I’ve been away. I took a little trip to the High Middle Ages, where I read a whole lot of Old English aloud to 23thorns.
Faeder ure bu be eart on heofonum, Si bin nama gehalgot. Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. How wonderful is that?!
I wrote desperate love letters to John of Gaunt (he wasn’t interested) and put a pillow case on my head to imagine myself in a wimple (not a great look for me). But, I am back, and I am left-handed.
I have always been left-handed and have taken great interest in anybody else who is too. We’re a special club – about 10% of the world’s population – and we have all been tortured by the lever arch file. In the same way that Land Rover drivers wave at each other on the road and people who discover they share a star sign feel an immediate kinship, left-handers raise their metaphorical eyebrows at each other in recognition of our shared difference. Douglas Adams, Bill Clinton, Hans Holbein the younger the great Tudor artist, Jack the Ripper, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Leonardo Da Vinci, Oprah Winfrey – it’s a cool club. In researching the Plantagenets, however, I came across the work of Cesare Lambroso. Cesare lived from 1835-1909. He had nothing to do with the Plantagenets, but research can take you to some interesting places. He had rather a lot to do with the study of left-handedness in the 19th century though and he did not think we were a cool club. He thought we were criminals and degenerates.
Cesare, “the father of modern criminology” developed a system to identify the “criminal, the insane and the feeble-minded”. He identified common physical traits of society’s least-wanted that aligned them more closely to beasts than men - they included a profusion of moles, “primitive pubic hair”, and left-handedness. These biological throwbacks to a more primitive stage in our evolution, he called atavisms.
As “man advances in civilization and culture”, he wrote in 1903, “he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races, [who] even when they are not properly left-handed have certain gestures and movements which are a species of left-handedness”.
Lombroso asserted, “that left-handed people are more numerous among criminals, and sensitive left-sided people among lunatics”. This led him to formulate a “simple hypothesis…that criminals are more often left-handed than honest men, and lunatics are more sensitively left-sided”. He argued that “in criminals and lunatics the right lobe predominates very much more often than in normal persons”. Thus, “while the healthy man thinks and feels with the left lobe, the abnormal, thinks, wills, and feels more with the right”. Although Lombroso did not claim “that all left-handed people are wicked,” he was convinced “that left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species”.
Wasn’t Cesare a charmer?! He did get me thinking though. There is not much criminality in my family tree that I know of, although once when I was a little girl my father did sign our hotel breakfast to a randomly selected room number with a suitably unreadable signature before speeding away from the gravel parking lot after the taking of toast and tea. There is quite a lot of insanity in the tree though and I started thinking that perhaps Cesare was onto something. And perhaps the reason that I love pirates so much (the 17th century ones) is that my left-handedness betrays my inherent savage nature. It certainly can have absolutely nothing to do with Johnny Depp.
I know pirates were awful. I know they were dirty; they had dreadlocks and they smelled. I’m reading about a group of Barbary corsairs who in 1627 raided Iceland and captured men, women and children for the slave trade. (There must have been an awful lot of money in the slave trade to warrant a trip from the north coast of Africa to Iceland. Iceland, for goodness’ sake!). Below is an excerpt from the diary of Reverend Olafur who witnessed the raid and was captured.
The pirates quartered the island, capturing people wherever they found them, young and old, women and men and infants. They chased after people in their houses, across the mountain slopes, in caves and holes, and killed everybody who fought against them. The dead lay everywhere. Only a few of the people who were strongest, or had nothing to carry, or did not pay attention to anybody else, managed to avoid capture. I and my poor wife were among the first to be taken.
The pirates surrounded the Landakirkja church, shooting and hewing at it with axes until they broke in. First they stole the vestements and dressed themselves up. Then they trooped away, driving everyone they captured towards the Danish houses. Those who could not move as fast as the pirates wished, they beat to death and left lying behind.
from The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson by Adam Nichols and Karl Hreinsson
I know they were not nice men but I have always loved stories about them. I ate up the stories of democracy on board ship, the female pirates who dressed themselves in men’s clothes in order to escape their lives of drudgery, and the stories of buried treasure. Who doesn’t like stories of buried treasure? So, it was with great excitement that the family set off for the Seychelles about a month ago. The kids were excited about going overseas, 23 was excited about snorkelling, and I was excited about pirates.
