A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Jonathan Swift

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind

The Amboyna massacre of 1623

Relations between the English and the Dutch have not always been rosy, despite William of Orange’s intervention in 1688 to secure the Protestant ascendancy. Three Anglo-Dutch wars were fought between 1652 and 1674.

As both countries sought to establish dominance over the spice trade in what is now Indonesia in the early 17th century through their commercial manifestations, the Dutch VOC and the English East India Company (EIC), relationships were increasingly fractious. A period of co-operation was supposed to have been brokered with the signing of the Treaty of Defence in London in 1619 but the drafting left for some ambiguities. Both companies were allowed to conduct trade in the area, sharing trading posts but keeping control of those they had previously occupied. The Dutch, however, interpreted the treaty to give them jurisdiction over traders from both countries in posts that they administered whereas the English took a contrary view.

In late 1622 the Dutch were experiencing some local difficulties with the natives and the Dutch governor of Amboyn, now the Indonesian island of Maluku, Herman van Speult, suspected that the English were behind it. His suspicions seemed to be well-founded when in February 1623 a Japanese samurai mercenary of ronin was caught sniffing around the defences of the Dutch fort of Victoria. Under torture the mercenary admitted his involvement in a plot, masterminded by the head of the English trading post, Gabriel Towerson, to seize the fort and murder the governor.

Van Speult immediately raised a raiding party and Towerson and some of his colleagues, including some ronins and a Portuguese employ of the VOC were arrested. They were subjected to a form of torture akin to what we now know as waterboarding and, probably unsurprisingly, confessed to their part in the conspiracy. Although, four of the English and two of the ronins were pardoned, the rest were beheaded on 9th March 1623 for treason, Towerson having the further indignity of having his head stuck on a pike and displayed for all to see.

Perhaps van Speult’s mistake was to pardon some of the English. The survivors went to Batavia and demanded that the Dutch authorities make amends for the outrage perpetrated on the English. Gaining no satisfaction there, they made the long journey to Blighty where their story caused an immediate uproar. The EIC demanded that the VOC pay exemplary damages and that the judges involved in executing Towerson and his colleagues be summarily executed.

The Dutch dragged their clogs but eventually recalled the judges from Amboyn and placed them under house arrest. It was not until 1630 that the case was heard and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the judges were acquitted. Charles I refused to ratify the decision but the prisoners were released anyway.

The EIC were hopping mad.

In 1632 they published a sensationalist pamphlet which revealed in gory detail (with illustrations) the tortures and indignities to which Towerson and his pals were subjected by the barbaric Dutch. It proved to be a best-seller and made a reappearance twenty years later as A Memento for Holland when Oliver Cromwell was whipping up anti-Dutch feelings ahead of the first Anglo-Dutch war.

In this conflict the Dutch came off second best and under the Treaty of Westminster in 1654 were forced to agree to execute any of the Amboyna culprits still alive. However, the passage of time was such that none were alive and the only satisfaction the EIC got was a payment of £85,000 from the VOC while the descendants of Towerson and his colleagues were paid £3,615.

The Dutch eventually gained supremacy in the area but the Amboyna massacre remained a cause celebre. It can be no coincidence that Jonathan Swift named the Dutch ship upon which Gulliver leaves Japan the Amboyna. The memory of the massacre was still vibrant a century later.


What Is The Origin Of (171)?…


Such is the dynamism of our native tongue that words come in and out of fashion. One such word which is languishing in undeserved obscurity is understrapper which is a synonym for an underling, a subordinate, someone who takes orders. The prefix, under, is straightforward enough to understand and conveys the sense of inferiority of status and rank. What is of more interest is the second part of the word, strapper. The origin of that part of our word can be seen in the now obsolete verb, to strap, which meant to work tirelessly and energetically. The noun strapper conveyed this sense to describe a labourer or someone who groomed horses. So someone who was answerable to someone engaged in menial tasks was truly the lowest of the low.

The one word we still use in everyday speech from this root is strapping which we use to describe someone who is large, robust, and muscular. It is almost exclusively reserved as an adjective to describe younger people of both sexes but when it first emerged in the middle of the 17th century, it was used exclusively to describe young women. In George Thornley’s translation of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, from 1657, we find; “And, now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him.

By the start of the 18th century understrapper was firmly established as a description of someone performing a menial task. The satirist, Thomas Brown, produced a book of hoax letters, purportedly written by people who had recently died, called Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1702. Brown imagined his fellow satirist, Joseph Haines, to have written; “and as I shall have upon occasion now and then for some Understrapper to draw teeth for me, or to be my Toad-eater upon the stage, if you will accept so mean an Employment … I’ll give you Meat, Drink, Washing, and Lodging, and Four Marks per annum.

