Thursday 31 October 2013

Halifax Halloween Survey - Where Have All the Pirates Gone?

Halloween from my window on Duncan Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia

For the last 17 years I have conducted a census of Halloween costumes that come to my doorstep on Duncan Street in West End Halifax. This year the good news is: numbers are up, after a long-term decline. We had a total of 80 costumed trick-or-treaters, up from an abysmal 50 last year, but sill a far cry from 215 when I started my count in 1996.

However as a marine historian, especially one who wrote book on piracy in Atlantic Canada, I was mortified by this development:

No pirates!
Pretty much every year there have been pirate costumes with a peak in 2008 when they were the number one costume. No doubt the fading cycle of Pirates of the Caribbean films has much to do with this. (At least there were two sea monsters, a new category this year and a classic mermaid, reassuring in a port city whose connection to the sea grows ever more symbolic.)

Pirates joined a number of classics this year that were missing entirely. There were no witches, no ghosts, no clowns and no fire fighters. There was one fire fighter outfit but the little girl in it had converted it to a SWAT team policeman, part of new trend of 3 SWAT police officers. I am not sure where that is coming from - perhaps the influence of some of the recent television series featuring SWAT teams.

The Best Overall Costume was: A Ritz Cracker: an 8-year-old walking box of Ritz Crackers, English in front, French in back & nutritional information on the side.

Here were some other trends:

1. A dead tie between Vampires and Princesses and Ninjas for the most popular costumes. (6 of each)
2. Zombies were up with 5.
3. Batman is doing well, but no spidermen.
4. Not one, but 2 Medusas!
5. Quite a number of food costumes: a pear, crackers, cereal, banana

You may find it interesting to compare these results with a nicely illustrated infographic display about Halloween costumes elsewhere by graphic designer Kinnon Elliot. 

It was good to see the numbers up a bit. I enjoy the doorstep theatre represented by Halloween trick-or-treaters and what it tells us about kids and our communities. I grew interested in counting costumes when I did my History Masters and read about civic parades in Renaissance France where guilds, clerics, professions and the nobility all paraded in formal costume to represent their roles in society and the order of the parade telegraphed changes. While children at Halloween are a far cry from civic elites, it is still fun to speculate what they represent.

I did a CBC Radio interview with Bill Roach on "Mainstreet" about the survey, the day after Halloween which you can listen to here: Conlin's Costume Count.

In any case, here is the full data for your own interest and reflection:

Past Totals
2012: 50! 
2011: 80
2010: 88
2009: 99
2008: 103
2007: 125
2006: 168 
2005: 187
2004: 184
2003: 187
2002: 193
2001: 152
2000: 171

The journalist Parker Donham has kindly put my annual numbers in a graph on his Contrarian blog.

Angel: 1
Baby: 2
Banana: 1
Barney Dinosaur: 2
Batman: 3
Batgirl: 1
Bobba Fett: 1 (Star Wars)
Cat: 1
Cat in the Hat: 1
Cereal Killer  (Cereal boxed stabbed with knives): 1
Evil Cook: 1
Dead  Cheerleader: 1
Dead Doctor: 1
Evil Doctor: 1
Devil: 1
Dragon: 1
Football Players: 2  (One who was Michael Vick!)
Frankenstein: 1  (Good homemade green make-up)
Gangster: 1
Goalie: 1  (Fully equipped)
Goth: 1
Goth Bride: 2  (Beautiful costume with black bouquet)
Hulk: 1
Ironman: 1
Karate Guy: 1
Little Red Riding Hood: 1
Lizard: 1
Lion: 1
Mermaid: 1
Medusa: 1
Monkey: 1
Monster, misc : 1
No discernible costume: 1
Ninja: 6
Owl: 1
Pear: 1
Pirates: NONE!
Platypus: 1
Princesses: 6  (Including 1 Fairy Princess)
Puss & Boots: 1  (A very nice costume and keen to demonstrate his swordsmanship.)
Ritz Cracker Box: 1
Scream/Ghouls masks:1
Sea Monsters: 2
Skeleton: 1
A Shadow: 1  (The concept, not the crime fighter)
Storm trooper: 1  (Star Wars)
Swat Team policemen: 3
Unicorn: 1  (Very Young Baby)
Vampires: 6
Werewolf: 1
First Caller:  5:35 p.m.
Peak Traffic: 7 p.m.
Last Caller:  8:15 p.m.

Happy Halloween from Duncan Street! (The blue column in the window is a set of real chest and leg X-Rays that I use to give the sidewalk view a spooky blue glow.)

Monday 21 October 2013

Trafalgar Day

Today is the 208th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. We recently installed in our Navy Gallery the classic 1876 engraving "Death of Nelson"  by Charles W. Sharpe, based on the 1861 painting by Daniel Maclise.

