Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814 

Here’s an update on an intriguing folk custom I wrote about in Great Convict Stories.


A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.



The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.

Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/19th-century-wife-selling-in-literature-illustrations-and-practice, accessed August 2018.

The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).

Dance’s Historical  Miscellany at http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/id-sell-my-wife-if-anybody-would-buy-her-wife-sales-in-england/, accessed August 2018.




From Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas
In the days of sail, when sailors signed on to a voyage they were paid a month’s wages in advance. This was spent on clothing and equipment needed for the trip, as well as grog, women and the other necessities of a matelot’s life. Because they had to work this payment off before they were paid again, the first month of the voyage was known as ‘working off the dead horse.’ When the month was over and they began receiving their pay, they might perform a folk play known as ‘Burying the Dead Horse’
… The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus.  When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel:—
You have come a long long way,
And we say so, for we know so.
For to be sold upon this day,
Poor old man.
You are goin’ now to say good-bye,
And we say so, for we know so.
Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die,
Poor Old Man.
Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month!  The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid.  After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers.  Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water.  The Requiem is then sung to the same melody.
Now he is dead and will die no more,
And we say so, for we know so.
Now he is gone and will go no more;
Poor Old Man.
After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the “bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer your’s [sic]to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!
This was how Richard (later Sir) Tangye, bound for Melbourne aboard the Parramattain 1879 recalled the ceremony aboard that ship. (Richard Tangye, Reminiscences of travel in Australia, America, and Egypt, London, 1884).
Amazingly, on the same ship and the same voyage a young man named George Haswell took the trouble to document the sailors’ work shanties. He was a skilled musician and transcribed the words and music of their songs, including the ‘Dead Horse’ ceremony described by Tangye (bottom of first page and top of second page, below, for melody).


(SLNSW)NB: Very early use of ‘folksong’ here, especially in its combined form – yes, you really wanted to know that!)
There are many other accounts of this maritime ceremony, which was extant before 1845. It must have been eerie in a probably empty sea at dusk, as well as enjoyable for crew and passengers. Certainly, all accounts involve alcohol. 
But what did it sound and look like as the crew advanced across the deck chanting and pushing or pulling a horse-shaped structure, sometimes with glowing and occasionally, if the captain allowed, with fireworks? We’ll never know. But we can hear the song in a very nice modern rendition by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.
The Dead Horse ceremony usually took place in one of the ocean regions known as ‘the horse latitudes’. Respectively, 30-35 degrees north of the equator and 30-35 degrees south of the equator, these were areas where the winds often died away, becalming sailing ships. As the legend goes, if a ship was becalmed long enough in one of these regions for the drinking water to run out, any horses (and presumably other livestock) might be thrown overboard to preserve water for the crew. A bit more folklore – might even be true!
Graham Seal





Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880 (SLQ)
Thomas Harris, master of the schooner Douglas set sail from Trinity Bay in Queensland for Dunk Island in early January 1877. With ten crew aboard, their ultimate destination was the Coral Sea guano island of Chilcot owned by Beaver & Co, also the owners of the Douglas. The seeds of future trouble were sown the morning after they reached the island:
…  two canoes came off, each having a native on board ; they came on board my ship voluntarily’; I gave them tobacco and other things ; I also gave them to understand that they could come with the ship for eighteen months if they liked ; they said “ budgerrie,” and three days after, just when we were getting underway, four natives came off (the two who had previously visited the ship, and two others); three of them were allowed to come on board ; the other one I refused to take with us on account of his treacherous looks…
Harris and the Douglas were engaged in ‘blackbirding’, the then-legal procurement of black labour, including Aborigines, from Pacific islands to work the sugar cane fields of colonial Queensland.  He provided the details to the magisterial inquiry established to get the facts of the ‘massacre’, as the press termed the murders:
there was a license authority sent on board the ship at Melbourne, authorising me to recruit native black labour on certain islands in the South Pacific, or from the main land, for a period of twelve months, to be engaged in beche-de-mer fishing, or procuring guano. Natives so engaged were not to exceed twenty in number …
What happened when they arrived at Chilcot was recounted by Harris in his evidence:
… at night two of the men (Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh) were left to sleep on the island, two of the blacks remaining with them; the men had no arms save half-axes, which they were cautioned to be careful not to leave in the way of the blacks…
They all turned in for the night. Everyone was tired and with the boat a kilometer or more from land Harris did not consider there was any need to set watch. But:
about midnight, while the mate and I were asleep on the “lockers,” we were awoke by a cry of “Save me, they are murdering me.” I said to the mate, “For God’s sake, get up.” He rushed out and I followed. The mate went by the port side, and when I reached the deck I met one of the hands (James Purcell), all cut and bleeding. I told him to go down into the cabin. He went down but seemed half stupid. I next saw a black following the mate with a raised axe. I sang out to him and he turned round and struck at my head, severely wounding my hand, raised to guard my head. I immediately closed with him to take the foe, but could not succeed. So I made for the cabin where I found Purcell lying in a pool of blood and moaning very much.  The boy was also there. I tried to load a revolver, but could not on account of the wound on my hand.
By now their assailants were trying to smash in the skylight glass using lumps of coal and oars. Harris managed to load his revolver and got off a few shots. The attackers were now in full possession of the dock, ‘cutting and hacking everything with the axes they had.’
about fifteen minutes to 5 o’clock a.m. heard a blackfellow’s voice, and immediately afterwards the steward tumbled down into the cabin, wounded. I gave him a revolver, and told him to fire at the black stationed at the skylight. He fired and I believe hit the black, but did not kill him. He ran up on deck and put another shot into him, which killed him.
Harris heard one of the crew forrard cry out: ‘One of the blacks is overboard’. He looked through a porthole and saw a man swimming:
 I told the steward to fire at him, which he did, but cannot say whether the fugitive was hit. I saw him land on a rock, and sent the boy to the maintop to watch his movements. Next saw a sea take him off the rock. Never saw him again, believe he was drowned.
On looking around saw two blacks dead and ordered the bodies to be thrown overboard. Also saw the body of Patrick Troy, greatly mutilated. On mustering crew, found the others badly wounded, the mate and steward only being unhurt. I sent them away in a boat to the island to see how matters stood there. When they returned, they reported that the two men, Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh, had been murdered in the hut. The mate stated that the bodies wore much cut about the head and that decomposition was fast setting in. But before sending the boat away again, I ordered the body of Patrick Troy to be wrapped up in his blankets and taken on shore to be buried with the others. The murders were no doubt perpetrated with the half-axes. Those now produced are the weapons mentioned.[1]
The exact truth behind these grim events will never be known but it seems clear that the Aboriginal men taken aboard at Dunk Island were either tricked or forced into accompanying the crew. This was the era in which the kidnapping of indigenous people for labour was legal. Most were ‘kanakas’ from the South Pacific islands. Known colloquially as ‘sugar slaves’, it is thought that around 60 000 were forced or cajoled to work mainly in the Queensland sugarcane industry where they were often badly treated and poorly paid. The trade began in the 1860s and lasted until 1904 when those who had been indentured and their descendants were deported in accordance with the Commonwealth of Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act (the ‘White Australia Policy’).  But several thousand islanders remained in Australia, forming the basis of a descendant population now numbering 20 000 or more who live mainly in North Queensland.

[1] The Mercury (Hobart), 24 March 1877, 3


The ancient fear of what dwells without is invoked in this ballad, together with the dread of home invasion. Horrifyingly, the fear turns into reality as the bog-dwelling Lankin and the treacherous nurse combine to harm those inside the castle.
Long Lankin, the stonemason, builds Lord Wearie’s castle high and strong. But when Lankin asks the Lord for the payment due, Wearie will not give him money.
‘I have nothing for you’, he says, ‘unless I sell my lands, and that I will never do.’
‘You will rue the day you did not pay my fee’, threatens Lankin darkly as he shuffles off to his home in the moss bog.
The next day, Lord Wearie leaves for London, trusting his lady and newborn son to the safety of his fine stone castle and the care of a nurse and the maid. As he mounts his horse, he tells his Lady: ‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.’ He gives instructions to bolt the doors and pin the windows ‘And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.’ Then he kisses his fair lady and rides away, content that his house is protected from evil.
But it is not. The mason has built one little window into an out-of-the-way part of the castle, so small that everyone has forgotten it is there. But not Lankin. And not the false nurse, who was secretly in league with the mason. She makes sure the shutters on the window are unbolted. That night, Lankin creeps up close to the dark castle walls. The window is just large enough for him to slither through. Once inside the castle he speaks with the ‘false nurse’.
‘Where’s the Lord of this house?
The nurse tells him that the Lord is away in London.
‘Where’s the Lady of this house?’ he demands.
‘Asleep in her chamber.’
Knowing he now has command of the situation, Lankin hisses: ‘Where’s the little heir of this house?’
‘Asleep in his cradle’, the nurse is quick to tell him. But it is not fear or love that makes her betray her mistress. She has her own reasons for colluding with the creature.
‘Fetch the baby’, Lankin orders the nurse. ‘We’ll prick it with a pin until its cries bring the Lady downstairs’.
The false nurse gives the mason a large pin and Lankin pierces the helpless baby. The false nurse holds a basin ‘for the blood to flow in.’ The Lady hears her child screaming and calls out:
O nurse, how you slumber, O nurse how you snore,
You leave my poor baby to cry and to roar.
The nurse calls back, saying she has tried to comfort the child with an apple, a pear and:
I’ve tried him with milk and I’ve tried him with pap,
Come down, my fair lady, and rock him in your lap.
The Lady replies that she dare not come down in the dead of night without a fire kindled and no candle light. The false nurse calls back, her voice thick with envy of her mistresses’ beauty, wealth and finery:
You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun,
Come downstairs, my lady, all by the light of one.
Reluctantly, the Lady at last comes down the stairs. In the darkness at the bottom of the staircase, Lankin lies in wait. She reaches the bottom stair and suddenly:
There’s blood in the kitchen. There’s blood in the hall,
There’s blood in the parlour where the lady did fall.
Hearing these dreadful deeds from her own sleeping quarters, the Lady’s maid fearfully locks herself in the tower. As the grey light of dawn streaks the morning sky, she sees the Lord returning from London. She cries out the dreadful news of what Lankin and the false nurse have done:
O master, O master, don’t lay the blame on me,
‘Twas the false nurse and Lankin that killed your lady.
And now, although too late for the Lady and the child, justice must be done and order restored. The murderous mason is taken and hanged by the neck while the false nurse is burned to death ‘in a fire close by.’
Based mainly on a version collected from Sister Emma Clewer, Berks., 1909 by Cecil Sharp.
First print version Bishop Percy, 1775 (from Kent, England).
This ballad is widespread in Britain and America.

