After Christmas we spent four days in the Granite Belt south of Stanthorpe, checking out the splendours of Girraween National Park. Girraween is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of flowers’ though sadly for us the best time to see those flowers is in July when the golden wattle blooms. Nevertheless it is the home of great bushwalks through the granite outcroppings any time of year. Girraween is part of a larger ecosystem with Bald Rock National Park just across the border in New South Wales. But with Covid playing havoc with border restrictions we confine ourselves to the Queensland side.
The National Park covers 11,700 hectares of bushland. Arriving mid afternoon of the first day there is only time for one walk to probably the signature walk of the Park: the Pyramids. The walk starts from the Bald Rock Creek day area, 40km south of Stanthorpe. Nearby is the Bald Rock Creek which has swimming waterholes. There are also two camping grounds here.
We prefer to walk and set off on the 3.6km return hike to the Pyramid. There are two pyramids side by side but only one is walkable to the summit. Along the way we see the first of many granite outcrops precariously held in position, which remind me of my visit to Karlu Karlu in the NT (the Devils Marbles). Like the Marbles these stones are made of granite, just one small section of a great mass of rock that covers the region – the Stanthorpe Granite.
The Stanthorpe Granite was a molten mass of magma that rose up and pushed into the older rocks surrounding it 240 million years ago. The magma resulted from heat in the crust when the eastern side of the continent was compressed by two tectonic plates combining. It melted the surrounding rock and assimilated fragments known as xenoliths into its mass. Some xenoliths are still visible within the granite but most have eroded due to weathering. After a kilometre, we left the bushland behind and started the difficult climb up the Pyramid. Extreme care needs to be taken on the rocks which are slippery and which have few handrails.
It’s tough work heading up but there is the thought that the gravity-assisted trip down will have its own issues. The view from the top banishes all those concerns with magnificent granite outcrops in every direction.
The Cunningham’s Skink blends naturally into the landscape. Egernia cunninghami is a sun-loving variety of spiny-tailed skink named for explorer and botanist Allan Cunningham who collected the first specimen in the Blue Mountains. This large skink has a long tail with keeled scales along from the back of the neck to the tip of the pointed tail. The legs are short, requiring it to slide on its belly when moving around. It occurs in forests and woodlands with rock outcrops. The species occurs within forests and open woodland which feature rock outcrops anywhere from south-east Queensland down through New South Wales and into central Victoria.
North of our pyramid is its twin, which is too dangerous to climb. Also here is the massive Balancing Rock, probably the single-most photographed feature of the park, with people getting into all sorts of Instagram poses to “keep up” the precarious rock. Normally 120,000 visitors a year check this out, but with COVID ruling out interstate visitors it was a quiet site to contemplate nature’s wonders.
When we came down we stayed 20km away at Ballandean. The old railway station is on the southern line from Toowoomba to Wallangarra on the border. Opened in the 1880s it survived 100 years as a passenger line and then as a freight line to 2007. Heritage rail services still run from time to time. The Ballandean station has been rotated so its entrance now faces the New England Hwy rather than the railway.
As the evening ends we enjoy the sunset on the Granite Belt and plot further adventures in the days to come.
The following morning it was back to the park and our most ambitious trek of the stay – a 15km hike taking in The Sphinx, Castle Rock and the park’s highest peak Mt Norman. We passed few tree ferns along the way before we were climbing in the granite again.
Sphinx Rock bears passing resemblance to the Egyptian Sphinx but its beauty does not need any comparison. It is a granite pinnacle with a massive balancing topside tor. Cunningham was the first European known to enter the Girraween area. In 1827 he noted “large detached masses of granite of every shape towering above each other and in many instances standing in almost tottering positions constituted a barrier before us”. He reported he saw Aborigines only five times during his journey to and from the present-day locations of Tamworth and Warwick “And they, he said, “suffered us for the moment to view them at a distance.”
Below the Sphinx is this giant carved rock like a wheel that towers over humans.
Turtle Rock lives up to its description.
Then we turn back and head to Castle Rock which we see ahead through the foliage.
Castle Rock is almost as difficult to climb as the Pyramid but the views from the top are equally breathtaking.
After a rest, we move on cross country to Mt Norman. After going through some rainforest we emerge again to climb the granite boulders.
Again there is the feeling of being of the roof of the world at the top. Mount Norman is the highest point in the park at 1267 metres
The view looking back to Castle Rock from Mt Norman. From here we could either head to the southern car park which links to the road to Wallangara on the border but after a five hour hike we head back the way we came to the day area.
On Day 3 we did part of the Granite Belt bike ride between Ballandean and Stanthorpe. The bike route tackles 30km of the regions backroads with wineries aplenty along the way. The bike trail is well marked and worth getting off the beaten track for.
In the afternoon we head back to Girraween and take the shorter walk to the Granite Arch. A combination of forces including water, wind and plants have combined over a million years to sculpt this creation. Blotchy lichens eat away at the granite by concocting a weak acid that breaks down the felspar, the pink material in the granite.
The walk heads on to The Junction, a lovely swimming hole where the Ramsay Creek and Bald Rock Creek meet. The area is full of rockslides and pools, white sandy beaches and welcoming waterholes. The water comes down from the western side of the Great Dividing Range and continues as one as part of the mighty Murray-Darling system that empties into the sea at South Australia, thousands of kilometres away.
On the last day, we do more of the bike trails. Names of localities such as The Somme are a reminder that this area was soldier settlement blocks. Under the Discharged soldiers’ settlement Act, 1917 discharged soldiers were entitled to apply for land and financial assistance. Around 7000 hectares was set aside near Stanthorpe and more than seven hundred returned soldiers were allocated blocks in the Pikedale Soldier Settlement. A number of locations were named by those returning servicemen in honour of famous battlefields including The Somme, Amiens, Messines, Bapaume, Passchendaele, Bullecourt, Pozieres and Fleurbaix.
We stopped in Stanthorpe for a coffee afterwards. Stanthorpe was founded by tin miners in 1872. When the tin prices fell, many miners turned to farming as the subtropical highland climate was suitable for growing cool climate fruits and vegetables. Grapes were first planted here in the 1860s with encouragement from the local Catholic parish priest Father Jerome Davadi to produce altar wine and the idea caught on among Italian settlers.
After coffee we went up to Mt Marlay to check out the lookout over town. The hill was named for Edward Marlay, a selector and tin miner. There is a short walk around the summit, which follows a path through the trees offering a scenic vantage point towards the north.
That afternoon it was time for a final look at Girraween. This time we drove a little further into the park to the Dr Roberts car park. We finished off with a walk to the Dr Roberts waterhole. First stop was a 2.8km return trip to the underground creek. Millions of years ago this rock formation probably resembled a tumbling wave but gradually cracks and crevices occurred causing masses of rocks to collapse onto the flowing Bald Creek below. The water now flows below the cluster of boulders.
We finished with another 2km trek to Dr Roberts Waterhole. In the 1930s local doctor Spencer Roberts was a guardian of the local superb lyrebird and wombat populations. He lobbied the government to protect them in a national park. Dr Roberts died in 1939 aged 59 but his visionary work was rewarded. In 1930 Bald Rock Creek National Park was declared followed two years later by Castle Rock National Park. Together they were known as Wyberba National Park but they were formally amalgamated in 1966 as Girraween National Park.
The Trump era appears to be coming to its logical end with a massive defeat followed by a well-publicised by spectacularly inept coup at the US Capitol building. While Trump’s footsoldiers ran rampant in the Capitol taking selfies their beloved president reluctantly told them to go home telling they were “very special“. The only surprise was that he told them to go home and and not stay and set fire to the building.
Writing in “Surviving Autocracy” about Donald Trump in early 2020 before it was obvious he was going to lose the election, Masha Gessen defined Trump’s range as “government by gesture, obfuscation and lying, self-praise, stoking fear and issuing threats”. Gessen’s prologue was written late enough to describe the catastrophic early response to COVID-19 which ultimately led to his downfall. Despite hospitals ill-equipped to face an onslaught of patients, a shortage of PPE, essential information withheld and little testing available, Trump baldly denied any responsibility and instead issued bogus medical advice yet almost half the people believed he was doing a job. To Gessen, who grew up in Russia, it was striking familiar to the USSR’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and showed how far down the path America had gone to autocracy.
Gessen noted Trumpian news was always shocking without being surprising. Though an assault on the senses they are just more of the same of him beating the government, the media and politics itself into a state beyond recognition. When the inconceivable becomes routine, words fail us. Gessen draws on the work of Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar who realised the language of the media and academia was not up to the task of describing what happened to his country after the fall of Communism. Magyar coined the term “mafia state”as a specific clan-like system in which one man (and it is always a man) distributes money and power to everyone while establishing autocracy and then consolidating it.
The Hungarian model was useful to describe the US. Though the situation has evolved since 2016, Gessen says democratic crackdowns have always been part of the US experience such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th century, Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, the Sedition Act of 1918, Japanese interment in the Second World War, the McCarthy era, and the Nixon wiretapping era. In the 21st century Bush granted sweeping surveillance powers and Obama suppressed whistleblowers.
