Sunday, January 31, 2010

The lucky pirate, the unschooled geniuses, the beautiful girls in kimonos and the floating politicians

Anne Bonney is everybody's favorite pirate.(The slovenly-attired doxy in the picture probably looks nothing like the real thing.) You can find a version of her story in Daniel Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates, which includes the observation, based on Bonney's origins and career, that "Bastards have all the Luck." He makes a good point: she was said to have killed her servant with a knife and severely beaten an importuning swain. When she married a loser, her lawyer father, by now translated from Cork to South Carolina, kicked her out of their home and impelled them off to the Bahamas, where she ditched the loser and hooked up with Calico Jack Rackham, the designer of the Jolly Roger. They set off together on a pirate spree: she seems to have embraced the life wholeheartedly, as well as giving birth to one child by Rackham and conceiving another before finally getting caught. Her pregnancy saved her from the rope, and her father pulled strings to get her released, although Rackham was executed. She was only 23. Free of that particular encumbrance, she returned to South Carolina, delivered of Rackham's second child, married again, had eight more children and lived to the age of 84. Luck indeed.

George Boole we know about because of Boolean logic, used by all of us however imperfectly to frame search requests in databases. He was English, from an impoverished family, and basically self-taught; however, he managed to establish connections with leading mathematicians and to publish research papers. When new universities were established in Ireland, Boole was encouraged by the future Lord Kelvin to apply for a chair at Queen's College (now University College), Cork. He had no degree - had not even completed secondary education - but was appointed professor of mathematics in 1849. His work on logic and probability theory was controversial and apparently wrong in many respects - difficult for me, who hasn't tackled a mathematical problem in 35 years and wasn't much good at them back then - to say, although it appears that his approached were influential even if his results were flawed. 

George's daughter Alicia, born in Cork, became a distinguished mathematician in her own right (although the DIB refers to her "mathematical hobby"), pioneering research on four-dimensional shapes (she coined the term "polytope", still in use, to describe them). The closest she came to the academy was an honorary degree from Groningen University.  Here sister Lucy also never attended university, but became a distinguished chemist: It's reported elsewhere (but not in the DIB) that she became the first woman professor of chemistry at the Royal Free Hospital in London. Another sister, Ethel Voynich, became a successful knowledge The best conclusion to be drawn from the Boole family careers is that a university education should be avoided at all costs.

I discovered a new profession in today's reading: "sailing butler". This title was conferred on one Thomas Kilagallon, who began serving Sir Henry Gore-Booth and his family at the age of 11 and continued for more than 70 years. He became waterborne because Gore-Booth was fond of sailing expeditions, including to the Arctic and he had to accompany his master on these life-threatening voyages. Gore-Booth eventually died of the flu, although only in Switzerland. A scion of a Big House family in Ireland since the 17th century, he had a train named after him following his death. More substantial were Henry's daughters Constance the revolutionary (whom we'll hear more about when we reach her married name, Markievicz) and Eva, described enticingly by the DIB as "poet, mystic, trade unionist and suffragist." (In the picture of the two of them, Eva's on the right.) She campaigned for the rights of the poor, particularly women, including for "pit brow workers, women acrobats, barmaids and Oxford Circus flower sellers." (Explanation: pit brow workers were women who performed manual work above ground at coal mines; Oxford Circus is a busy London intersection, not a circus.) She campaigned, successfully, for her sister's reprieve from execution after the Easter Rising and believed that she remained in post mortem communication with her. After the deaths of Eva and Constance, Yeats, who used to visit their home in his youth, wrote a poem in their memory, Two girls in silk kimonos, both /Beautiful, one a gazelle" (Eva was the gazelle). It's an odd, poignant poem, ambivalent about their political causes but aflame with what they meant, back in those lost days. (An oddity of the DIB: people with double-barrelled names are listed alphabetically by their second such: thus, the Gore-Booths are listed under the "Bs", where I think nobody would go to look for them first.)

I took a shine to Achmet Borumborad, né Patrick Joyce, the "quack and fraud" who promoted Turkish baths in Dublin in the 18th century. He said he was from Constantinople, but probably hailed from Kilkenny. He walked around Dublin in what he said was Turkish dress, including "an immense turban".  He was successful in obtaining public financial support for his baths, based on their supposedly health-improving qualities. However, in a hilarious account of a party thrown for Irish parliamentarians, Jonah Barrington describes how the assembled power-brokers became roaring drunk and went tumbling into the baths: Borumborad "espied 18 or 19  Irish Parliament men" in the cold salt-water bath "floating like so many corks upon the surface or scrambling to get out like mice." That was pretty much it for Achmet, although there's a bizarre coda: one William Gregg of Antrim mentioned him in his will, asking that if he should "at any time change his name that he will take the name of William Gregg in remembrance of me." Sometimes, there's so much more you want to know from the shards left to us by these incomplete histories.


  1. I've heard mentioned the splendor of this book and the courage of Anne Bonney on the other hand I have only read Robinson crusoe. Daniel Defoe really know how to hang audience on. On Christmas I was given that book with a pill of Generic Viagra.