Friday, 13 November 2015

Tatarstan - The Other Russia

Flag of Tatarstan
It took a while after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 80's for 'the Stans' to secure a solid place in the mental geography of people outside the Soviet world and, when I moved to Uzbekistan in 2001, most people had never heard of it. 

All that changed after September 11 and now people will have a vague awareness of the existence of countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, countries that were, for so long, hidden behind the name 'Soviet Union'. 

Nowadays, the Russian Federation still hides a lot of smaller 'countries' within its borders and the Republic of Tatarstan is one of the most prominent entities of this Federation - nominally independent, it's still very much part of Russia, although many non-Russians won't even know that it exists. 

Ever since I lived in Russia, I've been quite fascinated by its 'Federal subjects' and Tatarstan is just one of the Russian Federation's 22 republics! It's very much 'the other Russia' - Muslim, historically a rival power to Moscow and, in recent years, one of the wealthier parts of the country. 

Kazan Kremlin by Mikhail Koninin
Although other republics like Chechnya and Ingushetia have captured the news headlines in recent years, I think if Tatarstan really became independent from Russia, it would be the beginning of the end for the Russian Federation. Having said that, Tatarstan's population is tiny compared to the rest of Russia (less than 4 million) and Moscow is careful to keep the power of the Federation flowing centrally, so regional capitals, like Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, remain relatively unimportant backwaters. 

I also come from a European republic (Ireland) that is part of a federation (the European Union), but it would be a mistake to think of republics in the Russian federation in the same way and being nominally independent doesn't give Tatarstan a place at the world table of nations, nor does it mean that Tatarstan is seen as a nation globally. In terms of Tatarstan's place in the world, it's very much part of a strong and unified Russian state. 

Perhaps this explains why I'm already struggling to get a sense of the culture of Tatarstan and whether it's through books, movies or music, it seems as though all roads lead back to Moscow. As with many of the nations within Russia, Tatarstan has an officially sanctioned culture, but it's not at all globalised and I would need to be a Turkic language specialist to engage with the cultural outputs that are sanctioned by the Russian state. 

Kazan shop front by Nat Urazmetova
I'm not saying that Russia wilfully blocks access to the cultural achievements of Tatarstan, rather that anyone producing music, literature or movies in Tatarstan will need to go through Russian culture first, before it can reach a global audience. I think this is the sacrifice of belonging to a Federation and it seems as though Tatarstan doesn't have its own 'cultural conversation' with our globalised world. 

I'm deliberately talking about the 'culture of Tatarstan' here, rather than Tatar culture. Tatar culture is a more complicated thing, as there are Tatars all over Russia and Central Asia, including the well-known Tatar minority in Crimea. In my blog posts, I want to concentrate on issues, culture and people who are somehow connected to Tatarstan, whether or not they are also connected to Tatar culture. 

Interestingly, most artists, musicians etc that I have been able to find are only half-Tatar and I think that says a lot about a modern Tatarstan that has found its place in the world as a partner in the shadow of Russian culture. That's why I've called Tatarstan 'the other Russia' and I'm intrigued by the influence of Tatar culture on mainstream Russian culture - I believe that, whether people recognise it or not, cultural imperialism can flow both ways.  Perhaps Tatarstan represents another side of Russian culture, which is Asian, Islamic and multicultural, whereas many people see Russia as European, Christian and monocultural. 

I've started my research by reading Daniel Kalder's book The Lost Cosmonaut (2007), an anti-tourist's account of his travels to Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari-El and Udmurtia. I think Kalder does Tatarstan an injustice in his description - I travelled to Kazan in 2007 and it's a more interesting place than he makes it out to be. 

Something I learned from Kalder's book though was that Kazan became very famous in the 1970's because of its gangs! Gangs were something that were pretty much unheard of during Soviet times and they were a social problem usually associated with the cities of the capitalist West, so Kazan's gangs brought turmoil to the otherwise compliant Soviet nation.

Kazan market by Nat Urazmetova
Interestingly, these gangs became the building blocks of the corrupt form of capitalism that Russia has inherited from the Soviet Union and it was my first real piece of evidence regarding Tatarstan's influence on Russia as a whole. 

Tatarstan is situated at the heart of the Volga region and is, therefore, quite a suitable second choice in terms of my Learning about Russia. I first blogged about Russia (Urals Federal District) in 2010/11 and you can see an overview of the topics I covered on my final blog post about the Urals. I also quite sneakily referenced Kazan a couple of months ago, when I was blogging about the Solomon Islands, as Kazan was the host city for this year's FINA World Championships.

I look forward to learning more about Tatarstan and Russia over the coming weeks and I hope you'll join me on my virtual learning journey.

Image credits:

The image of Kazan kremlin is by Flickr member, Mikhail Koninin.  Mikhail is from Novosibirsk and you can see more of his images on his photostream.

The images of the Kazan shop front and Kazan market are by Flickr member Nat Urazmetova, who is originally from Ufa in Bashkortostan, but now lives in London.