In 1742 Charles Knight in his Popular History of England, attributed to Jonathan Swift this sentence; “I have put an understrapper upon writing a twopenny pamphlet..”  – clearly the job was not worthy of one of our finest satirists. Francis Plowden wrote in his History of Ireland from its Union with Great Britain in 1811, “at the vulgar insistence of some secretary’s secretary’s secretary, some understrpper’s understrapper’s understrapper…” giving little room for doubt as to where that individual featured in the hierarchy.

Thomas Hardy used the word in a rather contrived simile in his novel of triangular love, A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in 1873; “said Stephen, rather en l‘sir and confused with the kind of confusion that assails an understrapper when he has been enlarged by accident to the dimensions of a superior, and is somewhat rudely pared down to his original size.” Alas, by the 21st century, the word had almost disappeared from sight.

A variant, also obsolete, was under-spur-leather, the spur-leather being a strap securing a spur to a rider’s foot, a vivid description of the lowliness of someone so described. It was contemporaneous with understrapper, appearing in John Dennis’ Remarks upon Mr Pope’s Translation of Homer of 1717; “who from an under-spur-leather to the Law, is become an understrapper to the Playhouse..

The restoration of either or both to our modern-day language would be welcome, methinks.

What Is the Origin Of (166)?…

Nothing to sneeze at

Well, despite having a flu injection, I have endured the usual round of winter colds. Apart from a runny nose and a sore throat, the most obvious sign of my affliction has been frequent, and volcanic, outbursts of sneezing. Of course, I use a handkerchief to catch whatever my nose expels but it set me wondering about the origin of nothing to sneeze at which we use to denote that something is worth having or is worthy of our attention.

Sneezing is an affliction which has been with us since the year dot and so it is no surprise that the root of the verb can be found in the Old English word fneosan, which meant to sneeze or snort. During the 15th century the opening f dropped off and nese or neese was used to describe the act of sneezing. At some point thereafter the letter s was added to the opening of the word, giving it a more emphatic form and, to some ears, making it more imitative of the act itself.

Our phrase first made its appearance in printed form in John Till Allingham’s play, Fortune’s Frolic, first produced at Covent Garden in 1799. There we find the line, “Why, as to his consent, I don’t value it a button; but then £5,000 is a sum not to be sneezed at.”  There it is, in all its glory, with the modern meaning of something that shouldn’t be rejected without some careful consideration. The antithesis of the phrase appeared slightly later in A Winter in London by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1806. The novel contains the sentence, “He tells me it is the sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at.” That neither usage needed any explanatory gloss suggests that these were phrases with which the audience and readers would be familiar with and that they were part of common parlance.

But why did sneezing come to represent an expression of disdain? Some commentators suggest that the 18th century was an era of volcanic nasal eruptions, courtesy of the habit of taking snuff. Perhaps, if a bewigged gentleman of the time heard something with which he disagreed, he would reach for his snuff-box, inhale the fine grained tobacco that is snuff and sneeze violently. Appealing as this explanation may be, it seems to me to be a bit far-fetched. After all, it would be quite a performance and the time taken to produce a stentorian response would rob the moment of its drama.

It seems to me that the answer is to be found in a parallel phrase, to sniff at. An earlier citation can be found for this phrase, in Jonathan Swift’s poem entitled The Grand Question Debated: Whether Hamilton’s Bawn should be turned into a barrack or malt-house, written in 1729. The Irish satirist wrote, “So, then you look’d scornful, and snift at the dean”, clearly an expression of disdain or contempt. Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution: A History, published in 1837, wrote, “Camille Desmoulins, and others, sniffing at him for it” and, in a passage that the modern reader could easily misinterpret, “Dusky D’Espréménil does nothing but sniff and ejaculate.”

The Swiftian citation suggests that sniffing as a sign of disdain was already established in the mid 18th century. Perhaps the adoption of sneezing was simply a stronger expression of disdain, the explanation being as simple as that. Who knows?

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Six


The Society of Brothers Club

The Society of Brothers Club, not to be confused with the religious grouping that later became the Bruderhof Group, had a very short lifespan, lasting from 1711 until 1713. It was formed by Henry St John II in the turbulent political atmosphere leading up to the death of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian ascendency as an exclusively Tory dining club. Although it was relatively short-lived and not particularly successful, we know a lot about it because the satirist, Jonathan Swift, was a member. Indeed Swift had a major hand in compiling the rules of the Society.

