Category: Spotlights

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: The Bounty

The mutiny on the Bounty.

It’s been mythologized, contextualized, and debated for a couple centuries now. The villainous Captain William Bligh versus the tragic victim of circumstances, First Officer Fletcher Christian.

Historians still differ about what actually went down on the infamous ship. And while Bligh has been a lightning rod for criticism, some revisionist scholars have been more sympathetic towards him — and conversely, more harsh in their criticism of the mutinous Christian.

The story has refused to die over the decades and centuries since, as it has been kept alive — first by novelists Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who penned the initial Mutiny on the Bounty novel, shortly followed by two other novels focusing on the aftermath (Pitcairn’s Island and Men Against the Sea). Several films have been made based on these events as well, two of which launched the careers of Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and another which starred Marlon Brando in his prime. A fourth film (simply called The Bounty) painted a more sympathetic picture of Bligh and gave both him and Christian a more nuanced portrayal.

By now, the background and essentials of the story are well-documented. But never fear, dear reader. I’ll fill you in just in case.

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Part 1: Background

The HMS Bounty was commissioned in 1787 for the purpose of transporting breadfruit plants to Jamaican plantations by way of the South Pacific (more specifically, Tahiti).

William Bligh was a former mentee of the accomplished Captain James Cook (1728-1799), who mapped and chartered much of the Pacific — including Australia and New Zealand — over three separate voyages before getting murdered by Hawaiian warriors on the third journey. Bligh served as Cook’s navigator on those trips and was from a prominent naval family in Britain.

Fletcher Christian was Bligh’s master’s mate, having sailed with the captain on two previous voyages and garnered a reputation as a skilled navigator. Only 23 years old at the time, Christian came from a wealthy family of lawyers, but chose to be a sailor contrary to his parents’ wishes.

The entire journey — from London to Tahiti to the West Indies and back to London — was to take an entire two years. There were 46 men aboard the Bounty during its long journey — 44 midshipmen and two civilians. After making the treacherous journey around Cape Horn, the crew stayed in Tahiti for several months, growing breadfruits in a tropical environment and planning to take them to Jamaica at a later time. However, Bligh grew increasingly irascible and became more and more demanding of his crew. Christian, in particular, became a key whipping boy and discontent grew rapidly among the crew.

The Bounty left Tahiti in April 1789. While the crew may have been slightly disgruntled, none suggested any serious talk of rebellion. After the Bounty made a supply run in the Friendly Islands (modern-day Tonga), the mutiny occurred in the early morning hours of April 28th. Christian overestimated how many men would be behind him during the mutiny; nonetheless, he cast Bligh adrift, along with 18 of his men. In addition to the core group of mutineers, several Bligh loyalists were forced to remain against their will due to a lack of lifeboat space.

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Part 2: Initial Analysis

The prevailing narrative of the story is that Bligh was, at best, an unpredictable control freak, or at worst, a wicked tyrant — thereby portraying Christian as either a tragic victim of circumstances or a justifiably pissed-off rebel. This account has been the one that’s been dramatized most frequently, first in the book trilogy and later in most of the film adaptations. However, over the years, academics, historians and analysts alike have begun to be more sympathetic towards Blight and unsympathetic towards Christian.

This was first epitomized in the 1984 film The Bounty, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Roger Donaldson, was much more revisionist than previous dramatizations, and Gibson later went on record as saying that the depiction didn’t go far enough — arguing that Christian should’ve been portrayed as the clear villain from the get-go.

(Side note: The 1984 film is not based on the original Mutiny on the Bounty novel, but rather on a different book called Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, first published in 1972 by historian Richard Hough).

Regardless, what logical conclusion can we take from the Bounty incident? Was the mutiny justified? And more importantly, what happened in between all the pivotal and memorable moments, both before and after the mutiny?

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Part 3: Reading between the lines

Truthfully, the roots of the mutiny can be found in Tahiti, where the crew of the Bounty spent five months. Upon their arrival, the Bounty‘s crew were ordered by Bligh to keep a careful eye on the breadfruits’ growth, but overall, their duties were light during their five-month stay. Bligh had a good relationship with the Polynesian natives, as he had made contact with them many years prior while traveling with Captain Cook. Bligh presented gifts to the Tahitian chiefs in exchange for the breadfruit plants; they happily accepted and were, by all accounts, very hospitable.

Maybe too much.

Christian and the rest of the crew were weary of the sea, and were more than content to get some R&R in this tropical paradise. Given that most of the crewmen were 15-25 year old men, they were beyond willing to drink rum, lounge on the beach, and socialize with the Tahitian women — who, back in the day, traditionally went topless.

Bligh continuously stressed discipline, but by that point, the crew (including Christian) weren’t in the mood to be bothered. A frustrated Bligh began to impose greater punishment on those who he deemed lazy, boorish, or worse. However, Bligh had rarely been a strict disciplinarian towards his crew during their long voyage, and was even seen by some as playing favorites with Christian.