Recorded by, among others, Steeleye Span on Commoner’s Crown and by Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick on But Two Came By.

KEYWORDS: Long Lankin, Child ballads, folksong

LINES OF LIGHT – How Jewish children’s art survived the darkness of the Prague ghetto and Nazi death camps.


It was one tragedy among many millions. But the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Prague’s Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto shows how creative expression can defy the everyday horrors of totalitarian regimes.
When Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939, Prague’s Jewish population was quickly interned in what was called a ‘model ghetto’ in the city’s Terezin quarter. Many Jews, young and old, were brutalised, starved and then deported from the ghetto to extermination camps. But through one woman’s selfless dedication, drawings made by children in the ghetto survived the war and Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (born 1898) was a Viennese artist who came to Prague to escape Nazi persecution in her home city. Unfortunately, it followed her. She and her Czech-born husband, Pavel Brandeis, were eventually ordered to the Terezin ghetto in December 1942. Here Friedl devoted much of her time, energy and considerable creative skills to teaching art – and more – to the ghetto children. With no children of her own she became a mother of sorts to her students, encouraging them to express themselves through creative work as a form of escapist therapy for their traumatic experiences.
Friedl lived at the girls’ boarding home L410, where children forcibly separated from their parents stayed. She organised exhibitions of the children’s work as well as theatre performances for which she designed the sets and costumes. Much of the teaching had to be conducted in secret and was based on Friedl’s theory that art should ‘unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure.’
It all came to an end in October 1944. Pavel was deported in September and Friedl volunteered to be taken away. She was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp on transport EO-167, apparently with some of the children she taught. Perhaps they were able to take some comfort in being together as they met whatever end the Nazis inflicted. Before she left, Friedl gathered up into two suitcases over four thousand of the works the children had created and entrusted them to L410 tutor Raja Engländerova for safekeeping, in the hope that they might somehow escape the Holocaust.
The war finished in 1945. Pavel Brandeis was a lucky survivor but only around 100 of more than 600 Terezin child artists escaped the ghetto and the camps. There are various accounts of how the preserved drawings were rediscovered, but in any event they were eventually passed to the Jewish Museum in Prague where they can be seen today, together with some others in the Pinkas Synagogue in Terezin. The pictures testify to the resilience of children in the most extreme circumstances and are a memorial to the courage and dedication of a remarkable woman. Their plain lines of crayon and paint stand for light and love against the darkness of evil.
Those of Friedl’s students who lived on after the war remembered her as an inspiring teacher and human being. Eva Dorian wrote: ‘I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation’.
Another former student, Erna Furman, would later write: ‘Friedl’s teaching, the times spent drawing with her, are among the fondest memories of my life. Terezin made it more poignant but it would have been the same anywhere in the world… Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself.’
The children’s work, together with what survives of Friedl’s own art, have been exhibited around the world from time to time. Daisaku Ikeda, founder of the Fuji Art Museum, took the 1999 exhibition to Japan, noting that:
‘The various artworks left behind by this great woman and the children of Terezin are their legacy to the present, to all of us today. They demand that we continue in our quest for a society that truly treasures human life, transcending all differences of race, religion, politics and ideology. It remains my heartfelt hope that this exhibit may provide a moment of introspection for its viewers, a moment for us to reaffirm the importance of our rights as human beings and the value of life itself.’


