In Which The Farrells Go To Ratlinghope To Visit Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

Okay. Hands up those of you who know about sin eaters. I certainly had not registered their existence despite having read Mary Webb’s Shropshire novel Precious Bane (1924) which includes a sin-eating scene. It was coming across an article by  environmental scientist, Harriet Carty, (also Shropshire based) that alerted me. She was describing the work of the non-religious charity Caring For God’s Acre which has set itself the task of recording Britain’s churchyard flora. I read it back in March when we were in Pembrokeshire and it prompted me to do a post featuring the fine show of lichen in St. Bride’s graveyard. Helen Carty’s article also mentioned the grave of the last sin eater, one Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and is buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard, Ratlinghope (pronounced Ratchup), up in the Shropshire hills between the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones.

What could be more curious and curiosity-inducing than the grave of a sin eater. Clearly an expedition was called for. Ratlinghope is only twenty miles or so from Wenlock, and so last Thursday, after doing the shopping in Church Stretton and with the weather set fair, we headed for the hills.

That Ratlinghope is an out-of-the-way place is an understatement. The lane from the busy Shrewsbury-Ludlow highway at Leebotwood is mostly single track, and wends up and over the northerly spur of the Long Mynd. If you stop and look behind you, all of the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains spread out below you. On Thursday, though, it was rather hazy, but you’ll get the general idea.

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Now for sin eaters. The first thing to know is that the sin-eating custom that once featured at funerals appears to be both ancient and confined mostly to the Shropshire, Hereford and Welsh Marches region. In the extract below, Mary Webb, suggests the sin eaters could be wise men, exorcists, or poor people somehow outcast by misfortune. At a burial, the last meal of the corpse – usually bread and ale – would be passed over the coffin for the sin eater to eat. Through this act, he took on the sins of the deceased thereby ensuring that the departing spirit went in peace. In latter times, it is said, the poor took on the role willingly in order to have a decent meal.

But this was not the case for Richard Munslow of Ratlinghope. He came from generations of respectable farming folk and had his own farm at nearby Upper Darnford where he employed at least two labourers. He also enjoyed the sheep grazing rights on the Long Mynd. The style of his memorial certainly indicates a man of substance.  He in fact revived the sin eating custom of his own volition. It is thought that he was inspired to do this through personal loss and an elevated sense of compassion. The gravestone also provides the clue. In 1862 Richard and Ann Munslow lost their first child George aged 11 weeks. Then in the first week of May 1870 they lost all three of their children to scarlet fever. Later, though, there were two daughters who did outlive them. Richard died in 1906 aged 73. Ann lived on until 1913.

The little church itself has its origins some time before 1209 when an Augustinian cell for a prior and seven brethren was established at Ratlinghope. It was an outpost of Wigmore Abbey in north Herefordshire. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued life as the parish church. There are few signs of the original building beyond the foundations, and the church you see to day is the product of successive rounds of renovation. The oak front door, though, has the date 1625 carved on it – a gift of the then church wardens. It is a peaceful place for the last sin eater to take his rest, even if there was no one to perform like offices on his behalf.

Next: sin-eating as described in Precious Bane.

Mary Webb was born at Leighton, near Much Wenlock in 1881, and spent her teen years in the town. She also knew the communities of the South Shropshire Hills and was well versed in their folklore and local vernaculars. It is probable she was familiar with the sin eating of Richard Munslow, hence the passage in Precious Bane, though she gives the performing of the rite her own narrative twist.

I’m posting the whole extract here, not only because it paints a picture of past Shropshire life, but because it includes some fine writing by this often under-valued author. The novel is set in the early 1800s and the narrator is young Prue Sarn, a sensitive and good-hearted farmer’s daughter, who believes no one will ever marry her because of her hare lip. Her older brother, Gideon, is a hard-nosed go-getter who thinks only of making money. At this point in the story Prue’s father has just died.

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It was a still, dewy summer night when we buried Father. In our time there was still a custom round about Sarn to bury people at night. In our family it had been done for hundreds of years. I was busy all day decking the waggon with yew and the white flowering laurel, that has such a heavy, sweet smell. I pulled all the white roses and a tuthree pinks that were in blow, and made up with daisies out of the hay grass. While I pulled them, I thought how angered Father would have been to see me there, trampling it, and I could scarcely help looking round now and again to see if he was coming.