But American public officials have largely acted in good faith and even those who lied did so in accordance with sincerely held beliefs and a coherent system of values. Until Trump no powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself. His campaign slogan “drain the swamp” was a declaration of war against the American system of government. It was a campaign built on disdain for the “other”, immigrants, women, disabled people, people of colour, Muslims, anyone who wasn’t a white straight American-born male or anyone who was, but who was an “elite” who coddled those others. Autocrats like Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro campaign on resentments and continue to traffic in them even after election as though they were still insurgents. Trump denigrated his own departments, issuing humiliating tweets and promoting officials who were opposed to the existence of those departments who lied their way through confirmation hearings taking their lead in contempt for the government from their boss. Trump had no time for the demands of office which annoyed him and he showed no interest in “being presidential”.
His aims were obvious from his inauguration speech which pitched to base emotion and intelligence. Any money spent abroad was money lost and his vision for the future was a fortress under siege and a walled country that put itself first and the rest be damned. He immediately signed an executive order to overturn the Affordable Care Act and scrubbed the White House website of content on climate policy, civil rights and health care while adding a biography of Melania Trump that advertised her mail-order jewelry.
Trump has shown repeated lack of aspiration and a disdain for excellence, common among autocrats. It is as Gessen called it, a kakistocracy, a government of the worst. He showed no interest in filling cabinet positions many of whom he felt should not exist, and when he did, he turned to the military such as Mike Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis and Mike Pompeo. In April 2017 he admitted being president was harder than he expected but blamed that on his predecessor and the establishment and still felt one person should give orders which should be carried out. But when the pandemic came the vacuum Trump had wilfully created at the top of government translated into deadly inaction.
The corruption of his government is a family business matter. Trump repeated said the president can’t have a conflict of interest and implied that if he did have to draw a line he would have to forego seeing his adult children who worked for him. Within weeks Ivanka moved to the East Wing and then the West Wing and took meetings with Angela Merkel and Trump’s seat at a meeting of G20 leaders. Despite a protest from the Office of Government Ethics, Trump said it was okay because she was not drawing a salary.
The Trump Hotels were doing business in synergy with their owner. The RNC held its Christmas party at Trunp Washington while Saudi lobbyists booked out floors at a time. On the phone call that led to the impeachment inquiry, Ukrainian president Zelensky mentioned he stayed at the New York venue. Yet because this was so open, Gessen was loath to call it corruption. Trump is not duplicitous, he acts in the transparent belief political power should produce personal wealth.
Trump’s love of fellow autocrats is well documented. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia where he got an honourary gold collar from the King. When Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi was murdered inside the Istanbul embassy, Trump issued a statement called “America First!” and reaffirmed his friendship with the Saudis. When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington, protesters at the Turkish embassy were beaten up severely by a group that included Erdogan’s security team. Trump merely said he was “a big fan”.
There was one area of government Trump paid close attention to: the courts. By November 2019 he had set a record for the number of appointees and he had filled a quarter of all appeal judges. Gessen noted he had two Supreme Court justices, later rushed to three in the dying days of his rule. The appointees weren’t just far right, dismissive of civil rights and in favour of deregulation, they were also notably inexperienced, bypassing the American Bar Association vetting process (imitating George W Bush) and more ideologically extreme as time progressed.
One of the great hopes of bringing down Trump was the much-feted Mueller Report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The 448-page report delivered after 22 months was a comprehensive portrait of Trumpism. The first half told the story of the links between Russia and the Trump campaign. There was no single “gotcha” as shady Russians and Americans set out to swindle each other, everyone lied and no-one got what they wanted. Part 2 was about Trump’s behaviour during the investigation. Trump had instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller (McGahn ignored the request) and then tried to get McGahn to deny the request happened. Mueller stopped short of saying it was an obstruction of justice, that, he said, was for Congress to decide. When new Attorney General William Barr read the report he told Congress there was no case to answer prompting protest from Mueller. By the time Barr released the redacted report it was reduced to a battle of interpretations depending on party affiliation. Having a liar in the Oval office did not constitute an emergency, or as Gessen said, American political institutions were not equipped to treat it as one.
Gessen notes how an autocratic attempt in the US has a credible chance of succeeding. It build logically on the structures and norms of American government and on the concentration of power in the executive branch and on the marriage of money and politics. “Recovery will be possible only as reinvention,” Gessen writes. “Of institutions, of what politics means to us and what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”
Researchers in Malaysia have found a way to turn fibre from pineapple leaves into material sturdy enough to make drone frames. Drones built with pineapple fibre have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than frames made with synthetic fibres and are cheaper and lighter. The project is geared towards finding sustainable uses for waste from one of Malaysia’s biggest crop industries though the pineapple is not a native plant.
Pineapples originate from the border area between Brazil and Paraguay and are one of 2000 species of bromeliads, the largest of which is the remarkable 3m tall Puya Raimondii which can take 150 years to flower before dying immediately. The pineapple stores water in its leaves to help it endure periods of drought though lack of rainfall was rarely a problem in the rainforest where it emerged. Pineapples require soil temperatures of 20 degrees or greater and air temps of at least 15.
I am not a huge fan of the taste of the pineapple (and not just on pizza) but there is no denying it is a striking impressive creation. The plant grows from a terminal bud surrounded by a thick rosette of concave leaves which allow it to collect water in the rosette. The crown, armour and rosette protect it from ground-level predators. The pineapple is also an example of a Fibonacci sequence with the “eyes” on its shell arranged in curving rows of 5 and 8, or 8 and 13.
The first humans to eat pineapples were the Tupi-Guarani people. They domesticated the fruit 2000-4000 years ago along with the sweet potato, the peanut, potatoes and maize. They called the fruit anana, meaning an excellent fruit, and the botanical name remains ananas comosus (Comos is Latin for hairy, or in the case of plants leafy) and it is called the ananas in many languages. The Tupi-Guarani were master traders and by the time Europeans arrived the pineapple spread into Central America and the West Indies.
Christopher Columbus found a pineapple on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 when he landed on the island of Guadeloupe. One of his sailors noted “some fruit that looked like green pine cones but were much larger”. Importantly they tasted sweet to European palates aware of the high price of sugar. The Spanish called it a pina, for the pine cone it resembled. King Ferdinand was impressed when he tasted it on Columbus’s return and its royal seal of approval made it immediately popular. The writer Oviedo encountered the pineapple in Panama in 1514 and was entranced. In six glowing pages he extolled its “Beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent favour” and he included the earliest known illustration in his 1535 Historia General y Natural de las Indias.
The pineapple’s striking appearance helped its cause and quickly became emblematic of a new world paradise. Within 100 years it was global, the hardy plant accompanying Spanish and Portuguese sailors on their adventures to Africa, Asia and New Guinea. By 1656 it was so common in China, Michael Boym mistakenly included it as a native in Flora Sinensis, the first Western work on Chinese plants.
It was surprisingly slower reaching English tables due to the Civil War but once established became a phenomenon. In her book The Pineapple: King of Fruits Fran Beauman traced the first pineapple to London in 1657 when William Goodson brought them back from Jamaica which he helped seize a couple of years earlier. He showed Lord Protector Cromwell the fruit which helped him get a promotion. The fruit’s cause was helped by writer Richard Ligon’s history of Barbados the same year which praised pineapples as a “a Harmony of tastes”.
Around this time are the first references to the fruit as “pynappel”, a term originally used to mean pine cone. The addition of “apple” to the Spanish “pina” gave it a very English sounding name. By 1661 Charles II was on the throne and his court was presented with a Barbadian pineapple, a lavish gift to get a petition approved. Again in 1668 at His Majesty’s table the exotic “King-Pine” was spotted in an attempt to impress the French ambassador, who was sure to tell Louis XIV.
Charles’s devotion to the pineapple is shown in a 1670s painting “Mr Rose, the royal Gardener, presenting to King Charles 2nd the first pineapple raised in England”. Beauman is sceptical this was possible in England at the time and thinks that by raised, the painter means “ripened”. She thinks raising did not happen until the 18th century thanks to a Dutch gardener Henry Telende and innovations in hothouse technology. Dutch gardeners found tanner’s bark maintained heat better than manure and could be reactivated easily with a pitchfork. Telende used the method in his Richmond greenhouse to reliably grow pineapples in fickle English weather. His method was noted in Richard Bradley’s General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening which hoped to see “the Ananas flourish for the future”. The method was enthusiastically taken up and by the mid 1720s every English aristocrat aspired to owning a pinery. Bradley’s The Country Housewife (1732) had the first pineapple tart recipe.
A home-grown pineapple became the ultimate status symbol. Because of their cost, they were rarely eaten. The pineapple was an ornament for the dinner table and would be re-used again and again until it was rotten. By the 1770s there was a pineapple husbandry industry in England and no garden was thought complete “without a stove for raising of pine-apples”. It was the subject of a Malapropism in Sheridan’s The Rivals in 1775 when Mrs Malaprop called Captain Absolute “the very pineapple of politeness” and indeed local-grown pineapples were at the pinnacle of British society. Pineappleware was popular at the dinner table. The height of the folly was John Murray’s Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire which sports a 16m high pineapple temple inside the estate’s walled apple orchard.
By 1835 Darwin on the Beagle could bestow no higher praise on a Tahitian pineapple than it was “perhaps even better than those cultivated in England”. Pineapples appeared in nearly every book by Dickens and Thackeray. But the glory days of English pineapples were numbered. David Copperfield (1850) stared at the pine-apples in Covent Garden market, as cheap imports became available thanks to steamships and refrigerators. Streetsellers in London were calling out “a penny a slice” and 200,000 Bahaman pineapples were unloaded from the docks each year. While they were not considered as tasty as the home-grown variety imported pineapples made them affordable for the lower classes.