Bligh was initially tolerant of his crew’s boozing and womanizing after the first few weeks in Tahiti, so his spurts of fierce discipline seemed to come out of nowhere — be it floggings, forcible rum rationing, or other punishments. In addition, Christian was frequently singled out and humiliated in front of the other crew and the natives. “Such neglectful and worthless, petty officers I believe were never in a ship such as are in this,” Bligh wrote angrily in his diary.

On January 5, 1789, three disgruntled members of the Bounty crew — John Millward, William Muspratt and Charles Churchill — deserted the rest of the crew in a small boat, taking some food, weapons and ammunition with them. Churchill left a list of crew names on a piece of paper on the Bounty that Bligh later found. This list apparently included both Christian and fellow crewman Peter Heywood. Incensed, Bligh soon captured the would-be deserters and had them severely flogged.

An increasingly paranoid Bligh began to rapidly increase the workload as the crew began to fill the lower cabins with the breadfruits; the Bounty finally left Tahiti on the morning of April 5th. Despite being irritated at having to leave, the crew were actually in fairly good spirits for the next few weeks, according to the diary of crewman James Morrison.

However, Blight continued to target Christian for minor offenses and seemed to be completely clueless about how his authoritarian approach was affecting morale. For example, when the Bounty reached the Tongan islands for additional water and supplies, Bligh warned Christian that the natives were unpredictable, having had skirmishes with them during his journeys with Captain Cook. However, he forbade Christian from bringing any muskets ashore with him in case things went awry. Christian was harassed by the Tongans, who stole the ship’s anchor and denied him any further access to the islands. Additionally, Bligh later accused Christian of stealing coconuts from his own private supply, despite Christian denying it. In retaliation, Bligh ordered his crew to ration food and rum.

Then the mutiny happened. It is believed that the mutiny itself was organized by Christian alone, although he had previously grumbled to fellow officers Edward Young and George Stewart. Neither of them encouraged Christian to desert, but suggested that he would likely have the crew’s support if he chose to revolt. Christian definitely didn’t have the foresight to know who would remain loyal to Bligh or not. Nonetheless, he had the leverage, and that’s what mattered in the end. “Never fear, lads, I’ll do you justice if ever I reach England,” Bligh called to his loyalists who remained onboard the Bounty.

Part 4: Bligh’s return and fate

Bligh and his men eventually navigated their way to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) while rationing food and supplies. They tangled with the Tongan natives (again) and nearly got cannibalized in Fiji. Six men ultimately died on the return trip home.

Bligh finally arrived in England in 1790, and the news of the mutiny proceeded him. The Royal Navy court-martialed Bligh and then dispatched the HMS Pandora to round up the mutineers and send them back to England to be tried for treason.

In March 1791, the Pandora finally reached Tahiti and found several of the mutineers. Three of them surrendered immediately, and the remainder were rounded up within a week’s time. However, there was no sign of Christian.

Tragically, on the return trip, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef — 35 men were lost, including four mutineers. In September 1791, they arrived in Kupang, Dutch East Indies, where 16 crewmen also died, mostly from disease. In total, only 78 of the 134 men aboard the Pandora made it back safely to London.

Out of the 10 mutineers that were brought to trial, six were found guilty and four were innocent. Only three out of six were executed, as one got off on a technicality and two others were pardoned.

Bligh was exonerated for his actions in his court-martial and he remained in the Royal Navy. He undertook a second breadfruit expedition to the West Indies in 1793 and later become governor of the colony of New South Wales in 1805. The fledgling Australian penal colony was notorious for its rough conditions, and Bligh’s no-nonsense approach was seen as a perfect fit.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. In a bit of deja vu, the New South Wales army corps rebelled against Bligh, arresting him and declaring martial law in what is now known as the “Rum Rebellion.” To date, it is the only successful armed government takeover in Australian history. Bligh returned to England, where he died in 1817 at the age of 63.

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Part 5: Pitcairn Island

Meanwhile, Christian & Co. had unsuccessfully attempted to colonize the island of Tubuai before electing to return to Tahiti. At this point, the party consisted of Christian, 12 mutineers, and four Bligh loyalists. Christian eventually decided to take several men and a handful of Tahitians with him on a journey further east to Pitcairn Island, where they hoped to set up another colony. Many of the other mutineers stayed behind in Tahiti.

Once Christian and the remaining mutineers got to Pitcairn Island, they set the Bounty ablaze. The island itself was prohibitively isolated, filled with lush vegetation and plenty of raw materials in order to help sustain its new population. For awhile, the mutineers and their Tahitian companions coexisted peacefully, and many of them settled down and had children, including Christian.

Eventually, conflict broke out. Many of the Tahitian men were disgruntled at the hard labor they were expected to do, while debate arose among the mutineers about whether or not the Tahitians should be considered their slaves or fellow free settlers. Christian also became increasingly quiet and withdrawn during this time.