After we’d milked, Gideon went for the beasts, and I put black streamers round their necks, and tied yew boughs to their horns. It had to be done carefully, for they were the Longhorn breed, and if you angered them, they’d hike you to death in a minute. The miller was one bearer, and Mister Callard, of Callard’s Dingle, who farmed all the land between Sarn and Plash, was another. Then there were our two uncles from beyond the mountains. Gideon, being chief mourner, had a tall hat with black streamers and black gloves and a twisted black stick with streamers on it.

They took a long while getting the coffin out, for the doors were very narrow and it was a big, heavy coffin. It had always been the same at all the Sarn funerals, yet nobody ever seemed to think of making the doors bigger. Sexton went first with his hat off and a great torch in his hand. Then came the cart, with Miller’s lad and another to lead the beasts. The waggon was mounded up with leaves and branches, and they all said it was a credit to me. But I could only mind how poor Father was used to tell me to take away all those nasty weeds out of the house. And now we were taking him away, jolting over the stones, from the place where he was maister.

I was all of a puzzle with it. It did seem so unkind, and disrespectful as well, leaving the poor soul all by his lonesome at the other end of the mere. I was glad it was sweet June weather, and not dark. We were bound to go the long way round, the other being only a foot road. When we were come out of the fold-yard, past the mixen, and were in the road, we took our places—Gideon behind the coffin by him- self, then Mother and me in our black poke bonnets and shawls, with Prayer Books and branches of rosemary in our hands. Uncles and Miller and Mister Callard came next, all with torches and boughs of rosemary.

It was a good road, and smoother than most—the road to Lullingford. Parson used to say it was made by folk who lived in the days when the Redeemer lived. Romans, the name was. They could make roads right well, whatever their name was. It went along above the water, close by the lake; and as we walked solemnly onwards, I looked into the water and saw us there. It was a dim picture, for the only light there was came from the waning, clouded moon, and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep. There was a great heap of black, that was the waggon, and the oxen were like clouds moving far down, and the torches were flung into the water as if we wanted to dout them.

All the time, as we went, we could hear the bells ringing the corpse home. They sounded very strange over the water in the waste of night, and the echoes sounded yet stranger. Once a white owl came by, like a blown feather for lightness and softness. Mother said it was Father’s spirit looking for its body. There was no sound but the bells and the creaking of the wheels, till Parson’s pony, grazing in the glebe, saw the dim shapes of the oxen a long way off, and whinnied, not knowing, I suppose, but what they were ponies too, and being glad to think, in the lonesome- ness of the night, of others like herself nearby.

At last the creaking stopped at the lych-gate. They took out the coffin, resting it on trestles, and in the midst of the heavy breathing of the bearers came the promising words— “I am the resurrection and the life.” They were like quiet rain after drought. Only I began to wonder, how should we come again in the resurrection? Should we come clear, or dim, like in the water? Would Father come in a fit of anger, as he’d died, or as a little boy running to Grandma with a bunch of primmyroses? Would Mother smile the same smile, or would she have found a light in the dark passage? Should I still be fast in a body I’d no mind for, or would they give us leave to weave ourselves bodies to our own liking out of the spinnings of our souls?

The coffin was moved to another trestle, by the graveside, and a white cloth put over it. Our best tablecloth, it was. On the cloth stood the big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine. It was the only thing Mother could provide, and it was by good fortune that she had plenty of it, enough for the funeral feast and all, since there had been such a power of elderberries the year afore. It looked strange in the doubtful moonlight, standing there on the coffin, when we were used to see it on the table, with the colour of the Christmas Brand reflected in it.

Parson came forrard and took it up, saying— “I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.” Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to Father’s spirit. At the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them. Then Sexton stepped forrard and said— “Be there a Sin Eater?” And Mother cried out— “Alas no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.”

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying—I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the byways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place.

Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said— “We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?” But Mother cried and moaned all night after. And when the Sexton said “Be there a Sin Eater?” she cried again very pitifully, because Father had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him, and besides, he had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good. So she thought he had great need of a Sin Eater, and she would not be comforted. Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said— “There is a Sin Eater.”

“Who then? I see none,” said Sexton.

“I ool be the Sin Eater.” He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

“Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?” he said.

“No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!”

“What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.”