Thanks to Nat and Mikhail for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Solomon Islands - The Final Word

I've really enjoyed learning about the Solomon Islands over the past few months.  We haven't had the greatest summer in England this year, so it's been nice to transport myself on a virtual journey to the soft seas of the Pacific ocean!

I was starting from scratch with the Solomon Islands, to be honest, so I've learned a lot about this island nation and it intrigues me - I hope that, one day, I'll be able to visit for myself and understand the real context of everything I've been blogging about.

Summary of the themes

To summarise my virtual learning journey to the Solomon Islands, I started with a bit of history and the first European contact with the islands, during the period of Spanish exploration in the 16th century.  I also learned about the shameful 19th century tradition of blackbirding (kidnapping of Pacific islanders to work on plantations in Queensland) and the fascinating story of Jack Renton.

August saw the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Tatarstan and I took this opportunity to learn about different swimming styles and the contribution made by the Solomon Islands to the Solomons/Australian crawl!

Solomon Islands Fish and chips
In any virtual journey to the Solomon Islands you'll be sure to learn about the Pacific battles in World War Two.  The seas around the Solomon Islands are full of wrecked battle ships and submerged aircraft, as Guadalcanal became a major theatre of war between the Japanese and Allied forces.  As part of my research, I watched Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line - a beautifully shot movie, which captures the surreal timelessness and brutality of war.

I couldn't really find a national dish from the Solomon Islands that wasn't essentially palu sami (which I've made several times before), so I created my own dish, Pacific-style fish and chips, using ingredients that would be more common in the Solomon Islands.

As usual, I did all of this with a fabulous soundtrack and I managed to find lots of great music from the Solomon Islands, including the lullaby Rorogwela which was sampled by Deep Forest in the early 1990's.


I read four books as part of my research into the Solomon islands - here's the list:

Devil-Devil by GW Kent
Lonely Planet: Solomon Islands (1997) - ed. Mark Honan and David Harcombe - although this edition is almost twenty years old, I still found it very informative and, interestingly, it's hard to find a more modern guidebook on the Solomon Islands.  I guess the rule of 'profit margins' has taken over and publishers are less keen to take on more exotic projects these days - in any case, I love reading guidebooks from the mid-90's as it coincides with the period when I started travelling and, therefore, leads me virtually down alternative paths that my life might have taken!

Solomon Time (2002) by Will Randall is one of the few travelogues based in the Solomon Islands. The story of an English school teacher who gives up his life in the UK, to set up a chicken farm in Rendova, it was an amusing read, but I can't say I learnt a lot from this book.

Devil-Devil (2011) by G.W. Kent - unfortunately, I didn't find time to blog about this wonderful book by GW Kent.  It's a detective novel set in Malaita and Honiara and I really enjoyed reading it, although I don't usually read that genre.  I loved the characters and I learnt a lot about Solomon culture as well - I'd highly recommend this series of novels!

The White Headhunter (2003) by Nigel Randell - a really informative and 'heavy' read, which I used for my blog post about blackbirding and Jack Renton.


I watched three movies in total, that were somehow connected to the Solomon Islands:

The Thin Red Line (1998) dir. Terrance Malick - see the link to my blog post on this above.

Operation Pacific (1951) dir. George Waggner and starring John Wayne and Patricia Neal - this was a more traditional war movie and, as it turns out, was set more around the Philippines than the Solomon Islands.  It was interesting to compare the approach to war movies in the 1950's, when everything was so romanticised and the late 90's, when the real horror of war was more in focus.  It's not a bad movie, as they go and very typical of that era.

Tanna (2015) dir. Bentley Dean and Martin Butler - the London Film festival is on at the moment and I've always intended to go to a showing, but somehow managed to miss this in previous years. Unfortunately, they didn't have any movies from the Solomon Islands on the programme this year, but they did have this wonderful movie from neighbouring Vanuatu, so I decided to watch it as part of my research into the Pacific region.  It's set on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu and a representative of the community in which the movie is shot came all the way to London to talk to us about his culture and traditions.  It was a truly memorable experience and it's a really beautiful movie.

I'm going to try to make a visit to the London Film festival an annual outing that coincides with whichever place I'm blogging about in future (or as close as I can get, culturally).

Other themes

As usual there were many other themes that I didn't have time to blog about, but if you're interested in continuing a learning journey about the Solomon Islands, I would suggest the following additional themes:

IATA codes
Missionaries in the Pacific
The Malaita Massacre
The shark callers of the Pacific
The Lau people
DBS - Distressed British Subjects
The Chinese in the Pacific
Te lapa - navigating with underwater lightening strikes
Quonset huts
The Marching Rule movement
The Kakamoras or pygmy people
Nguzunguzu - traditional carvings on war canoes
Pijin English
Richard Francis Burton - the British adventurer and orientalist
Evil spirits like the basana
JF Kennedy's time in the Solomon Islands
Cargo cults

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Solomon Islands - Playlist

I always enjoy discovering new music, when I'm researching for this blog.  I found quite a lot of music from the Solomon Islands, compared to other art forms like literature or movies, so I've made up a playlist of some of my favourites.

