I wish I had invented blue jeans… – Yves Saint Laurent
It was an uprising in blue. The Nil vidroha, or Indigo Revolt, was a peasant movement started by indigo farmers in Bengal in 1859. Tired of being exploited by landowners and money-lenders, the farmers went on a rampage, taking their cue from the recent Indian Mutiny. Atrocities were committed. Property was destroyed. The usual cycle. The Government sent in troops.
Indigo is a colour that has always signified wealth. Because of its relative scarcity, the dyes made from indigo were used only for high quality textiles such as the tagelmust headscarves worn by the Tuareg of the Sahara and the garments worn by Japanese nobility during the Edo Period (1600-1868). Isaac Newton described indigo as one of the primary colours in Lectiones Opticae, his 1765 description of the rainbow.
The indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, had been exported from India in small quantities along the Silk Route since antiquity. Pliny the Elder mentioned India as the source of indigo. Its name derives from the Greek word indikon, which moved to the Latin INDICUM and thence to Italian and English.
The planting of Indigofera tinctoria in the modern era began in the Indian state of Bengal in 1777 when a French farmer named Louis Bonnard began cultivating the plant at Taldanga and Goalpara, near present-day Kolkata. The demand for indigo in Europe, driven in part by its use in a new type of heavy-duty serge cloth being manufactured in the French town of Nimes, made it a highly profitable crop.
European planters (wealthy farmers who rented land from the land-owning Indian Zamindars) persuaded their small tenant farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans to the farmers for seed and equipment but charged such high interest rates that the farmers could never repay the loans. When the crops were harvested, the planters and their Indian dealers paid the farmers meagre prices: only 2.5% of the indigo’s true market value. When the farmers were unable to repay their loans the planters resorted to the destruction of the farmers’ houses and property.
An Act of Government, passed in 1833 by the corrupt and easily-bought East India Company (who governed India until 1858) strengthened the position of the planters and the Zamindars. The Bengali middle-class, however, supported the peasant farmers in their plight. The play Nil Darpan, by the Indian playwright Dinabandhu Mitra was instrumental in garnering support for the farmers. The play was banned by the East India Company but has subsequently been seen as being an essential part in the development of theatre in Bengal.
The Indigo Revolt began in the towns of Gobindapur and Chowgacha (now in modern-day Bangladesh) and spread rapidly across Bengal. A number of planters were tried and executed by hastily-convened kangaroo courts. Indigo depots were burned down. The planters and their families fled. Many Zamindars were murdered.
After the initial surprise offensive by the farmers, the government collected itself and the revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. Large forces of government (ie East India Company) police and soldiers were dispatched to Bengal. The revolt’s leader, Biswanath Sardar (described by later historians as a “heroic, Robin Hood-like figure) was tried and hanged by the British.
Despite atrocities committed by both sides, the revolt remained popular with the Bengali middle-class. Even some of the Zamindars supported the peasant farmers’ cause. When the violence died down, the Government set up The Indigo Commission in 1860. Its aim was to put an end to the planters’ oppression of the small farmers. Its report noted that, prior to the end of the revolt, “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”
Nothing remains today of the Indian indigo industry. Indigo dye is produced synthetically and the old indigo warehouses of Bengal are all gone. But one thing remains. Those blue jeans you are wearing. They are made using a heavy cotton cloth woven from thread dyed with indigo. That cloth originated in the french town of Nimes. It’s called serge de Nimes. We call it denim.
The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time. – Henry David Thoreau
On a hot, humid morning, one hundred and eighty million years ago, a volcano standing on the edge of a primeval forest of primitive conifers on the eastern coast of the supercontinent of Gondwana, erupted with shattering violence. The blast wave from the eruption spread out from the volcano’s conical slopes. Traveling at the speed of sound across the surrounding country, it flattened everything in its path. Trees were snapped off at ground level and flung down into haphazard rows. The heat of the blast instantly incinerated the foliage, their ashes blown into dust. The blackened plain was stripped to bare soil. Chunks of pumice and incandescent blobs of lava rained down on the devastated landscape. The sun was blotted out by a roiling plume of pulverized rock, dust and poisonous gas, lit by jagged bolts of lightning, which reached the stratosphere and was torn away by the jet stream to encircle the Earth. Worse was to come. Mudslides raced down the volcano’s sides, engulfing everything that remained in a cloying, anaerobic blanket. These lahars, as geologists call them, completed the work begun by the volcano’s blast. The flattened trees, the tree stumps, even the very soil of the plain, was buried under a thick layer of mud. The volcano continued to erupt. Lava flows covered the landscape. Rivers rose and fell, spreading sediment and gravel across the plain. Gales blew for thousands of years, carrying dust and grit from distant mountains to accumulate in deep beds of loess.
Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.
But as the millennia ticked slowly by, the radioactive core of the planet began to cool. The volcanoes ceased to erupt. Their magma pipes solidified into plugs of solid rock that would one day form otherworldly clusters of symmetrical, vaguely conical mountains. Things settled down a bit. The Earth continued on along the elliptical path of its orbit around the sun. And time began seriously to pass. One hundred and eighty million years later, I awoke on the edge of a primeval shore of blackened reefs, pounding surf and a thin mist rolling off the sea onto a landscape frosted with ice. The air glowed pale pink above the coves of Curio Bay, fading up to a
rich blue as light from the rising sun filtered into the sky. Inside my truck, a rime of frozen condensation decorated the windscreen. The temperature felt well and truly subzero.
I started the engine and lay with my sleeping bag pulled up tight around my neck while the heater thawed out the interior. Below the isthmus where I was parked, the sea sloshed back and forth into a narrow slot in the reef. The water spilled out over the surrounding rock like an over-flowing bath. I could see penguins hopping into the water and swimming briskly out through the waving forests of kelp to their fishing grounds. The ocean steamed like a young man’s dreams. Later, after a reborative latte, hot and hot, full of sugar, and served up with a plate of toast, butter and jam, I set of along the cliff top though groves of rustling flax to the southern end of the bay. I descended a steel staircase to the reef, exposed by the receding tide, and walked out into the forest that had stood there so long ago.
The trees lay in the haphazard rows where they had fallen. Their stumps protruded from the soil beside them. It was as if I was standing there alone in a sylvan glade, with the sunlight filtering down and the sound of birds echoing around. The only difference was that this was a horizontal forest. Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone. On that distant day when the forest had been overwhelmed by the lahars, the fallen trees, the tree stumps, and even the soil was buried in a layer of volcanic ooze devoid of oxygen. As oxygen is required in order to make organic material decompose, the buried forest had simply lain there, inert, encased in its sterile cocoon of mud. As time passed and the volcanic conniptions above had quieted then ceased, a process began which would completely replace the stem tissue of the trees with minerals. This process. known as permineralization, retains the original cell structure of the parent tissue, but replaces it with silicates such as quartz. The permineralization, or petrification, process can only occur underground and takes millions of years to complete. The rivers which flowed across that ancient landscape were rich in the minerals required to petrify the tissue of the buried forest. As the mineral-laden water permiated through the layers of mud, the minerals began replacing the lignin and cellulose in the plant tissue, forming a kind of stone mould which retained the shape of the cells down to a microscopic level. Elements such as chromium, manganese, carbon, iron and copper created different hues in the petrified tree trunks.
The tree stumps
underwent an identical process, which preserved and petrified them in the ground where the trees had stood. Even the soil, which is, of course, organic material, became petrified. But while this unhurried, gentle transformation was taking place at a cellular level, another bigger, more ambitious transformation was going on around it. The rocks where the trees lay, the volcanoes and, indeed, a big chunk of Gondwana itself, was on the move.
The the lump of continental crust that would one day be known as Zealandia lay on the eastern side of Gondwana. For millions of years this massive supercontinent, itself a remnant of another former supercontinent, Pangea, had wandered the globe: a gigantic raft of rock floating on a subterraneann ocean of magma. Eighty million years had passed since that summer day when the volcano had erupted and buried the trees. As the eons ticked by, ranges of mountains were eroded by wind and frost, ice and water. Their sediments were washed into shallow depressions in the continent’s surface, accumulating layer upon heavy layer and pressing down on the crust beneath. As the weight increased, the crust began to stretch and become thinner. Continual faulting and rifting created a basin into which the sea flooded. Elsewhere on Gondwana, the continental blocks that would one day become Australia and Antarctica were also in the process of separating from their mother continent. But out on the eastern coast, as the inland sea grew wider and wider, New Zealand and Australia would now forever be separated by an ocean.
