Sunday 31 October 2010

Burke and Hare-The real story...

It's January 1829 and on the Lawnmarket an infamous criminal is about to be put to death-people are clambering to see this historic event. Even Sir Walter Scott has a 'window seat' for the execution. The hanging of William Burke is the culmination of a trial that was dubbed the 'trial of the decade' in a recent documentary. It was the case of the accused William Burke, who was on trial for the murder of Mrs. Docherty, whose body Burke sold to one Dr. Knox. But this story isn't just about one death, it is believed that Mrs. Docherty was victim number 17 in a string of murders, committed by not just Burke but William Hare too.
In the 1820s, Edinburgh was leading the way in the field of medical science, and in order to continue this trend it is believed that the medical schools needed 520 bodies a year in order to teach anatomy. The only legal way to obtain cadavers was through taking the bodies of executed convicts. This was socially accepted because people thought that criminals did not have the right to a Christian burial-but this did not garner enough corpses for the schools. Anatomists were willing to pay large sums for cadavers; between £7 and £10 per corpse. This led to a lucrative trade in body snatching-Resurrectionists, as the grave robbers were known, provided many of the cadavers needed to the medical schools and quite a few pickled specimens found their way from Ireland to Edinburgh every year. But Burke and Hare were no Resurrectionists-what they were doing was far more sinister.
File:Hare and Burke drawing.jpg
Edinburgh in the 1820s was a city divided-it had just gone through a phase of growth and regeneration, but in 1826 the boom went bust and the divide between the rich and the poor was even more extreme. Many of the working class lost their jobs and things went from bad to worse. 
Margaret Laird arrived in Edinburgh in the 1820s and found a bustling environment-full of opportunity but with the bust of 1826, this opportunity very quickly diminished.  Like many women in similar situations the only option was prostitution. It was through prostitution that Margaret seized her opportunities when she could-marrying a succession of men, almost bettering herself every time. Margaret ended up marrying the owner of a lodging house called Logue, who was fairly old compared to herself. It is believed that Margaret met William Hare at this lodging house. William Hare was an Irish immigrant who had been working on the canal as a navvy. Shortly after moving into Logue's lodge house, Hare and Logue had an argument and Hare left the lodge house. Logue mysteriously turned up dead not long after, and Hare quickly moved in with and married Margaret. 
William Burke was also an Irish immigrant who emigrated to Scotland in 1817. There he had had many different jobs, but at the time of meeting Margaret Hare, Burke was a cobbler. Burke and his wife, Helen McDougal, were invited by Margaret to stay at her lodge house. It is then that these string of murders started. It is believed that the first body Burke and Hare sold was not the result of a murder, but rather the result of a fellow lodger dying. Burke and Hare sold the body as the old war pensioner, called Donald had no family and so no one to bury him. The man they sold the body to was the enigmatic Dr.Knox-a lecturer of anatomy at the medical school. Knox made it clear to Burke and Hare that he would always be willing to buy bodies in the future.
The first murder took place about a month later, the result of fear. It was clear that one of the lodgers was dying in his room-the man was probably dying of the plague. If the plague had been discovered at the lodge house then it would have been closed down by the authorities. Remembering what Knox had told the two men, acting quickly Burke and Hare finished the dying man off and promptly took his body to Knox. Burke and Hare's murderous career had begun. How Burke and Hare went on to kill their victims is still known as 'burking' today-the method was Hare would hold his hand over the victim's nose and mouth and Burke would put the weight of his body across the chest of the victim-asphyxiating them.  Burke and Hare would ply their chosen victim with drink before leading them away to kill them in the burking fashion. No one was safe and Burke and Hare generally preyed on the weak, vulnerable and lonely-even children.
Dr. Knox certainly knew what Burke and Hare were doing and even took part in covering up the murders. One of the victims, known as 'Daft Jamie', had deformed feet and was well known in the area. When Burke and Hare delivered Jamie's body to the doctor, Knox cut off Jamie's feet and face so that his cadaver was unrecognisable when he came to use it in a dissection for his students.
Dr.Knox was a flamboyant lecturer who wore a bright purple coat, had curly hair, one eye and pitted skin as a result of smallpox. He attracted many students to Edinburgh, at one point teaching 500 in one year. Dr. Knox would cut up about 80 bodies a year in order to attract high numbers of students, which meant he needed a steady supply. He also brought great wealth to the area-could this mean that people were willing to turn a blind eye to these murders?
Within a few months, Burke and Hare had provided Knox with 16 bodies-netting the equivalent of £130,000 in today's money. It would be victim number 17 that saw the end to this horrendous string of murders. By the time victim number 17 met her fate, Burke had his own house, let's be honest he could afford it, and it was there that he murdered Mrs. Docherty. At the time, two of Burke's wife's relatives were staying at the house and it was them who found the body and alerted the police. By the time the police arrived at Burke's house, the body was gone. The police were tipped off though-they were told to check Dr.Knox's office and they would find the body of the recently deceased victim. In November 1828 Burke, Hare, Margaret Hare and Burke's wife were arrested.. In exchange for immunity for himself and his wife, Hare agreed to testify against Burke and Burke wrote a written confession in which he stated his wife and Knox were innocent. So, in the end, only Burke was convicted of the murder.
The notoriety of the case made it Britain's 'trial of the decade'-all of Scotland's top lawyers were involved, and on the first day of the trial (24th December 1828) the 'court was packed to suffocation'. Burke was found guilty and one month after the conviction he was hanged by the neck until he was dead. The 'honour' of dissecting Burke's body was given to Dr. Monroe. A number of items were made of out Burke's skin and his skeleton is still used in the same medical school where he was dissected today.
I will be eagerly awaiting the release of the new feature film, Burke and Hare, to see how accurate the portrayal of the story is!!

