A Bear’s Diary – Part 27

April 24th, 1811.

Our wanderings have brought us to Trinidad, the largest and almost the easternmost of the chain of islands which dot the edge of the Caribbean Sea. Skirting the western edge of the island, we dropped anchor in the harbour of the capital town, Port of Spain.

As its name suggests, this was once a Spanish colony, but the British invaded at a time when Spain was allied with the Corsican tyrant – how alliances shift! – and secured permanent possession under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802; they have no intention of returning it to our present allies.

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Going ashore, we found the place to be an indescribable hotchpotch of peoples: Spanish colonists, Frenchmen fleeing the revolution who first sought refuge in Haiti and were then driven out by the bloody insurrection there, newly arrived British settlers, elderly pirates of all nations who have settled down on their ill-gotten wealth, a few of the original natives though most of them shun towns, and of course the inevitable sad population of African slaves though there are fewer of them here than in Rio. Yet all is reasonably harmonious, for this is a rich island, and wealth brings civil order.

April 25th, 1811.

In the afternoon we visited an inn – or at least a shack where drink was served – to sample a local beverage called ‘punch’, a name which I believe to be derived from the Hindustani word panj, five, because it is made from five ingredients, rum, lime juice, sugar, water and spices such as nutmeg. It is refreshing enough, though not to be compared with good English ale which, God willing, we shall soon enough be drinking again.

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As we sat peacefully imbibing, under the awed gaze of the local people for it is not often that ten bears visit an inn, there was a shout of ‘Les voilà, ces sales cons d’ours!’ Looking towards the sound, I saw a dozen men rising unsteadily to their feet and reaching for weapons, mostly the crude cutlasses used to cut sugar cane, but also a couple of pistols. I recognised them as the survivors of the crew of the Incroyable, the French privateer that we captured two years ago.

There was no time for musing on this fortuitous encounter, so I threw the table at the two men with guns. As they fell, one pistol went off and the other clattered harmlessly into a corner. However, the impact knocked over another table, and its occupants sprang vengefully to their feet. In no time the entire company, inflamed with rum, were belabouring each other with fists and furniture.

We devoted ourselves to disabling the privateersmen, a simple enough task though we took care not to deal any of them a fatal blow. Bruin laid three low with a chair before it fell apart in his paws, and the last of them was dispatched by Dolores, with little Aeolus cradled with one hand and a rum bottle in the other. She would make a good bear.

Soon enough the scene was quiet apart from the groans of the fallen; the less battered had left. The landlord surveyed his smashed premises with practised gloom, but a few silver thalers from the Count lightened his mood, and we helped him throw the inert patrons out of the door. I am sure that the inn was open for business again by sundown, and I am equally sure that no one in Port of Spain will raise a hand to us for the duration of our visit.

April 29th, 1811.

While we we were in the town the Count heard of a wondrous natural phenomenon, a lake of black tar at the south-west corner of the island. He was determined to view it, so we have sailed a short distance to the south and anchored near Point Fortin, a small village surrounded by plantations of cocoa and coconuts. The lake was a short walk to the east of where we landed.

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I suppose that we were expecting a picturesque inferno of black boiling tar and sulphurous fumes, but I have to say that the spectacle was a disappointing one – an expanse of ponds and swamps surrounded by stunted plants, and the only remarkable thing the crusts of asphalt that littered the scene, weathered to an inconspicuous grey colour.

Slaves were loading the substance on to carts. They told us that we should never stand still for more than a moment on this treacherous surface, for fear that the viscous tar would slowly give way and we should sink into it to be lost for ever. We were more than happy to take their advice, and paused only for long enough to gather some of the tar.

This is asphalt, the substance mentioned by Herodotus as having been used in the building of the walls of Babylon, for it is exuded from the ground in that region. I had brought with me the Count’s copy of this splendid book, even now useful to travellers who might profit from its advice on such matters as the catching of crocodiles, and when we were back on the ship I looked up the passage.

Δεῖ δή με πρὸς τούτοισι ἔτι φράσαι ἵνα τε ἐκ τῆς τάφρου ἡ γῆ ἀναισιμώθη, καὶ τὸ τεῖχος ὅντινα τρόπον ἔργαστο. ὀρύσσοντες ἅμα τὴν τάφρον ἐπλίνθευον τὴν γῆν τὴν ἐκ τοῦ ὀρύγματος ἐκφερομένην, ἑλκύσαντες δὲ πλίνθους ἱκανὰς ὤπτησαν αὐτὰς ἐν καμίνοισι· μετὰ δὲ τέλματι χρεώμενοι ἀσφάλτῳ θερμῇ καὶ διὰ τριήκοντα δόμων πλίνθου ταρσοὺς καλάμων διαστοιβάζοντες, ἔδειμαν πρῶτα μὲν τῆς τάφου τὰ χείλεα, δευτέρα δὲ αὐτὸ τὸ τεῖχος τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον.

I must also say where the earth was used when it was dug from the moat, and how the wall was built. As they dug the moat, they made bricks of the clay that was brought out of the place they dug, and when they had shaped enough bricks they baked them in ovens; then, using hot asphalt as mortar and inserting layers of woven reeds at every thirtieth course of bricks, they built first the edge of the moat and then the wall itself in the same way.