Around seventy-five million years ago, Zealandia was completely separated from the remains of Gondwana. The seafloor between the two continental blocks continued to spread apart, pushed by upwellings of new rock on the fault line between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. On this slow-moving porridge-pot of rock, constantly subsiding and cracking and bubbling, the tiny chunk containing the petrified trees rode. By forty million years ago it was roughly in the position it occupies now, albeit still buried deep in the floating crust. As New Zealand came to a halt, a new tectonic fault grabbed it like a slewing truck, sliding half of it northwards to form the North Island. As the Pacific plate shoved against this new fault, the rocks surrounding the ancient, lithified trees were thrust upwards to the surface. The scene was set for the trees to re-emerge for me to stand on, one-hundred and eighty million years after they had been buried.
…with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film.
There was one final stage of the process. The surrounding rocks needed to be stripped away from the petrified trees, stumps and soil. For that to occur, some decent erosion was required. And for that, you need some big, energy-laden waves. Luckily, plate tectonics had sorted that out as well. The Gonwandan remnant that made up Australia and Antarctica had been split apart by tectonic action separate from that which had been working on Zealandia in general and New Zealand in particular. As Antarctica wandered off from Australia like a runaway child, oceanic currents began to circulate around it. These currents, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, effectively isolated Antarctica, upon whose shores tropical forests had once flourished, from the warmth of Australia and South America. The continent froze.
Frigid storms wracked the cold waters around Antarctic, generating huge seas whose waves, propagating outwards, smashed into the southern coast of the South Island. The energy contained in the waves began eroding the rocks surrounding the petrified trees, exposing them to daylight once more. They chipped and gnawed at the coastline, creating Curio Bay and nearby Porpoise Bay, and carving out the fretwork of cracks and fissures in the rocky platform where the trees lay.
I stood there now, watching the waves surging up onto the rocks. A flock of seagulls, looking like the black and white keyboard on an eighties synthesizer, fluttered and fussed just out of reach of the waves. Pools of water, left by the receding tide, lay around the trees. The sun glittered on their trunks and branches. The woodgrain stood out as clearly as a piece of new timber on a wood-turner’s lathe. The stumps were also plainly visible, their outer skin of bark and sapwood distinctly different in texture from the heartwood within. The surrounding soil, lithified just like the trees, formed carpets of raised grey nodules between the stumps.
I lingered there among the old trees for ages. Well, that is to say I lingered for an hour or so at least: The term “ages” being a highly relative term when I considered just how long the trees had lain there and the stupendous journey that they had been on. I couldn’t escape from the image they conjured in my mind of a quiet stand of forest, with a warm mesh of dappled sunlight filtering down, with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film. I imagined the camera panning around me as I looked up into the towering canopy, with a flare of light coming into the wide-angle lens.
But then, alas, I was jolted back into reality by the wash of a wave coming over the rock platform and the arrival of a the first tour group of the day. I toyed with the idea of zapping them with my imaginary phaser but decided against it. So with my tricorder in my hand, I climbed the steel steps back up to the present day and set off north to find some trees that were still living.
The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle…
I was jumped on by a possum at Curio Bay. Now that’s not a sentence you’ll read very often. It was just after ten o’clock at night and I was standing on a headland overlooking the bay, with surf booming on the reefs below and a big, silver full moon lying on the horizon. The evening was, as yet, still warm, but the shimmering of the stars pointed to a hard frost to come, as the latent heat remaining from the day radiated out into space through the clear, empty air.
I’d left Slope Point as the sun sank below the western skyline and had driven east through a pink gloaming. It was as if the Earth was lit from within by some understated source of translucent light. Every rock and hillside seemed to glow. The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle, lay gleaming under the pastel curtain of the sky. The trees, flaxes and reeds growing along the roadsides and dotting the hills, stood motionless in the twilight. It was as if I was driving through a different world, or another world altogether, suspended halfway between day and night.