Thursday 21 October 2010

The Battle of Ruddy Balaclava!

Michael's blog
The other day I thought it would be a good idea to get my A level students to use historical sources in a slightly different way to what they're used to. So using the events of the Charge of the Light Brigade I gave my students sources related to particular people involved in the charge.
So one pair were given sources about Lord Lucan's actions, another pair about Lord Cardigan's and so on. The idea was that the students would use the sources to write a blog of that particular person's perspective on the charge-as if it was happening in real time (I told them to imagine that everyone there had Blackberry phones!) I had originally wanted them to use Twitter for this as I have seen similar things done using that particular medium-but unfortunately, Twitter is blocked by our school server, so we used blogspot instead. Despite this, the finished blogs were absolutely fab! I told my year 12 class that the one I thought was the best (although it was tough decision to make, as they were all so good), would be featured on my blog. So, the 'winning' blog was the one done by Michael who had to blog about Lord Raglan's perspective of the Charge. Please go over to Michael's blog and take a look at what he's written and if you see what you like, let him know by leaving a comment! Thank you.  

Thursday 19 August 2010

A War over Keys??

We all know that there are many examples in History where war has started over, what seem to be, rather silly reasons. For the A Level course I am teaching, The Experience of Warfare 1855-1929; I have been researching the Crimean War (1855-1856), and I must say the short term causes of the war seem to be, to me, borderline ridiculous.
Crimea at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire-the Ottoman Empire had control of the ports that led out to the Mediterranean Sea-favourable for trade. This is something that Russia lacked and was envious of-Tsar Nicholas I even alluded to wanting to carve up the Turkish empire, calling it the 'sick man of Europe'. The Tsar saw the Ottoman Empire as weak and could see huge benefits in taking a large proportion of it.
According to historian Christopher Hibbert the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon did not want war with Russia.  But the more powerful Lord Palmerston, Home Secretary and Russophobe, saw Russia's imperialism as a threat to the British Empire, in particular to India. He saw that the areas around the Med needed to remain in friendly hands, that of the Turks, in order to maintain the route the British took to India and continue lucrative trade.
A quarrel in the Holy Land provided a reason for tensions to escalate not only between Turkey and Britain with Russia, but also with France and Russia.  The monks of the Roman Catholic Church, supported by France, and the monks of the Orthodox Church, supported by Russia, were arguing over rights and privileges concerning the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  In 1852 the Turks, being the imperial rulers of the Holy Lands, decided that the Roman Catholic monks should have the keys to these important churches-aligning themselves with France.