The next major advance was canning, first successfully trialled in 1876 on a limited basis. In 1892 the new Zastrow Machine removed the fruits core and then sliced it up. A year later the Lewis Peeler added peeling to the mix and a Baltimore canning firm imported a million fresh pinepples for canning by the end of the century generating 250,000 cases of pineapples.
Hawaiian businessmen took note. The island’s climate and volcanic soils were ideal for growing pineapples. Englishman John Kidwell bought five acres on Oahu to grow pineapples and he established the first cannery in 1892. Word about the superior flavour of Hawaiian varieties quickly got out and the industry thrived despite a crippling 35pc tariff on export to the US mainland. James Drummond Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Co (later the Dole Corporation) and he launched mass production quickly followed into business by California Packing Corp (later Del Monte) and others. With the aid of shrewd marketing, Hawaii had 70pc of the world market by 1940. Fresh pineapple remained a luxury item but the canned product was an everyday staple.
By modern times the big corporations had outgrown their Hawaiian operations and moved their plants to the Philippines, Thailand, Costa Rica and the Ivory Coast. Del Monte and Dole sued each other over patented pineapple varieties. In wholesale prices, the global pineapple market grew to $14.9 billion in 2016. The largest growth market is Asia, especially countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines though its original home of Brazil remains the largest consumer. Beauman notes that the pineapple retains “the power to infuse our lives with a tantalising taste of the exotic”. You can even make drone frames from it. Just don’t put it on a pizza.
Having spent time recently at Norfolk Island, the story of the Bounty and Christian Fletcher gets a lot of attention there. Neither the ship nor its mutineers ever made it to the island, nor did the captain Fletcher overthrew, William Bligh. While the journey Fletcher and his conspirators made to start a new life on Pitcairn is fascinating, the most impressive achievement belongs to Bligh. His 6000km escape in a long boat is understated on Norfolk as the home of the descendants of the mutineers but also does not get the attention it deserves elsewhere, because of the negative impressions of him left in Hollywood film versions of the most famous mutiny in history.
Rob Mundle corrects the record in his book Bligh Master Mariner. The book covers Bligh’s entire career including his voyage with Cook when Cook was killed in Hawaii and the second mutiny when Macarthur and the Rum Corps overthrew him as governor of New South Wales in 1808. But the longboat journey two decades earlier is the most fascinating chapter and his single finest achievement. Lieutenant William Bligh set off from Spithead in 1787, shortly after the First Fleet also headed for the South Pacific. Bligh’s mission was different from Arthur Phillip’s. He was to head to Tahiti and take breadfruit plants for propagation in British colonies in the Caribbean. Fletcher Christian was his friend from Isle of Man days and had sailed with him on previous voyages.
The special cargo meant the already small Bounty (27.5m) had to be re-designed to fit the plants with Bligh’s cabin severely reduced in size. More importantly there was no room for marines, a militia that might have protected the captain in the south seas. The modifications meant the ship was late leaving England and reached Cape Horn during the stormy season. After months trying to get into the Pacific, Bligh turned and took the long way via the Cape of Good Hope.
The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in October 1788, the worst time of year for breadfruit propagation. The trees were in fruit which meant juveniles were not strong enough for transplanting. They had to wait four or five months for the wet season. Bligh struck a deal with Matavai Bay chief Tynah to collect the fruit while his men surrendered to the charms of the island. Many became indolent as they struck up relationships with Tahitian women and petty thieving was rife. A cyclone in December forced Bligh to move his ship to a safer anchorage.
As the departure date loomed, many sailors lamented the coming loss of their idyllic life in the tropics. Deserters stole a cutter but were caught by islanders and put in irons. Many sailors contracted venereal disease and the ship’s surgeon was very busy man. Finally in April the Bounty was ready to sail with 1015 breadfruit plants aboard in 774 pots, 39 tubs and 24 boxes. They discovered the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands but after an initially friendly welcome, islanders became threatening. They headed towards Tofua in Tonga.
On the day before the mutiny, Bligh conducted an inquisition over stolen coconuts and accused Christian of the crime. At 6am the following morning, April 28, 1789, Christian was supposed to be officer-of-the-watch but instead was orchestrating piracy. He grabbed a cutlass and seized Bligh while he slept. Mutineers assailed the other officers and within minutes had control of the ship. Initially the 19 loyalists, mostly officers, were assigned to a 5m unseaworthy jollyboat while 25 mutineers remained on board. After Bligh complained, Christian allowed them to take the larger launch. They had bread, wine and rum and a quadrant and compass for navigation but no firearms. The Bounty crew threw the breadfruit overboard and set off for Tahiti while the launch sailed to nearby Tofua, 50km away.
They spent four days on the island gathering meagre supplies. They were attacked by 200 islanders and one sailor John Norton was killed, remarkably the only death in the entire survival mission. The rest crowded onto the boat and set sail for New Holland to find more supplies. The new settlement at Botany Bay was tantalisingly out of reach due to prevailing winds. Instead they set a course for the Dutch VOC settlement at Koupang on Timor – 6600km from Tofua. What followed in the next 47 days was one of the great all-time survival stories.
They almost came to grief on the first night as a succession of monster waves flooded the craft. Those not sailing were bailing water out while every time the launch surfed down a wave, there was the danger of nose-diving and submerging. The storm raged 48 hours while the saturated men suffered cold and fatigue. Bligh lifted spirits as he apportioned out a teaspoon of rum each day and there was further cheer on May 4 when they spotted the first of the Fijian islands, inspiring confidence in Bligh’s dead reckoning.
They narrowly avoided coral reefs and two large sailing canoes – deciding not to make contact or land without arms, given their Tofua troubles. Another storm allowed them to replenish rainwater supplies but they were in pain from forced confinement. “We were constantly wet, after a few hours sleep we could scarcely move,” Bligh wrote. They erected a “weather cloth” of canvas and rope to create a 25cm-high curtain that kept water out, possibly saving their lives in a huge storm that very night. The white-knuckle ride would continue to the end.
Leaving Fiji, Bligh maintained course towards the Barrier Reef. Bad weather hampered progress and the men were constantly bailing – though this was a small pleasure as the only exercise they got outside rowing. They saw New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the south after two weeks covering 2200km at 7.5km an hour. While this was an astonishing achievement already, Bligh had to cajole his crew out of their “miserable situation”. The men were on starvation rations but could not afford to take the chance of going ashore to seek relief. They still had another 2200km of open ocean ahead to reach Cape York.
The misadventures kept coming. On the 16th day they narrowly avoided a waterspout. On day 21 Bligh’s journal spoke of ‘constant rain and at times a deluge”. They were always bailing and “half-dead”. It rained all night where they were obliged “to bail with all our might”. Bligh served a large allowance of rum at dawn in reward. The weather worsened in the following days and several waves threatened to overturn the boat. Bligh had to steer with great care “as the least error with the helm would immediately bring our destruction”. Yet they averaged 190km a day during the storms.
Finally the weather improved but Bligh cut the rations to 20g of bread for breakfast and dinner and none for supper. A day later matters improved when they caught a noddy by hand and its entrails were divided 18 ways using salt water for sauce. They caught a second with the added bonus of flying fish and squid in its belly. The presence of birds suggested land and they also saw tree branches in the water.
On May 27 they spotted land though the breakers pounding on the reef were a problem. It took them another day to find a channel through the reef (later called Bligh’s Boat Entrance, off modern day Lockhart River) and they were aided to shore by a strong current. Ironically it was the same day as the first landfall of the mutineers on Tubuai, 7000km away. Fletcher’s hopes this would be their perfect destination was dashed by an unfriendly welcome and they ended up even further distant at Pitcairn, though some remained in Tahiti.
Bligh and his men were on an off-shore island where they searched for food and water. They also needed to repair the rudder which separated from its hinge. On the anniversary of the restoration of Charles II Bligh called the island Restoration Island, now known as Maʼalpiku Island National Park. On May 31 they set sail again north-north-west towards Fair Cape just ahead of the arrival of spear-carrying islanders. At Fair Cape they landed on what became Sunday Islet to collect food while Bligh climbed a hill to chart the next course. After sleeping on the island it was time for the final push to Timor.
Converging currents put them in rough seas as they rounded the northern tip of New Holland. Horn and Thursday islands were the last landfall until the East Indies. High winds and heavy seas made for constant bailing amid incessant steep waves. Bligh noted his exhausted men struggled to stay awake. One bright spot was the first fish they caught on a line since Tofua. Each man was served 60g with the remainder saved for the following day.
On Day 41 they spotted the coast of Timor, a cause for elation. However they were still a long way from salvation. Bligh had no idea where the Dutch settlement was on the coast though he suspected it was in the south-west. They had to carefully examine every inlet for fear of missing it and there were days of searching the mountainous coastline with a hot hazy atmosphere making the task harder.
Less than 30km from the west coast they encountered the worst weather yet while trapped in a deadly fast current. Torrents of white water poured over the boat which was in danger of being sucked under. They made it to shore where they met Malay men who used sign language to tell them the Dutch settlement was north-west. They convinced one to guide them to Koupang and the locals gave them cobs of corn and turtle meat.