Evening lasts a long time in these high southern latitudes so it was still light when I reached Curio Bay. The visitor center at the Curio Bay Camping Ground was still open so I went in to ask about the cost of a campsite for the night. With only ApplePay on my cellphone (I don’t have a bank account, let alone a bankcard) I was restricted by my merge supply of cash as to where I could stay and dine. Travelling around Southland I had found that the concept of contact-less payment was yet to gain widespread favour and I’d been forced to part with valuable cash on several occasions that would have merely been a matter of tap and go in a more technologically advanced part of the country.
I had forty-two dollars in notes and a handful of change left to my name so the campsite needed to be cheap if I was going to eat dinner as well.
“Mate for forty-two bucks you can get a campsite and a great dinner here in the restaurant,” Tom Robinson, the camp’s manager and tour guide told me when I explained the parlous state of my finances.
“And,” he continued, “you’ll have enough left over for breakfast in the morning too.”
With my truck parked on a grassy isthmus between the flax groves of the main campsite and the pyramidal bulk of Grayling Head, I’d walked up to the restaurant in the dark and eaten an expansive dinner of lasagna, chips and salad. Afterwards, feeling somewhat bloated, I had walked up to the top of the headland to shake things down and find some cellphone coverage. And it was here, while updating my social media that I encountered Percy Possum.
The possum, bless him, must have been shuffling around up there for the same reason as me: just chilin’ in the moonlight and taking in the view. Possums are the marsupial equivalent of stoner humans. They just do their own thing, man, y’know, clambering around in the trees eating billions of tonnes of foliage, staring down on-coming headlights, getting it on with the ladies, and pretty much just living the possum version of The Good Life.
And, of course, they just love weed. Anyone who has grown the green gold out in the bush will know that if the crop isn’t protected by wire netting, possums will eat the fuckin’ lot. They’re the Cheech and Chong of the animal kingdom. And even though they are filthy, disease-ridden little vermin cunts, responsible for spreading bovine tuberculosis, scoffing the eggs of native birds, and the annihilation of thousands of hectares of native forest every year, its hard not to like them, with their cute button noses, big goggly eyes and shambling gait.
I had sometimes heard people say that if a possum gets panicked it will run up the tallest thing in its vicinity. If the tallest thing happens to be a nearby human, well, up it will go, scratching the fuck out of you with is claws in the process. But I had never encountered a panicked possum.
Mostly, you encounter them at one remove, as they go under the wheels of your vehicle with a wet thud, knocking the alignment out of kilter as they do so. The roads of New Zealand are decorated with the gory remains of dead possums, in various stages of decomposition ranging from sad piles of fresh fur amid a reddish splatter of blood and entrails, to vague, black, desiccated outlines, melted into oblivion by the sun and mashed wafer-thin into the tarmac by dozens of passing cars.
However, as I wasn’t currently doing anything to send a possum into a state of panic, or, indeed, even expecting to encounter a marsupial of any kind on that high, moonlit promontory, the sight of a possum sitting on the ground beside me came as something of a surprise. Obviously, it came as something of a surprise to the possum as well because it promptly leapt onto my chest, its vicious little claws grasping the material of my puffer jacket for purchase.
At close range, a possum’s features quickly lose their cuteness. The creature’s little button nose housed the sort of wicked-looking teeth you would see on a church gargoyle. Its goggly eyes looked positively rabid. For a moment it peered up at me with a sort of dazed recognition, like a mountaineer spotting the route up a particularly difficult section of a crag.
But before it could begin its final ascent of my north face I slapped the little bastard hard across the mush and said “fuck off, Percy.” It fell to the ground with an indistinct thud and shuffled off down the seaward slope of the headland. For my part I just stood there blinking, like a possum in the headlights, I suppose, wonder what the hell had just happened.
It hadn’t been scary, just somewhat incongruous and as I walked back down the track to my truck I thought: “well that’ll make a great opening line for a chapter.”