In 1853 the Tsar sent Prince Menshikov (left) to maintain the privileges of the Orthodox Christians and to insist on Russia's rights to protect the Ottoman Empire's Orthodox Christian subjects.Arguments over the holy places came to a head when the Roman Catholic monks placed their own silver star over the manger in the Church of the Nativity. The Orthodox monks tried to prevent the Catholic monks from doing this and in the struggle some were killed. The Russians thought that the Turkish authorities had connived in the murder of the monks-within days a Russian army was marching towards the Danube in order to protect the Holy Places from Islam.  
The Russians demanded that Turkish troops withdraw from Christian Montenegro, where they were suppressing a revolt-this demand was rejected.  To 'encourage' Turkish cooperation, the Russian government announced that unless Turkey did what they wanted, Russian troops would occupy Moldavia and Wallachia-countries under joint protectorate of Turkey and Russia as they bordered the boundaries of both the Russian and Turkish empires.
Behind the scenes the British ambassador in Turkey, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, had been encouraging the Sultan to reject the Russian demands. Learning of the Russian threats, Britain and France decided to intervene. On June 15th 1853, a combined British and French fleet was sent to the Dardanelles to show solidarity with Turkey.
A draft compromise, drawn up by Austria, was rejected by the Sultan-perhaps he was buoyed up by the support of Britain and France? In July the Tsar ordered Russian troops into Moldavia and Wallachia. It was still hoped by many that war would not come. But, on 5th October 1853, hoping Britain and France would support Turkey rather than see the Ottoman Empire collapse, the Sultan declared war on Russia.
Weeks later thousands would be slaughtered as the result of strategic mishaps-young men cut down in their prime.  All over keys??
Let me know what you think...

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Twentieth Century in 5 minutes...

We didn't start the Fire, by Billy Joel, must be one of the best songs ever-as a History teacher I find this song fascinating-there is so much mentioned! The song basically accounts for most major events that happened in the twentieth century mixed with some American popular culture. It is basically the Cold War in a song.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

What If....

Adolf Hitler had been accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna? Would he still have developed his intolerable hatred of Jews? Would he have ever become interested in Politics and go on to be Chancellor of Germany? Would the dreadful atrocities of the Holocaust have happened?

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria on 20th April 1889, but his family moved to Passau, Germany when Adolf was three, which led Hitler to later identify more with Germany than his native Austria. As a young boy, Adolf was a normal child who played 'cowboys and Indians', a game that first sparked his fascination with war and being a soldier. But in 1900, Hitler's younger brother, Edward died after contracting measles. After this, Hitler is said to have become sullen, morose and detached, often arguing with teachers at school and his strict Father at home.  Adolf and his Father, Alois, would often clash, mainly over Hitler's desire to attend the Classical High School rather than the Technical School, which is where his Father wanted him to go so that Adolf could become an Austrian Customs Official.  Adolf and Alois could never see eye to eye and Adolf was regularly beaten by his Father. In order to show his resentment towards his Dad, a keen lover of all things Austrian, Hitler became obsessed with German Nationalism, using the German greeting 'Heil' and singing the German national anthem rather than the Austrian one.

