Archive

Monthly Archives: April 2015

lusitania-wanderer

At around 11.00 am, on the morning of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania broke through a thick blanket of fog. In the distant lay the indistinct smudge of the Irish coast. The world’s largest passenger liner at the time, the Lusitania had some 2,000 people on board, making the crossing from New York to Liverpool. It was to be her last journey.

At about 14.00 that same afternoon, she was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank within 18 minutes. Her last message gave her position as 10 miles south of Old Kinsale, off the southeastern coast of Ireland. It would take another two hours before the first steamer could reach the scene.

About three miles to the north east of the Lusitania’s final position was a small Manx fishing boat, the Wanderer. She had been fishing for mackerel in the calm waters of the Irish Sea, when her crew had seen the Lusitania suddenly list in the water. Undeterred by the possible dangers from the lurking U-boat, the Wanderer raced for the stricken vessel, arriving on scene in time to pluck 160 people from the water. The first casualty they took on board was a two month old baby, but hundreds more lay dead around them. Over the next two hours the crew did what they could for the survivors. The boat was filled to overflowing and, in spite of the dangers to themselves, the crew also took two full lifeboats in tow. The skipper of the boat, William Ball, in a letter that he later wrote to the Wanderer’s owner, described the scene with typical Manx pragmatism…

“…We picked up the first boats a quarter of a mile inside of where she sunk, and there we got four boat loads put aboard us, We couldn’t take any more, as we had 160 – men, women, and children. In addition, we had two boats in tow, full of passengers, We were the only boat there for two hours, then the patrol boats came out from Queenstown. We had a busy time making tea for them…and all our milk and tea is gone and a lot of clothes as well…and the bottle of whisky we had leaving home.”

The Wanderer finally managed to hand her pitiful cargo over to the Admiralty tug, Flying Fish, who took the survivors on to Queenstown, in southern Ireland. In total, nearly 1,200 people lost their lives that day, but the sinking went on to have far reaching consequences for Germany. In firing on a non-military ship without warning, she had breached international law (in spite of the fact that it is believed that the British had been flouting the rules by carrying war munitions). The outrage across the Atlantic in America helped to shift public opinion and went on to be instrumental in America’s eventual entry into the war two years later.

As for the Wanderer, well little remains of her role in the events of Friday, May 7. The Manchester Manx Society organised for the men to receive specially struck medals to mark their pivotal role in the events, but the only permanent reminder of what happened is a plaque adorning a wall in their home town of Peel. The boat itself continued to fish the waters of the Irish Sea until the 1930s, eventually ending her days in Ireland, all but forgotten except for a few letters home and a plaque on a wall in a small fishing port on the western coast of the Isle of Man.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 13.25.17

On the 3 May 2015, the Isle of Man will mark the centenary of the sinking with a commemoration service and a flotilla of boats, which will be led out by the Peel Lifeboat to the haunting lament of a lone piper. For more details see – http://www.thewanderer100.com.

_76782329_thewanderer

11690011

Easter is nearly upon us. For many this means little more than a surplus of hot cross buns, a nausea-fuelled orgy of chocolate eggs and a chance to spend some time trawling through the aisles of the local DIY stores. Personally, it will signal the end of a self-imposed chocolate fast that has seen me enduring cold turkey since the beginning of Lent.There are, of course, many out there who still observe its more traditional meaning and a mission of mercy on the lifeboat this week – to deliver a bishop and a cross to a small fishing port on the south-west coast of the Isle of Man – did make me momentarily reflect on what Easter still means to many people around the world.

It also reminded me of a surreal Easter that I once spent in the town of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia…

Having travelled across the country in a bus, sat sandwiched between a nervous chicken and an old man cradling a Kalashnikov, I had arrived in Aksum just in time for the Easter celebrations, an important time for the Orthodox Christians. Of the numerous religious festivals practiced by the Ethiopians the two most important are Timkat and Easter and, whilst Timkat is certainly the more colourful, Easter has always required a more committed approach to worship. The Orthodox Easter is known as Fasika and marks the end of a fast that lasts some 55 days, during which time no animal product at all can be consumed. Suffice to say, the end of Easter in Ethiopia is something of a blood bath, when the streets quite literally run with gore and animals and vegetarians alike tend to keep a low profile.

The town itself was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Lying at the heart of an empire that stretched along the Red Sea coast to present day Djibouti and deep into southwestern Arabia, at its height it rivalled the empires of Rome, China and Persia and nurtured a civilisation that far outstripped its neighbours. It was from here that Christianity spread its way into the rest of Ethiopia.

…It is also the final resting place of the ‘lost’ Ark of the Covenant!

CNV00016

The stuff of legend and conjecture, sought by everyone from the Knights Templar to Indiana Jones, this most holy of relics today resides in a small, unassuming concrete chapel sandwiched between Aksum’s two cathedrals. Lying beneath a decaying green roof, watched over by a solitary monk, there are few here who will publicly deny its presence. This sacred relic is central to the entire Orthodox faith, with every church, no matter how large or small, housing a replica known as the Tabot within its sanctuary. Little wonder then that there is still an unshakeable belief amongst its people that the Ark of the Covenant is indeed within their midst.

Strangely, this deeply ingrained religious fervour had more than a passing effect on me. I even managed to drag myself into the pre dawn light one morning, to bear witness to a remarkable procession. Hundreds of white robed figures, their faces bathed in the almost ethereal glow of candlelight, walked through the surprisingly crowded streets. At their centre, a group of monks carried a box, about the size of a small tea chest, within which lay, allegedly, the hallowed symbol of their faith. A part of me truly wanted to believe that this small unremarkable box, just a few feet away from me, contained the most sacred of all religious artefacts…the words of God himself.

It was during this rare (and temporary) episode of religious enlightenment that I found myself purchasing a grubby scroll from a wandering street trader. Written in Ge’ez, a language that can trace its origins back to the ancient Arabian texts of 6th century BC, this aged roll of pigskin represented a tradition that has long disappeared from western art. A mix of talismanic art, religious prayer and illuminated manuscript, these gospel scrolls were believed to provide protective and healing powers. Inscribed with prayers, spells and charms, they were commissioned by individuals for a range of reasons, from warding off evil spirits, to curing sterility and restoring health. Ironically they were tolerated by the Ethiopian Church, in spite of their obvious connections to more pagan practices, because of their inclusion of religious imagery and exerts from the gospels.

IMG_2464_2

These scrolls were specifically tailored to the physical and spiritual characteristics of the client and even the selection and sacrifice of the specific animal was overseen by an ordained cleric, who would then wash the client in the animal’s blood. Three strips of parchment were then made from the skin of the animal and stitched together, to form a single scroll equal in height to the owner. The direct physical connection with its owner was meant to enhance the power of the scroll’s magic. I have no idea who my scroll was originally made for, or indeed what the words or religious iconography mean. If its size is anything to go by though its original owner was nearly six and a half foot tall, so I am guessing that he didn’t need it to ward off a neighbourhood bully!

IMG_2471The Easter ceremonies in Aksum carried on throughout the following days and the town reverberated to the sound of singing. As midnight approached and Easter Sunday drew nearer, drums began to sound throughout the town, accompanied by a hypnotic chanting that seemed to permeate every nook and cranny. Not wanting to miss out, I made my way down to one of the smaller churches, drawn by the incessant sound of the drums. It was filled to overflowing, every piece of floor space taken up by prostrate figures, beggars and young children who, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around them, were content to spend the few remaining hours of the fast dreaming of the feasting to come.

IMG_2462_2