One of Ben Franklin’s famous almanacs




The humble proverb is a form of traditional wisdom and practical advice that has been around for centuries. Often described as ‘the wisdom of many’, proverbs are shared solutions to problems that beset most people most of the time which probably explains why cultures thousands of miles and thousands of years apart have developed remarkably similar proverbial wisdom about many of the same matters.
 ‘The root of all evil’ has not surprisingly, attracted many aphorisms and adages. Many of these counsel caution in financial dealings. The familiar ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’ is complemented by the Italian ‘Better give a penny than lend twenty’. Other money proverbs expound the wisdom that ‘Money is not everything’.
In fact, money is far from everything in many traditional philosophies, including the Persian, where it is said that ‘The larger a man’s roof the more snow it collects’. An old Greek proverb goes ‘A miser is ever in want’. The Japanese have a saying that indicates the virtues of poverty – ‘The poor sleep soundly’.
The need for caution and shrewdness in everyday life is the subject of much proverbial wisdom around the world. ‘Look before you leap’ is a venerable old saying known to many. Yet the same warning is echoed in the Nigerian saying ‘When the mouse laughs at the cat there is a hole nearby’. Many other societies have similar advice. ‘Do not rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’, say the Japanese, while the Russians point out that ‘If you put your nose into the water you will also wet your cheeks’ (Russian).
‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, goes the well-worn advice of the English proverb. The difficulty of getting agreement with more than one person and the likely consequences of this are also treated in the Turkish proverb ‘Two captains will sink the ship’. In Japan, the saying is even more concise – ‘Ten men, ten minds’.
Perhaps the largest number of international proverbs deal with the universal desire for contentment. The Spanish say ‘If you have a good harvest do not begrudge a few thistles’. The Chinese saying ‘A bird can perch on only one branch, a mouse can drink only its fill from the river’ has equivalents in many languages. In English there is the familiar ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and the lesser-known ‘a feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air’. The Greeks say ‘Nothing will content him who is not content with a little’.
The meaning of these proverbs of contentment is that it is better to have less of something that is certain than to have only the promise of something more. This is a powerful reminder that we should be satisfied with what we have now.
That ‘thief of time’, procrastination, is also a popular subject for proverbial pronouncement in many countries. ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ is the message of the Yiddish ‘Tomorrow your horse may be lame’, of the Arabic ‘Today it may be fire, tomorrow it may be ashes’ and of the dryly perceptive French saying, ‘Life is made up of tomorrows’.
The ‘better part of valour’, discretion, is not exclusive to English-language proverbs like ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’. Indians say ‘Be first at the feast and last at the fight’ while the Japanese wisely advise us ‘not to rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’. The Greeks have many proverbs on discretion and caution, including ‘Add not fire to fire’ and ‘A word out of season may mar a whole lifetime.’
Most universal and profound of all emotions – and so the source of innumerable problems – is love. ‘Never love with all your heart, it will only end by breaking’ runs one true saying. The course of love never runs smooth in anyone’s language, but there are proverbs in many to ease the pain a little. ‘Try to reason about love and you will lose your reason’, say the French. In Spain ‘love is like war – begin when you like and finish when you can’.
Other cultures have even more down-to-earth advice for the lovelorn. In Sweden they suggest you ‘Choose your bedfellow while it is daylight’ , while ‘Love is sweet but tastes best with bread’, according to the Yiddish proverb. Given their reputation for ‘amour’, we should let the French have the last word on this subject: Love’s pleasure lasts a moment, love’s pain lasts a lifetime.’
There are not too many aspects of human life and frailty that have not been treated in proverbs somewhere, sometime. There is much to be gained from the traditional wisdom of different lands. ‘Anger without power is folly’, say the Germans. ‘Never cut what can be untied’ warn the Portuguese. ‘An indispensable thing never has much value’, according to Russian tradition. ‘Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms’ say the French of good intentions.
Are they simply a form of folk consolation for the inequities of all political and social systems and the impact of bad luck? Probably. But the message of proverbs is an affirming one for those without the power to change things:
·      the secrets of a happy life are simple
·      keep business and personal affairs in proportion
·      be moderate in fulfilling needs and desires
·      treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself
·      Above all, be content with what you have if that is enough for your essential needs.
As the great American philosopher and purveyor of the proverb, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), put it: ‘If you desire many things, many things will seem but a few’.



Traditional representation of Hesiod as a blind bard
He was history’s first grumpy old man. He complains, boasts, offers gratuitous advice and is a complete misogynist. His name was Hesiod and he lived over two and half thousand years ago in Ancient Greece.


Probably. No one really knows if he existed. Like Homer, a close contemporary, Hesiod might not be a real human being at all, just a convenient pen name for a poet, mythologist, farmer and irritating smart arse.
Whether there was a real Hesiod or not, his words speak directly to us from the deep past in surprisingly modern modes. He tells us very clearly what he likes (not a lot) and what he doesn’t like (a lot more). Women are a big problem for him:

Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.