“No, no! Leave un go free, Gideon! Let un rest, poor soul! You be in life and young, but he’m cold and helpless, in the power of Satan. He went with all his sins upon him, in his boots, poor soul! If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.”

“And you’ll give me the farm, Mother?” “

Yes, yes, my dear! What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.” Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up. Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said—

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud. But when Gideon said, “Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,” I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser. Now it was time to throw the rosemary into the grave. Then they lowered the coffin in, and all threw their burning torches down upon it, and douted them.

The full Hathi Trust novel text is HERE

 

 

Solva, The Oldest Working Woollen Mill In Pembrokeshire ~ And A Good Moment To Dust Down Old Prejudices

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Childhood summer holidays: the cottage stay near a Welsh beach and the much wearing a brown gabardine mac; endless search for places that might offer shelter and diversion from wet and gloomy weather; the Welsh Crafts Shop that, if we’re lucky, will have a cafe.

Back then, to my young 1960s’ eyes, Welsh tweed seemed very old hat. It had all the charm of the post-war-geometric-abstract-chemical coloured fabrics that my parents had taken to (fabrics which are now very popular again in vintage shops). I found the designs and colour palette distasteful then – too hectic for one thing – and I still do, though I can see they were meant to cheer everyone  up after years of rationing and austerity; inspire a spirit of hopeful busyness and productivity.

So where does that leave my views on Welsh tweed now?

Well, it’s always good to revisit old dislikes and appraise the situation with fresh eyes. For a start there is no denying the fabulous quality of the product. This is reflected in the price. However, it really does NOT still need to be used to cover bags, purses or to be made into unfortunately shaped waistcoats. On the other hand, deployed as rugs and furnishing fabric, then we’re on to something. In fact Welsh tweed has been acquiring cachet in quite discerning quarters. And although I forgot to take a photo, the stair runners are perhaps the finest things the mill produces, especially the red ones. You can see some in situ HERE.

As for the reversible rugs with their traditional ‘portcullis’ designs, I’m suddenly finding I like them too – at least to the extent of buying four place mats in spring green for the kitchen table. I like the ‘cottage industry’ simplicity and well-made-ness, in much the same way that I like the 1960s pale oak ercol furniture (now being reprised) – just so long as it doesn’t come with its original overdone upholstery and cushions which often obscure the pleasing frames. So I’m also thinking that if anyone needs to replace original fabric on a piece of vintage ercol, then  Welsh tweed could be just the thing – a refreshed ‘Arts & Crafts’ look. A little googling also reveals that another Pembrokeshire Mill has already thought of this. See what you think.

Solva Mill, as the sign proclaims, has been in operation since 1907. The workers’ clocking on clock is still in the old workshop foyer. For those who like wheels and gears, there is old weaving equipment all over the place, inside and out. You can read a bit more about the history of the mill HERE. Its situation is blissful, in a little valley up in the hills above Solva village. The overshot watermill that once powered the mill was restored in 2007 as part of the works’ centenary celebration, and there are hopes to get the whole system revamped to produce electricity. In return for free left over plastic yarn cones (see below), you can make a donation to the project. This meant that Super Puppy was able to leave the premises with a very satisfactory toy. A good morning out all round.

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March Square #27  Becky’s March Square extravaganza is nearly over, so with this post I’m probably putting all my squares and circles in one basket. I think it’s safe to say there are more here than anyone can possibly count.

In which Six Go Potty In Pembroke With Cockapoo Puppy  – holiday snaps #8

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Zanzibar: time’s twists and turns

 

…a gateway to Africa. Through its portals passed not only slaves, spices and ivory, but also missionaries, explorers and conquerors.  

Abdul Sheriff, Professor of History, Dar es Salaam University

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Zanzibar  – it’s all in the name – the Indian Ocean shores where Arab merchants met with African farmers and created a new people: the Swahili. In the Arabic Kilwa chronicles of the Middle Ages, the word Zanj denotes non-Muslim black people, and the word bar means coast, and the term back then referred to much of the East African seaboard – to wherever the dhow traders seasonally put in to haggle with Bantu farmers for ivory, leopard skins, rhino horn, iron, ambergris and mangrove poles.  These, then,  are the shores of the Sindbad (Sendebada) tales, but today the term ‘coast of the blacks’ survives only in the name of the Zanzibar archipelago (Unguja and Pemba Islands), now part of Tanzania.