The Tahitians revolted against their former allies in September 1793, when they executed six mutineers. But only a few months later, all of the Tahitians who planned the murders were killed themselves, possibly by the mutineers’ wives as revenge. Christian was murdered, too — according to one account, he was shot while working in a field and his body was then dismembered with an axe.

Two of the four surviving mutineers, Ned Young and John Adams, grew weary of the violence and attempted to bring peace to Pitcairn. They reasoned that the copy of the Bible that was on the Bounty would be a good place to start. The two men taught the Tahitians and their children how to read and write, and also preached the Gospel.

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In 1808, an American ship, the Topaz, stumbled upon Pitcairn. To their amazement, they found a thriving colony on the island that was filled with friendly, peaceful people, as opposed to drunken, disorderly mutineers and their children.

However, with a potential war against France looming, the Brits weren’t overly concerned with the fate of Christian’s men and word of their whereabouts didn’t reach London until two years later. By that point, Adams was the only surviving mutineer (he didn’t die until 1829) and was later given amnesty. The British officially colonized Pitcairn in 1838.

To this day, the mutineers’ descendants still live on Pitcairn. A large number of descendants also live on Norfolk Island, an external territory of Australia where several settlers temporarily relocated due to overcrowding on Pitcairn in the 1850s. In the latter half of the 19th century, the entirely Anglican population converted to Seventh-day Adventism due to the efforts of American missionary John Tay.

Due to its extreme isolation, Pitcairn has no airport and is classified as a British Overseas Territory, although they use the New Zealand dollar as currency. With a mere 50 inhabitants, Pitcairn is the least populous jurisdiction on the planet. Many of the residents still have surnames such as Young, Adams and Christian.

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ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Alan Dale

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Alan Dale commands your attention onscreen, and it’s not just due to his authoritative looks and intense expressions. I can almost guarantee you’ve seen the 71-year-old Kiwi actor in a film or TV show without realizing it was him.

To many, Dale is easily recognizable due to his presence on many popular shows, including his turn as the U.S. Vice President in 24, as an aloof, cold family patriarch in The O.C., and as a magazine mogul in Ugly Betty. Dale’s work ethic and on-set friendliness belie a hard-fought road to become a key character actor in Hollywood. After all, his becoming an actor was almost an afterthought.

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Dale was born and raised as one of four children in the seaside city of Dunedin, New Zealand. Growing up lower-middle class, Dale’s family didn’t have a TV, but he always enjoyed going to his local theatre and watching shows. At the tender age of 13, Dale performed for the first time at a school concert, doing an impression of American comedian Sheldon “Shelley” Berman. After moving to Auckland, Dale’s parents — who were fellow drama buffs — opened an amateur theatre. During shows, they often asked young Alan to operate the stage equipment that was used for weather effects.

Despite having a keen interest in the arts, Dale elected to primarily focus on rugby, as he was a talented player during his school days. By the age of 21, Dale decided to focus on acting full-time. “The acting fraternity didn’t like footballers and the footballers didn’t like actors,” Dale once remarked. “Acting gave me the same buzz and there was the chance of a longer career.”

Dale looked into theatre companies around New Zealand, but there weren’t many opportunities, so he went after other work. He dabbled in modeling, sold cars and real estate, and was even a milkman for awhile. One day, Dale was listening to his local radio station when the DJ abruptly quit in the middle of the set. “I had a shower, went to their office and said I could do better. They gave me a go, and then the day I was offered an afternoon show, I also got a call from the TV network, where I had tried the same trick — and landed my first series.”

Just like that.

By the time he turned 27, Dale had decided to fully pursue professional acting. He got a small role in a production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the Grafton Theatre in Auckland, as well as a spot on the New Zealand TV drama Radio Waves. This was what convinced him to permanently give up rugby.

However, over the next few years, work soon slowed down, and Dale decided to move to Sydney, Australia in 1979. He had hoped to apply for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), but was deemed too old for the course. Shortly thereafter, his wife Claire divorced him before moving back to Auckland, while Dale remained in Sydney with their two sons. Thankfully, Dale soon found work on the Aussie soap opera The Young Doctors, playing Dr. John Forrest for a three-and-a-half year stint.

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Dale’s performance on The Young Doctors was well-received in Australia and opened the door for him to star on another long-running Aussie soap — Neighbours. Portraying the character of Jim Robinson, Dale received warm reviews for his role on the show, staying on for eight years, but some personality differences began to emerge on-set. While Dale enjoyed playing Robinson and the pay was solid, he felt that the producers and showrunners didn’t understand where the show was going.

“You were a totally replaceable commodity. The production company didn’t put any value on any of the people appearing in the show,” Dale recalled later. By 1993, things were going south quickly, and the show’s creators killed Dale’s character off.