They met every Thursday – there had been a forerunner of the club called the Saturday Club which, unsurprisingly, met on Saturdays – and their objective, according to Swift, was “to advance conversation and friendship, and to reward learning without interest or recommendation”. As for membership, Swift declared “we take in none but men of wit, or men of interest; and if we go on as we began, no other Club in this town will be worth talking of”. Having a relative as a member was no guarantee that you would get in. The Duke of Beaufort proposed his brother-in-law, the Earl of Danby, as a member but the proposal was successfully opposed by Swift because “Danby is not above twenty, and we will have no more boys”.

In the early days there were no more than around 20 members – Swift records “we are now, in all, nine lords and ten commoners…and we want but two to make up our number”. The Society met at the Thatched House Tavern on St James’ Street, a choice that was perhaps geographically convenient but put a strain on the Club’s coffers. The Duke of Ormond was in the chair one week and the meal, described as “four dishes and four without a dessert” cost an astonishing £20. That was without wine which was usually provided by the Society’s President.

There was soon dissension in the ranks over costs. The Treasurer, reported Swift, was in a rage over costs and soon afterwards “our Society does not meet now as usual”.  In fact, the club met once a fortnight and held a committee meeting every other week to determine upon some charitable good cause to support. Often the beneficiaries of the Society’s largesse were impoverished writers and artists. One subscription was launched for a poet who had lampooned the Duke of Marlborough, all the members donating two guineas each, other than Swift, Arbuthnot and Friend who gave just one each.

Still dissatisfied with the expense of the Thatched House the Club had a bit of an itinerant existence. Arbuthnot, as president, hosted a dinner in “Ozinda’s Coffee-house, just by St James’s. We were never merrier or better company, and did not part till after eleven”. Then fifteen members dined under a canopy at Parson’s Green leading Swift to remark, “I never saw anything so fine and romantic”. Eventually, the Club settled for the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, although costs still were complained of.

According to Swift’s Journal to Stella, meetings were convivial where there was “much drinking, little thinking” – sounds my kind of club – and often the business which they had assembled to consider was put off to a more convenient time. Members would, however, entertain each other with their latest exploits or readings of their latest masterpiece. Swift’s The Fable of Midas “passed wonderfully at our Society tonight”.

By now, though, Swift and Arbuthnot had devised Martinus Scriblerus and went off to form the Scriblerus Club and the Brothers’ star waned.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Twenty Eight


The Scriblerus Club

This club, formed in 1714, was more of a literary collective and was formed of some of the sharpest literary talents of the age including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell. It took its rather curious name from a cod scholar, Martinus Scriblerus, whom the group created to represent the kind of pedantic scholar who was to be the butt of their satire. Swift was given the nickname Martin by the group – a rather lame play on the ornithological derivation of his surname – and the pedant’s first name was given in his honour. Instead of concentrating on humanistic matters Scriblerus would spend his time in the Gradgrindian tasks of checking facts and trivial details.

The club’s aim was to develop a canon of literature that attacked the then trend for excessively literal approaches to academic subjects, ranging from medicine to philosophy. The members’ goal was to produce satirical commentary on the abuse of human learning, on the assumption that ridiculing these prevailing ideas and approaches was the best way of minimising their influence. They met occasionally, usually at Arbuthnot’s house.

The problem was that with such an array of mercurial talents in membership disputes were bound to occur and this sounded the death knell for the club. As Sir Walter Scott commented in his Life of Swift, “the violence of political faction, like a storm that spares the laurel no more than the cedar, dispersed this little band of literary brethren, and prevented the accomplishment of a task for which talents so various, so extended, so brilliant, can never again be united.

Swift tried to play the role of peacemaker. He wrote a fable of Fagot where the ministers of the land are called upon to contribute their various badges of office to make the bundle strong and secure but his diplomatic entreaties fell on stoney ground. In a huff Swift retreated to Berkshire where he stayed in seclusion for some weeks.

Although short-lived as a club, the legacy of Martinus Scriblerus lived on. The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, published  in 1741 in a volume of Pope’s works, although much of it was written by Arbuthnot, tells of his upbringing and education. Such was the energy and enthusiasm that they invested in this project that Pope confided to Swift in a letter that “the top of my own ambition is to contribute to that great work and I shall translate Homer by and by”. You can imagine the fun they had in creating their character.

Pope’s Dunciad Variorum, published in 1729, incorporates Scriblerus’ fastidious notes, penned by Pope. And probably the most famous product of the club was Swift’s own Travels of Lemuel Gulliver, the third book of which concerns the visit to Laputa and which betrays the stamp of Scriblerus. Gay’s Beggar’s Opera grew out of a suggestion made by Swift at the club and Henry Fielding’s The Welsh Opera (1731) was presented as a tribute to the Scriblerians and satirised the government. His pen name was Scriblerus Secundus, naturally.