These days too, Zanzibar Island, more properly known as Unguja, is seen as the heartland of Swahili culture, and the place where the purest form of KiSwahili is spoken. Once, though, there were many other powerful Swahili centres – independent city states that included Manda, Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa in Kenya, and Sofala far to the south in Mozambique. Such states, with stone towns built of coral rag, began evolving from at least the early 800s CE (Manda),  by which time KiSwahili was already a fully developed language, albeit with many regional forms.

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In fact the trade along East Africa had been going on from well before the 9th century. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek account of Indian Ocean trade written around 60 CE, indicates that the people of the kingdoms of Yemen and Arabia already had well established trade routes as far south as Mozambique. The Romans had also been here, doubtless making use – as all the seafarers did – of monsoon winds that in season carried them south down the African coast, or east to India, and then, with the change in the wind,s northwards and homewards to the Gulf.

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The earliest traces of a stone town  on Unguja date from the 12th century when merchant princes from Shiraz in Persia settled on the island.  Over successive centuries this settlement  was destroyed twice by the Portuguese (who, after Vasco Da Gama discovered  he could sail round Africa in 1498, seized control of the Indian Ocean trade) and once by the Omani  Arabs whom the Swahili sultans of the Kenya coast called in on several occasions to help rid them of the European tyrants. The Portuguese were ousted from Zanzibar and the Swahili mainland at the close of the 17th century, and thereafter, until the British declared Zanzibar a protectorate in 1890, it was the Omani Arabs who controlled the surviving Swahili states.

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The Stone Town we see today dates mostly from the nineteenth century when the place was at its most prosperous. Abdul Sheriff describes the scene:

“Zanzibar was then a cosmopolitan metropolis. Its harbour teemed with square-rigged ships from the West and oriental dhows with their lateen sails from many countries in the East, carrying all the colours of the rainbow. Here Yankee merchants from New England drove a hard bargain with Hindu traders in their large crimson turbans or  Khojas in their long coats, exchanging ivory for American cloth; the Marseillais haggled with the Somali for hides and sesame seeds from Benadir; Hamburg entrepreneurs shipped tons of cowrie shells to West Africa, where they served as currency; and Arab caravans rubbed shoulders with their African counterparts from the Mountains of the Moon.”  (The History and Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town 1995).

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Beit al-Ajaib, The House of Wonders, was built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 to host ceremonial events. He was an extravagant man and, before his death in 1888, built 6 palaces across the island of Unguja. After the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution when the Omanis, along with many Indian residents, were killed or expelled, the building was used as government offices. When we visited in 1999 it was abandoned, but for one of the last sultan’s  cars (candy pink in colour) parked inside the atrium near the front door. A good friend who visited the House of Wonders recently tells me it is still there.

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Trade was given much impetus in 1830 when the Sultans of Oman moved their capital to Zanzibar to oversee what turned out to the short-lived boom in clove production.  They and other Indian and Arab landowners owned many clove and coconut plantations  on the archipelago, and these were worked by African slaves.

The slave trade, then, was another source of the island’s prosperity. By 1860 the archipelago had some 60,000 slaves, not only working the plantations, but also fulfilling domestic and labouring tasks, and providing new wives for the sultan’s harem. And it is worth noting here that the slaves in Zanzibar were not generally ill treated in the way they were in the Americas; it was not unknown, after long service, for them to inherit their master’s land and property. The children of the harem slaves were also acknowledged by the sultans who fathered them, and treated as royal children with appropriate titles.

During the 19th century it is reckoned that some 50,000 slaves a year were being sold in the Zanzibar slave market. It was only in 1873 that the slaving was abolished, this after much pressure from the British who had first made a treaty with the Sultan Said in 1822 in an  attempt to kerb the trade. That treaty had produced little effect. There was too much demand. The French, in particular, needed slaves for their tropic island plantations.

And to meet the demand the Swahili and Arab slaving expeditions would set off from Zanzibar for the African mainland, taking their caravans of porters along well-walked slave paths through Tabora in Tanzania, and down into Zambia, or travelling up present day Kenya to the Great Lakes regions. The notorious Swahili slaver, and plantation owner, Tipu Tip, roved as far as the Congo , terrorizing villages across the territory.