Despite the obvious tension between Adolf and Alois, when his father suddenly died in 1903 Hitler became very disruptive at school and was asked to leave. Hitler enrolled at a different school but was expelled in his second year after an incident with his school certificate.  At a loss of what to do Hitler travelled to Vienna in 1905, living a bohemian life, in order to gain acceptance into the Academy of Fine Arts.
Hitler drew scenes around Vienna and lived off an Orphan's pension and support from his beloved Mother. Hitler made his first attempt at gaining entry into the art school in 1907 but was told that his skill as a painter was not good enough. Above is one of Hitler's drawings-to the untrained eye it looks rather skilfully done.
In December 1907, Hitler's Mother, Klara, who Adolf adored, died of breast cancer. A court ordered that Hitler give his share of the Orphan's pension he received to his sister, Paula. With no money Hitler struggled as a painter in Vienna-he would copy post cards and sell them but this made him very little. In 1908, Hitler failed a second time to be accepted into art school-with no money left Hitler had no choice but to live in a shelter for the homeless (incidentally, a group of 'undesirables' that Hitler would later persecute).
It was in Vienna that Hitler, as he describes in Mein Kampf, first began hating Jews. Where Hitler had grown up he had only ever seen 'Europeanised' Jews but in Vienna he saw Orthodox Jews-Hitler didn't like what he saw-he even went as far as questioning whether these deeply religious people could possibly be German.  

Hitler's way out of homelessness came in 1914-the outbreak of the First World War. Hitler was desperate to fight for a Bavarian regiment, and so petitioned King Ludwig III of Bavaria for permission to serve-this was granted.  By all accounts Hitler was a rather good soldier-a runner on the front line he was twice decorated for bravery and ended his army career as the British equivalent of a Lance Corporal. Hitler even suffered temporary blindness as a result of a mustard gas attack and had to spend a few weeks in a military hospital. Some Historians argue that it is during this period that Hitler first had the unforgivable idea of exterminating Jews. 

Hitler was a firm lover of Germany and his service during the Great War only cemented this further. So when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and Germany admitted defeat, Hitler was devastated and couldn't understand why Germany had surrendered when they still held enemy territory.  Further humiliation came with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919-terms of the treaty saw Germany take full blame for outbreak of war in 1914, a massive reduction in Germany's standing army, demilitarisation of the Rhineland, and a massive debt, or reparations, that surmounted to an amount that was unrealistic to expect Germany to pay.  Hitler became obsessed with getting revenge for the treaty, which he saw as the cause of many of Germany's problems after the war, that of course and the Jews.  Hitler saw Germany go from a great nation before the war to a struggling country where unemployment was sky high and people were miserable-forced to be humiliated first by defeat and then by the conditions of Versailles.  All the while, as Hitler saw it, German people were starving and poor, whereas Jewish people seemed to be getting on fine-Hitler's hatred of the Jews was gradually getting deeper and deeper.
After the war, Hitler became actively involved in politics, shaping his political ideas in the German Workers Party (the name would later be changed to the infamous name of National Socialist German Workers Party), where the leaders were impressed by his oratory skills.  Hitler was eventually elected leader of this party in 1921. The party was elected to power in Germany with Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The rest as they say, is History. A very dark and disgusting period of history to say the least.

Could it be that if Hitler had been accepted into art school that he would not have gone on to be Chancellor of Germany? Could he have ended up just another humble painter? It certainly wouldn't have prevented his hatred of Jews as this first started when he was in Vienna. But could it have provided Hitler with a different path? Even if he had have gained entry into art school the First World War still came along. Hitler was Germany obsessed-he certainly would have still wanted to fight for Germany in 1914. It is during his time as a soldier that his love with Germany became a sort of intense 'love affair', and where he experienced the cutting humiliation of defeat and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Maybe then we could argue that if the First World War had never have happened that Hitler would not have experienced such humiliation, and therefore, have not had the need to vent his frustration with the world in a hot bed of politics, leading to his domination of a party full of anti-Semites.

Let me know what you think on this subject.

Please note-this post is not designed in any way to offend anyone and is certainly not absolving Hitler's behaviour in any way. What Ifs in history are just things I like to contemplate.

