Bangkok, 22 November 2015

I was in Vanuatu recently, which, for those readers not familiar with the Pacific, is one of those many little island states that dot the Pacific Ocean, like Tuvalu or Palau or Kiribati. I was there on business, for reasons which are too long to explain here. In any event, as is my habit, when I had a little bit of spare time I went down to the local market in the capital, Port Vila, to see what fruits, veggies, and other local delicacies they might be selling.

market port vila

Much of what I saw was familiar, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen taro before (those neat little bunches behind the potatoes)


and I’ve definitely never seen sea grapes, which is a kind of seaweed if I’ve understood correctly (no idea how you eat them).

sea grapes

Sweet potatoes fall into the category of the known. Nevertheless, I did pause in front of them and go dreamy.

sweet potato market port vila

It wasn’t so much for the sweet potatoes – I’m not a great fan of this tuber, to be honest – but rather for its story here in the Pacific. Let me explain.

As previous posts attest, I have a great interest in the movement of foodstuffs around the world, so whenever I go to markets I always mentally map how the fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat) must have originally ended up on the counters before me. True to form, I went through the same exercise in that market in Port Vila. Much of what I was seeing was brought into the Pacific Islands from the West, either brought along for the ride by the original inhabitants of the islands when they migrated out of South-East Asia, or through later regional trade between the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia, or even later through the colonial masters when they took over the islands. But the sweet potato was different. As I’m sure my readers know, the sweet potato originally comes from northern South America and possibly Central America. So how did it make it to the Pacific Islands? Well, it could definitely have come with the Spaniards after they conquered Latin America and set up a long distance trading system between Mexico and the Philippines – and in fact, at least one type of sweet potato was introduced to the Pacific Islands this way. It could also have come from the other direction, via Europe – and this is indeed the way that the Portuguese introduced the sweet potato to this part of the world, mostly to the islands of South-East Asia rather than the Pacific itself, as they sniffed around the area for spices. But there was another route of introduction of the sweet potato to the Pacific Islands, one which is much more fascinating, and this was by the Pacific Islanders themselves, who sailed all the way to South America and brought the sweet potato back with them (and may have left the chicken, although this is much debated). Since I’ve been talking about maps, here’s one which summarizes nicely the spread of the sweet potato in the Pacific:

map of sweet potato spread

The blue line is the Spanish introduction, the yellow line is the Portuguese introduction, and the red line is the introduction by the Polynesians. The evidence for a Polynesian introduction is archaeological (remains of sweet potato in Polynesian tombs datable to a time long before the colonial period), linguistic (as the map shows, there is a definite similarity between the Polynesian/Melanesian name of the sweet potato and its original South American name), and more recently DNA-related, through comparison of gene sequence mappings of the DNA of South American varieties with old specimens kept in European herbariums collected during the first trips of exploration by James Cook, Louis de Bougainville, and others.

The map also shows the most probable route taken by the Polynesians to reach South America, via Easter Island. But now, let me tell you, East Island is far away from South America. It’s about 3,500 km far away. And on the other side it’s far away from other Pacific Islands. It’s about 3,600 km far away from the islands of French Polynesia, which are the closest biggish islands. Yet, the Polynesians sailed these vast distances – and not on some big comfy ship running on oil and crammed full with the latest navigation equipment but on a boat like this, powered by sail, and where they could only rely on their reading of stars, cloud formations, sea swells, and bird flight patterns to navigate.

polynesian ship

This picture clearly romanticizes the vessel. It must have been a cramped, dangerous voyage. Many times, the ships must have got lost at sea – James Cook writes of coming across a boatful of Polynesians in the middle of nowhere, who had been driven off course by a storm and were asking where they were.

This is a modern version of one of these ships, built in the 1970s,

modern polynesian ship

which clearly shows the unique aspect of their design, the use of two hulls. In fact, this design inspired modern ocean-going catamarans and eventually the truly amazing catamarans that now race in the America’s Cup.


