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Archive for July, 2016

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Gold-fever

Posted in Geology, Historical articles, Minerals on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about gold originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Californian goldrush, picture, image, illustration

The Californian goldrush by James E McConnell

Gold fever! In the 19th century, it could sweep whole continents like a raging fire. America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada each had their own gold rush, or rushes.

The pattern kept repeating itself. There would be a rumour of a gold “strike”, then a stampede to the area would begin. Office boys in London and New York headed for the ports: good men and bad men set out for the gold-fields. Many never arrived; many more never found gold; a few discovered unimaginable wealth – in places with names like Bonanza Creek and Last Chance Gulch.

Some of those who had been in the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 in their teens were to be found heading for the Klondike in 1898. Such was gold fever.

Two things made the 19th century the greatest age of gold-mining – the sheer size of the finds, and the fact that travel by sea and later by rail became available to everyone.

Even so, toiling in the gold-fields was a hard way of making a fortune.

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Nicolo, Maffeo and Marco

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Trade, Travel on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about Marco Polo originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 812 published on 6 August 1977.

Marco Polo, picture, image, illustration

Marco Polo crossing the Persian deserts still largely unexplored today, by Ron Embleton

Seventeen-year-old Marco Polo watched his deeply suntanned father and his uncle packing their bags and cases in their luxury house in Venice.

“Please take me with you,” Marco begged.

His father, Nicolo, looked at Maffeo, and the two elder men in turn looked at the fine, strapping young Marco.

“Very well,” said Nicolo. “You may come with us.”

The Polo’s were preparing for another journey to the mysterious East – only this time, as Marco knew, they had a mission to fulfil.

Two years before, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo had returned from a trip to China which had lasted ten years. They had crossed the great Gobi Desert and come to the court of the Kublai Khan, ruler of all the Tartars, in distant Cathay, where China is today.

At this time – the middle of the thirteenth century – it was unheard on for travellers to ventire so far east. All that men in Europe knew about the other side of the world was what they had been told in legend.

Marco knew that his uncle and his father had returned to Venice because the Great Khan had asked them to speak to the Pope on behalf of the Tartars, so that his people might be told something of the Christian religion.

And the two elder Polos had already told Marco of some of their exciting stories of the Great Khan’s court, and had described to him the riches and treasures that were to be found in the East.

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Sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 1 July 2016

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.

Mordecai, picture, image, illustration

Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews

We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.

Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”

This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.

There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).

But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).

A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.

The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).

In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.