Lunar Men

My laptop, a veteran of a a thousand talks, refused to work. Let me qualify that—it worked fine, but when I asked it to speak to the projector, its mind went blank. Or strictly speaking, the screen did. The wall turned from blue to white, as if recovering from a deep sadness that had left it empty inside.

I let the association’s tech guy fiddle some more, and he set it all up with his computer. I’m stubborn: I tried mine again, and suddenly everything was fine. This was my second coming, so to speak. The organization in question is the Algarve Archaeological Association, and I was there for a talk, which turned out to be two. The AAA’s members are dispersed from the Spanish border to the tip of Sagres, so the board’s option is to make their speaker talk twice. I think that’s pretty smart.

The first lecture was at a museum in São Brás de Alportel. That’s not far from Tavira, where Diego, the carpenter from The India Road escapes from jail. Tavira has aged well. Unlike the central part of the Algarve, which fell prey to an unholy alliance of developers and politicians in the mid-seventies, after the Portuguese revolution.

If you dig in Tavira, the first layer down is Moorish. After that come the Phoenicians. The president of the AAA welcomed me to his home, and explained that whenever he built anything on the land, he invariably found archaeological materials. A good many have been presented to the Islamic Museum, run by the council.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me whether he’d bought the land in order to build a house, or to dig it up. A little of each, I suspect.

The association does more than just dig, it also provides grants to university students from the anthropology department, for archaeological research. That’s a lot more philantropy than many national organizations carry out, and I found it highly commendable.

One of its previous speakers was the author of book called 1421, which develops the idea that the Chinese, and particularly the eunuch fleet commander Cheng He, discovered the world’s major maritime routes. Since my talk was entitled ‘The beginning of globalization’, it was only natural that the subject should come up in questions.

This gave me the opportunity to revisit the ideas of a good friend, Capt. Malhão Pereira (Retd) and his co-author Jin Guo Ping. The Chinese governement, and through it the Academy of Sciences, were intially delighted with Menzies’ book, but after careful scrutiny, dissociated themselves from his ideas, to avoid losing face.

The monograph that my friend authored raises several questions with respect to the Chinese voyages. I would refer only three:

1. The journey in June across the Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea) from Calicut to Africa was not possible under the power of sail, against the summer winds. The reversal of the wind patterns is so marked that it changes the ocean current patterns in the Arabian Sea. Only from November onward, with the onset of the winter monsoon, is it possible to make the journey west. This was known to Arabs, Indians, and Portuguese alike;

2. This is compounded by the fact that the junks that made up the Chinese fleet were square rigged, and could not easily manoeuvre against the wind. This is a recurring obstacle to some of the dates and distances allegedly covered in the Chinese voyages;

3. Any route can be categorized according to length and duration. The average speed of around three knots is plausible only if the Chinese made very few, and very brief stops. 1421 describes mining activities in Australia, hardly a whistle-stop.

Good things come from this whole affair: two people asked me for copies of the monograph, and I therefore had the chance to visit my friend. He asked me to introduce him at a session which will take place this month at the Naval Academy, where a series of such monographs will be presented in book form. All told, a veritable treasure: one hundred and eighty four pages of wisdom on navigation in the age of sail, the Portuguese discoveries, and related subjects—including the voyages of Cheng He.

Portuguese hand painted tiles. Echoes of a gloriois past.

Portuguese hand painted tiles. Echoes of a glorious past.

In my conversations with members of the AAA, I learnt about an association of wise men that was active in XVIIIth century England—the Lunar Society, so called because it met on the full moon. These were therefore monthly meetings, essentially a boys’ night out, featuring dinner and discussions. Self-termed Lunarticks, the association was never a formal group, but it did include a series of names that make you reel: Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgewood, Benjamin Franklin. And Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the man responsible for the theory of evolution, the bête noire of ‘intelligent’ design.

I’ve been promised a book on the Lunar society, and after suitable digestion, I’ll return to the subject in these pages.

In the midst of all this activity, news of the pregancy of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, made the news across the media. Nothing amazing about that. What is amazing is the UK has finally changed the law on succession. Even if the first-born child is female, she inherits the throne.

Wow! Along with women getting the vote in 1971 in super-progressive Switzerland, this is a landmark for women’s rights. Presumably, the precedent will also apply to the inheritance of large estates owned by the British nobility. It certainly stirs things up.

As does the possibility that the princess might be pregnant with twins. If two heirs were to emerge (sorry), then how would the law be intepreted? Is the kid who pops out first the heir to the throne? Even more intriguing, what if a Cesarean delivery occurs? Will the new head (sorry again) of the British throne be selected by an Indian doctor?

I ran the thought by a friend of mine in the U.K. He explained that despite rumors to the contrary, it’s common knowledge that the royal family is in fact Indian. He offered irrefutable evidence: all of them live in the same house, and they all work in the family business.

In a bizarre twist to this story, the poor woman who was pranked into reporting Kate’s condition to the press appears to have committed suicide. She was a nurse of Indian origin, and her name was Jacintha Saldanha. Since that name is as Portuguese as bacalhau, we know exactly who her ancestors were: the men who built The India Road. There aren’t a whole lot of Indians called Carruthers.

The AAA took me out for a very pleasant dinner after my second talk. Rather aptly, to a Chinese restaurant. As we parted, the fellow in charge of the technical setup came up to say goodbye.

“I have a confession to make. I know why the wall screen was blank.”
I looked at him expectantly.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to take the lens cap off.”

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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