Asphalt is also mentioned by Dioscorides and the elder Pliny, and more recently the French have discovered deposits in their own country, and use it for waterproofing walls and roofs. When we returned to our ship, we used the tar we had gathered to repair our two remaining ship’s boats, both of which had begun to leak in consequence of being kept on deck and only used at long intervals, so that the wood had dried and shrunk. The asphalt melted quickly in a bucket over a small fire and was easy to apply. Master Ulyanov considered it superior to the Stockholm tar we had used before, made from the exudations of pine trees, and far better than the Chinese caulk of lime and tung oil that had been applied when our ship was in dock in Canton.

Before I leave the subject of this remarkable substance, I may say that its use would be an improvement to our roads which, no matter how carefully laid and smoothed, are soon rutted by the wheels of carts and coaches and washed away by rain. A coating of asphalt mixed with gravel would strengthen the surface and render it waterproof, and would also allay the clouds of choking dust that are raised when a road is traversed in dry weather. The same treatment would keep our city streets from turning into stinking quagmires whenever it rains.

However, there is one case in which the adoption of this useful substance has had unhappy results. The celebrated painter of portraits Sir Joshua Reynolds, who liked to set off his subjects with a dark background, adopted a mixture of asphalt and linseed oil as a convenient way of securing a deep black. It is said to have produced a fine effect when the paintings were new, but now, a mere nineteen years after his death, all these works have become seamed with cracks where the pigment has dried and shrunk and become grey – a shame, for he was a fine painter. Needless to say, the accident also infuriated the royal personages, nobles and wealthy citizens who had paid substantial sums to have themselves commemorated by this illustrious artist. A cruel rhyme was circulated,

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died,
All Nature was degraded:
The King dropped a tear into the Queen’s ear,
And all his pictured faded.

May 5th, 1811.

On our way north again, with a fair breeze filling our by now grubby and patched sails. But we have all come to love our old tub and forgive her vices, for she has kept us afloat in ice and storms and is now bearing us slowly homeward.

We missed Beaivi at supper, and after we had bolted down our monotonous diet of salt beef and sauerkraut, relieved by a generous tot of rum, we went to look for her. Small noises from the sail locker revealed her presence. My enquiring call was answered, and I opened the door – and there was Beaivi with a newborn cub, which she was carefully licking.

A brief digression: there is a foolish belief among humans that bear cubs are born in a shapeless state, and have to be licked into shape by their mother before they become recognisable bears. Indeed, there is a common expression, ‘licking into shape’, which refers to this supposed process.

As Suetonius wrote in his Life of Virgil,

Cum Georgica scriberet, traditur cotidie meditatos mane plurimos versus dictare solitus ac per totum diem retractando ad paucissimos redigere, non absurde carmen se more ursae parere dicens et lambendo demum effingere.

When he was writing the Georgics, it is said that he used to dictate every day a large number of lines which he had composed in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he made his poem in the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape.

Needless to say, bear cubs are born small but perfectly formed; however, they do need careful cleaning so that their scanty new fur will resist the cold – especially so in the case of polar bears, whose cubs in natural conditions are born around Christmas in the northern chill.

We were all overjoyed by the sight, but only Dolores (with whose labour Beaivi had so well assisted) and myself went in cautiously, to avoid disturbing her privacy. Even Boris, the cub’s father, was not welcome on the scene. We congratulated her and admired the little bear. In the words of Horace, pulchre, bene, recte! beautiful, good, perfect! Then, not wishing to disturb her further, we retired. But there was music and dancing on deck to celebrate the burgeoning of life on our lucky ship. Doubtless the new mother will have heard the noise and been cheered by it.

Yet how different are the ways of humans and bears! A human birth is attended by hours of appalling pain, and the bare survival or mother and child is in doubt throughout this long agony. A bear simply goes into a quiet place and, although as I know myself the birth is not without pain, it is quickly accomplished and swiftly followed by the joy of a new cub.

The little bear will not open her eyes for a month, and will not be active for a month after that. But compare the growth of human infants, who cannot even walk until they are are a year or more old, and remain in a pitiable state of dependence for many years more, while a young bear will soon be at his full strength. Mother bears are famed for the fierceness with which they protect their cubs, but for patient endurance I have to hand the crown to humans.

May 7th, 1811.

The new cub will be called Marina, for she was born at sea. She has already met Aeolus, child of the storm, though I am not sure that they noticed one another, each one immersed in her or his private world. But we have many more miles to sail before we are home, and it will be interesting to see how these two little creatures come to understand each other.

If all goes as planned, our next landfall will be at New York in the United States. We are only too well aware of the worsening relations between Britain and America, and Fred and Jem have been rehearsing the part of Russian sailors named Fyodor and Yevgeny to avoid appearing conspicuous. Dolores can convincingly claim to be Irish on the grounds of her flaming red hair, although she was born in Bermondsey. She has not a word of Erse but neither do most of her pretended countrymen, for all their patriotic bluster.

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