Sweet Lullaby - Deep Forest

Probably the most famous of all songs to come out of the Solomon Islands is the lullaby Rorogwela from the Baegu people in Malaita, which was sampled by Deep Forest on their 1992 album, Sweet Lullaby.  

The original vocal was recorded by a Swiss-French ethnomusicologist called Hugo Zemp when he travelled to the Solomon Islands in 1970 and the singer is a woman called Afunakwa.

I was a big fan of Deep Forest when I was a student in the 1990's and I've always loved this song, although I had no idea of its connection with Malaita and the Solomon Islands.

I'm also posting a YouTube video which has the original recording from a UNESCO Musical Sources collection from 1973.

Mato by Narasirato

Solomon Islands is probably most famous for its traditional panpipe music and Narasirato, who come from the island of Malaita, are one of the Solomon's most famous panpipe groups.  They played at festivals such as Glastonbury and Roskilde, so they're well known on the World Music stage.  I particularly liked a song called Mato from their 2012 album Warato'o, but all of their stuff is great!

I found this video on YouTube which will give you a flavour of their music.

Soso Kakoi by Wasi Ka Nanara

Also quite well-known internationally is a panpipe group called Wasi Ka Nanara and I really liked the song Soso Kakoi from their album Sounds of Paradise - Native Pan Flutes of the Solomon Islands.  There's nothing like a soft panpipe breeze from the Pacific Ocean when you're making your way to the train station on a rainy London morning!

I'm sharing a video from YouTube, which was made on a tour the band did in New Caledonia in 1998.

Funeral Song

One of the most beautiful pieces of music I came across was, quite sadly, a funeral song, which appears on the 2011 album Spirit of Melanesia.  The album features a collection of songs from Melanesia collected by the British ethnomusicologist, David Fanshawe, who had died the previous year.  Fanshawe spent around 10 years travelling to the Pacific to record the music of remote islands in Melanesia, but also Polynesia and Micronesia.

If you wish to hear the song, you can get an excerpt on its page at Amazon.

Ta'Umai by Sharzy

When I was in Barbados earlier this year, I heard a lot of reggae music, as we were spinning around the island on the local shared taxis.  There's something about reggae that seems to lend itself to tropical locations and I remember when I was blogging about Fiji back in November 2012, I was surprised to find that a lot of the most popular music there these days, is essentially a Pacific version of that very Caribbean sound!

Reggae seems to be very popular in the Solomon Islands as well and I really liked the song Ta'Umai by Sharzy, a well-known artist from Simbo in the Western Province.  This song comes from his 2010 album, Iu Mi Flow and is an interesting mixture of English, Tok Pisin and Simbo! Another great song for a rainy London commute!

Murderer by Jahboy

Another popular artist of recent years is Jahboy, a.k.a. Kirwan Hatigeva, who combines reggae with a bit of hip-hop.  He's of mixed Melanesian and Polynesian heritage and I really liked the song Murderer from his 2012 album LuvNLife.  

Beautiful girl by DMP

I know it's a bit cheesy, but I developed a soft spot for the song Beautiful Girl by DMP.  I find it really interesting in cultures that are incredibly masculine, how romantic the lyrics of male singers are sometimes and I can't imagine a woman singing a song about a man which has such a note of sad desperation!

Anyway, it's kind of catchy and I'm posting a YouTube-generated video below, so you can hear for yourself.

The Lagoon - conducted by Gavin Greenaway and composed by Hans Zimmer

I wrote about the movie The Thin Red Line in a previous blog post and, whilst I was doing my research, I also listened to the soundtrack for The Thin Red Line written by Hans Zimmer, the German composer who also did The Lion King and Gladiator.

My favourite track was The Lagoon as there is something quite haunting about this piece and it captures the slow-motion horror of the war in Guadalcanal, as well as integrating some native themes from the Solomon Islands. Although it's not traditional music from the Solomon Islands, I still felt it should be represented, as the Solomons and the war in Guadalcanal were the inspiration for the movie and its soundtrack.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Solomon Islands - How I made Pacific-style Fish and Chips

When it comes to food from the Pacific islands, it seems as though all roads lead back to palu sami. As I've made palu sami twice before (once when I was blogging about Kiribati in 2009 and again when I was blogging about Fiji in 2012), I was determined to cook something else this time!  

Unfortunately, my internet searches for the Solomon Islands' national dish came to a dead end - one website even suggested the Middle Eastern Kibbeh as the national dish of the Solomon Islands, but that just didn't seem right to me!

So I improvised!  Interestingly, whilst reading my blog post about cooking palu sami as part of my research on Fiji - I'd noted how far along my cooking had come since 2009 - that I was now able to improvise and didn't feel the need to stick to the exact recipe.  Well, I guess this current recipe is a step further for me, as I'm not only improvising, but adapting one nation's dish and giving it a make-over with another nation's staple foods.

I chose Fish and chips for several reasons - mainly because all my reading suggested that, despite their love of tinned meats like corned beef and spam, people do still eat a lot of fish in the Pacific islands.  I also found out that people in Melanesia love sweet potato, so that gave me the idea of making sweet potato chips or wedges.  

Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to pay homage to the fact that the Solomon Islands were once a British territory, so my Pacific-style fish and chips is an attempt to capture the history, as well as the cuisine of this island nation.

The Sweet Potato mystery

My photo of sweet potato
When I was researching for my blog posts on Oaxaca, Mexico - I first came across the concept of the Columbian Exchange - how European contact with Central America saw the introduction of tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, chocolate and many other crops to the diets of people outside the Americas.  

Unfortunately, the other half of the exchange meant death, disease and decimation of the native American populations!  

The interesting thing about the sweet potato is that it appeared in the Pacific islands before the Columbian exchange. No-one quite knows how the sweet potato ended up in places like Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Philippines and Japan, but somehow it happened and sweet potato has been a part of the Pacific diet for more than 1,000 years!

The Ingredients

4 fish fillets
3 limes
1 bunch of spinach
4 sweet potatoes (cut into chips)
1 tomato
1 onion
1/2 tin of coconut milk

How I made the sweet potato chips

The first thing I did was to prepare the sweet potato - peeling off the reddish-coloured skin and chopping the flesh into chips or wedges.

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into wedges
I then parboiled the chips, before roasting them in the oven.  I did  think about deep-fat frying the chips but, in my (admittedly limited!) experience of Pacific-island cuisine, they seem to bake things more than fry them, so I thought baked sweet potato wedges would be the best option. 

Parboil the sweet potato chips . .

. . then bake them in the oven
How I prepared the fish and sauce mixture

I used fish fillets that had been frozen - defrosted them and marinated them for a couple of hours in lime juice, sprinkled with some rind.

Marinate the fish fillets in lime juice
I decided to also bake the fish, so put the fillets into an oven dish, in the marinade liquid, covered it with tinfoil and baked it for about twenty-five minutes, at the same time as the sweet potato was baking.  

Bake the fish for about twenty-five minutes
To prepare the ingredients for the sauce, I washed the spinach and chopped the tomato and onion.

Wash the spinach

Chop the tomato and onion
I fried the tomato and onion on a fairly high temperature, so they would make a kind of paste.

Fry the tomato and onion in a saucepan
I then added the spinach and coconut milk, bringing the mixture to the boil, before simmering for around twenty minutes.  

Add the spinach and coconut milk

The end result was really rather tasty!

Pacific-style Fish and Chips
Image credits:

All photos were taken by me on my trusty iPhone - please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons license: Attribution, Share Alike, Non-commercial

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Happy blogiversary! Six years of Learning about the World!

Today marks the six-year anniversary of Learning about the World.

I must admit that it feels like I've slowed down a lot in recent months.  I moved to a new department at work in March of this year and a new role which has been quite demanding of my energy and creativity!  Rather than giving up on my blogging, I've decided to continue at a slower pace.

It's been hard work at times during the last six months and I've also felt a bit restricted by having my reading, listening, culture explorations limited to the place I'm currently blogging about - so I've branched out a bit recently and expanded the scope of my learning beyond this blog, which has also slowed me down (but hopefully not too much!)

To date, I've blogged about 39 countries/places around the world, including four new places since my last blogiversary: Palestine, Quebec, Reunion and (not yet finished) Solomon Islands.    Highlights of the past year have included listening to Palestinian music, discovering the movies of Xavier Dolan, reading in French and learning about the beachcombers of the South Pacific.

Some stats

Worldwide visits to Learning about the World
My blog has had 64,284 page views, almost a 40% increase since this time last year.  April this year saw the most page views ever in a single month at 2,582 so it seems that Learning about the World is more popular than ever!

It's interesting to compare the top twenty countries to my blog this year with last year - in general it seems as though the blog has been steadily growing in popularity in places like Australia, Canada, Germany and France.  Other countries seem to be losing interest (Saudi Arabia, Barbados, India), perhaps because my blog posts about those countries are 'older' now?

There are some new entries to the top 20 list; Kenya, Russia and China, whilst a few other countries have dropped out of the top 20 list (Belgium, Brazil and UAE).

The USA and UK continue to provide the majority of hits on my blog, with people in the US making up almost 35% of my readership in the past year.

The top twenty

1. United States (-)
2. United Kingdom (-)
3. Australia (+1)
4. Canada (+1)
5. India (-2)
6. Germany (+1)
7. France (+3)
8. Kenya (new!)
9. Netherlands (+6)
10. Italy (-4)
11. Cambodia (+1)
12. Russia (new!)
13. China (new!)
14. New Zealand (+2)
15. Malaysia (+4)
16. Spain (+2)
17. Japan (new!)
18. Saudi Arabia (-7)
19. Barbados (-5)
20. Ireland (-14)

The blog has had visitors from 166 countries in total (9 new countries since last year) and the newest country to appear on my readership list was Cameroon in July 2015.

Popular posts

You can see a list of the ten most popular posts of all time below:

And it's interesting to compare this with the ten most popular posts when I blogged about this last year:

Sum total of my learning

Since last September, in my pursuit of learning I have:

Read 21 books
Watched 18 movies
Learned how to cook 4 new dishes
Listened to countless hours of Palestinian rap, Leonard Cohen, maloya and Pacific reggae!