With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood, Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before … – Edward Gerard, The Wells of Old Beersheba
One hundred and one years ago, on October 31st, 1917, my great-uncle, A.F. Blakiston, took part in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see. The Battle of Beersheba took place in Southern Palestine (now Israel) and saw the eventual capture of the high ground from which the approaches to Gaza were defended by a seasoned Ottoman (Turkish) garrison.
After a number of previous defeats, the allied commander, General Edmund Allenby, had called in the Australian Light Horse Brigade, ordering them to charge the defences of Beersheba. Armed only with bayonets (their rifles had to be slung over their shoulders while mounted), which they held out like swords in true cavalry style, the Aussies galloped across the open ground between the British lines and the Turks’ positions, jumped over the trenches, leapt from their horses and laid into the stunned Turks with enthusiastic abandon.
The Ottoman forces were routed, the Allied forces (which also comprised Australian and New Zealand foot soldiers) mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance, and then began the long march towards Jerusalem, which they captured six weeks later. The Charge of the Light Horse went down in history and in Australian folklore. Amongst the young Australian horsemen, most of whom hailed from the vast cattle stations of the Outback, where horsemanship was prized over all things, was a scattering of men from other countries, including, quite by chance, my great-uncle, A. F. Blakiston.
“[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”
Arthur Frederick Blakiston was born in the English county of Derbyshire in 1892. The son of a Baronet, he was educated at Bedford School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. A fearless horseman, “Blakie” as he was nicknamed, rode furiously to hounds and was a fearsome rugby player. Following his war exploits, he would go on the play rugby for England from 1920-1925 and tour South Africa with the British Lions, playing in all for of their test matches there.
I first encountered Blackie in early 1990, when my girlfriend Linda and I went to visit his widow, Lady Ann Blakiston, in the village of Corton, near Warminster, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. We were working as live-in bar staff at a pub in Central London at the time, a couple of Kiwi kids out exploring the world. I knew of Lady Ann’s existence both through the well-researched Blakiston family tree, and through my cousin John Blakiston, a Colonel in the British Army with whom we had already stayed with on several occasions since arriving in England in March 1989.
Lady Ann’s neat cottage, whose address was simply 8a Corton, was a shrine to the memory of the beloved Blackie. Over tea and lardy cake (a traditional West Country dessert) Ann regaled us with tales of her late husband’s adventures. The old fellow obviously had no liking for those in authority and had often traded a safe comfortable life and income for penurious adventures that were their own reward.
On the ship home from the British Lions’ rugby tour to South Africa, Blakiston and one of his team-mates were leaning on the rail of the afterdeck, discussing what their prospects would be when they landed back in England.
“How much money do you have?” asked Blakiston’s friend. Rummaging through his pockets, Blakiston took out his last coin, a silver sixpence bearing the profile of King George V, surrounded by the legend GEORGIVS V DEI GRAS:BRITT:OMN:REX.
“This is it,” he said, looking down at the gleaming coin in his hand. “How much do you have?” His friend replied that he was penniless. With that, Blakiston hurled his last sixpence overboard. It curled through the blue air, glinting momentarily in the sun, and disappeared into the ocean.
“Well,” said Blakiston, “we’ll both start from scratch when we get home.”
Having joined the Royal Field Artillery at the outbreak of World War One, Blakiston had been gassed at Ypres, won a Military Cross for gallantry at Verdun, and had been posted to Palestine with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, now under the command of Allenby, in June 1917.
Bored with endless maneuvers and constant drilling, Blakiston decided to sneak away from his regiment and join the Australian Light Horse Brigade on their attack of Beersheba. By doing so he contravened a standing order that British soldiery did not mix or fraternize with “colonials.” However, Blakiston had no liking for regulations or those in command. To him, the opportunity for a pell-mell gallop across the desert was too good an opportunity to miss.
No record of Blakiston’s impressions of the charge exist. However, it is easy to imagine him in the thick of the fighting, spurring his horse on in the same headlong way he charged down hedges while hunting foxes on the downlands of England. A contemporary account of the the action, written by James McCarroll of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, paints the scene: “[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”
In everything he did throughout his life, Arthur Frederick Blakiston was the embodiment of the Blakiston family motto, Fac Bene Nec Dubitans: Do Well And Doubt Not. And in the charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, Blakiston took his place in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see.