Over the next few years, Dale struggled to avoid typecasting and found it difficult to secure any major gigs apart from voiceover roles. He got thrown a life raft in 1999, when a made-for-TV American film called First Daughter was filmed in Australia. Dale landed a role and impressed the director with his talent. “I found I could do an American accent and decided to go for the launch (in Hollywood) in August 1999. By January 2000, I was living there.”

Not many actors move to LA at the age of 52. But then again, Dale has never followed a straight-forward path to the screen.

By this time, he had remarried and had two more sons, and they decided to make the leap and try to start afresh in the US. Here, Dale enrolled in formal acting training for the first time. As it turned out, his American acting coach offered some great advice: “You might want to play great roles, but truth is you will get cast as a specific type. Just work out your type.”

“The others in the class said I was a bit Anthony Hopkins and a bit Sean Connery, and that went into my head. I thought, if I go for roles those guys would go for, I’m more likely to get them,” Dale explained.

After landing a surprise four-episode stint on ER, Dale’s American acting career took off. Suddenly, the ex-soap opera star was insanely busy. “A lot of the American middle-aged faces were too familiar,” Dale said. “I came along and people were saying ‘Who is this great new guy?’ And I was cheap. After Neighbours, common sense says trade down, but I thought I’d try the opposite. If you get punched in the balls by someone bigger, it doesn’t hurt any more than being punched in the balls by someone smaller.”

After ER, Dale appeared on The Practice, The X-Files, 24, CSI: Miami, and The West Wing. Showing a penchant for playing authority figures, Dale managed to carve out a niche on American TV.

In 2003, Dale landed his first major role as a main cast member — on the beachside drama The O.C. In the show, Dale received further critical notice for his portrayal of Caleb Nichol, an unemotional, wealthy property developer whose clashes with his immediate family (daughter Kirsten Nichol Cohen and son-in-law Sandy Cohen) were a key source of tension in the show. While widely categorized as a “teen drama,” The O.C. also had a talented adult cast of characters, which allowed Dale to rub elbows with big-time acting veterans like Peter Gallagher.

 

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In addition to his stint on The O.C., Dale also appeared in recurring roles on Ugly BettyNCIS, and Lost. From 2009-2011, he also had notable guest starring parts on shows such as Californication, Burn Notice and Entourage. Dale also humorously paid homage to his home country as a guest star in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, in which he played the Australian Ambassador, who teases the show’s lead characters, Bret and Jemaine, for their Kiwi heritage.

Speaking of which, Dale has always had a sense of humor about his roots — as a young Kiwi actor who happened to make a lasting impression on a classic Aussie TV show.

“I like both places, but I get a lot more respect and recognition from Australia than I do in New Zealand,” Dale admits. “New Zealanders don’t want to know me at all, really. I’ve been Australian for 20-odd years. Everywhere I went I was the guy from Neighbours, so I was Australian. Then when I came here to Hollywood, because I have a New Zealand passport, I became a New Zealander again. It’s odd.”

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Despite enormous success on the small screen, Dale has remained close to his theatre roots. In 2008, he played King Arthur in the West End production of Spamalot, which also allowed him an extended chance to enjoy time with his son Simon, a radio announcer based in London. In addition to theatre, Dale has made small supporting roles in various films, including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Throughout the ups and downs of a career that has literally taken him around the globe, Dale says that he always keeps the words of Winston Churchill close to him: “Never give up. Never, never give up.” True enough, Dale has managed to find success in an unlikely environment after facing an uphill climb to get there to begin with.

Dale currently resides in Manhattan Beach, California and also has properties in Australia and New Zealand. His second wife, Tracey Pearson, is a former Miss Australia; they met at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne back in 1986. Together, they have two sons, Nick and Daniel, while Dale also has two grown sons from his first marriage: Simon, a radio announcer who lives in the UK, and Matthew, a US-based actor and writer.

Riches to rags: the sad, bizarre story of Nauru

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A few clicks south of the Equator about 1,400 miles off the northern coast of Fiji, the island of Nauru is only eight square miles in land area — an oval-shaped slab that is located in the epitome of no man’s land. Its closest neighbors (in clockwise order) are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The smallest independent country on Earth, Nauru has a story that is seemingly fitted to occupy an obscure section in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! 

Flash back 50 years. Nauru is enjoying its newfound independence, and it’s going well. Maybe too well. The island’s population of 9,000 is filthy rich due to phosphate, second only to the oil kings of Saudi Arabia in terms of per capita wealth. Nauruan residents don’t have to work too much, as their government has set up a trust fund that will manage the phosphate profits, giving them a large safety net for years to come after years of colonial mismanagement. In the meantime, most Nauruans go fishing, play Aussie rules football, ride the main island road on their motorcycles, buy boats and cars for their family members, and drink beer with friends until the sun sets.

Now flash forward 50 years. Nauru is broke — quite literally. Since the country’s bank shut down, Nauru is using the Australian dollar exclusively, and with only one ATM on the island, the vast majority of transactions are in cash only. The government’s phosphate trust went belly-up roughly a decade ago, resulting in the almost complete collapse of the nation’s economy. Due to lack of funds, the island’s schools shut down for nearly three whole years in the early 2000s. The national airline had its Boeing repossessed, and the once-prosperous phosphate mines were abandoned.

