so the building is built to withstand the blast from half a kiloton of high explosive from a half mile away.

This renders the building in a very literal way fortress-like. It is large, it is beige, and it is windowless. You arrive and after parking your car trek you to this government fortress and to enter you heave open these heavy not-quite-blast doors that lead to a small lobby. Forward through the lobby is the building proper. Once you enter through these doors for your shift you are not supposed to leave for twelve hours. Like I said, I usually packed lunch, but not everyone did, and I didn’t always. So, how did they feed us?

If you ever enter the building, the answer will be obvious. Every single day as you show up for your shift, lugging your nuclear-strained propium to this ominous citadel, dragging open the weighted gates, it’s the first thing you smell, and on your way out, as you ooze your mashed lucidity back to your car, it’s the last thing you smell, the smell which is to me one of the most recognizable smells in all of these blessed United States: the smell of a Subway sandwich shop.

That’s right, at Prototype in Charleston right inside the building the only option to obtain anything resembling nourishment during your many many many hours there is Subway. It’s open very nearly 24/7, closed I think only on Christmas and New Year’s. Your only respite from the world of neutrons and pipes is the jarring green and yellow color scheme of the sandwich-based universe that is Subway. I ate a lot of breakfast sandwiches while I was at Prototype. It was the only solid excuse for a break. I didn’t really mind at all. But for years, and even somewhat to this day, when I walk by the open doors of a Subway, catching just a hint of that smell, I get shivers.

But what is the moral of this story, a story very loosely held together with the thread of sandwiches? I made an egg salad sandwich yesterday. It’s pictured up top. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was pretty good. It had olives. And that, my friend, is the story I came here to tell.

Chaos NAND

Due to the non-linearity of blog time, I suspect (like I don’t control it) this will go up only one week after my Atari Punk Console post, but I wanna say that these events actually happened several weeks later. That makes me less embarrassed to say that chasing the high of that previous project, after which I told myself I wasn’t going to like, get “into” synthesizers or whatever, I decided to build the Synthrotek Chaos NAND.

I guess I still don’t need to worry about being “into” synthesizers. If I were, I would have added the control voltage plugs to both these things and not used the lame-o 3.5mm headphone jack. Both these projects produce things that make silly sounds, so now I have at least doubled my silly-sound producing capability, though to what end no one knows (I mean I know, the end is that I make my super amazing girlfriend twist some knobs for a few moments while she humors me). But it was fun! The main draw of the project for me the second time around was designing and 3D-printing another case for it. I had some ideas after the Atari Punk Case and wanted to implement them here.

The above image is some of the prototypes I made for this one. One of the big things I figured out in this project was how to make letters in FreeCAD, so instead of sharpie like on the Atari Punk Console I could just print out labels. Unfortunately I still don’t actually know what most of the knobs and switches actually do, but I put “POWER” on the top and I did figure out the volume knob. I also got to print out “CHAOS NAND” on the front with the headphone jack going through the O, which thanks for agreeing with me that it’s pretty fancy. The left side of the picture wasn’t actually meant to be a prototype, but was instead just a failed print, but it let me test out if the switches and everything fit. The ones on the right are more prototype-y, and I was mostly trying to figure out a way to keep the board in place. I didn’t actually super like my rail system from last time, and this board came with mounting holes, so I designed a little system where you slide in pegs and they twist into place that works pretty well. The circular part was me trying to figure out some way that the board itself could still just slide in, but I think that would have only been a mediocre system in the end.

