Wednesday, August 29, 2012

HMS Bonaventure and Percy Haigh

When my wife and I visited the Gaspé Peninsular of Quebec we did the tourist thing and went out to the island of Bonaventure to see the gannet colony. Later we passed through the village of the Bonaventure a few kilometres along the coast from Percé.  I wrote about the trip to in my last post and of course began to think about the word Bonaventure in terms of the naval ship, HMS Bonaventure, in which my grandfather journeyed to the Indian Ocean.

Frances Evans Percy Haigh joined the Royal Navy as a twenty-one year-old on the 29th of June 1894. Just shy of six months later, on the 12th Dec that year he was sailing to the East Indies on H.M.S. Bonaventure. Little did he know that he would be a photographic witness to the aftermath of the shortest war in history just two years later, when he had moved to HMS Cossack, a story I have told in my book The Trouble With Lions.

One thing he took with him when he left England was a new-fangled Schoville Dry Plate camera, probably a gift from his professional photographer father Edward Makinson Haigh of the firm Moira and Haigh of London’s fashionable Bond Street. The Moira and Haigh business card carries a portrait of a bishop on one side, and the inscription “Photographers and Miniature Painters to the Principal Sovereigns of Europe” on the other.

The camera was a dry plate, which meant that photos could be stored for long periods. The change from wet plate was as much a revolution in its day as the change from film to digital that occurred this century.

Percy took photos in several spots on his way to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.

This one is obviously well known and does not need a caption.

Unfortunately he did not record the dates on his captions, so I'm guessing the course of the voyage, but there are other scenes from the  the tanks and people at Aden (to the right and below). The one he called "The Native Element" must have been a formal portrait as it is well set up.

Presumably the ship then sailed to Mahé in the Seychelles, where the crew had some down time. Street scenes of the town included this line-up of rickshaw taxis. 

There does not seem to be any record of the stop in Bombay, but from the several photos there I have selected one of the ship in dry dock, which must have meant she was undergoing some sort of maintenance.

As the Bonaventure made her way towards the China station there was a stop at Sober Island off the port of Trincomalee in north-eastern Ceylon. As the modern maps will show, there are two Sober islands. Percy did not record at which one this relaxed picture was taken. 
"The Billiard room at Sober Island"
As I searched for more information about the ship I discovered that there have been many naval ships of that name. Among them the aircraft carrier HMS Powerful which was sold to Canada in 1952 by the British, where she was re-named HMCS Bonaventure. She never saw action but was part of the major NATO fleet during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Granddad’s ship was the eighth of that name in the British navy, the first one having been a warship built in 1489. She was built at Devonport Dockyard, launched 2nd December 1892 and completed 5th July 1894. She was twin-screw cruiser of 4360 tons, 9000 horsepower, and 18-19.5 knots speed.  Her length, beam, and draught were 320ft, 50ft, and 21ft. She was armed with ten guns and four torpedo tubes.  I wonder if those torpedoes fascinated lieutenant Haigh? They certainly were a major factor in his later career.

After Percy was transferred to H.M.S. Cossack the Bonaventure went on from the Indian Ocean because this website records that she served in the Pacific Squadron. "In 1900 the “Bonaventure” commanded by Captain Robert A Montgomerie, played a minor part in the third China war or “Boxer Rising.” She also visited Canada and there is a picture of her in Vancouver harbour in 1904 at the same website. She returned in |May 1906 to Devonport to be paid off.  From there she went to Haulbowline Dockyard, Cork, Ireland to be converted into a depot ship for submarines. This work was completed in April 1907 and she served in World War I as a submarine depot ship.

Percy Haigh may have had more dealings with the “Bonaventure” after 1907. By that time he had had a couple of promotions. According to the naval records stored at Kew near London he “passed ordinarily for Engineer on 8th July ‘99” A year later he was promoted to Engineer and worked on torpedoes up to and through the war. Who knows if Percy had occasion to visit his first ship again? The naval records make no mention of it, but it is certainly possible

On 3rd July 1912 the engineer lieutenant was promoted commander and seven years later he was appointed superintendent of the Royal Navy Torpedo factory at Greenock, on the south side of the Scotland’s Clyde River. He retired from Greenock in 1922 with the rank of engineer captain. Greenock is not far from Glasgow, where my father joined the Highland Light Infantry and I went to vet school. The apple and the tree metaphor fits, again.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Percé rock and Bonaventure island

We have just returned from a trip out to the eastern end of Canada, specifically to the Gaspé peninsular that lies on the southern side of the St. Lawrence River in the province of Quebec.

