Essay | XR Meta Incognita by Horatio Morpurgo

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Horatio Morpurgo


XR Meta Incognita

The journalist Raymond Keene was eating in a West End restaurant last summer when XR’s ‘Impossible Rebellion’ passed by. He saw in the protest a symptom of ‘diminishing rationality in western society… marked by a sometimes hysterical and frequently hypocritical drive to combat so-called climate change.’ Other symptoms of weakened reason include ‘abandonment of lithium-rich Afghanistan’ and ‘assaults on western culture, memory and tradition.’ I take it this was intended as a ‘witty’ provocation but most readers seem to have approved of what he said. Questions like this about XR are worth addressing.

*

A canny teacher asked our seven-year-old, during the first lockdown, to write about the places he most wanted to go when the pandemic was over. ‘London Zoo twice’ was on his list but it was August this year before we could finally take him. We timed our weekend so that I could stay up and join that XR action the following Monday. I was, in other words, one of Mr Keene’s cultureless and ‘balding malcontents’. But more of that later.

Having accompanied my family to their train on the Sunday, I was left with an evening to myself. I took a 15-minute train-ride from London Bridge to my own long-anticipated dream destination, namely Dartford, in Kent.

*

The new star which appeared in November 1572, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, is today known as ‘Tycho’s Supernova’. It’s named after him not because he was the first to see it but because during the eighteen months that it remained visible, the young Tycho Brahe made observations of it which led him to an unsettling conjecture.

‘Parallax’ measures the apparent displacement of an object, caused by a change in the observer’s position. The closer a heavenly body is to earth, the greater will be the parallax. What Tycho noticed was that the new star seemed to have no measurable parallax. It must then be very distant: in fact, it seemed to have appeared in what Aristotle had called the ‘eighth sphere’, an immutable region beyond the moon in which decay and change were unknown. Yet this star was both ‘new and never before seen in the life or memory of anyone’.  

Could Aristotle, and the church with him, have been fundamentally wrong about the structure of the universe? Another ancient school, the Stoics, had argued that the earth’s atmosphere, and with it the realm of mutability, extended beyond the moon. Tycho speculated that perhaps it was they who had been right all along.

Across Europe it was heralded also as the first new star to appear since the birth of Christ. What, then, did it announce this time? It appeared three months after the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris and was widely read as a sign of cosmic discord.

In England, Queen Elizabeth, too, called upon her mathematicians, astrologers and political advisors. John Dee, for one, ‘did coniecture the blasing star in Cassiopeia… to signify the fynding of some great Thresor or the Philosophers stone…’ Arabic and then European alchemists had long believed that the elixir had originated in China and would be found there. There were of course other reasons to establish trading links with ‘Cathay and other Countreys thereunto adjacent’.

*

What’s all this got to do with Dartford? From my train, across the marshes of the Thames estuary and beyond its bird hides, the M25 was a roadbridge scarcely visible on the horizon. London seemed mainly present in the form of enormous waste-processing plants that kept sliding by. Outside Dartford station a cardboard cut-out Mick Jagger informed the visitor that he or she was now arriving in the small town Mick fled. Early on a Sunday evening you could kind of see why. Half of its high street had been dug up for roadworks, over which the St George’s Cross bunting fluttered. There must be some people around, but where?

I had assumed that what I’d come for would be signed or that there would be someone to ask. A ‘Heritage Trail’ explained that Jane Austen once nearly lost her luggage here. Otherwise there was only the dug-up road and Brexit bunting. But at that moment I noticed a pub that looked open. It was to the woman behind its bar and her solitary customer that I told my tale.       

*

The John Dee who predicted the discovery of either a great Thresor or the Philosophers stone was also a crucial advisor on maritime exploration. Four years after the appearance of Tycho’s Supernova, an expedition set out to discover how China might be reached by a North West Passage, through what we now call the Canadian Arctic.

The leader of that expedition, Martin Frobisher, saw himself as an English successor to Magellan. As his ships entered a deep inlet on Baffin Island in the summer of 1576, he assumed they had already found what they were looking for: ‘That land vppon hys right hande, as hee sayled Westward, he iudged to bee the continente of Asia, and there to bee diuided from the firme of America, whiche lyeth vppon the left hande overagainst the same. This place he named after his name Frobishers Streytes, lyke as Megallanus at the Southweaste ende of the worlde, hauyng discovered the passage to the South Sea.’