I'm looking forward to another year of learning, reading, cooking, movie-watching and blogging - don't forget to join me!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Solomon Islands - On the Silver Screen

As part of my research for this blog, I've been reading Lonely Planet's Solomon Islands 3rd edition, which dates back to 1997. Although that's almost 20 years ago, I like to read the LP editions from the late-90's, as this coincides with my early 20's and the time when I started travelling in earnest, so I feel like I'm following paths I never took - not merely armchair travelling, but time-travelling as well!

Something that's really struck me whilst reading through this older version of Lonely Planet Solomon Islands, is the fact that most of the main 'sights' that you are recommended to visit, are ship wrecks, war graves and pieces of aircraft downed during the intense battles that raged in this part of the Pacific during World War Two.

Pacific Theatre in World War 2
On Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, Japanese Imperial forces bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, effectively declaring war on the United States and setting off a chain of events that saw Japan occupy former British colonies such as Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma, as well as islands in the Pacific such as the Philippines, Solomons and Papua New Guinea.

This Japanese expansion opened up a 'theatre' of war in the Pacific, right on the doorstep of Australia, so the Allied Australian, British and US forces were quick to respond.  Guadalcanal suddenly found itself in the spotlight, as Allied forces deployed a land invasion, capturing the main air base at Honiara and holding the island during a six-month campaign in 1942/43, which eventually saw the Japanese withdraw their forces.

The only movie I could find that was partly shot on the Solomon Islands was Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998).  Amazingly, I'd never actually seen this movie before and it wasn't like other war movies that I've watched - actually, I found it incredibly slow-moving, languorous and reflective, a welcome change from the usual action-packed movies full of explosions and violence.

Marines rest in the field in Guadalcanal
Malick has a way of expressing the horror of war, without showing the horror and I loved the fact that nature was everywhere in his movie - a painful human death would cut to the shot of a baby bird being born, or a lizard crawling on a tree.  It's like war itself is a repulsive imposition on the natural world.

For practical reasons, most of the movie was shot in Queensland, Australia, however, they did also spend twenty-four days shooting on Guadalcanal and it was really the first time I got to see the Solomon Islands on the silver screen.  The portrayal of the Solomon Islanders is fleeting and has a dreamy quality to it, the native people almost blend into the background, as nature does, removed from the war and its violent intentions.

It must have been bewildering for the Solomon Islanders to suddenly find themselves at the heart of the most globalised war in human history, when the islands had always languished in the shadows of the global stage, far removed from the forces that shaped the 20th century.  I'm sure the US soldiers' experience of Solomon Island culture was just as fleeting as in the movie and most of them would never have heard of Guadalcanal, had it not been for the Japanese invasion of the western Pacific.

Malick's movie also introduced me to the concept of ensemble epic - i.e. a large-scale movie with a massive cast of characters, each one of them claiming a similar importance of role, rather than having one or two defined 'heroes'.  Malick managed to secure a lot of really well-known actors for his movie - Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody to name but a few.  In fact he had so many actors and so many hours of footage that some performances like those of Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke and Vigo Mortensen didn't make the final cut!

The Thin Red Line is well worth seeing and different that your usual war movie - a good Sunday-afternoon watch!

Image credits:

Both images used in this blog post are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.  You can click on the images to see their source page.  

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Solomon Islands - Blackbirders, beachcombers and the story of Jack Renton

I'd highly recommend Nigel Randell's book The White Headhunter: The story of a 19th century sailor who survived a South Seas' heart of darkness (2003). It's incredibly well-researched, informative and I found it very easy to read. 

The sailor in question was Jack Renton, a young man from the Orkney Islands who was press-ganged into working on a ship bound for the Pacific Ocean. Finding himself in hellish conditions extracting guano on a remote island in (what is now) Kiribati, he and several other men escaped and spent weeks drifting across the Pacific until they finally made landfall in Malaita, in the Solomon Islands. 

Randell's The White Headhunter (2003)
Jack Renton was the only survivor of the journey and went to live with a tribe in Sulufou, one of the artificial islands on Malaita's east coast. He remained on Malaita for eight years, during the 1870's, before being 'rescued' by fellow Europeans and brought to Australia, where his sensational story was published in the Brisbane Courier

Perhaps the most sensational parts of Renton's story (his involvement in war parties, headhunting and his marriage to a local Malaitan woman) were glossed over, being considered subjects that were too sensitive for his 19th century audience.

People were much more interested in hearing about how savage the tribes were in Malaita, which already had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in the world.  

Randell's theory is that it wasn't a black and white case of 'civilised white man forced to live with savages' but, rather, that Renton experienced a lot of kindness from the native people of Sulufou; he learnt their language and came to understand a culture steeped in centuries of tradition.

In fact, after a visit home to his native Orkney Islands, Renton missed the Pacific so much that he returned to Australia to take up a post inspecting ships that were sourcing Pacific labourers for work in Queensland's sugar cane plantations. 

The press-ganging of native Pacific Islanders to work in Queensland, known as blackbirding, was quite common in the mid-19th century. Ruthless blackbirders took advantage of the Pacific Islanders' desire to trade and they tricked men and women to come on-board their ships, so they could remove them from their native islands and transport them to a life of hard labour in Queensland. 