I also decided to add a hinge to this one, instead of having the back just slide on. I just thought it would be better. That did necessitate two iterations though to figure out how to get the hinge in a good spot and also to make sure it printed well on my printer, which tends to just obliterate the first few layers. The other major design change is that I put the battery on the outside. On the Atari Punk Console case, the battery was hard to squeeze in there, and also since I don’t want to leave the battery connected all the time, having the battery outside makes it easier to connect and disconnect. I tried to come up for more elegant system for the battery wires, but they just lead out a divot in the back. I tried to come up with a more elegant version of a lot of the fiddly bits, but the simpler ones seem to have won out. In the above photo too, the little piece of yellow filament is a “lock” that keeps the back in place.
Those are the big design differences with the case. When it comes to the Chaos NAND itself, the big difference between it and the Atari Punk is that this one has a lot more components. Three times as many switches, anyways, and a whole additional knob, which meant for a good chunk of soldering. I actually made a total botch job of it (as you can see at the top), and uh actually some of the functions I think don’t work, but whatever, I had fun! I tried to get fancy with the shrink wrap because I was worried about some of the components jostling against each other, but that too I kinda botched because I didn’t have a heat gun and probably held the lighter I was using too close. Oh well.

Once I had everything soldered up, it was time to stuff it into the case. I didn’t test it before stuffing it into the case beforehand, because I did that with the Atari Punk and then when it didn’t work post-case-stuffing I knew I had broken it instead of being able to blame some other exogenous force. I was also more careful this time with measuring the length of wire needed, which meant it all fit it a lot better (plus I wasn’t also trying to stuff in the battery). The hatch or case or back or whatever doesn’t actually open all the way now because the wires are actually a bit too short, but you shouldn’t need to open the case that often anyways.

And after all that I had a finished Chaos NAND module, and I am pretty happy with it! Like I said before I don’t actually think all of it works, but it still makes funny noises, and I had fun building it, so it was the journey that counts. Now it will sit on my shelf to be admired until it is time to annoy my super amazing girlfriend once more (like most of my projects). Thanks for reading!

Atari Punk Console

Reading this week:

  • The Tragedy of the Stupid Nation by Max-Landry Kassaï

So lately, I have been watching a lot of Look Mum No Computer videos. I like him a lot. I’m not actually all that into his music or performances or what have you, but I like his energy and I like his enthusiasm for making all sorts of wacky stuff. He always ends his videos by saying “don’t be afraid to try it,” which is a nice and inspiring and uplifting message. Like I just said, I’m not actually all that into his particular brand of music, but on one of his videos he suggested that anyone who was just starting to get into doing the sorts of stuff he was doing should start with the Atari Punk Console Atari Punk Console.

I didn’t actually bother to read the ad copy all that closely, but I think it is called that because it uses the same chip or something as the Atari did, or at the very least is designed to make kinda low-fi 8-bit sorta sounds. It seemed like a simple little project to make, and looked like a fun opportunity to test out my soldering skills. Although I bought a soldering iron last fall in anticipation of building a boat with my 3D printer, I hadn’t actually had a reason to use it until I put this little project together. I learned to solder way back when I was but a wee little lad as part of a I think 7th grade science fair project which didn’t actually go all that well, but since then I think the only time I have put my soldering skills to the test was in 2016 when I added a battleshort switch to a toaster. So I bought a kit from Synthrotek, and away I went.

The picture at the very top is my little desktop soldering setup along with some of the parts from the project. The kit gave you all the parts you need, and in fact some extra. I clicked the option for 3.5mm jacks on the website, but they also sent along the 1/4″ jacks as well. I only wound up using one 3.5mm jack, because the other two jacks they provide are for control voltages, but I have nothing else to control this thing with and nothing else to control. So I skipped those, along with the 9V DC jack they provide, opting to rely entirely on battery power. The whole point of this thing was mostly the fun of putting it together (and writing this blog post I suppose), so I wound up doing a pretty simple version.

It’s times like these I like having a jeweler’s eye loupe, which is pictured above and which I got years ago for Christmas after asking for one. It is handy for looking at tiny things, like the writing on capacitors, and throws people off when you manage to time things right and bust it out when looking at jewelry. When putting it together, I started with the IC chip holder, which went stunningly smooth and probably unfairly bolstered my confidence in this project. At the bottom of this post you can see the bottom of the board and judge my soldering for yourself. I assembled it over two sessions, because the other part of this project is that I wanted to design and print up a little case for it, and I needed to partially assemble it to figure out what that case was going to look like and then figure out how I was going to attach the rest of the components.

