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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Rashomon times 2 (or 2 plus 1)

OK, there was a bit of a hiatus there, mainly because I have been busy with Other Stuff.

In particular, I have been concerning myself with Australian history, in a work for younger readers. It's actually one of a series, written with the view that even complex issues can be handled by young minds, given the right presentation.

In Akiro Kurasawa's classic film, Rashomon, one story, about a murder, is told by four people: the bandit, the wife, the samurai and the woodcutter.  It is fictional.  Each version is different.

Well, I have a similar multi-version story, but it's from real life.  It involves an incident where nine versions are given by eight people, and they are all subtly different about the number and type of animal, the date (some are less specific) and in some cases, the owner(s) of the stock which were killed by a lightning strike, not long after the first white people came ashore in Sydney in 1788. The animals were in a pen (or shed) under a tree, and it seems they all perished: this was a bit of a disaster.

We are taught to pay attention to primary sources, but what are we to make of these discrepancies in first-hand accounts, written on the spot?  Perhaps some of it was due to editing or the careless making of "fair copies"?

I have done some colour-coding in the text to help you spot the variations.
In February, the weather was sultry, with lightning, thunder, and heavy rain; this sort of weather continued for a fortnight, with few and very short intervals of fair weather; a flash of lightning fell one night near the camp, and struck a tree near to the post of a centinel, who was much hurt by it; the tree was greatly rent, and there being at the foot of it a pen in which were a few pigs and sheep, they were all killed. 
John Hunter: An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, chapter III

Ere we had been a fortnight on shore we experienced some storms of thunder accompanied with rain, than which nothing can be conceived more violent and tremendous, and their repetition for several days, joined to the damage they did, by killing several of our sheep, led us to draw presages of an unpleasant nature. 
Watkin Tench: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, chapter XV.

The month of February was ushered in by a very violent storm of thunder and rain. The lightning struck and shivered a tree, under which a shed had been erected for some sheep, and five of those animals were at the same time unfortunately destroyed by it. 
Arthur Phillip, The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay, chapter VII.

2nd February. This morning five sheep, belonging to the lieutenant-governor and quarter-master, were killed by lightning under a tree, at the foot of which a shed had been built for them. The branches and trunk of the tree were shivered and rent in a very extraordinary manner. 
John White  Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.

Abt. 12 o'Clock in the night one severe flash of Lightg. struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp under wh. some places were constructed to keep the Sheep & Hogs in: it split the tree from top to bottom; kill'd 5 Sheep belonging to Major Ross & a pig of one of the Lieuts
Arthur Bowes Smyth, A Journal of a Voyage from Portsmouth to New South Wales and China - in the Lady Penrhyn, entry for February 6.

On the First Day of this Month, We had a vast deal of heavy Rain. Thunder & Lightning, and the next morning 5 Sheep, 1 Lamb. & 2 Pigs, were found dead, lying under a Tree, which was riven in a violent Manner by the Lightning... 
George Worgan, Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon, entry, Tuesday 5th February. (SEE NEXT!)

We have reason to apprehend that much Mischief may be done by Lightning here. Indeed we have experienced its fatal Effects since we have been here, for one Night 6 Sheep 1 Lamb, & 2 Pigs that were lying under a Tree, were all killed and the Tree violently riven. 
George Worgan, Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon, 'Climate'.

In the night of the 6th February, six sheep, two lambs, and one pig, belonging chiefly to the lieutenant-governor, having been placed at the foot of a large tree, were destroyed by the lightning. 
David Collins: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1, chapter I.

Thursday 7 where I went to Supper being ask my God how it did thunder and Lighting - was very much frightened for the Centinell before Majr. Ross markee while we were at Supper was knock down with it - I thought at first that he had been Struck by the lighting as he came running and making a great noise and fell flat dount at my feett but he was not hurt but I am Sorry to find that by the very hard clap of Thunder the lightning Struck one of the Trees near where we were at Supper and Kild Six Sheep 2 Labms and one Pigg belonging to Major Ross
Ralph Clark, Journal.

Before you ask, Major Ross was the Lieutenant-Governor.

The spelling, especially in Clark's case, represents what the writers wrote.  People didn't have the same hang-ups about spelling back then.

I think there are some interesting conclusions to be reached from studying this, but probably not in a book for 10-year-olds, so I am sharing it here.  If you are a teacher, please feel free to use this, any way you like.

Technical and teacherly matters
There is no copyright on any of this.  If you want to view good copies of the journals, most of these can be sourced from the University of Sydney's SETIS site.  Select the Browse—All link on the left, and then look for the ones where a PDF is available, and either read or save it.

Another source that I have used is Project Gutenberg. That has given me:


  • Arthur Phillip, The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay;
  • John Hunter: An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island;
  • David Collins: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1;
  • David Collins: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2;
  • Watkin Tench: A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson;
  • Watkin Tench: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay;
  • John White  Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales;
  • George Worgan, Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon.
  • Ralph Clark, Journal.

I have cleaned all of these up, using macros in Word, and pasted them into a single file. Then I added these journals in whole or in part from transcripts on the State Library of NSW site: those may be copyright, but my copies are purely for personal research.

  • Smyth  (from State Library of NSW);
  • Bradley (part, from State Library of NSW);
  • Easty  (part, from State Library of NSW);
  • King  (part, from State Library of NSW);
  • Nagle  (part, from State Library of NSW).

These journals and extracts are all in the one big MS Word file (1300 pages, almost a million words).  Each volume has a Heading 1 header, the chapters are Heading 2, and extra markers (for example, when somebody reaches Rio) are Heading 3. This allows me to navigate using Document Map.

And search. The trick is, when I search on some key word like Wilson*, sheep, lightning or salt, I can quickly find the stuff I want.  I had noticed that there were several versions of the lightning strike, but I never expected NINE of them!

I am hoping that with this hint, I may get a few people using IT in a cleverer way to make genuinely new discoveries.

Anyhow, that's why it's been a while (there's also another rather different book in the works, but I'm not discussing that just yet—unless I mentioned sheep wearing Viking helmets so people will mistake them for mad cows and not eat them—shhhh!).  Next week, I'll get back to posting some off-cuts from Australian Backyard Naturalist.

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* Wilson, or Bun-bo-e was a convict who, when his time expired, went to live among the Aborigines and became an initiated man. I am exploring his story at the moment as well.

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