Friday 14 May 2010

Anatomy and its murky past...

History is intriguing, scandalous and hugely entertaining-it can also be dark, mysterious and a little macabre. The picture above is from a series being shown on British TV called 'History Cold Case'-every week a crack team of forensic scientists shed light on our past by examining the dead. This weeks show saw the investigation of a mummified body of a young boy-maybe around 7 or 8 years of age.  The team wanted to find out the history of the boy and under what circumstance he came to be used as a anatomical specimen. The team think the boy was preserved to be used as a display or as a tool to help train anatomists- as they delve deeper into the history of anatomy, in particular how bodies came to be acquired, they reveal a murky past.
After observing the remains the team leader, Professor Sue Black, notices that, although the size of the head and the fact that he has most of his adult teeth point to him being around 8 years old, his arms and legs look to be quite short. After a full x-ray of the remains Professor Black notes that the leg bones have a series of faint white lines going through them-this she says could mean that either the boy had a succession of diseases, or that he had been malnourished-resulting in stunted growth.  From this Professor Black deduces that the boy could have possibly been living at a poor house for some time, and that upon his death he was handed over to a school of anatomy under the Anatomy Act of 1832-which allowed the dissection of the destitute. However, when one of the team take a photograph of the mummified boy to a specialist at the Huntarian Museum in London he thinks the remains could possibly date from the 17th or early 18th century, due to the way the boy has been posed.  Shockingly, this reveals that the body of the boy may have been obtained before the Anatomy Act of 1832, which means he was taken illegally. Could somebody have stolen this poor boy's body or could there be a more sinister explanation?
The team do an in-depth analysis of the flame red resin that was used to preserve the arteries of the boy to try to get a more accurate date of when the boy was preserved. The results showed that the resin found in the boys vessels was a close match to the resin used by famed surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, which therefore, dates the mummified boy to late 18th century or early 19th century. The team theorise that the boy could have been preserved by John Hunter himself, or at least one of his pupils, and also come to the conclusion that the boy was probably from London, which is where John Hunter was based.
It looks then like the body of the boy was obtained illegally-as a result of this the team go on a fact finding mission to discover just how rife body snatching was in the 18th century. After a trip to the archives it transpires, after reading the diary of a resurrectionist (a name given to body snatchers), that grave robbers used to have watchers to tell them about newly buried corpses, which they would then dig up and steal in order to sell them at a high price to hospitals. The investigation leads to Saint Sepulchre's Church on Giltspur Street, North London, which was at the centre of a very lucrative trade in fresh corpses. The area was surrounded by hospitals teeming with medical students-the demand was so high for bodies that the local council became increasingly worried about the numbers 'going missing', that they raised the money to have a watch house constructed on the boundary of St. Sepulchre's graveyard in 1791.  However, a lot of the men who ran the watch houses were corrupt and for a bribe would turn a blind eye, or in some cases help the resurrectionists. So, the illegal trading of bodies remained a lucrative business until 1832. The reason the body trade was so lucrative near Sepulchres was because of the nearby St Bartholomew's Hospital-porters from the hospital would leave hampers out at night for the body snatchers to use to transport the dead bodies to a nearby public house, that acted as a safe house for the resurrectionists, where the cadavers would be laid out ready for surgeons and anatomists to pick from.
The business of selling bodies was such a good money maker that some people even kidnapped and murdered children in order to sell their bodies to the highest bidder.  One such prolific grave robber was John Bishop, who was actually tried and convicted of murdering a 14 year old boy for the purposes of selling him to a surgeon. All together Bishop admitted to stealing between 500 and 1000 corpses and of murdering 3 people to sell their bodies, although that number could be higher. Could the mummified boy have been the victim of such a heinous crime? The trial of John Bishop and his accomplices in 1831 highlighted the need to do something about these terrible goings on-and so the following year the Anatomy Act was passed.
What the team concluded about the boy: He was around 8 years old, was well nourished but suffered periods of illness and was dissected and preserved in London before the anatomy act of 1832-either stolen from his grave or murdered to furnish the demands of the anatomists.
Let me know what you think on this subject!