You can see the case above, mid-assembly. I’m pretty happy with it, because it works pretty much as designed, though I have already thought of a lot of improvements to it. I wound up needing to enlarge some of the holes and also sanding down the PCB to fit where I wanted it. I designed it to be held by two rails, into which you see it slotted in the above photos. Then a separate holder bar gets inserted which the PCB slides down into a bit, locking the whole thing in place. The LED leads I had to bend just right so that it stuck out the top of the board when the whole thing was assembled. Because I was worried about maneuverability of the board holder bit, I cut the wires longer than I think the kit intended (they just gave you a single long piece of wire and you had to cut it down yourself), which meant I ran out of wire. I was going to use some thick automotive wire for the on/off switch and the headphone jack until I remembered I had some smaller pieces from an electronics part kit I had previously purchased, again for that boat I gotta get back around to.

After installing the switches and knobs into my case and fitting the whole thing up, I installed the back part of the case which held the PCB, put in the battery, turned it on, and… it didn’t work. This was obviously somewhat frustrating. It had worked when I first soldered everything together, before stuffing it into my little case (by the way, next time I’ll figure out how to do labels better), so something must have gone wrong in the assembly. I pulled it back out but nothing was obviously wrong. I bought another 9V hoping that the one I was using had just died suddenly or something, but the new 9V didn’t help. Having an additional 9V battery did allow me to use my multimeter to try to see what was going wrong with it, but the multimeter also didn’t help me do any diagnostics.

In the great diagnostic tradition, I spent some time just fiddling with it, after having removed the PCB from it’s holder slot thingy. At one point, it suddenly worked again, and I realized what had done it was my finger on the back bridging one of the connections. I figured that I must have damaged the PCB somehow (bad soldering job I guess), and so I took a small piece of one strand of that automotive wire I mentioned earlier and using some dodgy early morning soldering bridged the gap so I could take my finger off duty:

After that it worked great! I reassembled my little case and played with it a bit and then forced my super amazing girlfriend, who was clearly busy doing other things, to give it a go so I could show that I Made Something and that I was Very Proud of it. She gamely twisted the knobs a bit and acted impressed. I was quite happy!

Just to show off one other little project I was working on recently, I have also been enjoying videos by Unnecessary Inventions. One project of his I particularly liked was the Candle Cannon. I liked it because it was based off the AirZooka, which I had as a kid and thoroughly enjoyed, and because it looked doable on my little 3D printer. Like my Atari Punk Console case above, as soon as I printed one off I immediately thought of a bunch of improvements, but this time I actually did print off the second version, seen below. The balloon that Unnecessary Inventions uses is the far better way to implement this project, but I didn’t have any balloons, so I had to pursue a different design closer to the AirZooka using rubber bands and plastic sheeting from a shopping bag. I am particularly proud of the locking ring that holds the bag in place, because it works way better than I thought it would. This inappropriately named finger blaster is not very powerful at all, but like the version it was inspired by it managed to blow out my roommate’s candle in an op-test. So without further ado, here ya go:

Brazil Part 6: Manaus

Reading this week:

  • Peaceland by Séverine Autesserre

This, my friends, I promise is the last installment of my riveting Brazil Series. Thank you for sticking with me for so long. Over the past five installments, I have described how my dad and I landed in Brazil, got on a riverboat, bothered a bunch of animals, and went on adventures, among other things. As I mentioned way back in the beginning, one of the major things that actually drew me to Manaus was visiting the Teatro Amazonas, which was a thing that I got in my head that I wanted to do, probably from Atlas Obscura (where so many of these blog posts originate).

After finishing the riverboat cruise, my itinerary had given us a weekend in Manaus. I think we spent the time pretty efficiently. The top priority, as I have said like three times, was of course going to the Teatro Amazonas. It was within easy walking distance of our hotel, so we uh, walked over there, and they offered regular tours. I demurred from thinking too hard about the impacts of the rubber trade on the people of the Amazon in my last post, but the Teatro Amazonas was built on their backs. The reason that Manaus is where it is is because it is about as deep into the jungle as ocean-going ships can get. Where those ocean-going ships were going was to haul rubber out of the Amazon, which of course was a big commodity. To get the rubber out of the jungle, the rubber barons mercilessly oppressed the indigenous people of the rainforest, forcing them to harvest vast quantities of rubber and drive themselves into debt to do it. The rubber barons got rich off of this, considering themselves more European than anything, to the point where they sent their laundry to get done in Portugal. Seeking some entertainment at home, they got together and built the Teatro Amazonas.