These beauties can go up to 80 km/hr, but a more typical speed on a modern ocean going catamaran would be 15 km/hr. Doing a little maths here, it would therefore take a modern catamaran about 10 days to sail from Easter Island to South America. So if luck was with them, if the winds stayed steady and did not get too boisterous, if there were no nasty storms to drive them off course, the Polynesians probably would have had to last 10 days-two weeks out in the Pacific before hitting South America, which seems doable. Getting back, though, must have been considerably harder. I mean, on the way there, the Polynesians just had to hit South America, which is kinda big. On the way back, though, they would have had to hit these tiny specks in the ocean, specks which on top of it were much further away – taking the trade winds out of South America would have meant their having to aim for the French Polynesian islands for their first landfall, and these are 8,000 km away, or something like three weeks’ sailing if all went well.

But some Polynesians made it to South America and a few others made it back, with the sweet potato in tow. Because of these very skillful and very courageous sailors, I was looking at sweet potatoes in the market at Port Vila. No wonder I paused and smiled when I saw these not very tasty tubers.


Port Vila market: https://scottmathiasraw.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img_4446.jpg (in https://scottmathiasraw.com/vanuatu-welcomes-australian-raw-food-chef/)
Taro, Port Vila market: http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/wp-content/uploads/s_Market-food.jpg (in http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/five-months-post-cyclone-pam-vanuatu-recovering-thank-you-for-your-prayers-and-partnership/)
Sea grapes: http://photos1.blogger.com/img/164/977/1024/IMG_0110.jpg (in http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2005/09/nama.html)
Sweet potato, Port Vila market: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/DFEN99/purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-DFEN99.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-61174997.html)
Map of spread of sweet potato in Pacific: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.large.jpg (in http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.expansion.html)
Polynesian ship: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/kane_waa_small10-640×422.jpeg (in http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/01/polynesians-reached-south-america-picked-up-sweet-potatoes-went-home/)
Modern Polynesian ship: http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/images/canoes/hokulea_circa_1975.jpg (in http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index/founder_and_teachers/nainoa_thompson.html)
America Cup boat: http://www.examiner.com/article/america-s-cup-event-authority-launches-new-sailing-simulation-app


Vanuatu, 11 November 2015

At this time when we are commemorating the end of the First World War (“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”), I thought I could do my modest part to remember those who fell in that War, by recounting my English grandfather’s role in the conflict. It was not, I hasten to add, a heroic role. In fact, when all is said and done, it was very much less than stellar. But he tried to do his part to the best of his abilities and he regretted for the rest of his life that he was not able to have done more.

Until recently, I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s war record. My grandmother had a standard story which she trotted out to all her grandchildren, to the effect that he was a Captain in the Army, that he had gone to France in 1916 a few months after marrying her, that he had gotten food poisoning almost immediately, that he had been shipped home, and that a few months later he was invalided out of the Army. My father never talked about his father’s war record. The only thing I ever remember him saying was that my grandfather always got depressed at after-dinner sit-arounds in the living room when his peers began to tell stories of their days in the trenches, because he had not been there. That was the sum total of what I knew.

All of that changed a few months ago when, cruising the Internet, I stumbled across a cite to my grandfather’s War Office file, now in the UK’s National Archives. Much intrigued, I asked for, and received, a copy. The story it told, through the dry, matter-of-fact medical board reports, letters, and other bits and pieces which it contained, confirmed my grandmother’s tale. My grandfather went before three medical boards between July and November 1916, he couldn’t shake off the symptoms of whatever nasty bug it was that he had caught in France, and the Army eventually decided to let him go. But the papers in the file also told me some other things. They told me what battalion and regiment he had belonged to: the 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, the St. Helens Battalion, so called because it had been raised in the autumn of 1914 in St. Helens, Lancashire, a gritty coal and heavy industry town not too far from Liverpool. They also told me when he had joined up. One of the pieces of paper in the file was his sign-up sheet, which showed that he had joined up in late October 1914, I suppose as part of that mad rush of volunteers which the first months of the War witnessed. Why he joined up in St. Helens is a bit of a mystery to me. He wasn’t from that part of England, and he was working in Wolverhampton, in the Midlands, when the War broke out. Perhaps it was easier to join up in St Helens than elsewhere; there are tales of huge queues at sign-up stations as literally millions of men tried to all join up at the same time.