Sunday 9 May 2010

History and Me...My 100th Post!

This is my 100th Post! I can hardly believe it! I have called this post History and Me as I intend to write about my recent historical experiences, which I had during my holiday in Dorset.
I want to start with an excellent little find I made in a quaint shop dedicated to the works of Enid Blyton called The Ginger Pop Shop. The shop itself has many fine gifts and amongst all the Enid Blyton books and memorabilia I discovered one of the cutest things I have seen in a long time-a little paper evacuee doll!  The doll came with little paper clothes, identity card and a gas mask! The pack the doll came in also contained a story of the evacuee doll that highlights the trauma evacuated children suffered as a result of being uprooted from their homes. As soon as I saw the doll I immediately thought of a good way to use it in a lesson with my Year 9 groups! Excellent!
My visit to Wareham in Dorset also gave me the opportunity to use my much beloved National Trust membership (thanks to the guys at Swanwick for that marvelous gift). As soon as we drove into Corfe we saw this wonderful ruined castle-so big that it is literally all you can focus on for miles! Corfe Castle stands between the Purbeck hills, an ideal position when the castle was built to defend inland Dorset from attacks from the sea. The castle itself was built by William the Conqueror soon after his arrival in 1066. The castle was a favourite haunt of King John (1167-1216) who made vast improvements to its defences between 1199 and 1216.
When I was walking around the ruined castle I couldn't help but question my own fitness as I was out of breath pretty much straight away! It was built on a very steep hill-for obvious defence reasons I know-but it was a challenge to get around the site! I climbed to the highest point you can get to safely and stood at the top for quite a while-mainly because I could make out the figure of my Dad down in the centre of the town and was waving frantically to him, but he didn't look up. I was in awe of the vistas from such a height and what I found even more intriguing was how you could make out the stages the castle would have been built in. When the Normans first came to England they built wooden Motte and Bailey castles for speed and because the raw materials were all around-a bit like Medieval flat pack castles-of course none of the wooden structure of Corfe still exists, for obvious reasons. The next stage would have been a stone keep castle, the keep still remains, partly destroyed, at Corfe. Then followed the concentric outer wall, which acted as an extra defence-a lot of this still exists at the site in a partly ruined state and can clearly be seen in the above picture. Below is an artists impression of what Corfe Castle would have looked like in 1643. 
Let me know about your recent historical experiences-would love to hear about them! 

Saturday 20 March 2010

Joseph Rowntree, a social hero...

Joseph Rowntree was born to a Quaker family in York on the 24th May 1834. Joseph's father was a grocer and when he was 14 he started work with him. His work took Joseph to London where he attended the Commons after becoming interested in politics. In 1869, he decided to change career and began working with his brother, Henry, at his factory; the Cocoa, Chocolate and Chicory Works in York. Joseph was very influential at the factory and under his supervision it expanded rapidly, especially after he introduced the fruit pastille in 1881.
In 1883, Henry Rowntree died leaving Joseph as owner of the business. Joseph was not only an excellent businessman but also a charitable man who did many good works during his lifetime, including teaching a class for adults on Sundays, helping set up the York Public Library and providing a park in York to be used as a First World War memorial. But what Rowntree is perhaps most famous for (apart from his delectable sweets) is his work to help the poor. After becoming influenced by a book written by his son, Benjamin Seebohn Rowntree, called 'Poverty, A Study of Town Life, Joseph installed a library in his factory and provided all workers under the age of 17 with free education.