It’s certainly opulent. They spared absolutely no expense and on the tour they showed us a lot of the features. It even had an intricate ventilation system that came out from underneath the chairs to try to provide the space some air conditioning. It’s covered in busts and has tapestries hanging from it and all sorts of statues. I utterly failed to get a single good picture of the interior, so here is one from Wikipedia:

On the tour they acknowledged how and why the thing was built, but were very proud of all the intricate details that highlighted it’s place in Manaus. There were paintings all over the place of idyllic jungle scenes, and particularly impressive parquet flooring made of jungle hardwoods:

I used to wear shorts.

The theater is itself also set in a large plaza with a very nice fountain out front. After our tour dad and I hung out at one of the outdoor cafes across the plaza and enjoyed a beer while plotting our next moves.

The rest of our time in Manaus, and Brazil, was pretty quiet. We went to the Museu do Índio, which didn’t let you take pictures but where I was particularly excited to correctly identify an indigenous still. The museum itself was set within a convent and was a very peaceful spot, with gardens and flowers and if I recall correctly a nice-looking basketball court. We stopped for lunch at a small corner restaurant where everyone was distracted by a soccer game.

We spent the largest chunk of the next day visiting the Manaus Zoo, which if I’m reading everything correctly is run by the Brazilian army, I think to provide an opportunity for their soldiers to see what sorts of animals they’re likely to run into in the jungle. They did indeed have a variety of animals (some pictured above), house in a variety of habitats. Not too shabby a little zoo, and it gave us an opportunity to see more of the animals of the Amazon that we hadn’t been able to bother in person.

After that, our Brazilian adventure was largely done. We spent some additional time wandering around in Manaus a bit, seeing the sights, and at one point eating at a Brazilian steakhouse, or, as they’re known there, a steakhouse. Finally early the next morning we trekked off to the airport to catch our flight back stateside, having had a fantastic time in the great country of Brazil and enjoying our final cup of Brazilian coffee at the departure gate:

The Chronicle, 1876-1880

The above link will let you download the first installment of a project where I might have bitten off a great deal more than I can reasonably chew. As the title suggests, it is a transcription of every article in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society relating to their Central African Mission from the years 1876-1880.

The Chronicle is of course a particular favorite of this blog. As you may be aware at this point, I served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia’s Mbala District from 2017-2019. I find the history of that area absolutely fascinating. A huge part of that is probably of course my personal connection to the area, but it also represents a crossroads of a complex array of different historical crossroads that I love to uncover. I’ve only come across it (relatively) recently, but The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society has been a really interesting resource to learn about a lot of the history of the area.

As you’ve gleaned from the title, The Chronicle was the monthly publication of the London Missionary Society, detailing its missionary efforts around the world. One of those worldwide efforts was what they dubbed their Central African Mission. There were a lot of different missionaries in a lot of different locations in Africa, but the missionaries in the area that would become Mbala District were representatives of the LMS. As The Chronicle documented the efforts of the Central African Mission for the benefit of its readers and the patrons of the LMS, it provides a glimpse into the area as the first Western missionaries and colonialists arrived, usually with first-hand reports. Therefore, it provides some of the earliest accounts of the people and areas that I would live in nearly a century and a half later.

One of the advantages of The Chronicle is that it is all available online, via Hathitrust, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. However, those resources can be hard to use. Despite the power of text recognition these days, the automatic text recognition in the files you can download online is not great. This makes it hard to search for things within them. Also, despite the power of the various search engines, the pictures from The Chronicle don’t show up when you search for the topics. This keeps a lot of really interesting information buried unless you painstakingly scroll through every issue.

