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Archive for February, 2011

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The Amazon River

Posted in Exploration, Geography, Nature, Travel, Wildlife on Monday, 28 February 2011

This edited article about the Amazon river originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

Scene on a Tributary of the River Amazon, Brazil. Illustration from The Countries of the World by Robert Brown

Scene on a Tributary of the River Amazon, Brazil. Illustration from The Countries of the World by Robert Brown

Rivers intertwine endlessly, and under their surface lie shoals of piranha, the most ferocious fish of them all, capable of reducing a man to a skeleton within seconds. For this is the Amazon, where fear and tropical heat go hand in hand for the explorer brave enough to penetrate its sinister depths.

Many expeditions have entered the basin of the world’s second longest river, yet huge areas remain as primitive as they were when the world began, regions where no white man has been able to venture because of their utter remoteness. A thousand tributaries wind over 7,000,000 square kilometres to join the Amazon on its path from the high reaches of the Andes to the Atlantic 6,400 km. away. The width between the banks at its outfall equals the distance between London and Paris: a mouth so big that it encloses an island the size of Switzerland.

Indeed, to study the sheer size of the Amazon is an exercise in incredulity. One-fifth of the world’s fresh water flows through it. The length of the tributaries, which start in half a dozen countries fringing Brazil, would go twice around the world. They play a vital role in the inland transportation system of the Amazonian valley, and plans are being studied to link them up with those of the rivers in the Parana basin in south Brazil and so develop a navigable waterway across the entire centre of the country.

The Amazonian region also contains one-third of the earth’s forests, which are inhabited by thousands of species of trees and plants. Some 2,000 kinds of fish – more than in all Europe – live in the rivers. The Amazon constantly defies the geographer, too. Occasionally it sweeps away entire stretches of land, sometimes whole villages, and plants them on the opposite bank.

The great basin is also endowed with vast reserves of iron ore, gold, manganese, bauxite and tin. Brazil exports half the world’s coffee and much of it comes from the Amazonian plantations.

The wealth of the Amazon was the magnet which lured treasure-seeking European explorers to South America. For many of them, however, the Amazon spelt doom. The Spaniards never found the gold of El Dorado and hundreds of them perished in the quest for riches. Sir Walter Raleigh went in search of the legendary city only to return to the Tower of London and the executioner’s block.

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Cattle and their unique digestive system

Posted in Animals, Nature on Monday, 28 February 2011

This edited article about cattle and their digestive system originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

Cattle belong to a family of animals known as Bovidae, which include goats, sheep, antelopes and all the other ruminant animals. The zoological name of the cattle we are so used to seeing on our farms is Bos taurus, and we are very dependent upon them for an important part of our diet – milk, cream, butter, cheese and, of course, meat.

Cattle grazing. Ilustratiob by Sue Neale

Cattle grazing. Ilustratiob by Sue Neale

Cattle are known as ruminating animals because of their unique digestive system, which enables them to eat coarse feeding stuff such as grass or hay. They have four separate compartments in their stomachs.

The function of the first compartment – the rumen – is to soften the grass or straw which then overflows into the smaller second stomach. The food may be returned or regurgitated from either of these stomachs. The animal then chews it again in small portions called “cuds” – and appears to be meditating or “ruminating” while doing so.

Cattle are believed to have appeared first in India and Europe during the Pliocene era, about seven million years ago, but zoologists are uncertain whether the early Indian species were the ancestors of the cattle found in Europe today.

Originally, these animals were not domesticated, but simply beasts to be hunted for their flesh and hides, and it is thought that they were not tamed until agriculture had its beginnings in valleys of the Euphrates and the Egyptian Nile.

This probably occurred around 12,000 BC, but it was not until about 3000 BC that cattle were domesticated in Britain. The early British cattle were probably black in colour, small and slender, and came to these islands with the Celtic invaders.

Changes occurred shortly after the Romans invaded Britain, when they introduced larger, white cattle which were probably the ancestors of the white animals found in Italy today.

The Saxons, Angles and Danes all brought their own cattle to Britain when they invaded the country, and later the Normans may have been responsible for introducing the ancestors of the modern Hereford breed.

The twenty or so British breeds of cattle seen today have been evolved from this mixture, but until the middle of the 17th century all the animals were used only for drawing carts or pulling ploughs, as they still are in many parts of the world. When they were too old for work, they were killed and used for food, so some of the “roast beef of olde England” was probably rather tough!