He gives us a few selected slices of his life and lineage to make points about others and much better ones about himself.

Then I crossed over to Chalcis, to the games of wise Amphidamas where the sons of the great-hearted hero proclaimed and appointed prizes. And there I boast that I gained the victory with a song and carried off an handled tripod which I dedicated to the Muses of Helicon, in the place where they first set me in the way of clear song . . .  for the Muses have taught me to sing in marvellous song.

In some senses, Hesiod’s Works and Days is the first self-help book. He is certainly keen to point out to his brother Perses the many errors of his ways and to provide other advice to all and sundry about how to live their lives. Here he is on the wayward Perses who, among other sins, Hesiod accuses of stealing a part of their father’s inheritance:

Perses, lay up these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work, while you peep and peer and listen to the wrangles of the court-house. Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain. When you have got plenty of that, you can raise disputes and strive to get another’s goods. But you shall have no second chance to deal so again: nay, let us settle our dispute here with true judgement which is of Zeus and is perfect. For we had already divided our inheritance, but you seized the greater share and carried it off, greatly swelling the glory of our bribe-swallowing lords who love to judge such a cause as this. Fools! They know not how much more the half is than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel.

While the feckless Perses is the focus of much of Hesiod’s ire, he is not shy of telling everyone else what to do, or not. He hands out surely unneeded advice about where to go to the toilet:

Never make water in the mouths of rivers which flow to the sea, nor yet in springs; but be careful to avoid this. And do not ease yourself in them: it is not well to do this.

Hesiod also had his own take on the gods and heroes of Greek mythology. So did everyone else, of course. Mythology is full of variants of variants of the same stories. What distinguishes Hesiod though is that he links his myths with a theory of historical evolution. It’s a pretty bleak philosophy, but that’s in character for the gloomy poet.
According to Hesiod there have been five ages or generations of human history. The first is the age of ‘a golden race of mortal men’ crated by the gods of Olympus.

… they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But the next generation was of silver and much less noble:’

It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother’s side an hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honour to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

The third generation were:

… a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

After the passing of this generation Cronos, son of Zeus, made another

… which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven- gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.

After the passing of the fourth generation, Zeus made a fifth, ‘of men who are upon the bounteous earth.’ Hesiod is not happy to be among this generation and waxes apocalyptic:

… would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

Hesiod doesn’t say if he thinks there are any more ages to come. But going by his progression from gold, silver, bronze, the heroes of Troy and down to his own era of iron and misery, if there are they won’t be a whole lot of fun.
Despite his dismal view of almost everything, Hesiod seems to know how to enjoy himself. When the seasons turn warm again and the grasshopper sings:

… then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring which pours down unfouled thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.

In the end, the most important thing about Hesiod is his humanity. We clearly see his foibles and flaws, his prejudices, his blind spots and his intelligence. He is just like all of us – past, present and, hopefully, future.
The Muses
Translations by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914) at  Sacred Texts


From the Log of Adriaan van de Graaf …
Secunda Etas Mundi (Second Age of the World) Nuremberg Chronicle,1493, by Hartmann Schedel