What I therefore wanted to do is painstakingly scroll through every issue, extract all the pictures, and transcribe the text by hand. My goal here is to make the information far more easily available online to the casual researcher, like I was back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a mud hut just trying to learn more about the history that surrounded me. When I got the bright idea to do this, I pondered idly how far I should go. Should I stop at WWI? WWII? But then I got started.

I haven’t exactly been working on it full-time, but doing the first five years has taken me months. And these people were wordy. My end goal is to have a final consolidated document, ideally with some useful timelines and an index and a table of contents, but I have decided in the interim to release the results in five-year chunks. This is to make the project more manageable and to start getting things out there in the world. If or when I get the final version out into the world, it is going to be massive. The first five years, 1876-1880, have clocked in at 138 pages and over 81,000 words already. It’s supposed to be impressive that Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, but that novel is only 47,000 words.

Despite my enthusiasm for getting out these first five years, I want to warn readers that it will not be a perfect document. I tried to be constantly proof-read as I typed it out, but I didn’t go back and check my work or anything, so there are probably errors. I was also in the process of making some editorial decisions I haven’t settled on yet. In the final document, I think I would like to standardize and modernize all the names, to again make it easily searchable for the casual researcher. Even in these five years the editors at The Chronicle had a few different spellings for some of the same people and places. That would still be a monumental undertaking once this thing is all done, again just because how long it is. One decision I have already made is that I Americanized all the spellings, but only because I am American and couldn’t be bothered to change the version of English on my spell-checker.

There is also some necessary editorializing to just pick out the articles relevant to Central Africa. Some articles are only tangentially related to Central Africa, and sometimes I left those out, but sometimes I added extra when there were interesting details about the Society’s finances, for example. They also have (tautologically) every year their Annual Report, which is both generally incredibly wordy and also only specific passages will pertain to Central Africa, so when I include those passages they’ll seem potentially disjointed. I also always skipped the individual donations noted in The Chronicle, though sometimes if you read into them they contain hints of very interesting stories. Despite trying to be painstaking, I might have missed something that could be important.

I am comfortable making these changes because I don’t intend this to be authoritative; my vision is that it will allow people to find articles and pictures useful to their research, and then they can use the year, month, and page numbers that I noted to go back to the source material and pull their information from there. If you find this document useful, I would be absolutely delighted if you let me know by uh, I can’t think of a less cringey thing to say than “by posting a comment below.”

It is important to say that I don’t endorse what the missionaries were trying to do. Missionaries and colonialism are big complicated topics, and fundamentally these people were going to Africa with the goal of totally upending a people’s religion and way of life. I value this resource because they do try to document a lot of the life there, even if their perspective is biased. Clearly, their language is going to sometimes be far from kosher, and even as they refer to some of the people they meet as friends their default assumption is that the people they are coming to proselytize to are “dark and degraded.” However, we are intelligent historians, and it is possible to understand the missionaries from their perspective without endorsing their beliefs as our own.

That is the project I am trying to undertake. But in the first five years of the London Missionary Society’s Central African Mission, what happened? There may have been earlier mention of the idea in The Chronicle, but I started in 1876 because that was when the earliest serious rumblings about a mission started. The most important impetuous was a conditional donation by one Mr. Robert Arthington of £5,000 (about $800,000 today) if the LMS would undertake a mission on Lake Tanganyika. From the start he wanted them to put a steamer on the lake, but that would still take a while to come.

The Directors of the LMS decided to undertake the mission and sent out Rev. Roger Price to investigate what would be required. Reading between the lines of The Chronicle, I think the LMS had a few mixed motivations for undertaking the mission. As a non-profit organization, they were always looking for funds, and the offer of £5,000 could not be turned down lightly (though the organization would feel a squeeze within a few years due to the expense of supporting their new mission). There was of course also a keen missionary zeal. It’s an organization run by and for people who liked to go out to the far corners of the world and preach, and so any new field held an enticement for them. I also think there was a bit of a missionary scramble for Africa, with the LMS winding up on Lake Tanganyika because choicer spots on Lake Malawi (then Nyassa) and closer to Zanzibar had already been taken. Nonetheless, out they went.