Modern-day Nauru and its inhabitants are in bad shape, in more ways than one. The island’s interior is irrevocably scarred from the strip mining, with 80% of it now uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture; nearly all Nauruans live around the coast. Due to the lack of island vegetation and over-reliance on imported processed foods, Nauru’s citizens are some of the most obese on the planet, with the world’s highest per capita rates of diabetes and heart disease.

The country’s private sector is practically non-existent outside of a general store, two hotels and a few restaurants. With one exception: a so-called “offshore processing centre” run by the Australian government on and off since 2001, in order to deter would-be asylum seekers from navigating Australian waters.

Other than these enterprises, the island has a 90% unemployment rate, and some adult residents, if they’re able and willing to work, earn a mere AUS$70 per week. With no personal income taxes and no way of paying off their debts, Nauru’s government is insolvent and almost completely reliant on foreign aid, mostly from Australia.

So what the hell happened?

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Part 1: The good times

Originally christened Pleasant Island by English sea captain John Fearn, Nauru was inhabited by a dozen tribes of Micronesian and Polynesian stock. They were strong-bodied, excellent fishermen, and known as good-humored by the few people in the Pacific who knew they existed (in the early 19th century, this was mostly confined to Asian sea merchants and the odd Australian escaped convict).

A civil war broke out on the normally peaceful island in 1878 following a domestic dispute. This dragged on for a decade, exacerbated by the presence of firearms previously supplied by merchants and whalers. The conflict only ended when German merchants arrived and the war-weary Nauruan chief pleaded with them to establish a protectorate over the island so that the fighting could stop. They obliged, and Nauru was proclaimed a German protectorate in 1888.

Nauru was relatively autonomous under German oversight, and the people were Christianized by missionaries from their nearest neighbors in the Gilbert Islands. But in 1900, British prospector Albert Ellis was visiting Nauru and he surprised many when he found something.

You see, Nauru was about as far removed as any island could be (4,300 miles from Singapore, 2,500 from Sydney, and 3,000 from Tokyo). The island was also surrounded by a coral reef, prohibiting construction of a major port. And as Mr. Ellis found, Nauru had very few natural resources over the space of eight square miles, with no indigenous animals, rivers or lakes.

What they did have was phosphate. Lots of it.

Phosphate is made up of guano (fossilized bird droppings) and is a valuable ingredient in fertilizers and explosives. At the turn of the 20th century, with the industrial revolution still going, it proved to be a potentially valuable commodity for basically every first-world nation on the planet. Mr. Ellis established the Pacific Phosphate Company in order to conduct strip mining operations on Nauru, as well as the two other nearby phosphate islands Makatea (in modern-day French Polynesia) and Banaba (Gilbert Islands).

Then World War I broke out. With Germany preoccupied on the western front, the Allies collectively seized most of the German possessions and protectorates in the Pacific, and Nauru was no exception. Following the war, the newly-established League of Nations entrusted Nauru to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but only after they were allowed to use the island as a phosphate mining operation under the Nauru Island Agreement.

While the strip mining was a successful operation for both Nauru and Britain, there was no effective way to rehabilitate the land from the mining, which left behind jagged rock pinnacles and no arable land. The South Pacific was also hit hard by the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-1920, and the Nauruan people suffered dramatic mortality rates accordingly (at least 230 deaths).

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Part 2: Japanese occupation

The mining continued until December 1940, when two Nazi ships sank four merchant ships off the Nauruan coast and shelled the phosphate mines, cutting off the supply to Australia and New Zealand. Understandably, Nauru immediately faced an economic crisis amid the encroaching Japanese threat. The Japanese invaded in August 1942, enslaving the Nauruans. Some were forced into labor on their homeland, building an airfield for the Japanese to use. Others were deported to the Chuuk Islands in Micronesia, a few thousand miles away. Some sick Nauruans were literally shipped off the coast in a boat that the Japanese torpedoed in order to send a message.

As Allied forces slowly but surely reclaimed Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines, the Nauruans were left high-and-dry. A month after Japan surrendered, the Royal Australian Navy finally arrived and reclaimed Nauru. Out of the 1,200 Nauruans kidnapped and enslaved, a mere 737 survived. The island became an Australian mandate again, this time under the UN, in 1947.

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Part 3: Independence (and more good times)

Australia managed Nauru (and its phosphate) for a good two decades following the end of WWII. By 1966, Nauru achieved autonomy, and two years later, they were fully independent, writing up a constitution and electing Hammer DeRoburt as the island’s first president.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the first things the new Nauruan government did was purchase the British Phosphate Company’s assets and rename it the Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC). Irritated with Australia over what they viewed as chronic mismanagement of the phosphate, the government would manage the exports and then transfer the profits to Nauruans themselves.