If this is reminiscent also of Columbus’ confidence, sailing through the Bahamas, that China and Japan cannot be far, there’s a reason for that. The first authoritative biography of Christopher Columbus, by his son Hernando, was published in 1571. A copy of the book, heavily annotated in John Dee’s handwriting, was recently rediscovered. So we can see exactly what Frobisher’s chief advisor found to be of interest in it.

Columbus’ actions on arrival in the New World speak for themselves. We are not even told how the seven indigenous people he has ‘caused to be taken’ by the third day were captured. ‘These people are very unskilled in arms…’ he writes to his King. ‘The inhabitants could be taken away to Castile or held as slaves on the island, for with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we wish.’ Dee marked these passages as ‘policies’.

The inlet up which Frobisher sailed is still named after him. At the end of it, though, lies not China but the town of Iqaluit (‘place of many fish’), regional capital of Nunavut. Frobisher’s first recorded glimpse of its indigenous people, in the summer of 1576, was also the first recorded encounter with them by any European. At first he thinks they are ‘Porposes or Ceales, or some kinde of strange fishe’: he has never seen a kayak before.

Relations soured almost at once, when five Englishmen disappeared returning a visitor to their ship to his village. What happened to them remains a mystery. The situation can hardly have been helped when Frobisher took an Inuk captive in ‘retaliation’. The man ‘for very choller & disdain… bit his tong in twayne within his mouth.’ Taken back to London he quickly sickened and is buried in St Olave’s, name unknown. Other Inuk had been abducted by Basque fishermen some ten years earlier. Their wariness during this first documented contact is almost certainly traceable to a long, unrecorded prior history of interactions with European fishing boats.

But no reader of Columbus’ log can be in any doubt that his chief concern on arrival in the New World was gold. Dee also marked the passages relating to this in his copy of the biography. Shortly before giving up his attempt to discover a North West Passage, Frobisher ordered his men ashore to bring back whatever they could find ‘in token of Christian possession’. Some ‘broughte floures, some greene grasse, and one brought a peece of black stone, much lyke to a seacole in coloure, whiche by the waight seemed to be some kind of mettal or Mynerall.’

What kind of metal could this be? ‘As great as a halfpenny loaf’, Frobisher’s black stone – if we told its story right – could be supplying us still with an abundance of teaching about technical sophistication in the service of credulity and greed.

The English called the country they had sailed to ‘Meta Incognita’ or ‘Unknown Limits’, which has a spacier ring to it than Columbus with his ‘San Salvador’ and ‘Santa Maria de la Concepción’. One of the returning English adventurers gave a piece of this space rock to his wife. The romance of his gesture appears to have been lost on her. Perhaps she felt this was poor recompense for her childcare marathon. Anyway she threw it straight into the fire.

Where it began to burn strangely. Removed from the flames and ‘quenched in a little vinegre, it glistered with a bright Marquesset of golde.’ Two metallurgists were consulted, neither of whom could find any gold in the rock. Enter Agnello, Venetian alchemist. ‘Bisogna adulare la natura’ (‘It is necessary to coax nature’), he explained. Having coaxed nature, he was able to identify the black stone as an exceptionally rich gold ore.

For John Dee here was confirmation indeed of what the new star of 1572 had foretold. The North West passage was forgotten. Gold fever took hold and the City was soon prey to a speculative bubble. A delighted Queen Elizabeth was able to supply Frobisher with a full-size gun-ship and an estimated 10% of the country’s armed merchant shipping. Further expeditions, in 1577 and 1578, would return ‘Laden with Minerall Ewer’, about 1400 tonnes of it.

The lack of any significant gold yield from the small furnaces available in London only confirmed the need for more and larger ones. In November 1577, John Dee drew a comet in his diary and advised the Queen that its appearance meant her no harm. On the same visit to Windsor, he affirmed her ‘title’ to ‘Groecland’, meaning everything west of Greenland.