With a favorable report from Rev. Price, they soon dispatched the newly minted Rev. Arthur W. Dodgshun along with Revs. J.B. Thomson, and E.S. Clarke. They also sent lay members Edward C. Hore and Walter Hutley. They departed England from March to May of 1877. The next longest chunk of time would be spent just getting to where they were going. The Chronicle details in uh, detail, the monumental trials to get themselves and all their stuff overland to the Lake. Their vision was to set up a mission station about halfway between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika and another on the Lake itself. By the time they realized the beginnings of that vision, Revs. Thomson and Dodgshun would be dead. Central Africa was stunningly deadly for the missionaries that went there. At one point, in a crunch for missionaries willing to reinforce the remaining men after the losses, the Society’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Joseph Mullens volunteered himself to go. The Directors were reluctant to let him go, but I think this was a case of a man wanting to relive his glory days. As it was, he too died before ever seeing Lake Tanganyika.

By the end of 1880, however, they had successfully set up mission stations at Urambo, Ujiji, and across Lake Tanganyika at Uguha. Apart from the original cohort, the mission had been supplemented by Revs. William Griffith, A.J. Wookey, and David Williams, along with Dr. Walter Palmer and Dr. E.J. Southon. For me, the story really gets exciting towards the end of 1880, because our favorite mariner Edward C. Hore had taken an excursion to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, where he talks about my main man Tafuna and my good friend Chief Zombe. There were also further rumbles from our mysterious man behind the scenes, Mr. Robert Arthington, who was offering another £3,000 to accelerate the project of putting a steamer on the Lake.

Disappointingly, only two pictures relating to the Central African Mission were published in The Chronicle during these five years. The first is at the top, depicting the grave of Dr. Mullens. The second was a map showing where the various missionary societies had staked their claim. It’s included in the PDF, but the best map I’ve found so far comes from another pamphlet published in March 1879 by the London Missionary Society succinctly titled “The Mission in Central Africa, from the Letters and Journals of the Revs. J.B. Thomson and A.W. Dodgshun, and Messrs. E.C. Hore and W. Hutley.” I have included a crudely cropped version below (to save myself some filespace here on WordPress, but click to embiggen) with some of the most oft-mentioned placed highlighted, but the full version is available here (on Page 3 of the scan, and you get the best version if you download the jpg of the page). The scan could be better, but when I went to check if there were any copies for sale the only one I found was for £350, so I won’t be adding it to my personal collection anytime soon. The map is from 1879, so there are plenty of white spaces, but it highlights the route the missionaries took to get to Ujiji:

And so that’s the first five years of the Central African Mission, as told in the pages of The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I hope someone else finds this project useful and good research comes out of it. The area is sadly lacking in scholarship, and maybe we can help rectify that. I tried to summarize the major points above, but despite being wordy at times this saga is full of twists and turns and hope and despair and triumphs and failures, and sheds light into some of the earliest interactions in an area that would help shape world events, and so there’s little way I could have done it justice. I’m not the first person to discover The Chronicle, but hopefully now more people will, and help tell the stories of the people of Central Africa.

Brazil Part 5

Reading this week:

  • The Struggle for Zimbabwe by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson

Thank you for sticking with me on so many weeks of this Brazil journey! I promise this week I will wrap up the river cruise portion, and then next week I’ll probably do all of Manaus is a single post. And then! And then hopefully something noteworthy will be going on in my life, and I will make a note of it here. Until then, Brazil.

Now, we didn’t only bother wildlife and chop down trees in Brazil. Sometimes we met people! A chunk of these people-meets were in slightly more casual interactions. I thought it was great every single time we met another riverboat cruising down the river, because a lot of the time we would come alongside each other and the crew of each boat would presumably swap news or barter, with us exchanging ice for fish one time that I remember. And then we would cruise along our way. I also liked the see the people living along the river. Some were living on dry land, and had small herds of cattle and the like; when we got the best chicken ever, which I am still thinking about, it was just by stopping by one of these homesteads as we were cruising along.

