Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bourbon Island 1730: book review

'On Bourbon Island off the coast of Madagascar, a French ornithologist and his assistant are caught up in an adventure involving slavery, colonialism, and the last days of the great pirates'. So goes the summary of the 288-page black and white graphic novel Bourbon Island 1730, by Lewis Trondheim and Appollo, translated into English by Alexis Siegel.

front cover, Bourbon Island 1730

Although I could have read the original in French (despite their names, both authors are French) I was eager to read a rare English translation of a book about Reunion Island ('Bourbon' is the former name of Reunion).

back cover

In a colonial community that is just beginning to find itself, the ornithologist Despentes and his assistant Raphael Pommery are supposed to be in search of the almost-extinct local version of the dodo - the solitaire - but Pommery is soon entranced with the pirate inhabitants of the island, becoming obsessed with the romance of a vision of the world where all people are free and equal regardless of their skin colour. Against a backdrop of slavery former freebooters debate whether to try and release from jail the infamous pirate 'Buzzard' (Olivier Levasseur aka La Buse) by a show of force. In the end however the ornithologists are witness to the extinction of both bird and pirate.

Gravestone of the pirate La Buse in St Paul, Reunion (source)

This historical drama is published by First Second and is printed on good quality heavy paper stock (with a torn effect edging - similar to a pirate's treasure map?), featuring anthropomorphised animal characters, drawn in black and white by Lewis Trondheim (real name Laurent Chabosy). Trondheim and Appollo (a pseudonym for Olivier Appollodorus, who knows Reunion well) both wrote the fictional story, which is freely inspired by past events, and is not intended to be a historical account.  The detailed endnotes however indicate the reliance on historical facts and documents for some of the background for the story.

"And there young man, what do you see?"
An example of the book's animal characters.

Although the characters are portrayed as animals this does not make them 'cute'. Trondheim’s pen-and-ink style of drawing took me a little getting used to, and the characters don't always 'stick out' visually. More of an intellectual than physical adventure, the story explores the world of pirates and early colonialism, and the exploitation of slaves. The translation is generally excellent, apart from a few translations of local terms that I found rather jarring (an occupational hazard for me perhaps?). At the end are detailed notes which help to connect you to this period of history. Although I've spent almost 20 years on Reunion and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the island's history there were several points I was interested to learn about it. The ending is rather abrupt, but overall this was a very enjoyable read.

The Cryptogram of Olivier Levasseur
Olivier Levasseur's cryptogram, thrown to the crowd from the scaffold before he was hung (Wikipedia)

I would recommend it to any adult or young adult who has an interest in 18th century history, pirates, colonialism, slavery or Reunion and the Indian Ocean.

Book details: 
Bourbon Island 1730 by Lewis Trondheim and Olivier Appollodorus, 288 pages, published by First Second, October 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1596432581.

Translations of the book into other languages also exist:

Further reading:

Appollo also wrote a graphic novel in two volumes set at Maison Rouge, an old colonial estate which I blogged about here.

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Monday, 19 August 2013

Seton Collegiate Church

The most striking thing about Seton Collegiate Church when you see it for the first time is its truncated spire, which was apparently precluded by the Reformation. It is one of the finest surviving collegiate churches in Scotland and owes much of its grandeur to the Seton family, whose palace was near the church. It is located in a peaceful woodland setting in East Lothian (Scotland) and is sometimes still used for weddings.

Seton Church from the south

In 1242 a parish church dedicated to St Mary and the Holy Cross was consecrated on the site by the Bishop of St Andrews, probably a simple rectangular structure which later became the - now demolished - nave of the building. Around 1434 Lady Katherine St Clair, the widow of Sir John Seton,  added a chantry chapel to house his tomb. Lady Katherine's grandson, the 1st Lord Seton, founded the church and college of priests  in 1470 without securing papal permission. Approval from Pope Alexander VI secured collegiate status in 1492. (Collegiate churches got their name from the college of priests - generally established by wealthy families - to say prayers for their souls in order to win forgiveness and salvation). 