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Finding some way to end the trade was one of the motivations that drove the missionary-explorer David Livingstone ever onwards on his gruelling explorations across Africa. It was thought that if the continent was opened up to civilizing Europeans, then the ‘filthy trade’ could be stopped.  But then like the slavers, he and other European explorers (Burton, Speke, Stanley, Cameron, Thomson) started their journeys from Zanzibar. All such travellers, including  missionaries, relied on  the expertise of porters and seasoned safari guides who otherwise worked on the slave caravans.  In 1866, before his last expedition, Livingstone stayed at the house above. It had not long been built by Sultan Majid. Now it is the office of the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation.

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From John Hanning Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Nile 1863

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The slaving and ivory  trades worked in tandem. Newly captured slaves were not only driven on forced marches across the continent to the coast, but they were also made to carry supplies, and these included any elephant tusks that the slavers had procured – ivory destined for the production of piano keys and billiard balls for the European market.  It was only in 1897 that all slaves on Zanzibar were given their freedom. The Anglican church stands on the site of the slave market, beside the now famous sculptures commemorating the years of abuse. It is horrifying to consider what the cost of this trade has been for Africa: generation upon generation of  the strongest, brightest and  most  beautiful young people robbed from their communities.

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Naturally the British could congratulate themselves on finally stopping the trade on Zanzibar, although I believe it continued well  into the 2oth century at Lamu. Today, too, slave mongering thrives, and under our very noses in Europe, only now the abused are not necessarily black, so perhaps we don’t think it’s the same thing – the brutal deprivation of liberty and dignity, along with forced labour?

But back to 1890, the end of the Sultans’ control and Britain’s laying claim to Zanzibar. Because now we come to a whole new angle. For this was also the year of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, an agreement between the Germans and the British, whereby (in return for Heligoland, the strategic North Sea island), the Germans waived rights to Zanzibar, Witu on the mainland coast, and to the territory now known as Kenya across which the British were planning to build the Uganda Railway. (Bismarck apparently called this deal swapping the trousers for a button). 

Suddenly, then, Zanzibar has a very particular purpose for the British Empire. It will become the spring board for the claiming of extensive East African territory, and it will start with that mad, mad railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Of course, with slavery being outlawed, some new mechanism of harnessing native power will need to be thought up. Something civilized and civilizing. I know – we’ll call it colonialism, and enclose indigenous people in their own territory, make reserves of their own homes, which they can’t leave unless they have a pass. Then we’ll introduce hut and poll taxes so forcing them to work for Europeans…

For more of the colonial story go to an earlier post Vulcanicity HERE. In the meantime below are some more soothing views in and around Stone Town, now a World Heritage site. Life is not so grand as it was in the days of the finely robed Omanis. Fishing, ferrying, farming (growing spices, coconuts and vegetables), curio trading, boat building, mangrove pole harvesting and tourism are the main sources of income. As in all African countries, people work hard to educate their children, and this is their number one priority.

Stone Town is also a devoutly Muslim community, and sometimes this does not sit well with tourist inclinations to behave in ways not considered either respectful or respectable by Zanzibaris. There are over 50 mosques of several different Muslim persuasions, but most are unobtrusive buildings without minarets, and are scarcely noticeable among the domestic dwellings. There is also a Catholic cathedral as well as the Anglican church. The streets are maze-like and shadowy, but we met with nothing but gracious hospitality when we wandered along them.  The place may seem run down (although here and there restoration is in progress), but in the sudden whiffs of jasmine the Sinbad romance lingers on…

(For more about the Swahili see an earlier post HERE.)

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AILSA’S TRAVEL CHALLENGE: TWIST

FLICKR COMMENTS TAGGED ‘Z’

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

 

Unexpected with bells, sticks and hankies at the Sweeps Festival

 

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There is much that is unexpected about Rochester’s annual Sweeps Festival, held every May Day for the last thirty four years. It is of course a re-make of a much more ancient festival – one at least 400 years old, and that in turn was probably a re-make of various spring-time rites from distant antiquity. As you scan down the photos you may notice a plethora of cultural references, some of them wholly inexplicable, but all thrown in – in the name of jolly good English fun.