On Monday, April 26, 1728 the Council of the Netherlands Indies in Batavia received a desperate letter:
My High Excellency, together with the Council of the Netherlandish India, I pray of you most urgently to send me help and assistance against these robbers of the money and the goods of the wreck Zeewyk, who have divided the money and goods among themselves. I am stark naked; they have taken everything from me. 0, my God! They have behaved like wild beasts to me, and everyone is master. Worse than beasts do they live; it is impossible that on board a pirate ship things can be worse than here, because everyone thinks that he is rich, from the highest to the lowest of my subordinates. They say among themselves, “Let us drink a glass to your health, ye old ducats!” I am ill and prostrate from scurvey.
Jan Steyns, the skipper, and Jan Nebbens (Nobbens, Nibbens) the under-merchant had been wrecked with their crew when the near-280 ton Zeewijk went aground on the treacherous reefs off Western Australia now known as the Houtman Abrolhos. On her maiden voyage from Flushing in Zeeland, Zeewijk’s passage to Capetown was marked by sickness, twenty-six deaths and a close shave with pirates. Reprovisioned and with her crew strengthened to over two hundred, she left Capetown for Batavia on 21 April. Another eleven men died on this leg of the voyage. In defiance of his VOC orders and over the protest of his steersman, Steyns set a course straight towards the western coast of the southland, or the Land of Eendracht as the Dutch were generally calling it at this time. The ship’s master also entered a false note in the ship’s log to the effect that the decision of the ship’s council to sail ENE was ‘decided unanimously.’ It was not, and this act would eventually ruin Steyns.
Half Moon Reef
It was during the first watch of the evening of June 9. The lookout on the ship’s foreyard noticed white flecks on the sea before the ship. He watched them for half an hour or so and decided that they were reflections of the moon. But around 7.30pm the Zeewijk struck and foundered in heavy surf around a reef shaped like a half-moon. The under steersman, Adriaan van de Graaf described the disaster:
At dusk, therefore, we were running under small sail, i.e. foresail and both topsails double- reefed, but at about 7.30 in the evening Jan Steyns, the master, together with the under-merchant Jan Nebbens came up on to the quarterdeck from the master’s cabin and asked the third mate Joris Forkson who had the watch at the time ‘What was that which could be seen ahead?’ answering himself at the same time ‘My God, it is surf, lay your helm to starboard!’ and called the first and second mates who were in the former’s cabin setting out the course on the charts. The under merchant came to warn us, coming to meet us from the awning. We had heard the shout in the cabin and jumped into the waist to the sheets and braces, but before the foresails had been braced to the wind, the ship crashed with a great shock into the cliff on her starboard side and turning her head in the wind round the SW knocked her rudder out of the helm port.
Hearing and heeding the master’s orders
I, Adriaen v.d. Graeff, second mate, made my way to the steerage and found there to be 8 feet of water in the ship, whereupon our main mast fell overboard. We then decided to cut away our fore and mizzenmasts and found our ship to be lying in 10 to 11 feet of water, so that we prayed the Almighty for a propitious outcome. While terrible waves washed over us constantly we attempted to cut away the top hamper. A seaman named Yuriaen Roelofsen was washed overboard together with the fore mast and bowsprit, so that we looked at one another sorrowfully and prayed for surcease from the terrible punishment which the Almighty was sending us. We asked the lookout who had been sitting on the foreyard whose name was Pieter de Klerck van Apel, whether he had not seen the surf; he confessed at once that he had seen it for at least half an hour, but had imagined that it was caused by the sky or the moon.
The men of the Zeewijk were trapped aboard. ‘We could see nothing but surf, which washed over the ship in an awful way’, recollected van der Graeff. Attempts to get off were dashed by the sea and they soon found their craft was beginning to come apart. They began making life rafts and, on a Black Friday, only just saved the life of a crewman who volunteered to swim ashore with a rope. Next day some of the men began breaking into the stores and rampaging drunkenly through the wreck. The officers, soldiers and many of the crew swore an ‘oath to God to be loyal to one another and to be faithful to the authorities and to punish together, be it even with death, all evildoers and malignant.’
They managed to get a line from the grinding wreck to the reef through the bravery of some of the crew who at first swam through the deadly surf and then managed to get ashore on a small catamaran they had roped together. There were now four men on the reef with the rest still stranded on the shifting wreck, unable to help them further. One seaman died aboard the wreck in the afternoon and at sunset they managed to drift some supplies to those on the reef. But that night the seas rose again and shifted the rapidly disintegrating ship from one side to the other, ‘so that now the surf assaulted the larboard side so much more that we thought we would be overturned with each sea. We therefore fell at the feet of the Almighty and prayed together for His help and succor.’ Their prayers were answered and the wind dropped. Next day various attempts were made to launch small boats with men and supplies. Eight men drowned and they lost more supplies but they managed to establish twenty-two survivors on the reef. Ominously, during these tragic events, those on the reef ‘found a filled hand-grenade, also old rope and ship’s skin, these belonging to a ship or ships which the same fate had struck here.’
The following day, the weather improved. Fresh water was found on an island near the reef and more men and provisions ferried over. By Wednesday, only three officers and sixty-nine crew remained on the wreck. The senior officer was van der Graeff. As he sat in the master’s ruined cabin that night, dutifully writing up the ship’s journal, a crewmember was discovered stealing knives and sharpening them for unknown purposes. The man, presumably addled from shock, was put in irons. But it was another gloomy hint of what was to come.