One of the things we did was spend time in the village of Percé, which is really just a tourist town, now that the fishery has declined and no longer provides a sufficient source of living for the inhabitants.

No trip here would be complete without a ride on a tour boat to see the famous Percé rock that stands like a beacon.

There were numerous seabirds on the cliff tops, including two species of cormorant, and I did spot a single osprey. The southern-most rock outcrop used to form an arch with the rest of the structure, but time and erosion have taken their toll. The arch that you can see will also be eroded over time, but I doubt we shall see that!

From the rock we sent round the southern side of the nearby Bonaventure Island to see that famous gannet colony. This is truly astonishing. The guide told us that the colony contains something just short of 48,000 birds. It is one of the two largest such colonies in the world and in this view we see a small part of that mass roosting on the cliffs. We also saw a bald eagle in a tree, several grey seals and a single whale, probably a minke whale, but it was too far off to make a sure identification.

Back on the north side of the island, we disembarked to make the 2.6 km trek up the path and over the top to get close to the gannets.

Now we really did see a mass of birds. The ropes that keep the public at bay were only about four metres from the nearest ones and we could see that the nests, mere mounds of mud with bits of dried vegetation in them were very close to one another. The young lady interpreter told us that they are precisely eighty centimetres apart. 

This bird was having a good scratch. 

One of the closest nests had a young bird in it, but the chick was pretty lethargic and showed little interest in food. A single adult sat close by, trying to spark youngster into some activity. During the thirty minutes or so that we were there no other adult showed up and we could see a few other nests, further away, with much larger chicks, many of them with lots of forming feathers. In this pic you can see that our subject was still mostly down-covered. This one has little or no chance of joining the southern migration to the Gulf of Mexico next month.

Another thing the interpreter told us was that about 40% of nesting pairs do not succeed in rearing their young. She would not admit to the clear observation that less than10% of the birds we could see across our front even had chicks in them. I quizzed her about the failure rate and asked if any research was being done on possible causes of mortality. I was particularly interested to learn if any necropsies on dead chicks had been carried out. The short answer? NO. I asked why and was more or less brushed off with “this is a natural system and we don’t like to interfere. She did admit that the population had been dwindling for a few years and we agreed that the decline might be due to a reduced food supply or possibly pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, This makes some sense, given the history of the BP oil spill of 2010. However, the lack of scientific curiosity in the Quebec ministry seems sad.

I took a few still shots of what we saw and also ran my little Nikon video camera to watch some interactions. In this clip you can see two birds “necking” in the centre of the frame. This is not just a courting ritual – we were way past that stage of the annual cycle. According to the informative movie that one can see back on the mainland at the Percé interpretive centre, the birds do this routinely because they like it. About half way through the clip you will see a bird land at a nest (at the 3 o’\clock position) and at once seem to attack the one that it sitting on the nest by grabbing its neck. Apparently males do this routinely when they return to make sure that they have the right partner. The aggro quickly changes to the necking, so they must have recognized one another. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Story About Bats

Just finished the annual gathering of the Storytellers of Canada – Conteurs du Canada which took place in Montreal this year. Four days of great stories, workshops, meeting old friends and making new acquaintances.

One thing I am always on the lookout for at the sale counter is books of African stories and I found four of them. By chance the first one I opened, published by Beacon Press of Boston in 1962, is called Umbundu: Folk Tales from Angola. It was translated and collected by Merlin Ennis and had a story in it that linked directly to my last post about bats in Uganda.

The story is called Fruit Bat and Sun. I have edited it slightly. It explains quite nicely why it is that bats spend their daylight hours in dark places and ties in with my last post about Ebola.


When the only child of Sun was sick, Sun went to the house of Elder Fruit Bat, and said to him, “Save my child for me.” Fruit bat went and soon cured the child.

Not long after this marvelous cure Elder Fruit Bat’s child got sick and so of course he went at once to Sun’s house and said, “Now my child is sick. Will you please come and save him for me in your turn.”

Sun replied “Come tomorrow very early and seek me. Don’t be late for once the day has started I never turn back.”

So, Fruit Bat came good an early, but not early enough for Sun, who said “Didn’t you listen to me? I said come early because I never turn back. Come again tomorrow but make sure you arrive while the ground is still black.”

Next day, when he arrived Sun said “You are late.”

Fruit Bat again turned for home, but when he arrived he found that his child was dead. Of course he was very sad and he swore an oath that he would never again speak to or see Sun.

From that day forward he has never once seen Sun, for, as he says, “He has done me a wrong.”

So, now we know.