1) "The Death of Nelson"  MMA, M2011.102.1, Gift of Adrian Bridgehouse

The engraving shows the dying Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory just after he was felled by a sharpshooter's musket ball on October 21, 1805. Nelson's death during his great final victory is, of course, an iconic moment in Royal Navy history. Maclise's painting followed two other earlier notable paintings with the same title, one by Arthur William Devis in 1805 and the other by Benjamin West in 1806. Maclise was commissioned to do the painting as a mural for the Palace of Westminster. The engraving based on the painting was widely sold and hung above many fireplaces around Nova Scotia.

2) "The Death of Nelson" finished study. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Wikimedia 

 Maclise invested a great deal of time seeking accurate details. He interviewed Trafalgar survivors and studied period equipment.  However, the painting is still a stylized view of the event with a composition that compresses the sweeping decks of HMS Victory and avoids the fact that Nelson was quickly taken below decks to die. The artist also chose to emphasize the diversity of age, race and gender in the Royal Navy during the sailing era. This produced fascinating portraits of the people around Nelson and gives the work a greater meaning, communicating not only the veneration of Nelson but also the courage and suffering of the ordinary people in Victory's crew.
3) This detail in the engraving shows a "powder monkey", a very young member of Victory's crew, bringing gunpowder from the magazine to a gun crew on the deck. 

4) A central figure in the work is one of Victory's African crew members who has spotted the French sharpshooter and is directing a Royal Marine to exact quick retribution.

5) This woman features prominently in the engraving. Wives of long-serving British sailors were regularly found aboard some warships where they served, unpaid, to care for wounded and load cartridges.

Neither Victory nor Nelson ever came to Nova Scotia (although Nelson did spend some time in Quebec).  However, the Battle of Trafalgar affected our region. Atlantic Canadians of all ranks served in the Royal Navy and fought at Trafalgar and there is an ongoing search to identify the region's Trafalgar veterans which you can read about on historian Keith Mercer's blog. Nova Scotians welcomed the assertion of naval security that resulted from the battle. They shared in the mourning for the loss of Nelson, a legacy that was seen for decades in the naming of not only ships but children after Nelson, Victory and Trafalgar. That is why our museum, like most maritime museums in the Commonwealth, has a Victory model on display.
 6) The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's Victory model and "Death of Nelson" engraving.

Into the 20th century, Nelson came to embody the fighting spirit and tradition of service which the Royal Canadian Navy inherited from the British Royal Navy. In fact, the RCN arranged for its first flagship, HMCS Niobe, to arrive in Halifax on Trafalgar Day in 1910.

7) HMCS Niobe steams past Georges Island arriving in Halifax on Trafalgar Day, 1910. MMA, MP31.7.6

Our colleagues at the Naval Museum of Halifax, formerly the Maritime Command Museum, marked this year's Trafalgar Day by unveiling a just-acquired ship portrait of Niobe. It is a rare painting of the ship created when Niobe was still in commission by the ship portrait artist A.J. Janson. 

8) Richard Sanderson at the Naval Museum of Halifax with the newly unveiled portrait of Niobe. MMA, Gerry Lunn

9) The white ensign flying at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Trafalgar Day 2013.

Our museum continues to mark Trafalgar Day by flying a very large ensign in honour of the battle. This flag was actually flown above HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England in the 1970s. It was donated to the museum a few years ago by Tom Barlow who was given the flag by his grandfather. Weather permitting we hoist the large ensign on important naval anniversaries, especially Trafalgar Day.

Friday 18 October 2013

A Nocturnal for Nocturne

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic participated in Halifax's late-night arts festival Nocturne on Saturday October 19, 2013. We found the perfect connection to this year's Nocturne theme of " Time and Space". It is a very old navigational instrument called a "nocturnal". Sailors used nocturnals to tell the time at sea using the position of stars in space.

1) The Museum's Nocturnal. MMA, M2013.19.1

Our nocturnal is one of the oldest instruments in the Museum collection. As indicated by its inscription, this nocturnal was made in 1733 for Captain Hugh Molloy. This particular nocturnal is believed to have been brought to Canada from Ireland by Charles Moffitt who settled in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in May of 1846. It was kindly donated to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic this year by Vaughan McManus through the efforts of museum registrar Lynn Marie Richard who drove all the way to Fredericton to safely transport the nocturnal to Halifax.

 2) Detail of the nocturnal recently donated by Vaughan McManus. MMA, M2013.19.1

It is elegantly cut and beautifully inscribed for a very practical purpose. As its name implies, the nocturnal was deployed at night using particular stars as reference points. It evolved from more complex astronomical instruments like the astrolabe. Conceived by Michel Coignet in 1581, nocturnals are really simple analogue computers. Compared to other instruments which require mathematical tables and trigonometry, the Nocturnal is delightfully simple to use. You set the date with one ring, point it at the North Star using the hole in the centre and then swing the pointer to the Big Dipper to read off the time. Nocturnals are reliably accurate to within 15 minutes. Our nocturnal has settings for GB, the constellation Great Bear (or Big Dipper) and LB, the Little Bear (or Little Dipper).