As mentioned previously, this resulted in the islanders becoming exceedingly rich and enjoying the benefits of being exceedingly rich. The island got their own airline, Air Nauru, buying a jet that could almost fit the country’s whole population inside. The government built a golf course on Nauru and bought high-rise hotels and other real estate in Manila, Melbourne, Sydney, Guam, and Honolulu, among others. Nauru was sitting pretty, and people were taking notice of the island paradise. But soon that paradise would be lost.

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Part 4: Panic time

Here’s where it gets weird.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, the phosphate was beginning to run out. Therefore, Nauru’s government needed a backup plan. One of the country’s financial advisers, an Australian man named Duke Minks, came up with a strange idea — fund and sponsor a West End musical. Minks had connections in London prior to his banking days and decided to co-write and produce a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Nauru’s then-president, Bernard Dowiyogo, jumped at the idea.

Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love debuted in June 1993 and was a massive critical flop, becoming one of the biggest bombs in West End history. The cost to the Nauruan taxpayers? Seven million dollars.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Nauruan citizens were getting disgruntled. Phosphate was no longer a viable industry, and the people knew it, with their shrinking bank accounts staring them in the face. With the advent of the internet in the early 90s, Nauru’s government jumped at the chance to purchase ads on the World Wide Web. They posted several, offering anyone with $20,000 the chance to open up a bank on Nauru.

You can probably see where that was going. In 2000, it was revealed that the Russian mafia laundered $70 billion through Nauru in one year alone. Increasingly desperate for money, Nauru even began selling passports to anybody who wanted one and started playing diplomatic musical chairs, recognizing Taiwan, then Communist China, then Taiwan again in exchange for lucrative foreign aid packages to upgrade their own decrepit infrastructure.

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Part 5: Australia, the Godfather

Only a month before 9/11, a boat carrying a few dozen refugees and asylum seekers capsized in the Indian Ocean. Many of them were Afghan, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan and were fleeing their home countries due to religious persecution, political persecution, or both. Most were trying to get to Christmas Island, an overseas territory of Australia near the maritime border with Indonesia, when the boat capsized. A Norwegian cargo freighter, the Tampa, rescued the refugees, but were promptly stopped and ordered to turn back by the Australian Defence Force.

Immigration had been an ongoing issue in Australia in the past few years leading up to this event, and the government’s policy was never to allow anyone who came by boat. But regardless of ones feelings about admitting would-be boat people, this incident triggered a full-blown crisis for Australia, its Parliament, and then-Prime Minister John Howard. Norway wasn’t happy. Neither were the refugees.

Howard refused to let any of the refugees into Australia, but didn’t want to deal with a permanent solution for them either. Instead, his government came up with the so-called Pacific Solution and passed the buck to — you guessed it — Nauru, offering lucrative amounts of foreign aid in exchange for temporarily housing the asylum seekers. In other words, Australia became Don Corleone: they made Nauru an offer they couldn’t refuse.

This proved to be a double-edged sword for both countries. First, Nauru couldn’t exactly say no (their bills weren’t going to pay themselves). Secondly, Australia’s government didn’t want refugees and certainly did want to provide an effective deterrent to any others that tried to come. And thirdly, none of the refugees were actually processed at the offshore Nauru centre; they were simply left there, given their papers, and conveniently forgotten.

Seeking to protect their new source of income, Nauru closed off the processing centre to outside observers and began charging outrageous prices (AUD$8,000) for media visas. Concurrently, Australia passed strict anti-whistleblower legislation in the hopes that no one would find out about the processing centre and its grim conditions. It was the perfect storm.

When Australia’s government changed hands in 2007, they temporarily shut down the Nauru centre, but it re-opened in 2012 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and continues to have broad bipartisan support in Parliament. Men, women, and children alike were once again shipped off to the depleted phosphate island as they faced an uncertain future.

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Part 6: The Aftermath

Nauru continues to deal with the consequences of the past five decades. Corruption is almost as widespread in Nauru as obesity: this is a country that changed heads of government an astonishing 17 times in 14 years (including three presidents in 1996 alone) and whose presidents would routinely commandeer the Air Nauru planes on weekends, leaving paying customers stranded on the tarmac.

Way back in 1962, the Australian government, including then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies, understood the potential ramifications that generations of phosphate mining could have on Nauru and its people, who were getting ready to become fully independent at the time. Menzies even went so far as to hire a Director of Nauruan Resettlement, whose job was to scour the Pacific and/or the Australian coast for a suitable island for Nauruans to move to once their home was completely ruined. Nauru balked at the idea, arguing that moving the whole island’s population would diminish their own culture and ruin their lives. They stayed put.

In the early 2000s, after Nauru’s dubious transactions with the Russian mob were well-documented, The Economist wrote a non-flattering piece about the island’s ecological state:

Seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation. On the ground, this unlovely impression is confirmed. Strip mining has turned Nauru into a barren, jagged wasteland. The once-dense tropical vegetation has been cleared.