The scientifically controlled breeding of cattle to improve the quality of the meat, and later the quality and quantity of milk yield, began in the 18th century, and continues to this day.

British livestock have been exported to many parts of the world, and three great breeds, the modern Beef Shorthorn, the red-and-white Hereford, and the black Aberdeen Angus have been chiefly responsible for Great Britain gaining the title of “stockfarm of the world”.

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Wynkyn de Worde

Posted in English Literature, Literature on Monday, 28 February 2011

Wynkyn de Worde was a young printer whose name has been overshadowed by that of his more famous employer, William Caxton. He was born in Alsace and arrived in London around 1480. It is thought Caxton brought him across to help compete with a rival printer, but whatever the reason, Worde was to make an immensely important contribution to the future of the printed book in England.

Wynkyn de Worde, picture, image, illustration

After Caxton’s death and a hiatus due to litigation, he took over the famous print shop and sometime later moved into new premises in Fleet Street, the first printer to establish himself in that legendary location. His principal achievements were populist and technical. He was the first so-called typographer in England, and introduced movable type to print music, as well as being the first printer to use italics, Hebrew and Arabic. His chief strength lay in expanding his customer base. Caxton had relied on aristocratic patronage, and though Worde enjoyed the support of Margaret Beaufort, the King’s mother, he aimed his comparatively cheaper product at those slightly less less exalted and privileged. He set up a bookseller’s stall near St Paul’s, which was to become the centre of the book-selling trade in the capital, and his books contained many more illustrations than those of Caxton. Moreover, he used an English paper maker, instead of importing more expensively from the continent. He published over 400 books, many in several editions, and one – Whittington’s Latin Grammar – in a staggering 155 editions. It was the Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer of its day. Other works included poems by Skelton, a book of Christmasse Carolles, Mandeville’s Travels and Robin Hood. He died in 1534.

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Pontius Pilate

Posted in Bible, Religion on Monday, 28 February 2011

There are many Roman Prefects in recorded history, some of great military distinction, others of less noble reputation, but none so notorious as Pontius Pilate. He was the fifth Prefect of Judaea province and was therefore caught up in the circumstances of Jesus’ arrest and the subsequent trial.

Pilate, picture, image, illustration

“What is truth?” asked Pilate, by James E McConnell

He was wary of the Jewish high priests, and is universally held to have wanted to spare the life of Christ, doing everything he could to bring this about. He certainly does not believe that this so-called ‘King of the Jews’ is a threat to Rome. However, the trial proceeds much to his discomfort and irritation. Finally, he grasps at one last chance, but the crowd chooses to free Barabbas when offered a choice between the two prisoners, and this serves only to drive home the inescapable fact of Christ’s imminent death. So Pilate washes his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus, thereby hoping, perhaps unknowingly, to distance himself from the terrible judgement of history, and disassociate himself from the Sadducees. In the unfolding drama of the Crucifixion, his frustration is matched by our own powerlessness during the unjust entrapment and trial of Jesus. Incidental to this, the curious cameo role played by Pilate’s wife and her mysterious dream of foreboding, remains one of the Bible’s most tantalising episodes.

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Saint Patrick

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Monday, 28 February 2011

Remarkably few biographical facts are known about Saint Patrick, and much that used to be repeated in the many hagiographies has now been discredited by modern scholarship. We do know that he was born to an important Romano-British family around 387 AD. His father was a deacon, and his mother a close relative of St Martin of Tours, an important place in France’s intellectual life which Patrick would visit later in his life.

Patrick, picture, image, illustration

Saint Patrick takes God’s message across Ireland on foot, by Peter Jackson

At the age of 16 he was kidnapped by marauders and taken back to Ireland, where he was bound into servitude by an Irish Chieftain called Milchu, at Dalriada, which is in present day County Antrim. This man was a high druid, and on that account Patrick became well acquainted with the old pagan religion of Ireland, and as a matter of necessity learned that strand of the Celtic language. He was held for six years, but after hearing a prophetic voice bid him flee his cruel master, he was at last able to escape across country, helped by strangers and an inner conviction, strengthened by the providential guidance he was receiving from God, directing him towards a ship on the coast which would take him back to England. The ship was indeed at Westport, and carried him back home. Several years then passed. After visits to Tours and elsewhere, during which time his spiritual education was completed, he returned to Ireland , probably in 433, and started his journeyings throughout that inhospitable land, attacked by the Druids and battered by the elements. But Patrick was a formidable man, and carried his Christianity to the scattered peoples of the country with immense self-sacrifice and fortitude. By the seventh century he was already known as the patron saint of Ireland. We know most of these few facts from his Declaration, or Confessio, which is one of only two letters widely believed to have been written by him. He died at a considerable age on 17 March, 493, a date now celebrated as St Patrick’s Day, one of the most commonly celebrated of all Saints’ days.