The Seychelles is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, miles from anywhere. The great empire builders were slow to colonise it because there was no indigenous population to enslave and force into work on plantations. It was eventually colonised, with labour shipped in. Then there were coffee plantations and vanilla orchid farms. Colonial mansions with big airy rooms were built. Civilization moved in, but before civilization came to stay, pirates visited often. The islands were out of the way but close to the route European ships would be taking from the Spice Islands back home. It was warm, it was beautiful, there was fresh water if you felt up to hacking your way through the tropical jungles.
When we first went to the Seychelles 10 years and two children ago, we met a man on Bel Ombre beach who had shipped in great earth movers and was making a great mess and a big hole on a beautiful beach. We started chatting and it turned out he was a modern-day treasure hunter. He had inherited his father’s treasure “map” and he was on the hunt for pirate, Olivier Levasseur’s fabled treasure.
In the 1720s Olivier, known as La Buse, captured the heavily laden Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Our Lady of the Cape). On board ship was vast treasure: “bars of gold and silver, dozens of boxes full of golden Guineas, diamonds, pearls, silk, art and religious objects from the Se Cathedral in Goa, including the Flaming Cross of Goa made of pure gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds”. Once divided, each pirate had treasure equal in today’s money to over £7,500,000. Shortly after the raid immunity was offered to pirates who gave up their thieving ways, if they turned themselves and some of the treasures in. La Buse didn’t want to part with his ill-gotten gains, so set himself up in the Seychelles. He went out now and then though on shopping expeditions perhaps and was eventually arrested off the coast of Madagascar and sentenced to hang. As he waited on the scaffold, legend tells that he threw down a coded letter which showed the whereabouts of his buried treasure. When engravings were found on the rocks of Bel Ombre beach, the letter and the engravings were put together and the hunt began.
The man we met on Bel Ombre beach was Seychellois history teacher, John Cruise-Wilkins. He was certain that he was close to breaking the code. The cryptogram spoke of an underground chamber which would flood at high tide. It spoke of the 12 labours of Hercules. He showed us some coins that he had already dug up. It was a wonderful story but I couldn’t help but think that if I were a pirate, I would never have buried my treasure on the beach or anywhere close to it. I would have buried it further inland. I would have buried it at the foot of the massive granite outcrop directly behind the beach. The beach sands shift too often to reliably find a particular spot after potentially years away. Of course my thinking I knew better is all hubris. It is the hubris of a left-handed savage though, and you know what they say, it takes one to know one.
So it was that 10 years after first hearing about Levasseur, we were in the Seychelles again and ready to find ourselves some treasure. We were on a different island this time. We were nowhere near Bel Ombre beach, but I thought that if there was treasure on one of the islands, there must be treasure on the others. I was going to find my own treasure markers on Praslin. We could retire, sell our story to the History Channel, and live out our autumn years in paradise with an earth mover and a film crew.
Sadly, it was not to be. What I hadn’t reckoned on was quite how different a family holiday would be from those 23 and I had taken before. Back in the day we always walked a lot, away from the main tourist attractions, and found wonderful hidden histories and pleasures. This Seychelles holiday was a big family affair – granny, all the aunts and uncles, all the cousins - 18 of us in all. Our children quite simply refused to be parted from their cousins, so we moved from the beach (20 metres from our room) to the pool (20 metres from our room) and back again. By day 4 of this, I was struck down with cabin fever and insisted that we were going on a treasure hunt whether the family liked it or not. The mountain that we climbed was at a 45 degree incline and within about 5 minutes of leaving the hotel things began to unravel. My son needed the loo, 23 needed a beer, we were dripping in sweat. I saw a spider bigger than my hand and needed a tranquillizer. We turned around and went back to the pool, to the beach, to the room.
With that behind us though, I started to think again. With my sinister left-handed insight into the minds of the mad, bad and sad, and my newly acquired knowledge of people-moving in paradise, perhaps La Buse really did bury his treasure on the beach. Because pirate ships were democratically run, perhaps La Buse had stood up like me and shouted instructions to his crew to bury his treasure beneath that granite boulder. Perhaps like my family, they had looked at him then at the perfect blue sea. La Buse. La relaxation. Perhaps like my lot, they set off under protest. And perhaps just like my lot they turned around and buried the whole hoard in the sand right back where they started.
Next time we go to the Seychelles, I’m going to join John on Bel Ombre beach. I’ll examine those rock engravings. I’m sure we’ll find that they were carved by a left-handed soul. I’m sure they’ll actually be the plaintive cries of a pirate worn down by democracy, his words echoing through the ages, “When you find yourself a family, not only will you never walk alone, you’ll never walk anywhere.” And maybe, just maybe, we can dig up some pirate treasure. Aaargh.