And its rampant corruption:

Greed, phosphate, and gross incompetence in a tropical setting….the citizens of Nauru, to their credit, have not taken all this lying down….rare visits from international dignitaries have been disrupted by placard-wielding protesters, demanding to know where their money has gone. It is a melancholy sign of the islanders’ desperation that the idea of simply buying another island and starting afresh is once again under discussion. But who in his right mind would let the Nauruans get their hands on another island?

In 2018, Nauru will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence, although I’m sure few people feel like celebrating. Essentially, Nauru is back where it started — heavily dependent on Australia — only this time, with no more valuable mineral resources to give. They’ve become the archetypal client state, beholden to a larger power while Australia holds all the cards in the deck 3,000 miles away.

While many Nauruans try to stay positive and do all they can to work with what they have, this story was never going to have a happy ending. For better or worse, Australia and Nauru are forever intertwined, if only by a handful of refugees. And as far as Nauru’s decline goes, sadly, the writing was on the wall. One easily exploitable resource plus chronic fiscal mismanagement equals collapse.

Or, as Vlad Sokhin of the World Policy Institute puts it, “Nauru is a cautionary tale of what happens when the music stops. Or, more to the point, what happens when the single commodity on which an economy rests runs out.”

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Like a moonscape, much of Nauru's land has been left barren by miners who have extracted phosphate o..

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HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Tom Wills

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Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.

The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has since spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather, Edward Wills, was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.

Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.

Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwoods School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.

By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.

Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before the following Christmas.

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Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, an Englishman named William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.

At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.

During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills lackluster leadership — he sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.

Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket matters, although he had a contentious relationship with his fellow journalists in Melbourne. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a local sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a new type of football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:

Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?

Wills may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.

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On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.

The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked using rugby as a primary influence, finding it too complex and violent. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:

1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — kicking goals, marking the ball, boundary line throw-ins, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.

While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.

Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his father, Wills moved to establish a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River.

Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.

Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.

Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching Aussie rules in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.

By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures” at Cullin-la-ringo.

Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).

By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.

Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop Aussie rules. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy permanently in 1877.

Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills moved in with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released the following day, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.

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Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.

In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had undiagnosed mental health issues, often confiding to friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.

Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream-of-consciousness writing style that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.

Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”

“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.

Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous and popular sports.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

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Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Tarlton

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You might not guess it, but New Zealand has been home to many inventors, pioneers, and explorers. The small South Pacific country developed a well-regarded do-it-yourself mentality during its long period of isolation in the 19th century. Kiwis were long regarded as ingenious problem-solvers due to the fact that, early in their nation’s history, you had to be self-reliant. Kiwis invented the jet-powered boat, the electric fence, and bungie-jumping, among others, and were well-known as explorers and adventurers. And of course, the country’s favorite son was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest and who is now immortalized on the New Zealand $5 bill.

The country’s adventurous spirit has sparked many other unconventional and inspirational figures over the years — like Kelly Tarlton.

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Tarlton was born in 1937 in Dargaville, a small town in the North Island of New Zealand. An only child, Tarlton moved with his parents to Christchurch, a large city in the South Island, when he was a boy, where he developed a love for mountaineering and mountain-climbing. In 1956, at the age of 19, Tarlton was set to join some friends on a trip to the Andes.

Unfortunately, the group’s plans had to be canceled at the last minute — Peru was facing political unrest at the time and closed off its borders. Left at a loose end, Tarlton walked around town and wandered into a movie theatre that was screening the Jacques Costeau film Silent World.

Tarlton was captivated by Costeau’s film — a documentary that focused on underwater diving — and decided to go about learning more. He built much of his own scuba diving gear and purchased a quality underwater camera while building protective camera casings himself.

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Several years later, Tarlton had developed a well-regarded reputation as a photographer of sea life, and even got into treasure hunting. In 1967, he traveled to the Three Kings Islands off the coast of the North Island in order to collect marine specimens, but stumbled upon the wreckage of the SS Elingamite, an Australian steamer that sank in 1902 while carrying large amounts of gold. Tarlton ended up leading several expeditions to the Elingamite after his initial discovery and recovered much of the gold (although it was much less than had been assumed previously).

Tarlton was also celebrated when he discovered the SS Tasmania, another Australian ship that had sunk off the coast of New Zealand in 1897. Tarlton’s intricate research led him to recover a number of lost jewels onboard, many of which belonged to one of the survivors, Isadore Rothschild. Tarlton put several bits of the treasure on display at the Museum of Shipwrecks in the tourist town of Paihia, but they were stolen by a former staff member and the jewels’ whereabouts are currently unknown.