Pacific Islanders being freed from a blackbirding ship
State Library of Victoria, file on Wikipedia
Blackbirding caused a lot of problems, culturally, to the extent that white Europeans were no longer welcomed, as the Pacific Islanders feared kidnapping and death as a result of contact with the white Europeans on the blackbirding ships. 

Some blackbirders even masqueraded as Missionaries, because they knew that Missionaries had a relatively good reputation in places like the New Hebrides (modern-day Vanuatu), until it got to the point that the Pacific Islanders felt they could trust no-one and there were several cases where bona fide Missionaries were murdered, because the Islanders thought they were blackbirders. 

By the time Renton was rescued from Malaita, the recruitment of labour from the Pacific Islands had settled down somewhat into, more-or-less, acceptable three-year contracts. Once the Islanders understood that they would be able to earn some money and return home after their contracts expired, there was a lot more interest in travelling to Queensland for work.

What I loved about the way Randell did his research was that he used parallel narratives, i.e. both European sources, such as the many 19th century Beachcomber memoirs and the oral traditions of the Islanders themselves. It's interesting to note how the Islanders' oral accounts of Renton's time on Malaita, differ somewhat from the more official European version of his time on that island. 

Footprint in the sand, from my own photos
I'm also fascinated by the role that Beachcombers played in the politics of the 19th century Pacific region. According to Randell there were an estimated 1,500 Beachcombers of European origin living on various Pacific Islands in the 1830's. Most beachcombers lived on the friendlier Polynesian Islands rather than places like the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu. 

Some of them ended up in the Pacific as a result of shipwreck, others chose to live on Pacific Islands, in order to escape enforced labour or imprisonment in the new British penal colony of New South Wales. They played an interesting inter-cultural role, as contact between Europeans and the Pacific Islanders developed and I couldn't help but think again of the flip side of Solomon, i.e. the Queen of Sheba and the birth of international diplomacy. 

Randell also writes a lot about the establishment of Missionary stations in the Pacific and the power and influence that Missionaries eventually gained. Renton's friend, Kwaisulia, who eventually became the 'big man' in Sulufou, was dismissive of Christianity, but there was something inevitable about the advent of European traditions in the Pacific.

Nowadays 92% of people in the Solomon Islands profess Christianity as their religion, with only 5% of people following traditional animist beliefs (funnily enough, most of these are on Malaita!)

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Solomon Islands - Swimming in the Pacific

As part of my research into the Solomon Islands, I read Solomon Time (2002), Will Randall's account of the time he spent in New Georgia, where he attempted to run a sustainable chicken farm with a local community in Rendova. 

Although Randall's book wasn't packed with facts or interesting insights into the culture of New Georgia, it was an amusing read and a rare 'western' view of one of the world's most forgotten corners. 

Something I learned from his book, that I hadn't been aware of before, is the fact that the modern 'front crawl' in competitive swimming can trace its origins back to the style of swimming practised in the Roviana lagoon.

The Solomons Crawl

Freestyle by Michael Knight
Also known as the 'Australian crawl', this swimming technique was fully developed by the famous Cavill brothers, who had observed a young Solomon Islander who was living in Sydney, called Alick Wickham, using this swimming style. They refined the style and made it into a modern competitive sport. 

Interestingly, although versions of the front crawl have been around since ancient times, competitive swimmers in Britain, where the sport was first regulated in the 19th century, mostly used the breaststroke, which involves bobbing your head in and out of the water to get air. 

The first time people in Britain saw a competitive version of the front crawl was during a swimming race held in London in 1844, where native Canadian swimmers, from the Anishinaabe nation of Ontario, demonstrated this technique.

Styles of swimming

Butterfly by Michael Knight
There are three major swimming strokes that are recognised by FINA (La Fédération Internationale de Natation), the body that regulates competitive swimming for the Olympics, but these don't include the front crawl, which usually features during freestyle events. 

Competitive swimming events have taken place during the Summer Olympic Games since the modern games were founded in 1896. The first four games had swimming in outdoor bodies of water.  Freestyle swimming featured in the first modern Olympic games (Athens 1896) and eventually the three FINA-regulated styles were introduced, as separate competitions for backstroke (Paris 1900), breaststroke (St Louis 1904) and butterfly (Melbourne 1956). 

The butterfly (or dolphin) stroke was also developed by an Australian, Sydney Cavill, who was from the same family as the brothers who developed the front crawl.

Olympic champions

Freestyle swimmer by Michael Knight
I was surprised to learn that a Hungarian, Alfréd Hajós, became the world's first (male) Olympic champion. Hungary still ranks fourth in the world, in terms of winning Olympic medals in swimming - curious for a country that is landlocked, although I suppose they do have a fantastic lake in the middle of the country!

I also learned that women weren't allowed to compete in the first modern Summer Olympic games in Athens in 1896.  Women first competed at the Summer Olympics in Paris in 1900, but didn't compete in swimming events until the Stockholm Olympics of 1912.  