On Thursday, Van der Graeff planned to float the remaining survivors off the Zeewijk onto the reef. But many of the crew mutinied, refusing to leave the wreck and ‘we could not move the hardened hearts of many of the crew, since about half of those malignants would not help us, saying that they wanted to remain on the wreck, so that we found ourselves compelled to help one another of those who had decided to leave the wreck. Therefore we threw overboard the victuals which we had barrelled, lowered away our rafts and so floated to the reef at God’s mercy, which we reached with the help of God Almighty without any of us being lost.’
By Saturday the 21st, ninety-six survivors shivered together on the island, including the master, officers and a good number of petty officers, most of whom were tradesmen with useful skills. They also had meat, bread, butter, wine and brandy. These they began rationing and van der Graeff noted that there were plenty of seals on the island, together with enough scrub to build cooking fires.
On Monday they were able to revisit the reef, secure one of their boats, find some more supplies and pick up a few stragglers. One, a boy, refused to go back to the island in the longboat. On Wednesday, survivors began dying. On Thursday the carpenter began to improvise a mast for the longboat’s voyage to Batavia. ‘I am hoping for the rescue of us all’, van de Graeff wrote. On Saturday one of the soldiers died at dawn. Next day a seaman died in the morning. The survivors on the island could see two others walking round on the reef but ‘we could not help them.’
It was Monday again and another week of misery and death had passed. They took the longboat to the reef ‘with great difficulty.’ There they found the reluctant boy still alive. The men left aboard the wreck had floated some supplies to him. They waved and signaled to the wreck for more supplies, including sailcloth. Some wine, brandy and butter were delivered, together with a sail they could fit to the newly built mast of the longboat.
Next morning at 7 the tent in which the officers were sheltering on the island was invaded by ‘all petty officers and the common hands, most of whom were drunk.’
The men walked into our tent with a great deal of clamour and confusion of argument and counter-argument, all shouting at the same time, telling the master that they wanted the long boat to sail to Batavia and that they wish to appoint as her chief the 1st officer Pieter Langeweg and no one else, and 10 of the best seamen with him whom we are to select. They would hear of no further counsel, saying that they will carry on their affairs and that they have collected some good seamen whom they deem to be capable of handling a long boat and have made them draw lots and have appointed 10 of them according to the lots drawn to sail in the boat…
No more is heard about this incident and its aftermath but van der Graeff’s journal goes on to describe negotiations with those still on the wreck. They now wanted to be taken off with the longboat. But the conditions were so bad that this was impossible. However, they had lost most of the remaining supplies needed by those on the island. A deal was done and some more alcohol, butter and kegs of salted fish were floated across on Thursday the 3rd of July. That day, the sail maker also began to make the sails for the longboat.
The seal population was now disappearing. By Monday the 7th they were down to a pitifully small list of victuals
 8 barrels of bread
4 aums of wine
3 ½ aums of brandy
4 aums of sweet oil
1 aum of wine
7 kegs of butter
6 kegs of anchovy
9 cheeses
4 sides of bacon
3 hams
That day another man died on the island. By Wednesday they were stocking the longboat for its arduous trip and at sunset the next day, it set sail with ‘12 souls in all.’ Peter Langweig was in command, as the men had demanded earlier. There was a probably unofficial distribution of wine and their remaining boat, the scow, came back from a hunting trip to the other islands around the reef with 24 seals ‘at which we rejoiced greatly.’
There were now eighty-six men on the island and an unknown but probably significant number still on the wreck or otherwise unaccounted for. They were within sight of the mainland though had no desire or need to attempt to reach it. Instead, the survivors began fighting among themselves. Under the stress of the situation, excess alcohol and fear, men began to draw knives against each other and some began to act irrationally, throwing scarce victuals into fires and threatening their fellows. The council had four manacled and marooned on another island ‘as we fear that, staying here, they will persist in their recalcitrant behaviour, which they had affirmed incessantly to me and to several other people during the past night while they were in irons…’
On Sunday 13th the scow went to the reef and came back with another frightened boy and a small amount of ham and wet bread. Over the following days, the wine ration was finished up but edible vegetation began to sprout on the island, making a welcome addition to the sparse diet. The survivors established a routine of taking the scow to the reef to bargain for supplies with those still in the wreck. They also used the little boat for seal hunting and transport between the islands. On Wednesday 23rd, the four men marooned on one of these were flogged ‘and at the intercession and request of the common hands they were permitted to remain here in the island, upon their promise to lead henceforth a Christian life.’
The following day saw the second mate and eight men float off the wreck on a small scow they had fashioned. Now there were eighty-five souls on the island. It was August and becoming colder. On Monday 4th they discovered that their freshwater supply had dried up. They prayed for rain, cleaning out the small wellspring to find seven live crabs in it, a certain sign that any water that might bubble from it would be undrinkable. Next day five men took one of the scows without permission and rowed to another island about two miles away. On the 7th, while most of the officers were away fishing, the ‘hands’ and petty officers took away to their own tents the water previously held by the officers on behalf of all. The authority of the officers was now under serious challenge from the crew. From now on, the ‘hands’ and petty officers doled out the water to the master and other officials rather than the other way around. The men also insisted on maintaining the daily ration of half a loaf of bread a day, rather than accept the master’s recommendation that they cut it to a quarter loaf. Fortunately, it rained the next day and further supplies were obtained from the wreck, together with some seals from the surrounding islands.