It’s just tied up to a tree or something.

I also deeply admired the river houses we passed by. Since, as I have revealed previously, the river level changes dramatically over the course of the year, a large chunk of people live in houses that float, like the one picture above. These are built on the top of gigantic floating logs that provide buoyancy. If I couldn’t quite afford a whole riverboat in my retirement, I was able to easily imagine myself living a life in one of these floating houses. We only personally got to visit one (the one above), because it was also a store:

I loved this store. Talk about character! There was a big ole’ crocodile skull on the counter, for chrissake! (I guess technically a caiman). Hello my Super Amazing Girlfriend, this right here is my retirement plan: sell cold drinks, pans, and fishing nets out of a floating house on the Amazon. Dad, at my prompting, bought from this store the paddle pictured at the very top, versions of which we saw in tourist shops in Manaus for much more than whatever dad paid for it.

Another fun excursion we went on was to a rubber farm. I don’t quite have the room here to talk fully about the long history of exploitation when it comes to rubber harvesting in the Amazon (maybe I’ll touch on it more when I talk about Manaus), but we went to go see how rubber harvesting is done. Basically, you have a plot with rubber trees, and then the tappers will go out and cut grooves in the bark of the trees. The sap will flow out into tins that the rubber collectors have nailed to the trees, and that is how they harvest the raw latex sap. With that sap, the rubber harvesters boil it down until it becomes actual rubber. At the rubber farm that we went to, they also had a variety of small things they had made out of rubber, like a coinpurse or some rubber booties. Elso had dad make the item that he is working on in the above photo. To actually make something out of rubber, they would dip a mold into the latex sap, and then cure the rubber over smoke. In front of the ladies, Elso told us with a straight face that the device dad is making there was a rubber nipple used to help feed baby cows. Later, away from the women, he told us that dad had in fact made a condom. The thing made our entire cabin smell very strongly of smoke for the rest of the week, so, uh, things to think about when you’re trying to choose a condom brand.

Alright enough of people! Back to bothering wildlife. One of the last things we did on the river was to shake a sloth out of a tree. Yeah, I know, gimme a second. The guides had been talking about this all week, and it seemed perfectly normal every time they brought it up. I guess if you’re a sloth, and you’re in danger, your first line of defense is to look like a tree. If that fails, your backup defense is to just let go of the tree you are holding onto. This is not too dangerous in a flooded forest, because they just fall into the water and I guess sloths are good swimmers. So off we went one morning to find a sloth to shake out of a tree.

This all seemed fine until we were actually doing it. I distinctly remember us finally identifying a sloth in a tree and then thinking to myself “wait… are we the baddies?” This did not deter Elso and his buddies from zooming up the tree and shaking the branch that the sloth was holding onto. This sloth, however, was stubborn. Turns out, that might have been because she was carrying a baby on her back. I felt bad about this the entire time, let me tell you. But eventually Elso shook the branch enough that the sloth finally activated its backup defense mechanism and dropped into the water. The only people left in the canoe were us tourists, so Elso was soon shouting for us to grab the sloth. I, for once in this trip being the brave one, plucked up enough courage to snatch out of the water a poor little baby sloth who was just trying to get back to its tree. The mom made it to the tree and started climbing back up, while our new friend clutched to the canoe’s life jacket for dear life.

Once the guides had scrambled down from the tree, they helped us all pose for pictures with our traumatized baby sloth. Above is dad cradling the little guy. I actually demurred, feeling terrible about this whole thing at this point, but I still know what I did. Poor thing. After a round of pictures the baby sloth was placed gently back on the tree near its mom while we darted off back to the boat. Elso assured us that everything was totally fine, but still somewhere out there is probably a sloth that needs therapy and I’m sorry, baby sloth.

