August 28, 2012
What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.
The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.
I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
July 5, 2012
At the age of 14, Ida Tarbell witnessed the Cleveland Massacre, in which dozens of small oil producers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, including her father, were faced with a daunting choice that seemed to come out of nowhere: sell their businesses to the shrewd, confident 32 year-old John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his newly incorporated Standard Oil Company, or attempt to compete and face ruin. She didn’t understand it at the time, not all of it, anyway, but she would never forget the wretched effects of “the oil war” of 1872, which enabled Rockefeller to leave Cleveland owning 85 percent of the city’s oil refineries.
Tarbell was, in effect, a young woman betrayed, not by a straying lover but by Standard Oil’s secret deals with the major railroads—a collusive scheme that allowed the company to crush not only her father’s business, but all of its competitors. Almost 30 years later, Tarbell would redefine investigative journalism with a 19-part series in McClure’s magazine, a masterpiece of journalism and an unrelenting indictment that brought down one of history’s greatest tycoons and effectively broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly. By dint of what she termed “steady, painstaking work,” Tarbell unearthed damaging internal documents, supported by interviews with employees, lawyers and—with the help of Mark Twain—candid conversations with Standard Oil’s most powerful senior executive at the time, Henry H. Rogers, which sealed the company’s fate.
She became one of the most influential muckrakers of the Gilded Age, helping to usher in that age of political, economic and industrial reform known as the Progressive Era. “They had never played fair,” Tarbell wrote of Standard Oil, “and that ruined their greatness for me.”
June 25, 2012
Harrods, in the bustling heart of London, is in a good location for a shop. So is the Macy’s in Herald Square, which boasts of serving 350,000 New Yorkers every day at Christmas time. Whereas down at the Mulka Store, in the furthermost reaches of South Australia, George and Mabel Aiston used to think themselves lucky if they pulled in a customer a week.
Mulka’s proper name is Mulkaundracooracooratarraninna, a long name for a place that is a long way from anywhere. It stands on an apology for a road known as the Birdsville Track—until quite recently no more than a set of tire prints stretching, as the locals put it, “from the middle of nowhere to the back of beyond.” The track begins in Marree, a very small outback town, and winds its way up to Birdsville, a considerably smaller one (“seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts”) many hundreds of miles to the north. Along the way it inches over the impenetrable Ooroowillanie sandhills and traverses Cooper Creek, a dried-up river bed that occasionally floods to place a five-mile-wide obstacle in the path of unwary travelers, before skirting the tire-puncturing fringes of the Sturt Stony Desert.
Make your way past all those obstacles, and, “after jogging all day over the treeless plain,” you’d eventually stumble across the Mulka Store, nestled beneath a single clump of pepper trees. To one side of the shop, like some ever-present intimation of mortality, lay the lonely fenced-off grave of Edith Scobie, “died December 31 1892 aged 15 years 4 months”—quite possibly of the sort of ailment that is fatal only when you live a week’s journey from the nearest doctor. To the rear was nothing but the “everlasting sandhills, now transformed to a delicate salmon hue in the setting sun.” And in front, beside a windswept garden gate, “a board sign which announced in fading paint but one word: STORE. Just in case the traveler might be in some doubt.”
May 16, 2012
For Lawrence Oates, the race to the South Pole had a portentous start. Just two days after the Terra Nova Expedition left New Zealand in November 1910, a violent storm killed two of the 19 ponies in Oates’s care and nearly sank the ship. His journey ended almost two years later, when he stepped out of a tent and into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard after uttering ten words that would bring tears of pride to mourning Britons. During the long months in between, Oates’s concern for the ponies paralleled his growing disillusionment with the expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
Oates had paid one thousand pounds for the privilege of joining Scott on an expedition that was supposed to combine exploration with scientific research. It quickly became a race to the South Pole after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, already at sea with a crew aboard the Fram, abruptly changed his announced plan to go to the North Pole. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN,” read the telegram he sent to Scott. It was clear that Amundsen would leave the collecting of rock specimens and penguin eggs to the Brits; he wanted simply to arrive first at the pole and return home to claim glory on the lecture circuit.
Born in 1880 to a wealthy English family, Lawrence Oates attended Eton before serving as a junior officer in the Second Boer War. A gunshot wound in a skirmish that earned Oates the nickname “Never Surrender” shattered his thigh, leaving his left leg an inch shorter than his right.
