What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Trivia: Greater Britain

These extracts didn't really fit in with my previous post on Greater Britain (1900), but I thought they were too interesting to leave out completely. Here are three bits of antique trivia for your Friday afternoon enjoyment:

1. Origin of the phrase "white elephant" to describe something expensive but useless.

"Higher up the course of the Irrawaddy lies Upper Burma, which we took possession of more recently, to deliver it from the tyranny of its native king. Before that his subjects used to cross our border to be safe from their oppressor; and since it has become British the country is much more prosperous.
A well-trained elephant here is worth 5000 rupees, that is £500 of our money. Far more valuable, however, in the eyes of the natives, are the so-called "white elephants", in this part of the world reverenced as living idols. They are not really white, but piebald, with flesh-coloured or light-brown patches, a peculiarity perhaps caused by the animal rubbing itself against a tree to get rid of the flies that torment the cracks in its thick hide. Kings used to go to war for such a treasure, which at their courts would be lodged in a gilded pavillion, waited on by noblemen, and fed from vessels of gold - as if the poor beast were any better for such distinctions." (p.39-40)

2. Possible origin of the term "Indian summer".

"The autumn [in Canada] is generally a very pleasant time, when may be expected the short season of calm sunny days and gorgeously coloured woods which is known as the Indian summer. It is said to have been given the name by early American colonists, because the Indians then made their last raids against the settlements before snow came on to shut them up in the deep woods." (p.46)

3. Report of a macabre but somehow impressive mechanical toy captured in India, as well as an explanation of how hunting is a brave and manly pastime, but only if you're English.

"A menagerie of wild beasts often makes part of an Indian court; and the degenerate rajah, who perhaps dare not hunt them in their native jungle, takes delight sitting in a safe place, to see the captive creatures let loose on one another, for so does cruelty go with cowardice. The Sultan Tippoo, one of the worst of the tyrants from whom we delivered India, used to keep savage tigers in his palace to tear in pieces those who has displeased him and when his capital was taken by our soldiers, they found among his treasures a machine representing a tiger as large as life in the act of devouring an Englishman. in the body of it was a sort of organ giving out sounds to imitate cries of distress mixed with the tiger's horrible roar. This pretty toy for a sovereign to play with was brought home to an English museum. [...]
Such a [rich, Indian] sportsman does not much care to seek out a tiger alone, and meet him face to face, as Englishmen often will." (p.32-3)
The tiger is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum and there's a very informative description of it's origin, workings and symbolism here.

No comments:

Post a Comment