The following month, Frobisher was one of the party sent to identify the right location for metalworks on the scale required. The site he helped to choose, in Dartford, Kent, was then occupied by a mill which ground wheat and malt. Frobisher himself then went back west of Greenland to collect more ore and build the first English house in North America. Upon the site in Dartford there rose, meanwhile, between April and August 1578, ‘two great workhousses, & two watter mylles, with fyve great meltinge furnaces…. [O]ne great Colehous, & other necessarye workhouses…’

The coal was brought from Northumbria. Coal, already in the sixteenth century, became the main domestic heating fuel in south-east England. The Queen, in this same year of 1578, avoided London at certain times ‘grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea coals.’ A contemporary writer complained of the ‘offensive smel’ and ‘soile’ (i.e. ash) of ‘ordinary seacole fires’. The adoption of coal was driven by deforestation around the capital and a scheme like the one at Dartford illustrates this well. Accounts show how the felling of oak, elm and ash proceded on estates nearby, how the milling and transportation of timber was organised, the sawyers and carpenters paid. Meta Incognita was to be England’s own Potosi, a rival to the new Spanish mines in the Philippines. Dartford was where this would be proved.

The ore ‘proved’, in the event, to be quite worthless. The boundary between alchemical hope and chemical composition was at this date porous. The German engineer who oversaw construction of the complex probably did believe that the ore was as rich as some said it was. He also thought fit to boost his chances of being appointed to run the programme by melting down gold coins from his own pocket. The resulting ingot was presented as ‘evidence’ of the ore’s value.

 The excruciating detail survives because reputations were ruined as cases dragged through the courts for years and prison sentences were served. The North West awr was, in the event, mainly used to repair Bristol Harbour and for various marsh reclamation schemes in Kent. Some of it, I’d read in a book, ended up built into a wall somewhere in Dartford. But the street name given, Vicarage Lane, did not, according to Google, exist. That’s what I’d come here to find.

*

There were, as I say, no helpful signs, and the museum was shut. So I stood in a largely empty pub, summarising the above. The single customer nursed his pint and stared quizzically. Behind the bar, the woman took out her phone to check my story against the internet. They were the first of many who would hear it that evening. Indeed, my asking around Dartford took on an unexpected life of its own. The woman found something about a manor house but neither of them could say where that might be. I thanked them anyway.

At a bus-stop a young Asian man told me he’d lived here all his life, 24 years. He could point out the window of the YMCA which had been home for a year but had never heard about any wall made of gold ore. Two women standing at the entrace to a betting shop wished me luck. A young woman lost in her iPod shook her head and looked the other way. An old Polish man with not much English could confirm to me that I was in Dartford.

How I’d been missing this. Walking up to perfect strangers on some cracked pretext and watching them politely flounder. It was good to take a break from the 1570s. Three long-time residents in a row listened to me from their bench in a square. The first responded by asking if I had been let out of a lunatic asylum but another said she did recall a story about ‘a wall they weren’t allowed to knock down.’

That had the right ring about it. I asked for directions and followed them to a retail park on the edge of the town centre. Around its enormous car park, empty and extra-silent this Sunday evening, the big brand names loomed. The trickle of pedestrians using it as a short-cut was presumably there all through the week but more noticeable now that it was so quiet.

Their path across it took them along a hedge and I suddenly saw what stood behind it. Diminished by such vastly prosperous neighbours, boxed into one corner of all this commercial hyperbole, was an old place with gables and a steeply pitched roof.

It had to be the manor. The building, I soon discovered, faced onto a Priory Road, not the ‘Vicarage Lane’ of my book, but the names were close enough to give hope. And indeed a little way further along I could now see a section of old wall, partly made up of irregular black stones. A resident in a baseball cap happened by and could confirm: ‘they’ brought them over from Canada. In Henry VIII’s time or thereabouts, he thought. ‘You can see the gold sometimes,’ he said, ‘When it rains, it glitters. But it was too expensive to extract.’

So I had, as Google loves to say, ‘arrived at my destination’: a length of old wall, patched with brick and topped with glass shards. My informant also told me the oak-framed doorway let into it once led to that priory from which the street still takes its name. The door is now locked and would lead into the storage area at the back of a builders’ merchant, if it led anywhere. Thanking him, I went to try it anyway, then checked the stones for any trace of that glitter. I thought I saw a gleam here and there but knew enough of the story to be wary.