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But first a bit of real history, at least to explain the ‘sweeps’ bit of the proceedings. In Britain chimney sweeping was once big business. Until the Climbing Boys’ Act 1868 which made it illegal, children as young as four were employed by Master Sweeps to clean inside the nation’s chimneys. This practice was even officially sanctioned. The Master was paid by parish officials to take on climbing boys (and sometimes girls) as indentured apprentices. They then underwent a 7-year training, after which,  if they survived, they could become journeymen sweeps and work for a Master of their own choosing. The children were usually workhouse orphans and paupers, and the aim was  to launch as many of them into the trade and up sooty flues so as to reduce their cost to the parish. It was a filthy, dangerous and vicious business, and you can read more about it HERE.

May Day was traditionally the only day of the year that chimney sweeps had as a holiday. Here in Kent the day’s festivities traditionally began on Blue Bell Hill, at Chatham just outside Rochester (a hill also known for its Neolithic chambered tombs). At dawn the merrymakers would awaken the giant Jack-in-the-Green who would then accompany them in the parade.

And here he is, recreated anew – the ‘tree’ between two ‘sweeps’:

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There are of course obvious references here to the Green Man, the Green Knight and various symbols of tricksterism and fertility. There are also similar festivals involving tree-figures in Europe, particularly Switzerland, and it is possible that some of the notions associated with these carnivals go back to Stone Age times.

Welded onto all of this is the ancient English pastime of Morris Dancing, a form of folk dancing that has many regional expressions, and dates back to at least the 15th century. It had a great revival at the start of the 20th century when folklorists such as Cecil Sharp set about documenting traditional dancing and music. Below are some ‘traditional’ looking Morris Men. They are members of one of the sixty Morris bands that take part every year at the Sweeps’ Festival.

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And then there are the black face Morris dancers, the Goths, the Fabulous Fezheads who sand dance, Morris dancers from the US, all women groups, clog and longsword dancers. There are even hints of S & M and nosferatu, or was that just my take on things. In any event, please enjoy the cultural concoction.

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Ailsa’s Travel Theme: unexpected

Wind in the palms on Kenya’s coral shores

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Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa

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These leaning coconut palms and the photo of me holding on to my hat remind me that there is nearly always a breeze on Tiwi Beach. You need it too. In the hot season, around December to February, it makes the sticky tropical humidity bearable. It also keeps malarial mosquitoes at bay.

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Don’t let go! Me, at Capricho Cove, too many years ago

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But the tropical breeze is not so good for kite launching. The team leader never did get his kite airborne.; the wind endlessly beating it into the sand. No matter. I think we decided that kite flying was probably too active an activity, even at the day’s end. Much better to crack open a Tusker beer, one almost chilled in

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Graham not flying his kite at Maweni Cove.

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the beach cottage’s rackety  refrigerator.

Maweni cottage at sunset

Maweni Cottages built in the Swahili style.

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In the holiday season, and especially at Christmas, these beach villages tend to be the haunt of expatriates (especially aid workers), and mixed race families who do not always receive the best of treatment in Kenya’s fancy beach hotels. The cottages are designed to keep out too much sun and let in maximum draught: coral rag walls, high makuti  thatch, glassless windows and shutters with moveable slats. This is of course a European take on indigenous Swahili architecture.

I have written in another post about Swahili culture and how it might be said to have been shaped by the monsoon winds: the north-easterly Kaskazi that for centuries brought Arab merchant ships down the coast of Africa; the south easterly Kusi that blew them away again after a windless sojourn during which sailing dhows were beached and repaired and liaisons with African communities forged.

From this age-old congress between Arab seafarers and Bantu farmer-traders, came a blending and melding of body, mind and spirit that evolved into the urban coastal people whom we know as the Swahili. Their language, KiSwahili, is also a fusion: of Arabic and Bantu vernaculars, and as such, presents a fascinating exemplar of multicultural integration that has forged a distinct identity of its own. That’s something to ponder on, isn’t it: how different races can create together; how it took the monsoon wind to bring them together?

