Friday, April 24, 2020


Sir Halford Mackinder, one of the founders of the London School of Economics, executes several porters during an expedition to Mount Kenya in 1895

Mackinder ‘practised with my Mauser in the afternoon against a tree trunk' and kept discipline within his own group of porters by regularly shooting off rounds from his gun. The 'moral suasion of my Mauser'  was for Mackinder an effective physical representation of the social contract on safari: '[i]t was a strange experience to be thus brought face to face with the ultimate sanctions of society'. Mackinder regularly rejected pleas from his porters to stop for the day with the observation that: “[i]n the interests of discipline I determined that my will must prevail'. When Mackinder refused to stop, he noted that the whole body of Kikuyu porters tried to desert, and were only checked by a display of firearms. His notebooks recorded that 'Cam[pbell Hausburg and the Swahili] Sulamani got ropes for a chain gang, I walked about with a loaded revolver, the Swahilis exhibited some 50 firearms, and at length we got the Washensi [Kikuyu) into line.' Another show of force accompanied negotiations for food with a village chief: 'our Swahilis cleaned their rifles ostentatiously and drilled one another.' Elsewhere, a village Chief, Ngombe, was kidnapped and held hostage until their food needs were met. A brother of Ngombe, Wangombe, killed two Swahilis who had been sent on another food foray. '[M]uch against natural impulse', Mackinder refrained from retaliating since he was not sure he had better than 'demoralised forces and, after all, [w]e were a scientific expedition, and had reached the scene of our work.'

In addition to the two murders and the death from dysentery, at least eight other porters were 'shot by orders'. We know this by the list supplied by Hausburg to the Zanzibar company, from which Mackinder had hired the Swahilis.

Mackinder's own journey down from the mountain, after the exhilaration of the final assault on the summit, was equally desperate. He had twenty-five African men (fourteen of the Swahilis from Zanzibar, an interpreter and two tent boys hired at Mombasa, and eight Kikuyus hired from Kikuyu Fort Smith) and four Europeans with him. During this part of the journey he reflected that 'I could not help comparing the Swahili to a human camel'. Mackinder had to cope with porters who, to conserve their strength, threw away part of their load. He ordered twenty lashes for one Swahili who had thrown away a bottle of specimens in spirit', adding that there was 'an epidemic of this'. On another day, two men collapsed and had to be 'forced to continue', and Mackinder said that the day had been spoiled by the sick man'. He recorded that he 'did not like this slave driving, for that is what it really was.'

His two alibis at this point were local custom and necessity: ‘[i]t was all done according to the dasturi (= custom) of the African safari, and we could not stay, for supplies were running short.' His threats perhaps escalated for he noted that the 'Swahili [...] did not cling to life'. A few days later, he found that three-quarters of the botanical specimens had been thrown on the fire to save carrying them further. This time he ordered a number of kiboko (lashes with a leather whip) unspecified, uniquely, in the typescript but given in the notebooks as thirty, the highest recorded. The lashings were for Musa, a Swahili who could speak French and that Mackinder trusted with a gun despite his not having been hired as a soldier, or askiri. Mackinder felt betrayed, referring to the culprit with surprise as 'the trusted Musa'. Musa was one of the porters recorded as 'shot by orders'.

On arriving at Naivasha, Mackinder telegrammed his wife that he would get back to Marseilles on 14 November, and this was in fact when the other Europeans got there, but the day after sending the telegram, Mackinder instead began a furious dash to the coast and arrived in Marseilles on 29 October. He was surely eager to get back to Oxford since he was in dereliction of his academic duties but, perhaps, he recalled the small print of the contract for hiring the porters. It allowed that in ‘a case of “grave emergency" ’, the leader of the caravan might go beyond flogging to whatever was required by the safety of the caravan or the members of the caravan”. However, it also reserved the right that ‘a competent Court may be called upon to decide whether (the leader had] improperly exercised their discretion'.

from Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder by Gerry Kearns

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


Cleaning oil off sea otters after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989

"In total, 357 sea otters were captured and delivered to rehabilitation facilities. Of these, 123 died in captivity. Thirty-seven of the 234 survivors were judged unsuitable for return to the wild and were transferred to aquaria and other permanent holding facilities; 25 of these animals were still alive 10 months later. The remaining 197 survivors were released by August 1989, 45 of them with surgically implanted radios. Twenty-two of the instrumented animals were dead (11) or missing (11) the following spring, thus indicating relatively low post-release survival of the captured and treated animals.

"Some otters captured for rehabilitation were unoiled, and others were so lightly oiled that they may have fared better if left in nature to their own devices. About 70% of the animals brought to the rehabilitation facilities were determined to be uncontaminated (61), lightly oiled (123), or of unknown status (68). Finally, rescue efforts probably caused some mortality in and of themselves because otherwise healthy captive sea otters suffer a 5 to 10% stress-induced mortality rate under the best of circumstances.

"Capture and rehabilitation costs for sea otters alone was $18.3 million. Assuming that 222 otters were saved (the maximum possible), costs exceeded $80,000 per animal."

from "Catastrophes and Conservation: Lessons from Sea Otters and the Exxon Valdez" by James Estes

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

On the Konds of India and their earth goddess Tari

"The Konds also related a certain myth, in which Tari made a revelation to humankind by taking the form of a woman, called Amali Baeli, one of their first ancestors. The myth runs as follows. At the time when the earth was created, every place was simply a swamp and the whole countryside swayed and shook continually. At this primeval time there was a Kui house shaking in the morass; a woman and a man lived there and their names were Amali Baeli and Bumi Kuari. When the man was out one day, Amali Baeli was peeling vegetables for the pot. She cut her little finger and the blood oozed out, not falling on the vegetables, but on the ground. Then the heaving earth solidified and became very fertile. Amali Baeli said, 'Look, what a good change! Cut up my body to complete it!', but the Konds refused. Thinking she was a Kond, they were unwilling to sacrifice her, instead, they resolved to purchase victims from other peoples. Believing that without the falling of human blood on the ground there is no fertility, Kond's ancestors sought a way of burying human flesh; and so began the mrimi sacrifice.

"According to the tradition of the Konds, men still complained to Tari that they were poor and troubled in many ways. The goddess therefore demanded an extension of the human sacrifice, which had to be performed on many more occasions, with new ceremonies and new arrangements for the provision of victims. In addition, she told them that she would no longer limit the value of human sacrifice to her worshippers, but would extend its benefits to all humankind. The Tari worshippers thus believed that they became responsible for the well-being of the whole world, with the result that they practised human sacrifices in great numbers."

from "Human Sacrifice among the Konds" by Lourens van den Bosch

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Best new films of 2019

1. The Irishman
2. Gemini Man in 120fps 3D
3. Little Women
4. Monos
5. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
6. Marriage Story
7. Support the Girls
8. Her Smell
9. Midsommar
10. Us

Best non-2019 films seen for the first time in 2019

1. Bloody Sunday (2002)
2. Big Night (1996)
3. Swing Shift director's cut (1984)
4. Mikey and Nicky (1976)
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
6. Salesman (1969)
7. Melvin (and Howard) (1980)
8. High Noon (1952)
9. La Verité (1960)
10. Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)