3)  How-to guide for the Nocturnal, The Use of a Nocturnal, by Petrius Apian, Antwerp 1545

Timekeeping was very important to navigators at sea. Precise time was needed to use tide tables to safely enter harbours and to regulate work shifts aboard known as the watch schedule. Time was also essential to navigation using dead reckoning where you planned to sail a certain direction for a set amount of time and then change your course. Mess up the time and you'd find yourself sailing straight into hazards like Sable Island, the graveyard of the Atlantic.  By the middle of the 18th century more accurate clocks started to become available, eventually producing the very accurate clocks known as chronometers and the nocturnal fell out of use.

4) The Museum's Nocturnals - Original, left, and Replica, right.

We are displayed our newly donated nocturne for the first time during Halifax's Nocturne: Art at Night festival and invited our visitors to try their hand at using one, guided by instrument expert and Museum Research Associate Randall Brooks. The museum's Curator of Visitor Experience Lee Schuette oversaw the creation of several lovely working replicas of our 280-year-old nocturnal. The replica nocturnals allowed Randall to demonstrate the use of the nocturnal and allow visitors to try their hand. In a bit of a living history experiment, we found that a slight cloud cover and and a bright 21st century urban sky foiled our use of this 18th century instrument but we will try again on colder and clearer nights.

5) A nocturnal view of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic at from the wharves. MMA, Ian Mullan

With our location beside the harbour, the Museum is often a magical place at night. We demonstrated the nocturnal three times in between the sounds of traditional sea-faring songs and stories told by members and friends from the Helen Creighton Folklore Society including Clary Croft, Vince Morash, Dan McKinnon and Kate Dunley. There were of course all kinds of wonderful artistic presentations and activities all over downtown Halifax during Nocturne. You can find more information at the website for Nocturne: Art at Night.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

An Owl Oddity

              One of the more compelling curiosities at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a stuffed Snowy Owl in a glass case. This somewhat creepy object looks like it would be more at home in a Victorian nature diorama than a maritime museum, but the case contains a handwritten card with its story told in the first person - and from the owl's point of view:

“I was blown from my home on the "North Pole" in the winter of 1886 on the 17th February.
 I took rest on the topsail yard arm of ship "Ulunda" in Lat 48° 21" North. Long 44° 35" West.
I was captured and taken to London. Captain Hill showed me every kindness during the voyage but in London I was chloroformed and embalmed. Here I am, a warning to all owls.”

1) Snowy - in his case in the Visible Storage Display at the Museum
            Nova Scotia Museum History Collection/Maritime Museum of the Atlantic 68.114.1

Snowy, as I call him, must have been blown offshore in 1886. Somehow the exhausted owl found the tiny speck of the SS Ulunda as it steamed past the edge of the Grand Banks, over 600 kilometres from the nearest land.

Snowy owes his fate to Captain S. Roland Hill (1852-1910), the master of SS Ulunda, who seems to have possessed a sense of humour akin to the 20th century "Far Side"  cartoonist Gary Larson. Hill was one of the many accomplished deep sea mariners to sail out of Great Village, Nova Scotia. He went to sea as a boy in sailing ships and rose up through the ranks. Unlike most sea captains of his generation, he made the transition to steam ships. His command in 1886 was the almost brand new Ulunda. This vessel was an ambitious attempt by some Halifax merchants to get into the ocean liner business as they could see that the days of sail were numbered. They formed the Halifax Steam Navigation Company and had Ulunda built in 1885 by Stephen & Sons in Glasgow, Scotland. As an early ocean liner, Ulunda had steam engines but was also rigged with auxiliary sails. That rigging provided the yard arm for the owl to gain temporary refuge in the middle of the North Atlantic. Their small fleet was quickly bought out by a big British steamship company, the Furness Line. Ulunda was scrapped in 1911. Captain Hill prospered in the new world of steamships. He later commanded ships for the Plant Line and finished his career the steamboat inspector for the port of Halifax.

As for the poor owl, Capt. Hill had it put to sleep in London and mounted in a classic winter taxidermy scene surrounded by a glass dome. The glass broke during the return voyage to Nova Scotia so, according to the Hill family, the Captain "gave it free passage" back to London for a new glass dome. Hill kept the owl with him for the rest of his career and it was later inherited by a niece who donated it to the Nova Scotia Museum in 1968.

My thanks to Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum and Nan Harvey at the Colchester Historical Society Archives for extra details on Capt. Hill.