Like I said, that was our last major adventure on the river boat. After that we more or less head back into town, where we piled back into some cars to drive us to the ferry terminal and take us to Manaus. I had a great time on that riverboat, and I highly recommend everyone give it a go before the Amazon is entirely gone. Or maybe we can work harder to save the thing? Food for thought. But all in all, a very nice time:

We have a brief hiatus next week from Brazil content to talk about a different topic, but in two weeks I’ll wrap up Brazil entirely when I will relate about all my adventures in Manaus, and the real point of this whole trip: the Teatro Amazonas!

Brazil Part 4

On our last riveting installment, named Brazil Part 3, I told you mostly about all the animals we bothered while cruising through the Amazon. In this week, I’ll tell you about some of the jungle we hiked through. There was actually a lot of walking on this vacation for me having signed us up for a river cruise, though considering the cool things we saw, I’m not complaining.

The first thing I was fairly surprised to discover was how like, not strange the rainforest looked. The rain forest had always been this mysterious and exotic place in my head, full of vines and snakes and whatnot. It did in fact have vines in it that you could swing from, and we did that at one point (well, climbed like two feet up and swayed back and forth), but mostly the jungle looked a lot like a number of forests I had camped in as a Boy Scout:

On our hikes through the jungle, our guides tried to show us stuff about living and thriving in the rainforest. At one point, they had us eat a grub (or, at least, dad ate a grub, which he said tasted “like a grub,” and I politely declined). In the photo at the top they showed us how to make fans out of various palm fronds and whatnot, a very useful skill indeed. During one hike we trekked into the jungle and then after we got wherever we were going they told us to figure out the way back. Luckily I was a super-smart Eagle Scout and had studied hard in Navigation class and also noticed the guides had been making marks on trees with their machetes as we hiked along, and I managed to get us out of the jungle. I was very proud of myself. Another survival tip they showed us was that if you let the ants swarm all over you and quickly rub them off, they don’t bite, but do leave a small that discourages other bugs from biting you. Like the grub, I was also too wimpy to try this, but here is dad giving it a go:

These treks also couldn’t possibly go without us bothering wildlife, so here is Elso annoying a tarantula:

One night, we actually stayed in the jungle instead of our cozy bunks on the boat. This was a lot of fun. After we landed ashore, the first thing we had to do was to build ourselves a shelter. This was quite the undertaking. We were of course under the tutelage of our very experienced guides. Step number one was to clear an area to set up camp. This involved clearing away all the small brush and small trees from our chosen location. Dad had a blast doing this. Once he got hold of a machete, he could barely be stopped chopping down the trees that were in our way, and then harvesting the many many palm leaves that we needed to thatch our little hut. Look at him go:

Dad is on the left, Elso is on the right.

One of the things I remember most from this experience was it being hot. Out on the river, every single day was extraordinarily pleasant. Just the right temperature, and cool river breezes. But man, once you got into the jungle, it was boiling. The humidity was at 100% and there was no wind or anything to keep you cool. Just a whole lot of sweat. I was drenched. After finding four suitable trees to serve as the corners of our shelter, assembling it involved tying a whole bunch of sticks together. Larger poles served as cross-beams, and then small poles as the support for the thatching. The whole thing was assembled using tree bark as rope, a technique I later became very familiar with in Zambia but which was new to me here. After all that thatching was cut down, my own major tasks were trying to help tie stuff together and then handing things to the guides, who were clambering all over the structure. After the roof was on, all that was left was to hang up our mosquito-netted hammocks and settle in for the night. Here is the group posing proudly in front of the structure, and me with half my bodyweight in sweat in my shirt:

Dinner that night was the best chicken I have ever had in my life, as I mentioned all the way back in Brazil Part 2, cooked on a stick over an open fire. The only other exciting part of the night was listening for jaguars, which seemed to be about the only thing that Elso was actually afraid of. In the morning I think he reported hearing them, but I was too blissfully asleep by that point. In the morning we awoke to our guides making us a literal pot of coffee, which I found deeply amusing. We drunk it out of tiny little plastic cups, and all in all it was an excellent morning in the jungle:

And that is where I will leave you this week. Come back next week when I will finally reveal… the infamous sloth story!!!!