Solomon Islands first participated in the Olympics as a new nation in Los Angeles in 1984. They haven't yet won any medals and they haven't competed in swimming events, concentrating more on Athletics and Weightlifting.

Swimming in the Pacific

 FINA World Championships in Kazan
The Oceania Swimming Association (OSA) is the governing body for swimming competitions in the Pacific region. I don't think Solomon Islands participates in OCA events, which seems a shame considering the legacy of the front crawl swimmers from Roviana lagoon. 

FINA also runs its own world championships and, by coincidence, the 16th FINA World Championship is concluding today in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. There are 190 nations taking part in the 16th FINA championship but, unfortunately, Solomon Islands isn't one of them. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand dominate Oceanic swimming events, however, Papua New Guinea has a strong swimmer, Ryan Pini, the first Papuan swimmer ever to reach an Olympic final. Fiji and Samoa have hosted international swimming events, but neither of these nations have ever won a medal at the Summer Olympics.

Bizarrely, Fiji also competes in the Winter Olympics and has sent skiing competitors to the Winter Olympics in Calgary (1988), Lillehammer (1994) and Salt Lake City (2002).

Image credits:

For this blog post, I've used images by US-based photographer and Flickr member, Michael Knight. Thanks Michael for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  You can see more of Michael's photos on his website.  

Friday, 31 July 2015

Solomon Islands - Welcome to the Happy Isles!

The first time I remember becoming aware of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, was when I was living in Thailand in 2004 and I used to watch the weather reports on Australian TV.  I'd never heard of this interesting-sounding place, although I probably had a vague awareness that the Solomon Islands existed.  Ever since then, I've had a mild fascination with this small nation, in the western Pacific Ocean and, it goes without saying that I'd love to visit sometime although, for now, a virtual journey to the Solomon Islands will have to do!

The quest for El Dorado

As I've started my research into the Solomon Islands, I'm already making connections to places I've blogged about previously, namely Oaxaca in Mexico, Yemen and Fiji.

When I was blogging about Oaxaca, I learned about the arrival of the Spanish in central America - the disastrous first contact with Mesoamerican people, such as the Aztecs and the bloodthirsty greed for gold that led the Spanish to Peru and the search for the Golden one or El Dorado.

Beach near Havalo by Jenny Scott
The story of European contact with the Solomon Islands very much starts in Peru.  Having failed to find the fabled El Dorado in the Amazon jungle, the Spanish listened to Inca legends about Tupuc Yapanqui and the discovery of a fabulously rich kingdom of Terra Australis in the Pacific ocean.  In 1567, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, the nephew of the governor of Peru, managed to convince his uncle to fund an expedition in the Pacific ocean, which ultimately brought him to what we now call the Solomon Islands.

The expedition was a disaster but, rather than admit this and in the hope of funding a second, more successful expedition, Mendaña returned to Peru with stories of a wealthy Pacific kingdom, which soon became known as the Solomon Islands, named after the wealthy Biblical King.  Mendaña eventually died in the Solomon Islands, on his equally disastrous second expedition, but the name has survived to the 21st century - a strange Middle Eastern reference, in a faraway place.

The Queen of Sheba and the man-eating myth

In 2011, I blogged about the Queen of Sheeba and her visit to King Solomon, a prototype of subsequent diplomatic missions.  Mendaña's tales from the Pacific also set in stone a pattern of cultural interaction, where Europeans began to believe that cannibalism was widespread amongst the people of the Pacific and this reminded me of the research I did when I was blogging about Fiji in 2012 and Obeyesekere's study of the man-eating myth.

The Lost islands and World War Two

House in Havalo village by Jenny Scott
After two unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to colonise the Solomon Islands, they pretty much remained lost in time, as contemporary maps of the Pacific were so inaccurate, that the Solomon Islands was believed to be much further to the east than they actually are.

Despite this loss of contact between Europeans and Solomon Islanders, the European memory of the islands remained and, even today, many of the main islands Santa Isabel, Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal still have the names that were originally given to them by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Guadalcanal is probably the most well-known of the islands and became a theatre of the Pacific war in the 1940's, when the US army fought the Japanese to gain control over this strategic island group, so close to Australia. The British first started getting interested in the Solomon Islands towards the end of the 18th century, but it wasn't really until the 1890's that they established a protectorate over the island group and the British Solomon Islands joined the world stage.

British interest in the Solomons was mostly linked to their fledgling colony in Australia, but also the fact that, in the late 19th century, the Germans were muscling in on (what is now) Papua New Guinea.  A strange anomaly in the Solomons' story is that Bougainville, one of the islands in the Solomon group, is now part of Papua New Guinea rather than the modern-day nation of Solomon Islands.

Man in canoe by Jenny Scott
Islands adrift in time

The Solomon Islands has a couple of nicknames; the Happy Isles and the islands adrift in time.  I'm looking forward to finding out more over the next couple of months, reading, listening, cooking and watching movies associated with the Solomon Islands.  I do hope you'll join me on my virtual journey to this remote corner of the Pacific!

