Monday, April 9, 2012

Obsessed by the Quest

A bad drawing of ex-Queen Marau of Tahiti
makes the front page in Paris in 1884

I touched on the delicate issue of addiction in my last post – in my case, addiction to research. My day at the Library of Congress was the beginning of a spectacular fall off the wagon for me. In the last week, I’ve been obsessively delving into two marvelous online newspaper archives hosted by the National Library of Australia and the British Library (the latter being a new venture). And when I say obsessively, I mean going offline at 11.30pm and going to bed – only to lie awake restlessly until I surrender to my craving, bring my laptop into bed with me and spend half the night surfing through virtual stacks of ancient newsprint.  It’s a good job my husband can sleep through anything.
Since I first discovered these sites, my printer has run through its brand new black ink cartridge. Pages and pages of new material keep falling out of my printer onto my desk, and it’s a full-time job to keep it all straight.
For example, I found reports of an inquest held in September 1841 after a fireman died battling a mysterious blaze at John Salmon’s fruiterer’s shop at 86 Piccadilly. The Salmons had been absent on holiday at Gravesend, leaving only one son Abraham who had gone down to the pub after closing up the shop for the evening. After two days of hearing from witnesses, the jury could find no definite evidence of how the fire started. Nevertheless, they clearly believed this might have been a case of insurance fraud, even after John Salmon testified that he was insured for only £3000 though the cost of the damage looked like being twice that amount.  The Morning Post’s reporter himself called it “somewhat suspicious” (so much for journalistic objectivity). Nowhere in the reports is it mentioned that the Salmons were Jews, but the whole tenor of the reports casts doubt on the motives of this family. So was this a case of implicit anti-Semitism?
I’ve also found giddy first-hand reports of ex-Queen Marau’s visit to Paris in 1884 where she was front page news (see the picture above). The Australian Town and Country Journal lifted a report from a London paper, which praised her talent on the clarinet in this inimitable prose.

“On Friday morning, the other occupants of the hotel were delighted by hearing a tune with variations played by Queen Marau upon…” wait for it … “the sonorous instrument of her predilection.” 
They don’t write them like that anymore ‒ fortunately.  
These types of finds add depth and dramatic details to incidents that I already know about. But I have also made some brand new discoveries. Crucially, I may have finally pinpointed the date when John Brander first arrived in the South Pacific from England, a full decade before the generally accepted year of 1851. On July 15, 1840, this notice appeared in Shipping Intelligence column in the Sydney Monitor:
“Arrivals, July 13th - William Money, ship, 840 tons, [Captain] Green, master, from Portsmouth on the 18th February and the Cape on the 13th April. Passengers, cabin: Brander…”   
It is clear from the wonderfully informative Arrivals and Sailings lists in the Australian newspapers that Brander began his business career in the early 1840s by trading between Sydney and the settlements in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand – which just happens to be where Alexander Salmon’s uncle, Joel Samuel Polack was running a store. Which raises the intriguing question, did Brander supply goods to Polack? Was this his first contact with the family into which he would later marry?
This kind of question – deeply obscure but highly relevant to the story I’m writing – is pure catnip to a research addict like myself. Addiction is not pretty, my friends. It makes you lose sleep and neglect the necessary duties of life (doing taxes, finishing editing jobs, even buying groceries). But I don’t want to go to rehab – I’m too compelled by the quest and too satisfied by the outcome. And if this is my biggest vice in middle age, then things could definitely be worse.

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