*

Because only know the full story of what the glitter in those stones once promised and your knowledge implicates you. That they now serve to help protect a retail park could hardly be more fitting. The story in which these rocks figured as ‘a great Thresor or the Philosophers stone’, presaged by the first new star to appear since the birth of Christ, may come from a world no longer fully accessible to us. But what that story led to lies all around us.

As they reached to take possession of Meta Incognita, as they commenced digging out the ore, shipping it back, tearing down forests in Kent to get at the precious metal it supposedly contained, was this laudable ambition? Possibly for some, obviously not to the writer who deplored the ‘decayed and spoiled’ condition of England’s forests at this time. 

We’ve already touched on the challenge to Aristotle posed by the supernova of 1572, as indeed by the comet of 1577. If it is difficult to admire or even comprehend much of what the explorers did in that decade, neither should we omit to mention what can be understood. The English, late entrants to this contest, did not only see themselves as rivals to other European nationals or as civilisers / kidnappers of the ‘savages’. Both George Best, chronicler of Frobisher’s voyages, and Francis Fletcher, chaplain aboard Drake’s Golden Hinde, tested what they were seeing against Aristotle’s teachings and found ancient authority wanting. They saw these journeys, in other words, also as part of a wider advance in the state of knowledge. Columbus not only closely observed the marine wildlife for clues as to where they might be, he also noticed and tried to explain magnetic variation during the crossing: ‘to penetrate the secrets of the universe’, Dee wrote in the margins of his copy.

There was another comet and further commentary thereupon in 1580, when a Francis Shakelton consulted leading natural philosophers and wrote as follows: ‘the constitution of the celestiall worlde, is not the same that it hath been in tymes paste…’ He didn’t stop there. ‘If there be so greate alteration in the superior worlds, what shall wee saie of the inferiour?’

A time-honoured understanding of the world was coming apart. Was Shakelton, were any of them, ‘wrong’ to both feel the excitement and tremble at the prospect? ‘Alteration’ was in the very air they breathed, or choked on: the constellation of Cassiopeia, the rocks of Meta Incognita, the fate of indigenous peoples and the forests of Kent were all implicated.

Dee may have promoted the new art of navigation but angelic messengers spoke to him also of a ‘great catastrophe overhanging the world’. Kepler believed in astrology to the end and employed the new astronomy for, among other things, calculating more accurately the date of the birth of Christ. As a doctor, Sir Thomas Browne championed William Harvey’s discovery of the blood’s circulation and wrote of humankind as ‘that amphibious piece betweene a corporall and spirituall essence, the middle frame that linkes those two together.’  

Do we all-wise ones patronise this away as so much pre-modern dross? The new understanding altered much but earlier insights were not all forgotten. They seem to have been semi-consciously kept on, as brakes that might be applied to a world accelerating already towards an ever less knowable future. A certain version of ‘knowledge’ might be growing, to the benefit of those who possessed and could ‘deploy’ it, but at the expense of what and whom?

*

My motives for joining that protest were all about the need for a reasoned response to the climate crisis. I am far from alone in tracing the origins of this crisis to early modern Europe – an excellent example is Randall Martin’s Shakespeare and Ecology (OUP, 2015), on which I’ve drawn here. ‘Western culture, memory and tradition’ are not, for me as for many others, so fragile that attempts to engage critically with them amount to ‘assault’. It’s not an assault on anything to admire Johannes Kepler’s patience or Thomas Browne’s prose and admit, too, that parts of Columbus’ log are stomach-turning. The captain of one of Frobisher’s own ships wrote of the ore they returned with that it ‘might reasonably suffice all the golde gluttons of the worlde.’

He could not have been more wrong, as things turned out, but his feelings are clear. Our own protest aimed to raise awareness of the role still being played in the planet’s degradation by companies based in the City of London. Such a protest is eminently reasonable and fully commensurate with our present state of knowledge about the climate.

When Insulate Britain blocked the Dartford junction on the M25, I was reminded, reading about them, of that view from my train of the road bridge across marshland. I’ve looked on from a distance and asked, as others have, whether their actions are helping or hindering. They are, either way, profoundly brave and rational actions, whether you view them in their present-day context or from the perspective of that past which has been so long bequeathing us this legacy. My way now would be to tell the story of Frobisher’s ore, the speculative bubble, the deforestation associated with it and what all that was the beginning of. That’s how I would seek to persuade now.


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