west face of the church, showing remains of demolished nave

In 1544 however during the 'Rough Wooing' conflict English troops damaged the church, burning the timber work and stealing the bells and organ. The 1560 Scottish Reformation outlawed mass and thus effectively brought an end to the collegiate life. Seton Church briefly became a parish church before becoming a private chapel for the Seton family. In 1603 King James VI was on his way to his coronation in London when he stopped here to attend the funeral of his friend the 6th Lord Seton. The Jacobite Setons lost their lands in the 1715 Rising because they had supported the exiled 'Old Pretender' James Edward Stuart, and the church was ransacked and ceased being a place of worship; at one point in the 19th century is was even a carpenter's workshop. In 1878 the Earl of Wemyss became the new owner of the church and restored the building as a family burial place. In the 1940s it passed into state care.

the fine vaulted ceiling

A bell in the south transept was made in Holland in 1577 for the 5th Lord Seton, and is a rare survival from that period.

bell dating from 1577

In the choir/chancel area a mural tomb has unknown effigies of a knight and his lady dressed in 15th century clothes, possibly members of the Seton family.

Mural tomb with unknown effigies of a knight and his lady

A door in the north wall leads to the sacristy, where the priests would have prepared for mass.

looking out of the sacristy into the choir area

The transepts (north and south) were erected sometime between 1513 and 1588.

the north transept

carved bust located in the south transept

carved corbel


Like Rosslyn Chapel, 9 miles away, Seton also has a legend of a murdered apprentice. The story is that the Master Mason in charge of building the church had a major problem erecting the vaulted roof of the nave and went to another church to examine how the vaulted roof there had been erected. Given that there were a number of churches in the vicinity with vaulted roofs it seems likely that a long journey was not involved. In the absence of the Master Mason an apprentice had made the mathematical calculations and drawings showing how the vaulted roof could be built. The Master Mason, his pride being badly bruised (not to mention his ruined reputation of as ‘Master’), flew into a rage and hit the apprentice with a mallet killing him on the spot. The reporter was informed by a local worthy, from Port Seton, that it was believed that the Seton Master Mason was none other than the disgraced Master Mason from Rosslyn Collegiate Church who had not in fact committed suicide after killing the Apprentice there but had moved to Seton in order to design and later build that church the construction of which began in 1470. 

Murdered apprentice carving in Seton Church

In the south transept is a splendid monument to James, 1st Earl of Perth who died in 1611.

detail of the monument, showing a skull at the top

In the 1400s Seton Palace was built for the Seton family, and was described as one of the greatest houses in Scotland of that time.  The palace later fell into ruin and was eventually demolished in 1789 to make way for a new house, called Seton House or Seton Castle today, designed by renowned architect Robert Adam. Immediately to the west of the church, Seton House was recently sold for £5 million, making it one of Scotland's most expensive private homes.

Seton House

Outside, to the south-west of the church, are foundations that may be a rare example of priests' accommodation. At its height one provost, eight canons, two choristers and a clerk all lived here, praying for the salvation of Lord Seton and his family. They were probably later re-used as outbuildings for Seton Palace and include a mill and a brewhouse. They were uncovered during clearance work in the 1950s.

remains of priests' domestic quarters

Seton Collegiate Church is located to the immediate south-east of Port Seton in Longniddry, East Lothian, EH32 0PG.
There is a small car park situated approximately 1.5km west of Longniddry on the B1961 just as it turns into a dual carriageway.

Additional Information
  • Admission charges. 
  • Seasonal opening hours: April to September Monday to Sunday 9.30am - 5.30pm. Closed in winter.
  • Tel: 01875 813334

Friday, 2 August 2013

Reunion Multimedia interview

Following on from a short article about my blogs in a previous issue (see here), the local magazine Reunion Multimedia published a full page interview with me in its June-July 2013 issue. The theme was information and communications technology. You can click here for a larger, more readable copy of the interview (in French).

RM 113 28

Thanks to writer and journalist Julie Marianna David for conducting this interview.

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