The days dragged by with much the same routine, punctuated by occasional acts of disobedience and hoarding of supplies. The occasional additional man also arrived on the island having forsaken the wreck. On the 22nd another man died. There were now ninety-five on the island.
The situation was severe enough for the survivors to send out an expedition to the mainland in search of possible future supplies. Six men left for the southland on the 24th of August, returning at sunrise three days later. What they had taken to be the mainland was in fact an oblong island about 4 miles long by half-a-mile at its widest point. They had found another one of the Zeewijk’s boats that had become separated during the grounding. They had also come across ‘a piece of a ship or wreck, finding the figurehead lying under a cliff, of which they could discern that it had been the figure of a woman.’
Two more men died on 29th. There were now ninety-three survivors on the island. There was a dwindling but significant number aboard the wreck controlling the supply of food and drink, other than that available naturally, mainly the declining seals and flocks of dark birds the size of a small duck.
There was alarm among the men when the master proposed taking both scows to explore the other nearby islands. He placated them by promising he would return as quickly as possible and bring more seals. He and eighteen others were allowed to leave. They returned as promised four days later, together with the gig that had escaped the wreck, a valuable addition to their chances of survival. Steyns, apparently in confidence, also told van der Graeff that they had found another wreck, along with other items washed there from the stricken Zeewijk.
On the 10 September, Steyns and a small crew of ten managed to get out to the wreck and establish a line to the reef, enabling the transfer of provisions. A week later they were able to bring off the five remaining chests of VOC money, the rest having apparently been salvaged earlier. By the 21stall ten of the money chests were together on the island. But supplies of food and water were again dwindling ‘so that we beseech the Almighty for rain from the sky.’ Three days later another sailor died, bringing the island group to ninety-two.
The next Saturday the regular expedition to the reef for further supplies from the ship results only in a letter thrown overboard in a container. It is from Jan Steyns the master and states that there will be no further supplies coming from the ship until someone rows across and gets them and, presumably, Steyns and the other men who had earlier accompanied him to the Zeewijk. The letter is taken to the under-Merchant who has command of the sailors on the island in the absence of the master. He pens a testy reply:
I under-merchant Jan Nebbens, after the boatswain and the boatswain’s mate have again returned without victuals, having read the letter brought from you and understanding there from that you wish to have us come aboard in spite of weather and violent surf on the reef, which was impossible as the men tell me, wish that you on board were here on the island to make the easy trip to the wreck, this we, the undersigned, declare together, and master Steyne and your men ought to know that we officers in the island were requested by the hands to issue the wine and the brandy as long as there was any left, the reason for which being, as you know, that so far it has not pleased the Good Lord to grant any rain, for it is as dry on the island as it has not been before, for the little water which is left in the well is not potable, it being as salty as seawater, and this is the cause that there is no longer any water in the tents, and we declare together that this is the truth, which we are ready to affirm on oath at all times…
The letter was co-signed by Van Der Graeff and over fifty others. The next day another sailor on the island died. He was probably not much lamented as his death meant there was one less mouth to feed from the dwindling supplies. Van Der Graeff went to the reef to ask those on the ship for victuals on the Monday 29thbut was refused. Instead, he was given a signal that Steyns wanted to leave the wreck. Fresh water had now become an urgent issue ‘for we are at our wits’ end with thirst.’ Fortunately, drinkable water was found on another island ‘so that now, God be thanked, we need not ration one another any longer.’ But it was too late for one of the boys and another sailor who died over the following few days. ‘We now number 89’ Van Der Grief recorded in his stoically non-committal way.
Even with reduced numbers, supplies were consumed quickly. There was further pressure from the men for larger rations and by the 6th they were down to a little bread, some groats, oil, butter, cheese and some tobacco. They were subsisting mostly on the small birds. That day the master and men returned from the wreck, having built a scow on board and floated across. Next day Steyns and van der Graeff took the new scow and gig to the reef. As usual, they hauled the craft over the corals hoping to launch into the sea beyond in order to reach the Zeewijk. They were unable to do this but some provisions were thrown into the sea for them by those still on board.
On Friday 10th, van der Graeff and the third mate managed to get across to the broken ship in the gig and to organise some substantial transshipments of food, tools and sailcloth. The good weather went on for days, during which a great deal of provisions were either rowed or floated to the reef. A few of those who had never left the Zeewijkwere also brought ashore. On the 21st one of the soldiers aboard the wreck died but the work continued unabated. Still the weather held. They now began to cannibalise the ship itself for all usable materials, even including the ship’s bell. Another sailor died on the 26th. Van der Graeff was relieved three days later and proudly recounted how much he had been able to send ashore. He also apologised for the alleged loss overboard of that part of his journal relating to his weeks back aboard the Zeewijk.
The survivors were now in the best situation since the wrecking. They had sufficient food, a supply of fresh water and enough timber and materials to build a new boat, a large scow. By the 30th of October, by now accepting that the boat that had left months earlier had not made it to Batavia, they resolved to build a new one and to rescue themselves. They laid the keel on November 7 and the stem the following day. In their journal Steins and Nebbens noted: ‘We called it the Sloepie, that is, the little sloop, made up from the wreck of the Zeewyck.’
You can read the rest of the story in The Savage Shore