A short-lived club that had a long-lasting influence on English literature.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Twenty Two


The October Club

It seems that there was always an awkward squad in the Tory party, none more so than those who made up the October club which met in the Bell Tavern in King Street in early 18th century Westminster.

The club took its name from the October ale which its members drank in toasts in prodigious quantities. October ale has a long proud history and it is thought to have been a forerunner of Stock Ales and Barley Wines. Unlike many beers they were matured over time, sometimes up to three years after brewing, resulting in an incredibly strong brew with ABVs of around 10%, enough to knock your socks of. And they were called October ales because they were brewed in October, a month which was followed by six cooler months, perfect for maturing beer.

The club was made up of around 150 Tory squires and their beef was with their own party’s leadership. They felt that their party was too soft and backward in turning out their great adversaries, the Whigs. The October club was particularly active when the Tory administration under the leadership of Robert Harley, himself a former Whig, took the reins in 1710 and sought to take a less confrontational position against the Whigs, seeking to replace the from positions of influence gradually.

This shilly-shallying was not good enough for the country squires of the October. They were all for impeaching every last member of the Whig party and removing from position anyone who failed to show allegiance to the Tories. You can imagine a meeting, tempers raised and fuelled by the heady mix of October ale.

Harley’s administration was clearly discomfited by these inebriated squires and so called upon the services of one Jonathan Swift, the eminent satirist and author of Gulliver’ Travels, to use his diplomatic skills to come to an understanding with and pacify the members. Fortunately Swift has left us a bit of a written record of what went on. In his Journals to Stella a letter dated February 1711 sets out the position, “we are plagued here with an October Club; that is, a set of above a hundred parliament men of the country, who drink October beer at home, and meet every evening at a tavern near the Parliament to consult affairs, and drive things on to extremes against the Whigs, to call the old ministry to account, and get off five or six heads”.

Swift got to work, deploying the old tactic of identifying those members who were more amenable to reason and to try and split them off from the more hardened cases. On 22nd January 1712 an anonymous pamphlet appeared, although it had been written by Swift, called Advice humbly offered to the Members of the October Club. It was a finely written apologia for the government and when Swift’s authorship became certain, it sold well. He dealt with those errors that couldn’t be denied, pointed out the perils of another Whiggish ascendency and argued that the steady approach of the administration to the many issues before them, compounded by the indisposition of Queen Anne, was the only sensible course to take.

Swift had done his work and the Club split up and finally dissolved. Those who were not convinced by Swift’s diplomacy set up the March Club, even more Jacobite and anti-Whig in its position. But that’s another story.

What Is The Origin Of (26)?…


Raining cats and dogs

This phrase is used to signify heavy rain.

It is an odd meteorological fact that at times in certain parts of the world small creatures such as frogs and fish can get transported into the sky by the force of a storm and then deposited back on to the ground, doubtless to the amazement of the local population. A remarkable phenomenon, doubtless, but there is no evidence that this has happened to animals as large (relatively) as cats or dogs and so is unlikely to be the origin of this quaint phrase.

It probably owes its origin to the state of the streets and thoroughfares of 17th and 18th century England. The absence of any meaningful form of sanitation or rubbish disposal system meant that the byways were often littered with debris including the corpses of dead animals such as cats and dogs. Jonathan Swift – the Anglo-Irish satirist (1667 – 1745) of Gulliver’s Travels fame – was moved to comment on this phenomenon in his poem entitled “A Description of a City Shower”, published in 1701. “They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force,/… Sweeping from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,/ Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,/ Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”.

The image obviously stuck with Swift because in 1738 in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation he includes the line,I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs“.

The imagery is not Swiftian by origin because a variant, “It shall raine… Dogs and Polecats” made its appearance some fifty years earlier in Richard Brome’s comedy, The City Wit or The Women Wears the Breeches, published in 1653.

It would seem, therefore, that one of the many hazards facing the pedestrian in the 17th century was a stream of water carrying debris before it including the cadavers of dead animals as the drains struggled in vain to cope with the rainfall. Swift’s poem, although doubtless exaggerated for effect, suggests that it was an all too common phenomenon. Clearly it wasn’t advisable to step out in your best footwear!

Fortunately, the drainage systems have improved somewhat and the bodies of pooches are disposed in more hygienic ways. so it is not a modern-day experience. But the colourful phrase has stuck and is used in 21st century parlance. So now we know!