On Day 47 they heard cannon fire and before day’s end they discovered two square-rigged vessels and a cutter at anchor. “Being refreshed we rowed again until half an hour before day,” Bligh wrote, “when I came to a grapnel off a small fort & town called Coupang”. Bligh rigged up a makeshift union jack which he hoisted as a flag of distress. “Soon after daybreak, a soldier hailed me to land, which I instantly did.” The day was June 14, 1789.
The 6700km voyage was over and and all 18 aboard had survived. He was greeted by an English captain Spikerman who lived in Koupang and eventually by the governor William Van Este who offered every assistance to the battered crew. Bligh caught the first ship back to England via Batavia (Jakarta) though it took many months for the others to leave and several died along the long way home.
Bligh was acquitted at the mandatory court martial and was overseas on a second breadfruit expedition while the Pandora and its unspeakably cruel captain Edward Edwards brought back the Tahiti mutineers for trial. Bligh’s absence permitted the calumny of his name at the trial and his reputation never fully recovered, despite sterling service in the Napoleonic Wars. The Navy rewarded him with his ill-fated governorship of New South Wales. He died aged 63 and was buried at St Mary’s Church Lambeth (now the Garden Museum). The gravestone calls him a celebrated navigator “who first transplanted the bread-fruit tree from Otaheite (Tahiti) to the West Indies” and who “bravely fought the battle of his country”.
The gravestone makes no mention of the mutiny perhaps understandably. But its omission means the longboat voyage is also absent. His legacy was as Mundle said, “an explorer in every sense, an exceptional marine surveyor, cartographer and navigator; a strong leader of men in battle, and above everything else, a bona fide master mariner”.
The year 2020 has been like no other in our lifetime, and I was tempted to give my end of year award to the coronavirus COV-SARS-2 and the new way of living and dying it spawned. But this award looks for human agency and no-one has had a more difficult task with the pandemic than the World Health Organisation and its Ethiopian director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Tedros and the WHO have faced unimaginable challenges with an inescapable political element hampered by a secretive China and an incompetent US president. But the organisation and its leader are the reason the 75 million cases and 1.7 million worldwide death toll have not been much higher as vaccines emerge in 2021.
When on December 31, 2019 people were wishing Dr Tedros a happy new year, he must felt uneasy. That day his organisation got the disquieting message of cases of pneumonia “of unknown etiology” (cause) in China. This was potentially the worst-case scenario Tedros was preparing for all his life. Tedros is not a medical doctor but got his doctorate in community health from the University of Nottingham for his 1990 research which found a sevenfold increase in malaria near dams in his home Tigray region.
When Tedros joined the Ethiopian health department in 1986 Tigray (now sadly embroiled in war once more) had just emerged from a devastating famine. His work led to a 20% reduction in AIDS and 70% reduction in malaria cases in that region. Visionary prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed Tedros health minister in 2005 when there were more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia. Tedros managed to reduce malaria by half in two years and he was appointed foreign minister in 2012.
In 2017 he was named the first African director of WHO with a priority of “health for all”. While there was opposition to his candidacy, with issues such as Ethiopian enabling of the nicotine industry, many saw his appointment as a turning point for the WHO. Throughout his career Tedros has stood for equity and access, as Time puts it, “the idea that all people, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, have the right to quality health care”. Growing up he saw how preventable diseases took the lives of children including his younger brother. His experience in the DRC Ebola outbreak taught him unless the most vulnerable are not protected from infectious disease, none are protected.
The idea for a world health body is 200 years old. Increased international trade and travel in the 19th century led to global health catastrophes and cholera epidemics in 1830 and 1847 killed tens of thousands. The first International Sanitary Conference convened in Paris in 1851, the first attempt at international cooperation for disease prevention and control, though the cause of cholera remained unknown and political differences meant little was accomplished. In 1892 an International Sanitary Convention for cholera control was adopted and five years later a Convention addressed control of the plague. In 1919 the League of Nations established a Health Organisation and it was recognised again after World War II. In 1948, the WHO Constitution obtained enough signatures to bring it into force, strongly backed by the Americans who remain the top donor.
The WHO backed programs to eradicate smallpox, polio, AIDS, Ebola and others. But its biggest fear was dealing with an influenza pandemic, recognised since the 1918 flu pandemic killed 500 million people. The world dodged bullets in recent times with SARS, swine flu and then MERS and on the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic in 2018, the WHO warned urbanisation, mass migration, global transport and trade, and overcrowding accelerated virus spreads “which ignore national borders, social class, economic status, and age.”
The WHO activated its Global Influenza Strategy after his China Country Office heard of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. On January 1, WHO created an Incident Management Support Team which requested further information to assess the risk and by January 3, 44 patients were reported, 11 severely ill. China closed the Wuhan wet market for sanitation and disinfection.
On January 5, WHO notified member states about the new outbreak and on January 10 offered a “comprehensive package of guidance” for countries on how to detect and test potential cases warning of the risk of human-to-human transmission. US president Donald Trump later lied the WHO did not do so until April. Trump relied on a January 14 WHO tweet which reported “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” but WHO was already warning health leaders to look for signs of transmission, and to take precautions as if it was happening.
The mystery illness was given a name, novel coronavirus, after China shared its genetic sequence and “coronavirus” quickly became a household name though SARS-1 was also a coronavirus. On January 13 Thailand confirmed the first case outside China with a 61-year-old Wuhan tourist recovering in hospital. By January 20 the WHO confirmed there was human-to-human transmission in Wuhan.
On January 22 Tedros convened an emergency committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. The virus had spread to Japan, South Korea, and the US. In China 17 people had died and authorities shut down transport around Wuhan quarantining 20 million people. The committee could not reach a consensus. Tedros said more information was required. “Make no mistake: This is an emergency in China,” he said. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”
Within days the WHO’s updated situation report said the risk was “very high in China, high at the regional level and high at the global level”. In a footnote, they admitted an error in previous communications which said the global risk was moderate. By January 30 Tedros said the fast-spreading strain was a global health emergency. “This vote is not a declaration of no confidence in China,” he said. “The WHO is concerned about what will happen if the virus spreads in countries with weak health systems and declaration is to help those countries.” The number of deaths rose to 213, all in China. Four days later it was 361 and many countries imposed Chinese travel bans. There was also the first death overseas in the Philippines but after meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping Tedros was not ready for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”.
The WHO held a 300-scientist forum in mid February to set global research priorities into the newly named COVID-19 disease. “Equitable access – making sure we share data and reach those most in need, in particular in lower and middle-income countries, is fundamental to this work which must be guided by ethical considerations,” the chair of the forum said.
The WHO–China Joint Mission issued a report about the evolution of the outbreak. As of 20 February, 75,465 COVID-19 cases were reported in China and transmission was largely occurring in families. Most had mild symptoms and recovered but those over 60 with comorbidities were vulnerable. Bats appeared to be the virus reservoir, but intermediate host(s) had not been identified. It was transmitted “via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee” with no pre-existing immunity in humans. Three-quarters of victims were in Wuhan and although it was a massive Chinese travel hub the cordon sanitaire imposed on January 23 had largely protected the rest of the country. Jinping put control of the outbreak as the government’s top priority and deployed 40,000 health care workers to support the Wuhan response. China applied big data and artificial intelligence to strengthen contact tracing and the management of priority populations.
The mission concluded China had “rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” helped by “a deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat.” Case numbers were declining but every Chinese province and city was “urgently escalating acute care beds and public health capacity”. It urged reassessment of restrictions on Chinese travel. However the disease was highly contagious, and the rest of the world was not as prepared as China.
March 3 was Tedros’s 55th birthday and the world was glued to his daily media conference on the growing threat. There were 3000 fatalities mostly in China but 61 other countries reported 8739 cases with 127 deaths. Tedros noted nine times more infections outside China than inside. “The epidemic in Korea, Italy and Iran and Japan are our greatest concern”, he said. Korea had half the total but good contact tracing was keeping it under control. “Understanding your epidemic is the first step to defeating it,” he said. The cost of surgical masks rose 600pc, and the price of gowns doubled amid widespread manipulation and new stocks going to the highest bidder.
On March 7 worldwide cases topped 100,000, a “sombre moment” said Tedros. Four days later stock markets plunged as he officially declared it a pandemic – the first caused by a coronavirus – with 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4291 deaths. The world was shocked as Italy went into national lockdown. The number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in two weeks but with 90pc in just four countries (China, Korea, Iran and Italy) Tedros stressed it could be defeated. “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise their people, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission,” he said.
There were new guidelines for personal behaviour such as social distancing, regular handwashing and coughing into your elbow. Tedros warned this was not enough to extinguish the pandemic and governments needed to step up to “isolate, test, treat and trace”. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded” he said. He recommended testing every case. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected”.
By March 18 WHO announced its first vaccine trial as cases exceeded 200,000 and 8000 deaths. Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand confirmed their participation in the Solidarity Trial. “This large study is designed to generate the robust data we need to show which treatments are the most effective”, Tedros said. China had almost defeated the virus with no cases for the first time since December but the virus was increasing elsewhere at an alarming rate. It took three months to reach the first 100,000 cases but only 12 days to double that.
In April many countries followed Italy into lockdown and the WHO reported deaths had doubled in the previous week and would soon reach 50,000 globally, with the caseload heading towards one million. Tedros addressed the debate over masks. “WHO recommends the use of medical masks for sick people and those caring for them”, he said. “However, in these circumstances, masks are only effective when combined with other protective measures”.
