The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

The Plague

This is the second assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment requires:

Think of a place that at first may not seem to be related to a contemporary conflict or a traumatic event from the past, but which might be used to reveal something important about that conflict. Perhaps if you describe that conflict or traumatic event from the viewpoint of that place, you will find that new thoughts about the conflict or event come to you. Perhaps if you compare this place to the site of the conflict or event, you will find new ways to describe what the conflict or event means to you and what you think it should mean to the world. Through writing and/or image, compose your own picture or description of this conflict or trauma, constructing the details from the unexpected place you have chosen

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The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

 

She sips her mint tea. It soothes her swollen tonsils. Her cat sits at the foot of her bed. They share the warmth of the fire the girl’s mother has lit in her room. The cat appears to have no ill-effects from the vaccinations carried out by the vet a few days earlier. It was expensive, but the cat is much-loved, and is a great companion to the girl. She is an only child. Her parents do not skimp on healthcare for their daughter or her cat.

Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the keeping of cats in London was illegal. Men were employed to kill cats and dogs as a way, it was thought, to stop the spread of the Great Plague. In fact, it had the reverse effect: rats were the main carriers of the fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Cats in particular would have kept the rat population down, and slowed the spread of the plague. Eventually it was realised that those who (illegally) kept cats tended to avoid the plague, and the ban was lifted; too late for tens of thousands of plague victims.

Had the tonsillitis afflicted girl lived in London in 1665, she would have likely been such a victim. The leeches, the pomander, the potions, the prayers of her desperate mother would have had no effect. There would have been no pet cat to kill off the local, flea infested rats. Instead of mildly painful tonsils, the lymph nodes in her neck and under her arms would have swollen into painful buboes. She would have been racked with fever, afflicted with frequent vomiting, pounding headaches and gangrene; barely able to swallow. Her face would have blown up in bulbous black swellings. A quack doctor would have lanced them or sliced them with a razor. She would have gone mad with pain, died in agony. The single, cold, cramped room she shared with several siblings in a rat-infested building would have seen a feeding frenzy by the vicious biting fleas. The plague would have ravaged her whole family.

The fortunate modern-day girl sips her mint tea, gazes for a while out of the fly-screened window of her warm, comfortable bedroom, finishes her history homework with the help of her iPad and Wikipedia. She looks forward to her afternoon ice cream treat. The cat purrs contentedly at the foot of her bed. The girl unwraps a gift she has been saving for it: a black flea collar with small golden bell.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster – 1

tent of indigenous people

Image from National Library of Australia

I’ve just started an online course entitled “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa. I haven’t read a lot of Walt Whitman – he wasn’t on the British school curriculum when I was a boy. And the course is not so much an in-depth study of Whitman, as an investigation into the ways in which we might create art, be it prose, poetry, photography, artwork around the subject of loss, death and disaster, using Whitman as an example. Whitman wrote extensively about the American Civil War and the earlier Mexican War.

Assignment one requires:

“In words or images, compose a response to a “rupture” in a particular history – an event that you think was a defining moment at a particular place, a moment when something seemed to break open or to be dramatically exposed, a moment of dramatic importance – and use a constraint to shape your response.”

I did some further research on massacres of the Australian indigenous population during white “settlement”, and came across descriptions of horrific events in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, near the town of Elliston. This was 1839 / 1849, around the same time as Whitman wrote about the Mexican War.  The assignment required use of a constraint, such as a poetic form. For this I chose to model Section 34 of Whitman’s “The Song of Myself”.

 

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The Elliston Massacre

(after Walt Whitman)

Now I tell what I knew in Elliston in my early youth,

(I tell not the massacre of Appin,

Not one escaped to tell the deeds of Appin,

Fourteen and many more are dumb yet at Appin)

‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of a hundred or more of Aboriginal men, women and children.

Rounded up by local farmers, angered by the disappearance of but four sheep.

Four sheep and the death of a hanging judge, was the price they took in advance.

The alleged sheep killers already hanged, further retribution was served on the tribe.

They were the Nauo people, who had lived on those lands for tens of thousands of years, subsisting, deeply connected to the spirit of the land.

Matchless trackers, skilled hunters of native animals.

Peaceful, proud people.

Strong, dark, drest in possum and kangaroo skin.

The morning after the hanging judges death, the policemen roused the farmers. On horseback they rode to the Nauo camp, herded all the Aboriginal men, women and children like they would herd cattle, and drove them off the high cliffs of Elliston. From babies to old men and women.

Any who tried to escape were cut down by whip, stick and gun. It was beautiful early summer.

The work commenced about seven o’clock and was over by ten.

None obey’d the command to submit for they knew they would be killed anyway.

Some made a mad and helpless rush over the cliff to their doom, some stood stark and straight and were driven over.

A few fell, shot in the back.

The maim’d and mangled were lifted and thrown to the rocks below.

Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away. They too were despatched with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of rifles.

A teenage girl and two small boys survived, by hiding in the saltbush. After the horsemen left, the children peered over the cliff edge but saw only battered bodies on the rocks one hundred and fifty feet below. And some further bodies rolling in the surf.

They set off on foot for Streaky Bay, and with them the tale of the massacre spread. The Aboriginal people they met were terrified, and immediately left, lest they too be massacred. They walked as far as Talewan, the Bight, Yardea, the Gawler Ranges and Ooldea. No Aboriginal person has lived in Elliston ever since.

The cliff is now known as Blackfellas Cliff.

I was one of those small boys, hiding in the saltbush.

That is the tale of the massacre of the Nauo people.

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The constraint I used was to adopt Section 34 as the model, and superimpose on it details of two massacres of aboriginal people that occurred in South Australia in 1839 and 1849. The two South Australian massacres were remarkably similar, both involving the rounding up of Nauo people and driving them over a cliff. The above is not meant to be a historical record, but conflates details from both massacres. It is therefore a work of fiction, written as a ‘version’ of Section 34 and acknowledging Whitman’s work.

There are several sites with information about the Elliston Massacres, including here

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016