Salamu (Greetings)

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A Word A Week Photo Challenge: Wind: go here for more wind stories and see the ones below:

http://irenewaters19.com/2013/12/19/a-word-a-week-wind/

http://hamburgundmeehr.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://geophiliac.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photography-challenge-wind/

http://bambangpriantono.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind-angin-the-wind-blown-flag/

http://schelleycassidy.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/a-word-a-week-challenge-wind/

http://mang0people.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://emiliopasquale.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://sillarit.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

Related:

Weekly Photo Challenge: Culture (The Swahili)

Travel Theme: Beaches (Mombasa)

The Swahili

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Lamu  fishing dhows off the Kenya Coast

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You could say that Swahili culture was born of the monsoon winds, from the human drive to trade and of prevailing weather. For two thousand years Arab merchants plied East Africa’s Indian Ocean shores, from Mogadishu (Somalia) to the mouth of the Limpopo River (Mozambique), arriving with the north easterly Kaskazi, departing on the south easterly Kusi. They came in great wooden cargo dhows, bringing dates, frankincense, wheat, dried fish, Persian chests, rugs, silks and jewels which they traded with Bantu farmers in exchange for the treasures of Africa: ivory, leopard skins, rhinoceros horn, ambergris, tortoise shell, mangrove poles and gold.

By 700 AD many Arab merchants  were beginning to settle permanently on the East African seaboard, and the earliest mosques so far discovered date from around this time. These new colonists would have married the daughters of their Bantu trading hosts and doubtless used these new local connections to expand their trading opportunities. Soon the African farming settlements were expanding into cosmopolitan port towns. Itinerant merchants and their crews would also have had plenty of chances to get to know the local girls. The weather served this purpose too. Between August and November the trade winds fail. Voyaging captains would thus put in to a known safe haven to wait for good winds. And while this was not a time to be idle, since boats had to be beached and the crew put to cleaning and sealing the underwater timbers with a paste of beef fat and lime, three months was a long time to be ashore and far from home.

And so from this trade for trade, evolved a new culture, a loose confederation of self-governing city states stretching 3,000 km along the East African coast. Islam melded with Bantu customs and beliefs, and transactions’ fusion of Arabic with Bantu vernaculars gave rise to a new language, KiSwahili, which is still the lingua franca of East Africa today. Into this mix also came settler-traders from the Indian Subcontinent, shipwrecked Chinese sailors and refugee (Shirazi) Persians. Welcome, then, to the world of Sinbad, or Sendibada as the Swahili people call him, the ancient Empire of Zanj.

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Lamu Town, off the Kenya coast, is one of the best preserved Swahili towns and  has been lived in for over 700 years. It is now a World Heritage Site. The building of the Swahili stone towns was apparently underway by 700 AD, the stone in question being coral rag, quarried from uplifted reef beds. Lamu town is not one of the earliest or the finest, but it was once a city state ruled over by its own sultan. The remains of far older settlements have been discovered on the nearby islands of Manda and Pate. Today, of course, the dhow trade in East Africa has dwindled, and towns like Lamu are barely a shadow of their former selves. Its residents’ main source of income comes from tourism, fishing , boat building and farming.

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Shela Village, Lamu. It seems like a scene for one of Scheherezade’s night-time tales.

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The annual dhow  season used to start from home Arabian ports in August with ripening of the date harvest in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.* Merchants from the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman would set sail for Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf where the dates were crated and taken on board. The size of a dhow was gauged not in tonnage but by the number of Basra date boxes it could take. Thereafter, the dhow  captains (nakhodas)  might make for Aden to pick up salt or ply the Red Sea before heading south for Africa, trading as they went. Alternatively they might set off from the Gulf of Oman for Bombay, keeping the shore always in sight as they sailed east. Then, after trading down the Indian coast to Cochin, the winds would take them back across the Indian Ocean to the Comoros Islands where they would wait for the Kusi to take them homeward up the African coast.

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The trade routes, of course, stretched far beyond the Indian Ocean and, during the 11th to 16th centuries when many of the Swahili city states were having their golden age, dhow merchants found ready buyers for exotic goods from China, Cambodia, Thailand and India. Today if you walk along the beach at Lamu you can pick up pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain. These wares were very popular from the 14th century, and Swahili town houses were fitted out with ornately plastered display niches (zidaka) to display their prized possessions.

It is also true that exotic goods went out from Africa. In the early 1400s, the Swahili Sultan of Malindi (north of Mombasa) despatched to the Chinese Emperor via the King of Bengal, a live giraffe along with a ‘celestial stag’ or oryx. This was taken as an ‘open for business’ calling card and thereafter the Chinese merchant ships sailed directly into East African ports.

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A Lamu ‘china cabinet’ (zidaka)

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Although the days of the big dhows are over on the Kenyan coast, we saw this one being newly built on Maruhubi Beach near Zanzibar’s Stone Town in 1999. It had been commissioned by a Somali merchant.