Image credits:

For this first blog post, I wanted to highlight the photos of Flickr member Jenny Scott, a.k.a. Adelaide Archivist.  Jenny took these photos in Halavo village, which is on the Nggela Sule island in the Solomons' central province.  Thanks Jenny for sharing these images using the creative commons license.  

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Réunion - The Final Word

Proposed flag for Réunion
I've found Réunion a fascinating place to blog about - as I've been researching for this blog and learning more about the interesting mix of cultures that Réunion has inherited, I've been mentally planning a trip to the island, at some unspecified time in the future!

As it happens, I have visited a few of the places I've blogged about, having become really interested in these places as a result of my 'armchair learning' experience.  The places I've visited so far as a result of this blog are: Hong Kong, Iceland, Jersey, Quebec and Barbados and I'm hoping to visit Korea and Mongolia later this year!

Of course, there are quite a few places I've blogged about that I may never get the chance to visit (I'm thinking of places like Kiribati, Liberia and Yemen), but a visit to Réunion is a distinct possibility and, as with any of the places I've blogged about, I'd love to visit sooner, rather than later, before Réunion changes too much!

The Themes

During my time blogging about Réunion, I've learned about the history of the island and how Réunion is part of France, although it lies thousands of miles south of Paris, in the Indian Ocean. I've learned about the role that Réunion has played in the cultivation of vanilla, a notoriously expensive plant that originates in Mexico and is incredibly difficult to grow.  I also learned how to make Canard a la Vanille, a typical Réunionnais dish and this was my first time to physically handle vanilla and cook with it.


I read the following books, as part of my research:

Some of the books I read as part of my research on Réunion
Insight Guides: Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles (2009) - the second edition that Insight guides have published about the Mascarene islands - very informative, as Insight guides usually are.

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid (2004) by Tim Ecott - which has chapters on Réunion, but also covers Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.

La Grand-Mere Kalle (2006) by local writer Yves Manglou - which brings to life the mythology of Réunion.  You can read my blog post about this book for more information.

Island Born of Fire (2006) by R.B. Trombley - a scientific book about the geological make-up of the island - a little bit over my head and difficult to read, but interesting all the same.

The Age of Kali (1998) - a collection of travel essays by William Dalrymple - I'd never read Dalrymple before, but I definitely want to read more! His essays are mostly about India and Pakistan, but he does include a couple of interesting essays on Sri Lanka and an essay on Réunion called The Sorcerer's Grave.


I could only find one movie which was set on Réunion, Francois Truffaud's La sirène du Mississippi (1969), which I also blogged about.


I also had a wonderful time listening to the music of Réunion and I created a play list, which includes songs by artists such as Firmin Viry, Granmoun Lélé and Faham.

Other themes

As usual, I came across other themes that were interesting, but I didn't have time to research into further - if you want to continue your own learning about Réunion, I would suggest the following 'other' topics:

Edward's Dodo by Roelant Savery (1626)
The Euro and how Réunion was the first place to adopt this new currency
The pirate La Buse and his hidden treasure, which people believe is still buried somewhere on the island
Les enfants de la Creuse - Réunion's own stolen generation of children who were removed from their parents and brought up in France
The Dodo and how it became extinct
The French code noir which sought to prevent the intermarrying of races
Réunion during World War 2
The Kerveguen sugar empire

The Final Word on Métissage

One thing that came through strongly during my research on Réunion was the importance of métissage in the identity of this far-flung French outpost. Métissage is the French word for mixing and it's a good way of describing the development of culture on Réunion, which has mixed elements of Africa, Asia and Europe to produce a new culture, totally unique to the island.

Expeditus, photo by Jean Poussin
An interesting manifestation of métissage is the cult of St Expédit, the island's unofficial patron saint. According to William Dalrymple, in his book The Age of Kali, the cult of  St Expédit on Réunion started in 1931, when a mysterious package, supposedly containing relics of a Christian saint, arrived on the island from the Vatican and bore a stamp saying spedito, which is the Italian word for expedited or  'sent quickly'.

The cult of St Expédit took such a hold on the island that the Catholic Church was forced to create a 'back story' for the saint and aligned St Expédit with the Roman soldier, Expeditus who became an early Christian martyr in 4th century Armenia.  Whether it's true or not, Dalrymple's theory is an interesting one and I do love a good mystery!

In modern times, shrines to St Expédit on Réunion are usually painted blood red and people pray to the saint for all kinds of things - the cult of St Expédit lends itself to Réunion's métissage culture, mixing African ancestor worship, Hindu reincarnation's of Vishnu and Tamil interpretations of Christianity.  Statues of St Expédit are sometimes mysteriously beheaded and there is something distinctly un-Christian about the magical powers and ability to answer prayers, that St Expédit has been credited with.

The cult of Expeditus is also really popular in Chile, for some reason and I find the whole thing fascinating but also slightly bizarre!

Image credits:

Although I've been using a coat of arms to represent Réunion during my blog posts, I have since discovered a proposed flag for the island, so I wanted to represent this in my final blog post.

The image of Edward's Dodo, the 1626 painting by the Flemish painter, Roland Savery is in the public domain.

The photo of the Expeditus statue has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Jean Poussin and you can see more information on this image here.