US hospitals were not ready. PPE was in short supply, there was limited testing and Trump was downplaying the crisis. On April 8 Trump blamed the WHO for America’s poor response to the “Chinese virus” and warned he would stop funding it. Trump said the WHO had not supported his January 31 decision to limit travel from China. The WHO said restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies was “ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” The New York Times wrote Trump blamed the WHO for his own failures. “Public health experts said the president’s public denials of the virus’s dangers slowed the American response, which included delayed testing and a failure to stockpile protective gear,” it wrote.
While Australia questioned Trump’s claim the virus came from a Wuhan lab, it sponsored a motion with the EU at the World Health Assembly to establish an independent review of the virus, coordinated by the WHO. China opposed Australia’s calls, but ended up co-sponsoring the motion saying it was vastly different to Australia’s position. Australia strengthened the EU’s original motion to explicitly state the review should be “impartial, independent and comprehensive”, a move that led to massive revenge Chinese trade sanctions on Australia later in the year.
Tedros insisted the focus should be on fighting the virus. He said the US and USSR co-operated in the Cold War to eradicate smallpox. “Now the US and China should come together and fight this dangerous enemy,” he said. Tedros outlined five reasons why the WHO was needed: helping countries to prepare and respond, providing accurate information and busting dangerous myths, ensuring vital supplies reach health workers, training and mobilising health workers, and leading the vaccine search.
By mid April the WHO said COVID-19 was 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic and in some countries the number of cases was doubling every 3-4 days. It stressed early case-finding, testing, isolation and care, and contact tracing to stop transmission. Before lifting lockdowns countries needed to control transmission, ensure the health system tracked every case has been controlled, put in preventative measures and educate communities about the “new norm”. Many countries ignored this advice leading to second and third waves. At the end of the month Tedros convened an emergency committee meeting which agreed the pandemic still constituted a PHEIC. In April, 80,000 cases were reported each day. Cases topped three million globally, with 224,000 deaths.
On May 11 Tedros warned cases were surging again in Korea, China and Germany following the lifting of stay-at-home restrictions. While lockdowns slowed transmission and saved lives, Tedros acknowledged a serious socio-economic impact. “To protect lives and livelihoods, a slow, steady, lifting of lockdowns is key to stimulating economies, while also keeping a vigilant eye on the virus so control measures can be quickly implemented if an upswing in cases is identified”, he said.
The virus was hitting hard in Central and South America due to dense population and urban poverty. Five of the 10 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases at the start of June were Brazil, US, Peru, Chile and Mexico. Cases topped 200,000 in Africa by the middle of June. The WHO advised people to wear masks in public but said masks alone would not beat the virus. On June 18, 150,000 new cases were reported, the highest single daily total yet. Most were in the Americas, though large numbers came from South Asia and the Middle East. Tedros said the world was in a new and dangerous phase. “Many people are understandably fed up with being at home. Countries are eager to open up their societies and economies”, he said. “But the virus is still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible.”
That number was beaten four days later with 183,000 new infections in 24 hours, bringing the total to 8.8 million cases worldwide, and 465,000 deaths. Tedros urged fundamental public health measures to limit spread: finding and testing suspected cases, isolating and caring for the sick, tracing and quarantining contacts, and protecting health workers.
Into July the numbers climbed steeply. Cases doubled in six weeks reaching 12 million by July 10. It soared to 16 million cases and 640,000 deaths by month end, six months since the PHEIC was declared. In August Tedros brought the sobering news there was “no silver bullet and might never be”. The WHO noted the virus was disrupting services on other diseases, compounding reduced immunisation coverage, cancer screening and care, and mental health services while COVID-19 was also causing immense social, economic and political damage.
By end August the pandemic was eight months old. India reported 78,000 new COVID-19 cases, surpassing the US record two days straight. Tedros warned countries reopening economies to do so safely. “Opening up without control, is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “While this may seem an impossible balance, it can be done if countries are in control of transmission.” Many countries did not heed the advice leading to second and third waves.
By September 7 Tedros was looking to the future – and the next pandemic. He reminded the world health was not a luxury item for those who can afford it. “It’s a necessity, and a human right. Public health is the foundation of social, economic and political stability,” he said, calling on countries to invest in services to prevent, detect and respond to diseases. “Part of every country’s commitment to build back better must be to invest in public health, as an investment in a healthier and safer future. We are not just fighting a virus. We’re fighting for a healthier, safer, cleaner and more sustainable future.”
On September 28 global COVID-19 deaths passed one million. A few days later headlines were dominated Donald and Melania Trump contracting the disease, among the two million cases that week. When asked if Trump’s disregard for mask-wearing made it inevitable that he would contract COVID-19, WHO’s Irish Emergencies Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan wouldn’t comment on the risk management measures of any individual.“What we will reiterate, is that each and every individual and each and every citizen should be guided by the national guidance in their country.”
As the WHO estimated 10pc of the world’s population was infected, Tedros rejected herd immunity as “scientifically and ethically problematic”. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak,” he said. To obtain herd immunity from measles 95pc of the population must be vaccinated. However 90pc of the world remained susceptible to COVID and cases were rising again in the US and Europe. “Letting the virus circulate unchecked, means allowing unnecessary infections,” he said.
By October 15 Europe recorded seven million cases of COVID-19, jumping from six million in 10 days. Though the peak was twice as high as April , there were five times fewer deaths. That meant more younger people were contracting the virus. The emergency committee held its fifth meeting at end October where the global risk level remained “very high” and the PHEIC was retained until 2021. Global cases reached 44 million, with over 1.1 million dead.
While coordinating the virus response, the WHO has also been at the forefront of vaccine research. They were part of a multinational collaboration, with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, GAVI (Vaccine Alliance), the Gates Foundation, and governments which formed the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, to fund accelerated research and development, production, and globally-equitable access to COVID-19 tests, therapies, and licensing of vaccines in a “COVAX Pillar” program. The Pillar’s goals were to help license vaccines, influence equitable pricing, and provide equal access for two billion doses by end 2021 to protect healthcare workers and high risk people in low-to-middle income countries.
While the figures remain grim at the end of the year, attention is turning to the vaccines rollout in 2021. Tedros hailed the scientific community for setting “a new standard for vaccine development” and now the international community must set “a new standard for access”. “The urgency which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly”, he said warning of a risk the poorest will be “trampled in the stampede” to get innoculated. Five vaccines are approved at the time of writing (BBIBP-CorV and CoronaVac in China, Gam-COVID-Vac in Russia, Moderna in the US and Pfizer’s Tozinameran the most widespread in several countries including the US, Canada and the UK).
COVID-19 is not the only WHO’s health crisis and Joe Biden’s presidential win means the US will continue to fund their vital work. But no WHO leader has ever had to deal with anything on the scale of COVID-19. Tedros was not faultless but he has steered a difficult diplomatic and medial course with honour and courage keeping the world informed honestly all the way. Tedros says his focus remains on the COVID-19 “end game” — ensuring all countries enjoy the same access to vaccines. He is a deserving recipient of my media person of the year 2020.
John Purroy Mitchel was New York’s youngest ever mayor. Mitchel was mayor from 1914 to 1917 and was just 34 when he got the job and with it the title of “The Boy Mayor of New York”. The boy mayor died bizarrely just a year after losing office when as an World War I Army Air service cadet, he forgot to fasten his airplane seatbelt and plummeted 150 meters to the ground. Mitchel Field air base in Long Island was named in his honour adding to his family’s illustrious legend.
John Purroy Mitchel’s grandfather was John Mitchel, a complex and hugely influential Irish patriot known also for his time in Australia and the US. Mitchel was an Ulster Presbyterian, a lawyer, and a fiery and passionate journalist, who wrote about the artificial famine that was devastating Ireland in the late 1840s. Mitchel laid the blame squarely on British economic policies.
In the nationalist newspaper The Nation, Mitchel wrote that the famine was not a natural disaster but a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Irish peasantry. In his view, British politicians were using famine to clear Ireland’s ‘surplus population’ from the land in order to use it to feed Britain’s growing industrial population. Britain he said, was obsessed by the pursuit of profit and the callous doctrines of political economy, and blind to the sufferings of the Irish people.
His radical writing caused immense debate even among Mitchel’s own fellow Young Irelanders. The Nation’s editor Charles Gavan Duffy censured his writing and Mitchel left to found his own paper “The United Irishman”. Free to write whatever he wanted, Mitchel did not mince his words. He announced the purpose of the paper was to wage “Holy War to sweep this Island clear of the English name and nation.” The violent revolutionary tone caused a sensation. British authorities immediately saw it as seditious and Mitchel was a marked man.
Mitchel got away with producing 16 incendiary issues in a similar vein. But on 22 April 1848, Westminster passed a bill specifically with Mitchel in mind, the Treason Felony Act 1848, which remains law in England and Wales today. Barely a month later he was arrested under the newly minted Treason Felony Act (an act which remains in force today) and sent to Dublin’s Newgate prison. R v Mitchel was the first case tried under the law. The packed jury found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to 14 years transportation. Mitchel’s dignified bearing and the severity of the sentence won him considerable sympathy from nationalists, and contributed to the Young Irelanders’ decision to mount an unsuccessful “cabbage patch” rebellion in July 1848.
