From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (2c)—Ocean and Isle: Earthquake on Nina Foov

One year ago on Round and Square (2 June 2011)—Living and Learning: Lessons for the Ages
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7
[a] Burning bush RF
I gave a lecture at the Doylestown Historical Society on June 1st, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject was the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I am working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. I will, over the course of my summer research, post my lecture and some of the early results of the research Megan and I are doing. In the meantime, though, I want to start the "Accidental Ethnographer" series with William Geil's own words. I will post two or three readings from each of Geil's dozen books over the course of May and June.
[b] Fault-finding RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
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[c] Tinder RF
I am slowing down for about a week's worth of posts from William Edgar Geil's big book on the South Pacific. I am taking my time for a very specific reason. It so happens that the first truly famous professional ethnographer, Bronislaw Malinowski—a man who considered his work anything but an accident—wrote about an island in the South Pacific. I will have much to say in a comparative vein in my own essays among this growing series. For now, though, let's take Geil at his rhetorical word and keep examining his own narrative of travel through the islands of the southern seas. Today's entry traces the effects of an enormous earthquake fifty years before Geil's visit. We might ask ourselves precisely why he related in great detail the burning effluvia of decades past. By the time we get to the end of the entry...we'll know. Take a close look at Geil's supernatural tinderbox. 

Ocean and Isle—Earthquake on Nina Foov
William Edgar Geil (1902)
Nina Foov is the euphonious native name for the island, which although afar off, midway between Vailima's solitary grave and the tombs of the Cannibal Chiefs of Fiji, belongs to the insular realm of the conquering Tongan kings. I know it is a sort of sea half-way house, for cautious Captain Newton says—and he knows, for he has the sextant and the Admirality charts—that he always likes to steam well into the island of Good Hope for an additional proof of the reckoning as it lies in this dangerous sea, at equal distances from Samoa and Fiji. 
[d] Burning RF
While some persons consider dates (figure ones) as lacking interest and not restful, nevertheless it serves my purpose perfectly to mention a few. Sometime during the 3d of August, A.D. 1791, the Island of Good Hope was discovered by Captain Edwards in H.M.S. "Pandora," and called by him Proby Island. This is probably the good Hope Island of Schouten, many continuing to refer to it by that name. Henslip of Tongatatabu, who has studied the island, and has business interests there, told me at the post office in Nukualofa, that the Nina Foov was the first of the Friendlys discovered, and that the honor falls to the lot of two captains, Le Maire and Schouten, and the date A.D. 1616. This was news to me, and I have had no opportunity to investigate the statement, but Henslip is positive that is correct. That many of the South Sea Islands were discovered several times is true, but whether any rascality to seize the honors obtained in those instances, we cannot say, but likely not.

Anyhow it is a volcanic island nearly circular in form, measuring three and one-half miles from north to south, and three miles from east to west, and is well wooded to the loftiest summit, maybe a thousand feet above the tide. I say "maybe" for the height is constantly changing. In the centre of the island is an old crater filled with a lake of brackish water, in which are hot springs, and traces of volcanic action are everywhere to be seen.  A very severe eruption occurred in 1853, when a village was destroyed and many lives lost.

[e] Free-flow RF
This island is in all respects of peculiar formation. Its aspect viewed from the sea is sepulchral and forbidding. Nothing is preserved to the eye but huge piles of funeral rocks, belted around the base by the white foam of the breakers. On landing, the paths are found to be black, and even the shrubs and trees in the lower parts of the valleys and ravines look black and dismal. In the higher portions of the island the vegetation is rich and beautiful. The scene of the violent volcanic eruption referred to lay over the finest gardening section of the island, and the one giving the above description was there soon after the night of horror. At this present time the appearance of the land from the sea is not forbidding. The beginning of the terrors on that awful night of 24th June, in the year of grace 1853, was a long continued earthshudder of frightful severity. The earth reeled and swayed beneath the startled people. This was no sooner over than there came a dull roar of thunder which seemed to roll up from the bowels of the earth, as if from the throat of some hideous monster awakening to a mortal pain. Then followed a deathly stillness. 

At midnight many sprang terror stricken to their feet as another convulsive throw, more dreadful than the first, shook the whole island, and at the same instant the subterranean thunder rolled up again deeper and louder than ever, but passed away without visible damage. It was well past midnight when a universal terror seized even those accustomed to the displays of the savage forces of nature. This third terrific convulsion was ushered in by a roll of thunder growling along underneath the feet of the assembling natives, gathering in force, growing more and more threatening, until with one appalling and stupendous crash the earth was rent open and a fiery wind, like a hot blast from the Inferno itself, swept roaring out of the mouth of the opening.

[f] Upshooting RF
This was followed by frightful screams and shrieks, for the earth was spreading apart in the midst of a native village, and into the cracked and gaping fissure, as though swiftly drawn by invisible hands, went the chapel and houses. Huge stones descending, crushed more than a score out of human shape, and rolled into the open jaws of death, as the flames of a new volcano shot high into the hot air as red as new-shed blood. Here was lurid splendor and ghastly flaming shapes, and with it all a molten sea of lava belched forth from the fiery gorge suddenly opened, and swept huts and shrubs, and living things into one hissing, burning sepulchre.

Showers of volcanic ashes fell about, while over the new-born crater a dark cloud was fast forming. Ever broadening, it hung like a pall of sable. At times this inky cloud was rent in twain by the upshooting fires until there was one frightful mass of leaping, seething tossing billows of flame and inky soot, and the walls of the crater upwashed within by liquid fire burst with the awful crash of a thousand pent up thunders, and out through the gap in the black crater wall rolled an avalanche of fierce red glare, licking up the foliage with the withering heat of blazing fluid rock.

Before the sun could shine through the murky vapor which hung suspended over the entire island, as if waiting to complete the doom, miles of country now hidden by the richest tropical growth, lay buried—encoffined in hot porous rock a fathom or two deep. Vast quantities of mud, ashes, and lava were belched forth during the death-dealing eruption.

[g] Swallowed RF
It is not to be wondered at, that a deep and widespread religious awakening followed the earth-reeling solemn scenes attendant upon the volcanic upheaval. Exploring parties visited the scene of the calamity when the surface was sufficiently cooled to admit of it.

The chiefs decided to hold a religious service as near as possible to the site of the destroyed and swallowed village. Courageously, yet solemnly, a large gathering of people met close to the larges and still active volcano. 

On that most impressive occasion a native preacher John Latu, delivered a sympathetic and powerful sermon on the words of Scripture: "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." During this and other services, hundreds of the cocoanut-colored natives professed conversion, and their after lives proved it was no idle word spoken in the hour and circumstance of dreadful harbingers of disaster.[1]

Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7 
William Edgar Geil, Ocean and Isle (Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902), 39-42.

Geil, William Edgar. Ocean and Isle. Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902.
[h] Cooled RF

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