In any event, by early October 1914, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion, part of Kitchener’s New Army. Of course, the Battalion wasn’t sent immediately to the Front. Since the UK didn’t have military service, unlike just about every other country in the War, very few men had any military training. So the new recruits of the 11th Battalion were subjected to a year of training, after which, in November 1915, they shipped out to the Western Front.

They went without my grandfather. At some point in the intervening year, he had become a Captain, and at the end of September 1915 he was made Commanding Officer of a new Battalion that was created, the 13th (Reserve) Battalion (I discovered this because of a little research done for me by the Lancashire Regiment Museum). Like all Reserve Battalions, it remained based in the UK and had the thankless but very important task of training up new volunteers (or conscripts by the middle of 1916) and of retraining men, who because of wounds or disease, had been taken out of the line for recuperation. My grandfather wasn’t in the new position for very long. By November, the Army had dragged some retired senior offices out of their retirement and they began running the 13th Battalion.

I lose track of my grandfather’s movements at this point. My guess is that he made his way back into the ranks of the 11th Battalion and was on his way to joining them when he fell sick in Rouen, before getting anywhere near the trenches, in the middle of July 1916. And that was the end of his military career. He might have regretted this twist of fate all his life, but I have to say it was lucky for me and my siblings, as well as for my numerous cousins. If my grandfather had made it to the Front, I don’t suppose he would have sired the children he eventually did sire – assuming he would have survived the holocaust of the Western Front in the first place.

If my grandfather had made it to the 11th Battalion in that July of 1916, he would have found himself caught up in the Battle of the Somme, which had already started on 1 July and finally petered out in November. As usual, the casualties were enormous (on the first day of the battle alone the British Army suffered its worst-ever casualties in one day of fighting: 570,000), although after intensive involvement in the first few days of July the Battalion played quite a modest role in the whole wretched affair. I should explain that it was not an infantry Battalion but a pioneer Battalion, which means that it spent most of its time on the Western Front digging trenches, maintaining roads, putting up Nissen huts, that sort of thing. Not a very glamorous job, but a necessary one. Thinking about it, it can’t have been coincidence that a Battalion raised in St. Helens was a pioneer Battalion. Most of the rank-and-file must have been miners since they made up the bulk of the local population, and who better than miners to dig trenches and fill shell craters in roads?

I found out what the Battalion did exactly when I came across the Battalion’s War Diary on the Internet. It gives you a fascinating picture of its day-to-day life at the Front, Company A off to dig this communications trench, Company B to fix that forward road, Company C to help the Royal Engineers do something else. All very humdrum, yet all the while a steady bleeding off of its troops was occurring, one man here, another there, a third the next day, no doubt as individual soldiers got hit by bullets, shrapnel, or other pieces of metal flying around the battlefield. From time to time, the numbers of men “killed in action” or “died of wounds” would spike, as it did in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme, as it did again in the third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and as it did for a final time during the last German offensive in the Spring of 1918, when the Battalion just happened to find itself in the way of the German attempt to punch a hole in the Allied line (it was during these desperate days of trying to hold the line that the Battalion earned its one and only Victoria Cross).

Armies, at least in those days, were made up of lots of rank-and-file commanded by a handful of Officers. So the great majority of the Battalion’s dead were “Other Ranks”, mostly privates, a sprinkling of corporals and lance-corporals, some sergeants, all poor lads who were doing their best under very difficult circumstances and who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t them who had precipitated this stupid, pointless War, but it was them who bore the brunt of the suffering. So it is them that I remember most particularly today, and not so much the Officer class to which my grandfather belonged.