Mitchel had left the cabbage patch by then. He was transported from Cobh and spent the first year of his exile on the prison hulk Dromedary off the coast of Bermuda. Mitchel noted with sardonic delight the name of the British Bermudan base: Ireland Island. But Bermuda’s humidity was unlike Ireland’s and played havoc with Mitchel’s asthma. He was sent on to Cape Town aboard the Neptune in 1849. There he enjoyed the discomfit of his British captors who were not allowed to land their convict stock on South African soil. After several months, the Neptune set sail for Tasmania.
Mitchel documented his time in Bermuda, South Africa and Australia in his most famous work, the “Jail Journal”. On 6 April 1850, the long journey across the roaring forties neared its end as a delighted Mitchel could see the “mountainous southern coast of Van Diemen’s Land”. They docked at Hobart a day later. Mitchel was a VIP prisoner and allowed a “ticket of leave” to live at Bothwell with his old school friend who had also been transported a year earlier. Through Martin, he met other transported dissident Young Irelanders including Thomas Francis Meagher and William Smith O’Brien who all congregated around Lake Sorell, a theme explored in Christopher Koch’s roman a clef Out of Ireland centred on the remarkable escape of Irish ‘gentleman-convict’ Robert Devereux who went from Bermuda to the US via Tasmania.
The real Mitchel was joined by his wife and family at Nant Cottage in Bothwell in the centre of the island. There they ran sheep and reminisced the old times in Ireland but Mitchel had too revolutionary a mind to settle for being a Tasmanian gentleman. In 1853 he donned a series of disguises and smuggled himself as a Catholic priest on board the Emma, a brig bound for Sydney. After an agonising week in hiding in Sydney, he boarded the Orkney Lass bound for Honolulu. After three weeks they landed at Tahiti. There he transferred to the US ship Julia Ann where he was reunited with his wife and family. Finally on board an American vessel, Mitchel was able to drop his disguise. At 7pm on the 13th September 1853, he wrote “my Jail Journal ends, and my out-of-jail Journal begins”.
He arrived in New York to a hero’s welcome and lost little time in getting back to journalism. In the weekly Citizen, he serialised his Jail Journal. He dabbled in intrigue with the Russian ambassador during the Crimean War asking him to aid the Irish independence cause. But his blind spot would prove to be his racism. Mitchel believed blacks were racially inferior and were better off as plantation slaves than living in barbarism in Africa.
As the 1850s progressed, he grew to detest the abolitionist cause. He moved to Tennessee and bought a farm while supplementing his income with lecture tours. In 1859 he set sail for France and was there when war broke out in the States. His two sons joined the Confederate Army and Mitchel returned to be with them. Mitchel himself served with an ambulance corps and became editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer. But as the war went badly, he became increasingly disillusioned with confederate president, Jefferson Davis.
After the war, Mitchel went back to New York and then France where he tried to rouse another army to invade Ireland. When that failed, Mitchel turned back to journalism in New York as well as writing Irish history. In 1875 he finally returned to Ireland as an old and ill man to contest a by-election in Tipperary. Although easily elected, Parliament declared him ineligible as an undischarged felon. Mitchel stood again and won convincingly. But Mitchel spared Britain a constitutional crisis. He died, aged 59, on 20 March 1875 and was buried in his parents’ grave in the Unitarian cemetery in Newry, Co Down. His New York fire marshal son James fathered John Purroy Mitchel which takes us back to where we started. The Mitchel flame lived on in the boy mayor. Shame about the seatbelt.
I’m just back from my third visit to Norfolk Island and the remote Pacific outpost continues to enchant. I wrote in detail about my first trip there in October 2019 and then about a boat trip to Phillip Island when I came back for Christmas a couple of months later. Since then we have all lived through an eventful era and there were many times in 2020 that I thought my November trip would not happen. As it turned out due to changed COVID conditions, Air New Zealand had to extend my visit from seven to 13 days and it gave me all the more time to appreciate Norfolk’s many charms including the view from Queen Elizabeth Lookout over the only golf course in a world heritage area, and the outlying islands of Nepean and Phillip (furtherest away).
The golf course is part of the Kingston and Arthur Vale World Heritage Area and the view slightly west from the same location show the beautiful buildings of convict-era Kingston at Slaughter Bay. This was where the British first landed on March 6, 1788, barely six weeks after landing in Sydney, making Norfolk Island Australia’s second oldest colonial settlement by a considerable margin.
It was also just 14 years after Captain James Cook first sighted the island on his second voyage of discovery in 1774. Cook landed at Dunstable Bay on the north side of the island and a party made their way to the highest point at Mount Pitt. Cook thought the wonderful Norfolk pines would make ideal masts for ships while the New Zealand flax plant growing freely would also make good sailcloth, both of which Britain had to import from Russia. This knowledge made the admiralty order First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip send a contingent to Norfolk in 1788.
But when Phillip’s protege, Philip Gidley King, landed on the island with his new mini-colony, he found signs they were not the first humans here. In 1793 he wrote to naturalist and Cook’s former sailing companion Sir Joseph Banks that he found a banana tree and canoe “when I first landed a feasible proof of the Island being formerly inhabited”. There were also stone tools and the Polynesian rat which survived in Norfolk’s rich undergrowth. The Polynesians had brought flax to the island arriving by ocean-going canoes. Today an archaeological site behind Emily Bay shows the Polynesian settlement site buried in the sand-dunes. This was once a small village which existed from a thousand to 650 years ago. They arrived by ocean-going canoes and Emily Bay was an attractive site with canoe access, a protective reef, flat land close to the shore and plenty of fresh water and fish. The reason for their disappearance is not known.
Emily Bay remains an attractive spot for modern visitors for much the same reasons as the Polynesians. A magnificent lone pine guards the eastern approach to the bay, as it has done since King’s time and the reef is home to abundant coral and many colourful fish.
The British were unsuccessful in using either the pines or the flax for naval hardware but the island settled into a penal colony providing a foodbasket for starving Sydney with the fruit of its rich soil. By the early 19th century, the colonists concentrated on Sydney and Tasmania and the need for Norfolk Island, far away from any shipping lanes, dissipated. The settlement closed down in 1814 and the buildings were destroyed. Norfolk’s surviving convict heritage is from the second British settlement which restarted in 1824 as a deliberately harsh punishment site for the “doubly damned”, the worst among the convicted.
Norfolk’s reputation of terror comes from this period with a succession of cruel tyrants in charge of the island including James Morriset, Foster “Flogger” Fyans and Joseph Childs. Their abysmal treatment of prisoners and liberal use of the lash led to a number of failed rebellions including the “Cooking Pot” uprising of 1846 when convict William “Jackey Jackey” Westwood led a spontaneous riot against Childs’ inhumane regime. Fellow inmate Martin Cash wrote Westwood had been “flogged, goaded and tantalised until he was reduced to a lunatic and a savage”. The riot was sparked by the sudden removal of convict billies and kettles which the prisoners had made. Angry prisoners armed with staves and bludgeons stormed the barracks stores to retrieve the kettles. It took 20 minutes for soldiers with fixed bayonets and muskets to restore order though four men, including Irish free overseer Stephen Smith died. “Jacky killed Smith with a single blow of the cudgel on which the gang again returned to the lumber yard”, wrote Cash. Westwood spattered the brains of a watchman and killed a constable with an axe. Though he killed three of the four, Westwood was just one of 12 prisoners hanged on October 13 for the mutiny. Childs ordered them buried in a mass grave outside the cemetery known as Murderers Mound.
While the British influence on Norfolk Island is unmistakable, there is a surprising American angle among the colonial facades. From the early 1800s onwards, Norfolk was regularly visited by whaling ships and later residents took to whaling themselves as a means of occupation. The United States dominated the industry and American visitors were commonplace, adding to the island’s prosperity through trade. They also left behind the tradition of Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the third Wednesday in November each year. The scene below is on Thanksgiving Eve when locals and visitors gather in the grounds of the old Kingston Jail for the Taste of Norfolk Festival.
By the 1850s Britain was tiring of its Australian transportation experiment, particularly after the Victorian gold rush made the antipodes less a deterrent. In 1847, Secretary of State to the Colonies Sir William Denison informed the Governor of New South Wales the penal settlement on Norfolk Island would close. By October 1854 only 119 convicts remained on the island and the last convicts left a year later. In 1856 a new set of colonisers came. They were the descendants of Bounty Mutiny which took place in 1789, a year after as the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia. Today you can find many mentions of the Bounty in Norfolk Island as well as its chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, though the Bounty’s commander William Bligh is less prominent. Surprisingly neither Christian nor Bligh, nor the Bounty ever visited the island. While Bligh made a remarkable escape via longboat 3000km to Timor, Christian led his mutineers and their Tahitian wives to the even more remote island of Pitcairn. In 1856 almost 200 Pitcairners left their island to begin a new life at Kingston pier.
The new arrivals took the big houses on Military Row (later renamed Quality Row) and spread out across the island grazing and growing crops as below at Arthur’s Vale. But many preferred the life of whaling and the island drifted in penury until the 20th century when Australia made more concerted efforts to increase its governance.