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Lamu’s main  street in recent times; only donkey transport will do for deliveries.

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Much of the wealth of the Swahili states came from African gold. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Shona rulers of Great Zimbabwe, far inland, were trading with the coastal Swahili city of Sofala (Mozambique). The Shona traders exchanged massive supplies of gold and ivory for Arab cloth. This gold drove the East African trade and it was not long before it was attracting European traders.

And so into the midst of this prosperity sailed Vasco da Gama (1498). He was pioneering a maritime route to India, but after his glowing accounts of the wealth he had observed while putting in at Mombasa and Malindi, (the sultan robed in damask trimmed with green satin and sitting beneath a crimson satin sunshade) Portuguese eyes turned to the East African coast. They built a number of forts there, including ones at Sofala and Mombasa, using them as strongholds in their bid to seize the Indian Ocean trade from Arab merchants.

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The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in Mombasa in 1591. The building of such forts along the Swahili coast was part of their strategy to seize control of the Indian Ocean trade from the Arabs. A century later they were driven back to their Mozambique strongholds by Omani forces.

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There followed many bloody battles over the next two hundred years, and it was during this time that most of the Swahili city states fell into decline. Their only hope was to call for outside help, and it came in the shape of the Omani of Muscat who made numerous attempts to oust the Portuguese, finally pushing them back to Mozambique in the 18th century. By the 19th century much of Swahili coast was ruled by the Sultans of Oman, and in 1832 they moved their capital to Zanzibar.

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The Sultan’s Palace ‘The House of Wonders’, Zanzibar. The British navy bombarded it in 1896 in the 45-minute war.

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So now comes the real sting in this Arabian Nights’ tale. I have not mentioned the ‘S’ word. And for hundreds of years SLAVES were indeed a major ‘commodity’ shipping out from Swahili ports for destinations in Arabia and Persia. But it was not until the 19th century that the worst excesses of this terrible trade were widely documented. Under Omani rule slaving expanded. The Sultans had clove plantations to be worked. So, instead of relying on supplies of human cargo delivered by African traders from the African hinterland, Swahili slavers began to lead their own expeditions into the interior. Here they rounded up both slaves and ivory, forcing their hapless captives to carry the tusks hundreds of miles to ports like Mombasa. 

One of the most notorious slavers was Tippu Tib. His mother was a Muscat Arab aristocrat, but his father was a Swahili trader. His reign of terror extended across East Africa into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. By 1895 he had seven plantations and 10,000 slaves. It was only in 1873 that the Zanzibar slave market was shut down.

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Tippu Tip the Zanzibari slaver (1837-1905), and the memorial to his human cargo on the site of Zanzibar’s slave market. At its height, some 50,000 souls were trafficked through this market each year, and this was only ONE market on the Swahili coast. The Sultans further exploited the slave  market by playing the Portuguese off against the French. Although the Atlantic slave trade had ceased by 1834, the buying of slaves by European and Arab merchants continued into the twentieth century. The Zanzibar slave market closed only in 1873.

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The subject of slavery now brings me back to Lamu where I started this tale. By 1652 the Lamu had had more than enough of the Portguese and called on Oman to help see them off. Thereafter Lamu became an Omani protectorate which led to a revival of the town’s fortunes. Slaves were also the chief export, and in fact the trade was not outlawed here until 1907, by which time Kenya (British East Africa) had been a British Protectorate for twelve years.

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The Swahili House Museum, Lamu, shows what life was like in an 18th-19th century merchant’s home.

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So what of the future? Will places like Lamu slumber away, selling themselves as romantic retreats for lotus-eating tourists. What kind of lives will their young people have ? Will they not simply have to leave? Or are there new ventures afoot in this Land of Zanj? Word has it that the Chinese have come calling once more, and not in response to gifts of giraffes, or to deliver more crates of blue and white porcelain. Now they have plans to turn Lamu into the biggest port in East Africa, opening up trading access for land-locked South Sudan and Ethiopia. So begins a new chapter in gyre of Indian Ocean trade. Today, it is not the Kaskazi or the Kusi that will dictate its destination and progress of this multi-ethnic enterprise, but diesel and commercial imperative. In some ways, then, not much has changed. 

Ref: John H A Jewell 1976 Dhows at Mombasa East African Publishing House

© 2013 Tish Farrell