Rowntree very generously provided his workers with a doctor and a dentist and, in 1906, set up a Pension Fund for his workers, donating £10,000 to it. But what Rowntree was most concerned with was finding ways of reducing poverty where he saw it. In 1863 he produced a statistical study linking crime and poverty and two years later published his second study; Pauperism in England and Wales. In 1901, Rowntree even purchased 123 acres of land to build homes for low-income families at New Earswick, York. Rowntree went on to be a lifelong advocate for social reform right up to his death in 1925. Today, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation continue what he started spending £10.5 million on research and development to put forward key messages (souce: JRF).

Monday 15 March 2010

A Much Needed Return! A baby and a book review

It feels like an absolute age since I was on here blogging but I feel that I am more than ready to return. Needless to say I have been very busy since I last blogged way back in November-after leaving my humble teaching job to start maternity leave in late November I had a very restful December and in January gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Eleanor Faith. Since then I have been adjusting to becoming a mother whilst still trying (and mostly failing) to keep a tidy house! With Ellie turning ten weeks old yesterday and celebrating Mother's Day for the first time, I feel it's the right time to start up my blogging hobby again, especially as Ellie's colic has calmed down a lot!
You may or may not be surprised to find that I have managed to read just one book this year-those readers with children will understand how hard it really is to juggle normal day to day activities with a new baby, let alone find time to do anything for pleasure!

The book in question is 'The Lieutenant' by Kate Grenville, the best-selling Australian author. I must admit that I had not heard of the author before picking up this book in Tesco one Wednesday night. I was attracted to the book's very pretty cover-it is covered in tiny gold specks that represent stars, as the protagonist in the book, Daniel Rooke, is an Astronomer. I then read the back cover and was interested immediately-set in 1788, this work of historical fiction tells the story of a Lieutenant in the First Fleet who travels to New South Wales and sets up an observatory at Sydney Cove. The character Daniel Rooke is loosely based on a real member of the Royal Navy, William Dawes who was prosecuted for attempting to learn the language of the Aborigines. From the beginning of the story the reader soon learns that Rooke is the shy retiring type that just wants to be able to study-he has a firm love of mathematics, astronomy and the sciences. Rookes love of knowledge and his yearning for something new leads him to join the navy and to New South Wales. Keen to stay out of the way, Rooke convinces his superiors that an observatory is needed so that Rooke can keep watch for a foreseen comet.
It is while Rooke is living alone in his observatory that he is first approached by some of the natives, including a young girl called 'Tagaran'. After a couple of initial meetings Rooke and Tagaran begin this wonderful exchange of language set against a backdrop of colonisation. Right from their first meeting, Rooke and Tagaran seem to have this unique bond that enables them to understand what one another are saying, despite the fact that they are both speaking a different language to the other.
At first Rooke is more concerned with learning the native tongue from Taragan, so much so that he fastidiously writes down everything she says and what he thinks is the English equivalent. But pretty soon their union blossoms into something so much more than just wanting to learn a language. In a way, Grenville is wanting the reader to understand that while Taragan and Rooke's friendship is blossoming a way of life is coming to an end; the way of life of the aborigines. It seems the more Rooke and Tagaran get to know one another the more the British gain control of New South Wales and exert their power over the natives.
One very graphic part of the novel involves a native being made an example of when a British prisoner acting as gamekeeper for the colony is attacked. The innocent man is lashed in front of the Royal Navy and many of the natives. The British here are using a punishment that is extremely foreign to the natives. Taragan sees her fellow native being lashed and sees Rooke standing by and watching-not realising that if Rooke was to step in and rescue the man that it would mean Rooke might receive the same punishment or worse. It is at this point that both Rooke and Taragan realise that their flirtations with a foreign culture are to remain just that-they could not possibly be accepted as being friends by either side as they are so different.
The book ends with a beautiful moment where Rooke is being transported back to Britain and he is waving goodbye to Taragan who is stood on the shore. In my opinion, which is not a learned opinion by far, Grenville is making the point that it isn't just old friends waving goodbye to each other for last time, but that the world is waving goodbye to a whole way of life.
The book in three words; beautiful, tragic, wonderful.
If you have read the book or are planning to-let me know what you think!