In the late 19th century the British allowed more settlers onto the island at the Melanesian Mission at St Barnabas Church. From 1865 the mission farm became profitable and the island became a benevolent church dictatorship surviving on free labour, “field hands for the Lord”. The Mota language, adopted from the New Hebrides mission, was a lingua franca for education and worship. English church rituals were transplanted but the increased reliance on English staff stymied an independent indigenous church.
The Mission has long ceased but Pitcairners demands continue to this day. After losing self government status in 2015, Norfolk Island has been reduced to a regional council. A recent audit report showed the parlous state of the council’s finances. Council’s operating result before capital items deteriorated in 2019/20 to a deficit of $1.8 million while revenue dropped by $1.7 million for 2019/20, primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism. Council’s percentage of outstanding rates and charges of 18% for 2019/20 did not meet the industry benchmark of less than 10% and is forecast to significantly worsen in 2020/21.
Norfolk Island is almost entirely dependent on its tourist income which suffered dramatically during the first few months of the pandemic. The island had only one confirmed Covid case and gradually reopened borders first with Queensland and then NSW. Visitors enjoy the wonderful scenery and the unique wildlife such as the beautiful Norfolk Island green parrot. The green parrot was a common forest bird before 1788 but after extensive clearing of trees and introduction of feral predators, fewer than 50 individuals remained by the 1970s. Though land clearing ceased, competition for nesting sites with introduced species such as rosellas and common starlings is fierce, and predation from rats and cats remains a threat. The population is responding well to recovery activities and we saw several birds in the National Park. Parks Australia is trying to establish them outside the national park through predator-proof nest sites, restoring habitat and controlling rats, cats and rosellas. There is also a trial translocation of parrots to Phillip Island to further secure the species’ range.
Norfolk Island is also home to migratory seabirds such as the bar-tailed godwit. These are remarkable long distance fliers with the aerodynamic build of a “jet fighter”. Recently a godwit was tracked flying more than 12,000km from Alaska to New Zealand, setting a new world record for avian non-stop flight. Norfolk Island is an important stop on their flyway between Siberia and New Zealand.
Even if you haven’t the energy of a godwit, you can still enjoy the beauty and serenity of Norfolk Island. This small slice of paradise has entranced humans for 800 years or more and is likely to cast its spell for many a generation yet.
I first met Rebecca Lister probably in early 2017 when she was working for Headspace in Mount Isa. I knew little about her except what she told me when I was doing a story about her work. She was born locally and she had recently worked in the arts industry in Melbourne. I didn’t know anything about her family but I instinctively warmed to her. Beck, as she introduced herself, was a bit unusual for Mount Isa and a bubbly person, a breath of fresh air doing important work with the mental health of young people in town. I thought she deserved the honour of Spirit of Mount Isa at the local Australia Day awards in 2018.
Then at some point she left town again and I forgot about her until I got an invite to a book launch in Mount Isa in March this year. The book was called “Growing Pineapples in the Outback” and it was written by Beck and her husband Tony Kelly, taking chapters each in turn. From reading the press release I found out she and Tony were now back in Melbourne, but the reason they came to Mount Isa was to look after Beck’s mother Diana Lister in the last days of her life, an experience that lasted three years. I went to the launch, met Beck and was introduced to Tony and listened with rapt attention as they read passages from the book. I thought to myself I must read the book.
But this was mid March and when we weren’t talking about the book, we were making nervous jokes about coronavirus which was spreading though Europe and already heading our way. Within a week or two Australia was shut down and I forgot all about Beck and her book again as we came to terms with the pandemic.
Then a few weeks ago I was reading an article about pineapples and wanted to know about them and why they became so emblematic of Queensland. But when I searched the Mount Isa Library archive for books about pineapples nothing came up except for Beck and Tony’s book. I took it as a sign that I needed to read it.
I found out the events of the book happened before I knew Beck. A photo of her mum said that Diana Lister died in late 2016 aged 92. The storyline of the book is the last couple of years of her life. Diana lived for 69 years in a house on Madang St in Soldiers Hill, alone for the last 20 since her husband died. When visiting her a year earlier Beck noticed her mum was struggling and decided she and Tony needed to move back to Mount Isa to care for her.
Tony, a lawyer, agreed and got a job in Mount Isa in native title. With their own children in Melbourne old enough to look after themselves, they moved into the Madang St house. Beck continued with her Melbourne playwright activity but would become the primary caregiver. The house was small so the couple set up their own space in the carport.
Beck was born in Mount Isa so there was lot familiar to her, but it was a much stranger experience for Tony. On one of his first trips out bush for his native title work, he suffered two punctures in rough scrubby country and got a message to police to send help. They took Tony to Dajarra to get a replacement tyre and then return to the car to put it on and it’s well after midnight when he gets back to Mount Isa, an early lesson not to underestimate the area’s remoteness.
Beck had a difficult childhood, with an alcoholic father and an elder brother who disappeared and later committed suicide. Diana preferred not to talk about those times and resisted her daughters efforts when she brought up the conversation.
Meanwhile Tony documents his efforts to get into life in Mount Isa, dodging ducklice and crocodiles as he swims in the lake, or organising poorly attended tennis games. He has difficulty with some locals as he speaks about his work encountering scepticism about native title and the belief Aboriginal people get special treatment. But at home the trio get on well, especially with word games like Upwords and crosswords or watching Letters and Numbers on TV.
Beck worries about her mother’s health and whether she is badgering her into prolonging her life. She wonders whether it is really about her and whether she is too scared to let go of her mother. But with Diana being a hoarder, Beck enjoys going through all her stuff and remembering her own childhood in the process.
About half way through the book I realise who Tony reminds me of. He is the brother of singer Paul Kelly who they go to watch in concert at Longreach. Tony relates an awkward conversation backstage with two locals in moleskins, Wrangler shirts and RM Williams boots who ask if he is Paul’s brother. “Have you come up from Melbourne too?” one asks him. “No I live in Mount Isa,” he replied which made him sound almost a local. They were less happy with his answer when they asked him his job and he told them he worked in native title. “Silence, the men shuffled uncomfortably”, Tony wrote but he proceeded to tell them the details. “The claim is only over crown land but that does include pastoral leases”. His nephew Dan Kelly rescued him with “another beer, Tone” and advised him to stick to talking about the State of Origin or the weather. “The scions of the early settlers – the great-grandchildren of the murderers, dispersers and dispossessors clearly didn’t want to bat the breeze about native title,” Tony wrote.
Tony’s sense of alienation grew at Isa rodeo time when Beck was away for several weeks on theatre business. He was there alone, “fascinated and appalled” by the rope and tie event and was disappointed by the Mardi Gras “just a few trucks with kids on the back”. Miles St was full of ugly iron-clad shops while the pub was “full of pokies, oversized steaks and mass-produced beers” for “sun-damaged tight-lipped people”. Tony admitted his despair was deeper than his problems with the Outback, it came from getting old and worrying about finances in coming retirement and, more prosaically, missing Beck.
When she came home the mood changed. Her natural optimism spread to Tony and Diana. As they entered into the second year of caring for her mother, Beck felt “she may have found herself.” The second year was harder on other levels as Diana’s condition deteriorated. Beck subconsciously puts down roots working hard on the garden, including planting the pineapples of the book’s title. Long time infatuated by pineapple gifts and even getting a pineapple tattoo, she grows three in pots and a few in the cyad garden but then she plants more at the back of the yard and there is so many she’s lost count. On a visit her daughter asks her how long they take to fruit. Five years, Beck replies, and is asked “are you going to stay there until they do?” Maybe, she shrugs in reply.
Tony is aware of this. “With each new hole I dig, it will become harder to leave”. He is happy because Beck is happy but he is worried about his job and whether he should look for another down south. It all depends on the great unsaid, when would Diana die, and that could not be predicted. In that second year, Beck has her first contract with youth mental health group Headspace and even gets to go on their float in the 2016 Rodeo Mardi Gras, something she never got to do growing up in Mount Isa. Diana tells Beck her grandmother rode in the rodeo, something she never knew. “Life with mum sometimes feels like a slow reveal soap opera,” Beck wrote.
As the heat of the summer of 2016 approaches, Diana’s health is fading. Some nights she isn’t good and they wonder if this is the end. The topic of her approaching death is the elephant in the room whenever there is talk of the future. Tony looks for jobs down south but can’t tell prospective employers when he might be available. One morning when Diana is late getting up Tony catches himself feeling disappointed as well as relieved when she does emerge.
Yet they are spreading roots like the plants in their garden. They join the community choir, form a small circle of friends, and Tony is the secretary of the tennis club. Life is simple and there is time to write, tend the garden, and most importantly spend time with Diana. The end closes in and Beck’s brother Paul comes from Florida to see his mum for the last time. At the last minute Diana decides she cannot attend Christmas Carols in which Beck and Tony are performing with the choir.
At a medical appointment doctors are alarmed at Diana’s heart rate and keep her in hospital. There is a tearful farewell to Paul who must return to America and a day later she suffers a massive stroke and goes into a coma. For the next four days the family gather around her and she waited until another son David arrived from Mackay before she died.
In the new year Tony accepts a job down south while Beck stays on to prepare the house for sale. Tony admits he was grateful for the opportunity to live with Diana and “help see out her life with grace and laughter”. Beck did not leave until the end of the year where she worked as a clinical lead for James Cook University, wrote a play and developed the first Mount Isa Youth Short Film Festival. Just before Christmas she harvested the first pineapple but acknowledged she now had more family in Mount Isa cemetery than alive in town. She said she would miss being close to her mum but remembered how content she was in her final years.