Still, Robert Scott wanted Oates along for the expedition, but once Oates made it to New Zealand, he was startled to see that a crew member (who knew dogs but not horses) had already purchased ponies in Manchuria for five pounds apiece. They were “the greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen,” Oates said. From past expeditions, Scott had deduced that white or gray ponies were stronger than darker horses, though there was no scientific evidence for that. When Oates told him that the Manchurian ponies were unfit for the expedition, Scott bristled and disagreed. Oates seethed and stormed away.
Inspecting the supplies, Oates quickly surmised that there was not enough fodder, so he bought two extra tons with his own money and smuggled the feed aboard the Terra Nova. When, to great fanfare, Scott and his crew set off from New Zealand for Antarctica on November 29, 1910, Oates was already questioning the expedition in letters home to his mother: “If he [Amundsen] gets to the Pole first we shall come home with our tails between our legs and make no mistake. I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves all that photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc. etc. is rot and if we fail it will only make us look more foolish.” Oates went on to praise Amundsen for planning to use dogs and skis rather than walking beside horses. “If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death.”
After a harrowingly slow journey through pack ice, the Terra Nova arrived at Ross Island in Antarctica on January 4, 1911. The men unloaded and set up base at Camp Evans, as some crew members set off in February on an excursion in the Bay of Whales, off the Ross Ice Shelf—where they caught sight of Amundsen’s Fram at anchor. The next morning they saw Amundsen himself, crossing the ice at a blistering pace on his dog sled as he readied his animals for an assault on the South Pole, some 900 miles away. Scott’s men had had nothing but trouble with their own dogs, and their ponies could only plod along on the depot-laying journeys they were making to store supplies for the pole run.
January 27, 2012
Even today, with advanced foods, and radios, and insulated clothing, a journey on foot across Antarctica is one of the harshest tests a human being can be asked to endure. A hundred years ago, it was worse. Then, wool clothing absorbed snow and damp. High-energy food came in an unappetizing mix of rendered fats called pemmican. Worst of all, extremes of cold pervaded everything; Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sailed with Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition of 1910-13, recalled that his teeth, “the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces” and fell victim to temperatures that plunged as low as -77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cherry-Garrard survived to write an account of his adventures, a book he titled The Worst Journey in the World. But even his Antarctic trek—made in total darkness in the depths of the Southern winter—was not quite so appalling as the desperate march faced one year later by the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. Mawson’s journey has gone down in the annals of polar exploration as probably the most terrible ever undertaken in Antarctica.
In 1912, when he set sail across the Southern Ocean, Mawson was 30 years old and already acclaimed as one of the best geologists of his generation. Born in Yorkshire, England, but happily settled in Australia, he had declined the chance to join Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition in order to lead the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, whose chief purpose was to explore and map some of the most remote fastnesses of the white continent. Tall, lean, balding, earnest and determined, Mawson was an Antarctic veteran, a supreme organizer and physically tough.
The Australasian party anchored in Commonwealth Bay, an especially remote part of the Antarctic coast, in January 1912. Over the next few months, wind speeds on the coast averaged 50 m.p.h. and sometimes topped 200, and blizzards were almost constant. Mawson’s plan was to split his expedition into four groups, one to man base camp and the other three to head into the interior to do scientific work. He nominated himself to lead what was known as the Far Eastern Shore Party—a three-man team assigned to survey several glaciers hundreds of miles from base. It was an especially risky assignment. Mawson and his men have the furthest to travel, and hence the heaviest loads to carry, and they would have to cross an area pitted with deep crevasses, each concealed by snow.
Mawson selected two companions to join him. Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, a British army officer, was the expedition’s dog handler. Ninnis’s close friend Xavier Mertz, was a 28-year-old Swiss lawyer whose chief qualifications for the trek were his idiosyncratic English—a source of great amusement to the other two—his constant high spirits, and his standing as a champion cross-country skier.
The explorers took three sledges, pulled by a total of 16 huskies and loaded with a combined 1,720 pounds of food, survival gear and scientific instruments. Mawson limited each man to a minimum of personal possessions. Nennis chose a volume of Thackeray, Mertz a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Mawson took his diary and a photograph of his fiancée, an upper-class Australian woman named Francisca Delprait, but known to all as Paquita.
At first Mawson’s party made good time. Departing from Commonwealth Bay on November 10, 1912, they traveled 300 miles by December 13. Almost everything was going according to plan; the three men reduced their load as they ate their way through their supplies, and only a couple of sick dogs had hindered their progress.