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The Chinese Junk Ship: Master of the Seas

Posted in Boats, Sea, Ships on Monday, 28 February 2011

This edited article about Chienese Junk boats originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

From the extreme north to the extreme south of China, some type of the junk, the country’s classic sailing vessel, described by the explorer Marco Polo in 1298, can still be seen.

Chinese Junk boats

Chinese Junk boats

There are regional variations of the junk to suit local trades, waters and currents, but all share the same basic characteristics. Wooden, square-prowed and flat-bottomed for sailing in shallow waters, they have a sturdy bulkhead in a high stern from which the vessel is steered. A massive rudder drops down through the ship and projects below its bottom – a far more efficient method than the rudders in use in Polo’s day.

But the most singular feature of the junk is, of course, its sail. Made of panels of matting or cotton cloth stretched over battens of bamboo strips, the sails (any number from 1 to 5) work like Venetian blinds. A tug on the rope and a sail is spread or closed.

Junks can be very colourful. Some even have eyes painted on the bulwarks to ward off evil spirits. The decoration is less spectacular in the south, where there has been more Western influence. Junks are awkward to handle and slow, but very seaworthy, and large enough to make comfortable floating homes. They used to be popular among pirates who sailed the waters around the Chinese coast.

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The discovery of gold in New Zealand

Posted in Discoveries, Geology, History on Monday, 28 February 2011

This edited article about the discovery of gold in New Zealand originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

Gold fever! In the 19th century it could sweep whole continents like a raging fire. California in 1848; it was Australia’s turn in 1851 – when would New Zealand’s time come?

Gold prospectors in New Zealand. There was little or no law in the outback. Many of the hardworking prospectors were robbed of their gold by desperadoes who sought an easier road to wealth. Illustration by Oliver Frey

Gold prospectors in New Zealand. There was little or no law in the outback. Many of the hardworking prospectors were robbed of their gold by desperadoes who sought an easier road to wealth. Illustration by Oliver Frey

There were small finds in North Island in the 1850s, but not the sort to cause a stampede, to make office boys in London and New York head for the docks, to empty every ship in a harbour as their crews raced for the diggings. But was there gold in South Island?

The Provincial Council of Otago had offered a £500 reward – a vast sum in those days – for the man who struck it rich. In May 1861, Gabriel Read, a veteran of the Californian and Australian rushes, “struck colour” on the bar of a stream in the district of Tuapeka.

“I shovelled away about two and a half feet of gravel,” he later related, “arrived at a beautiful soft slate and saw gold shining like the stars in Orion on a dark, frosty night.”

He reported his find to the Superintendent of Otago, the news was released, and the small Scottish settlement of Dunedin promptly emptied – to fill up again as people poured into the port, bound for the goldfields. Within two years, Otago’s population jumped from 13,000 to 60,000. Its 700,000 sheep had been its main industry: now there was gold.

The New Zealand government tried to avoid the lawlessness that had characterised the gold rushes of the past by providing some basic amenities in the outback. Improved roads, well-built townships, a hospital, gave the trappings of civilisation to the diggers. So the first season, in which 400,000 ounces of gold were found, saw little crime. But life was hard.

Meanwhile the search for gold was continuing farther afield. Two prospectors called Hartley and Reilly struck it rich in the Dunstan Mountains – and once again Dunedin became a ghost town.

This find and the ones that followed were in wild country of mountains, forests, deep gorges and barren land, baking in summer and freezing in winter. It was harder for the authorities to police these remote areas. At the Arrow River diggings “a mob of Tipperary men were going about jumping portions of the richest claims”. There were occasional hold-ups.

On the west coast of the island the centre of activity was Hokitika, where mining started in 1864. Here there were dangers to overcome even before reaching the mine-fields. For those who arrived by sea, there was a river bar to be crossed, and many ships foundered or were hurled ashore by the surf to break up on the beach. Getting about inland was best done by keeping to the river and the creeks, and even then progress was hampered by thick forests and plagues of mosquitoes.