While many would be satisfied by securing a reputation as a scuba diver and treasure hunter, Tarlton’s interests didn’t stop there. By the 1970s, he was onto his next hobby — marine archaeology — and had paired it with his love of shipwreck-hunting. The task at hand was to recover three lost anchors that had belonged to the 18th century French ship St Jean Baptiste, which lost the anchors during a bad storm off the coast of the North Island. Tarlton and his team of researchers dug deep into the official accounts of Captain Jean François de Surville, discovering that the ship had drifted dangerously close to a large rock and was no further than “a pistol shot” from the shore when the anchors were dropped. By calculating the distance, wind speed, and other factors, Tarlton ended up finding all three anchors, which were put on display at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum — the national museum of New Zealand.

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In the early 80s, Tarlton’s attention shifted to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where he desired to build a full-size aquarium. However, he ran into some challenges right away, as he lacked the funds to buy molded acrylic, which were needed to build the transparent tunnels. Still, Tarlton was unfazed, remarking that if he could build his own underwater camera casings, he could build tunnels, too! And he did just that, forming an innovative and skilled team of engineers to construct them. The job took its toll, with Tarlton and his men frequently working 18-hour days in order to get the project finished within a 10-month time frame.

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The aquarium — officially titled Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium — was opened in January 1985 and is located in the seaside suburb of Orakei, less than four miles east of Auckland’s downtown area. It was an instant hit with the public, with exhibits focusing on South Pacific marine life, an Antarctica discovery zone, and much more.

New Zealanders flocked to the aquarium from near and far, and after seven weeks, Tarlton was photographed shaking hands with the 100,000th visitor. Sadly, that image was the last time he was photographed — he died that very night of a heart attack at the age of 47. Today, the aquarium honors Tarlton with a bust that is inscribed: “Diver, dreamer, explorer, inventor, instigator, worker, storyteller, father — a man who linked us all with his love of the sea.”

 

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Don Ritchie

After completing his service in the Australian Navy during World War II, Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman. But his far greater accomplishment was quite literally “selling life” to the dozens of distraught Sydneysiders who have attempted suicide at The Gap.

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The Gap is a gorgeous cliffside in the affluent Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay which separates Sydney Harbour from the Tasman Sea. It has been a notorious suicide spot for nearly two centuries, with only a three-foot fence separating one from the edge.

And Don Ritchie lived next to it for 50 years.

According to estimates, Ritchie — the so-called “Angel of The Gap” — has saved 160 people from jumping to their deaths, all by being friendly and offering a warm smile. Frequently he just offered a cup of tea to them or invited them to chat at his home. While many would dread living to such a depressing place, Ritchie saw it as an amazing opportunity.

“How wonderful is it to save so many? How wonderful is it to sell them life?” he once said. “People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop. You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” his wife Moya added.

Ritchie didn’t keep count of how many people he actually saved, although the actual count could be close to 400. Sadly, many people eluded his grasp and plunged to their deaths regardless.

Some of the ones he spoke with were battling cancer, while others suffered from mental illness. Sometimes, the men and women who jumped left behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes, etc. Once, Ritchie rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.

Ritchie admitted that he didn’t want to pry into would-be victims’ lives; rather simply being someone who could listen and offer an alternative if needed. He claimed that he didn’t try to dwell on the ones he could have saved, although there are still some that haunted him.

On a summer evening several years ago, a 19-year-old man had already climbed over the small fence at The Gap and was preparing to jump.

“I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions…he wouldn’t talk much and just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour, thinking I was making headway. I said, ‘Why don’t you come for a cup of tea, or a beer if you’d like one?’ He said no and stepped off…his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

It was later discovered that the young man had lived down the street many years prior and grew up with Ritchie’s grandkids. The man’s mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. “If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, no one could,” she said.

Ritchie also once spoke with a woman who he described as “nervous and confused”; she had struggled with depression for years and felt that her medications were of no help. Ritchie and his wife spoke with her for several hours and she eventually went home safely. Months later, she returned with a message of thanks: “I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well.”

Ritchie consistently remained humble and low-key about his extraordinary work. In 2006, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to suicide prevention. However, he was acutely aware that excessive publicity could potentially attract more depressed people to The Gap.

The following year, on November 2, 2007, prominent Australian journalist/newscaster Charmaine Dragun jumped from The Gap after suffering from depression and anorexia for years. According to Ritchie’s wife, there were six more suicides in the following few weeks.

Therein lies the problem for many activists and would-be helpers: while The Gap’s security needs to be upgraded, how can that be done subtly without attracting more potential victims? There aren’t easy answers, but the local city councils are doing all they can to improve the situation.

As for Ritchie and his wife, they’ve always insisted that they’ve had successful, full lives. They raised three daughters and have a few grandchildren, and have traveled all around the world. One day, Ritchie found an anonymous gift in his mailbox — a painting of a ray of sunshine with a message at the bottom, calling him “an angel who walks amongst us.”

However, the humble Aussie was just glad to be of service to the community. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know. I feel happy about it. Once I’m gone, I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

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Suffering from recurring cancer, Ritchie passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.

“He would always say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile….an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.