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Amelia Earhart: Heroine of the Air

Posted in Adventure, Aviation, Heroes and Heroines, History, Transport, Travel on Monday, 28 February 2011

This edited article about Amelia Earhart originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

The sounds from the old airfield hangar on Long Island, New York, were deafening – and high-pitched. Afterwards mechanics working on aircraft outside claimed that even the roar of the engines they were testing was drowned by the noise.

In May 1932, Amelia Earheart landed her Lockheed aircraft and completed the first transatlantic solo flight by a woman. Illustration by Wilf Hardy

In May 1932, Amelia Earheart landed her Lockheed aircraft and completed the first transatlantic solo flight by a woman. Illustration by Wilf Hardy

The loud sounds came from the combined voices of a crowd of women – ninety-nine of them. They all held USA pilots’ licences, and they had come together to publicise flying for women, in an effort to get people to take them more seriously.

One of the most enthusiastic and determined among them was a short-haired 31-year-old named Amelia Earhart. She had already done something to put women’s flying on the map. On the 18th June in the previous year, 1928, she had landed in South Wales after a flight from Newfoundland; the first woman to cross the Atlantic non-stop by aeroplane.

Just over a year before Charles Lindbergh had completed the historic first solo flight across the ocean, from the USA to France. Amelia as yet made no claim to rival him; for she had flown merely as a passenger in a plane piloted by aviator Wilmer Stultz. But at least she had shown that a woman was as ready to face such a dangerous venture as any man.

The Ninety-Nines, as the association formed at the noisy meeting was called, set out to prove that woman pilots were as good as any. And Amelia Earhart was in the forefront of their campaign.

When still in her ‘teens, during the First World War, she had shown her spirit of independence by going to Canada and volunteering as a nurse in a military hospital. Now she was to display both skill and courage as an aviator. In 1932 she achieved her first great flying ambition – a solo transatlantic flight. Taking off from Newfoundland, she landed in Ireland after 13½ hours of hazardous flying.

Three years later she became the first to achieve what several men had attempted before with disastrous results, when she flew solo from Hawaii, in mid-Pacific, to the Californian coast. By this time her place in the annals of flying was secure.

Sadly, her career had only two years to run. In 1937 she set out eastward to fly round the world, accompanied by a navigator, Fred Noonan. Having completed about two thirds of the journey, they left New Guinea on a course for Howland Island in the South Pacific.

It is known that their radio was faulty, and that they ran into rough weather. But nothing more is known of their fate; though several theories have been advanced. It was a tragic and mysterious end to a brilliant career.

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Lady Jane Grey: Famous Last Words

Posted in Famous Last Words on Monday, 28 February 2011

Lady Jane Grey was known as “the nine days queen” as she reigned only between the 10th and 19th of July 1553. The granddaughter of Henry VII, he named her as his successor in his will, attempting to subvert claims by her half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth.

picture, Lady Jane Grey, queen, execution, beheading

The execution of Lady Jane Grey. Illustration by Kronheim

Lady Jane spent her brief reign imprisoned at the Tower of London whilst the Privy Council made their decision to proclaim Mary as queen. She was subsequently executed after being found guilty of high treason. After giving a short speech on the scaffold, she recited Psalm 51, handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid and blindfolded herself. Blindfolded, she was unable to find the block and began to panic, crying “What shall I do? Where is it?” Guided to the block she lay down and said

“Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”

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Birth of Sir Malcolm Campbell

Posted in Adventure, Anniversary, Sporting Heroes on Monday, 28 February 2011

11 March marks the anniversary of the birth of Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1885.

picture, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Land Speed Record, Sunbeam, Pendine Flats, Wales

Malcolm Campbell attempting the Land Speed Record at Pendine Flats in 1924. Illustration by Ferdinando Tacconi

Campbell, born in Chislehurst, Kent, was the son of a diamond seller and it was whilst learning the diamond trade in Germany that he developed an interest in motor bikes and racing. He subsequently worked for Lloyds of London whilst racing as a hobby, winning three London to Lakes End Trials (1906-08) before taking up motorcar racing at Brooklands. His cars he named Blue Bird after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

He broke the Land Speed Record for the first time at Pendine Sands near Carmarthen Bay in 1924 whilst driving a Sunbeam racing car. Over the next 11 years he broke the speed record a further eight times, the last time at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, averaging a speed of 301.337 mph – the first person to drive an automobile over 300 mph.

He died in 1948, aged 63.

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