Though she didn’t say it, that was in no small measure down to the love from Beck and Tony and the sacrifices they made to look after an elderly parent in her dying days. No one could wish for more from their offspring. As reviewer Sophie Cunningham writes, Growing Pineapples in the Outback is infused with the daily acts of love that make life worth living.
Over in Townsville on a few days’ holiday I was determined to get over to Magnetic Island where I’d last visited in 2011. The island was tantalisingly close from apartment balcony just off the Strand but the bay was breezy on the day we arrived.
The wind had died down the following morning when we went down to the nearby Sealink terminal to catch the passenger ferry backgrounded by Mt Stuart glistening in the morning sunshine. More people got off the morning ferry from the island than were going out. Around 2500 people live there and it is an easy commute to the mainland for work and school.
It seemed to be only tourists like ourselves heading the other way. We set off out of the harbour for the speedy 20 minute trip to do the 8km across Cleveland Bay to the island.
It doesn’t take long before we arrive in Nelly Bay. About half of the island’s permanent population live here and it is home to the ferry terminal. The bay was reportedly named after Nelly Butler, daughter of Henry Butler who arrived on the island in 1877. Butler burned the coral lime and established the first boat service with the sailing boat “Hepzibah” (named for the Biblical wife of Hezekiah, King of Judah).
There is an hourly bus service but we set off on foot towards Geoffrey Bay on the Gabul Way which links Nelly Bay with Arcadia. The traditional people of Magnetic Island are the Wulgurukuba “canoe people”. About 200 of them lived here in 1770 when Cook named the island because he mistakenly thought the island was interfering with the ship’s compass. In the Wulgurukuba dreaming story of how the region was created, Gabul was a giant carpet python who carved up the landscape from the Herbert River to Townsville area. Geoffrey Bay is where scientists discovered in 1981 that many coral species reproduce on the same few nights each year.
The Gabul Walk ends at Arcadia and we had to take our chances on a narrow, busy and winding road up the hill towards the Forts Walk. Our relaxing day was starting to turn stressful especially at the corners where we had to be careful to avoid fast moving traffic. Later I did find a walkway back but it wasn’t well signposted and even then did not completely cover the distance. Townsville Council really need to address this for people who prefer to walk or cycle as the current system is poor and assumes everyone drives or catches the bus.
But we relax again once we get to the Forts Walk and enjoy the calming view to Arthur Bay.
The Forts Walk is named for the Second World War forts complex that was built on the island. The command post was situated high on the island so it had the first view of an enemy activity directed towards the mainland.
But there was plenty to see on the way up to the fort. These green fruits with yellow flower are from the Caribbean-native kapok tree (cochlospermum gillivraei). The tree is from 3 to 12 metres high and deciduous in the dry season. The bright yellow flowers appear before the new leaves. The fruit is medicinal as an oral rinse.
Another newcomer on the island are the koalas. They were introduced to the island in the 1930s to protect them from threats on the mainland. They have thrived and there are almost 1000 of them. By day koalas rest motionless in the eucalypt branches, feeding on leaves from late afternoon onwards. The nutrient-poor diet of koalas means they must rest for up to 20 hours a day.
It was hard work building this 2km track in 1942. Army engineers blasted a route to the top using explosives before a local Main Roads crew constructed it using jackhammers and a dozer. Along the track are “whoa boys” – bumps in the road – which divert the water off the track while the rock capping resists erosion in the seasonal downpours.
The military camp existed from 1943 to the end of the war. There was separate quarters for men and women and officers and other ranks. After the road was built in 1942, battery personnel were redeployed from Fort Lytton in Brisbane and put up in tents until the buildings were ready. There was also a water pump and sewerage system with power supplied by five petrol generators. Commanding Officer Major Arnold Nicolle said they saw little action “apart from the occasional donnybrook with the 50 Americans stationed on the island”. Above is the remains of the mess which had a fireplace and support for a 44-gallon drum. Wine bottles marked “1943” and beer bottles were discovered in a nearby rocky hiding spot.
Critical to the operation of the fort were the two US Army 155mm guns, each weighing 10 tonnes, sited at separate emplacements. The gun pallets were hauled up the beach over logs and towed into position by tractors.
The artillery command post controlled operations including searchlights and radar. It housed a depression range finder and a long telescope used to measure the range of a target. Plotters from the Australian Women’s Army Service used the readings to calculate details and communicate orders to battery command on Castle Hill on the mainland. During the war the building was concealed by netting and concrete rocks.
From the top we get a glimpse of Horseshoe Bay and see the reason why it got its name. Horseshoe Bay is a popular tourist spot on the island with plenty of watersports and cafes and bars by the beach.
Near the command post is a second tower, this one a three-storey signal station. Run by the Australian Navy it used light and flag communications. The big signal light was visible from Palm Island, 60km north. Standing 230m above sea level it had a 300 degree ocean view and could monitor all shipping in Cleveland Bay. Challenged ships had to respond with the code of the day. Nowadays the roof houses UHF and VHF radio repeaters.
Florence Bay is another secluded bay on the east coast of the island accessible by one of many walks in the area.
The view back to the command post from the signal station with Cape Cleveland in the background.
Mount Cook rises 493 metres out of the Coral Sea and is the highest point on the Magnetic Island. On June 6, 1770, Cook wrote in his journal: This bay which I named Cleveland Bay appear’d to be about 5 or 6 Miles in extent every way. the East point I named Cape Cleveland and the West Barren Head. Magnetical head or Isle as it had had much the appearence of an Island and the Compass did not travis well when near it. They are both tolerable high and so is the Mainland within them and the whole appear’d to have the most rugged, rocky and barren Surface of any we have yet seen however it is not without inhabitants as we saw smooks in several place in the bottom of the Bay.”
It was time for me to head to the bottom of the bay and a swim at Alma Bay near Arcadia. There is healthy fringing reef that follows along the rocks on either side of the bay with a large fish population that can seen while snorkeling.
To finish the day trip, I decided on a walk across the top of the island to get back to the ferry at Nelly Bay. At 6.5km and a rough surface on a hot afternoon, it was a bit of a route march especially as I only had an hour and a half to make the ferry.
The walk was mostly in the trees but there was the occasionally view of the shoreline through the foliage to excite. We ended up being sorry we only went for a day trip. Next time we’ll spend more time on the island.
Less than a month out from the US presidential election and the polls are predicting a comfortable win for Joe Biden with a ten point lead and just 25 days to go. There is no precedent for a candidate recovering that much to win in such short time but as 2016 showed us ruling out Donald Trump is fraught with hazard. Maybe COVID can do what Hillary Clinton and bring Trump down with would-be elderly supporters in the key state of Florida deserting him as they watch their friends die and worry about their own survival in the face of federal incompetence. Bob Woodward’s recent book Rage charts how in private Trump knew exactly how bad the pandemic was while ignoring or downplaying it in public.
But I’ve just finished reading Woodward’s earlier book (2018) Fear: Trump in the White House which charts how Trump got elected in 2016 despite seeming in a hopeless position a few months out from the election. Unlike Rage, Trump did not consent to be interviewed for Fear, but Woodward cobbled together a compelling story based on hundreds of hours of interviews with many other key participants, mostly on “deep background” which meant the material could be used but not directly attributed to the source.
In August 2016, three months out from the election, Trump was the Republican nominee but his campaign was in deep trouble 10-20 points behind Clinton with unnamed sources close to him saying he was bewildered, exhausted, sullen, gaffe-prone and in trouble with donors. Trump had called Mexicans “rapists” and the RNC was looking at shutting off funding for Trump to save Senate candidates. Desperate to change tack, Trump turned to Steve Bannon.
Bannon was the chief of right-wing Breitbart News with a strong America First focus and a supporter of Trump from the wings. But now he was front and centre, brought in to replace the hapless campaign manager Paul Manafort. Bannon’s strategy was simple: Forget Trump – put the focus on Hillary Clinton. Bannon’s three main themes would be to stop mass immigration, to bring back manufacturing jobs, and to get America out of endless foreign wars. Bannon said Clinton couldn’t defend against these themes. “Just stick to that,” he advised Trump on their first meeting.
Bannon knew Trump had another advantage – he didn’t sound like a politician. Trump had built a movement – he sounded authentic and angry in comparison to Clinton and the campaign would put up Kellyanne Conway as the feisty front for the daily news. Conway told Trump people wanted specifics and they also wanted assurance the businessman could deliver on his promises. Unlike the RNC but like Bannon, Conway believed Trump could win the election.
Bannon’s first day on the job involved dealing with another scandal, as the New York Times showed $12.7m in payments to Manafort from a pro-Russian Ukrainian party. That was the official end for Manafort and Bannon got to work on RNC chair Reince Preibus who had control of the money. Preibus had learned from Obama to rebuild the RNC into a data-driven organisation staffed with armies of volunteers. They identified hidden Trump voters across the battleground states that would be critical to win the electoral college.
Bannon’s three phase approach was to halve the gap to five points before the first debate, then avoid too much damage in the actual debates against a seasoned debater, and finally use Trump’s own money in the final weeks to sway the swing states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. On August 19, 2016 as Manafort left the building, it all seemed like a giant fantasy.
Yet Trump did gradually claw back the lead and Clinton did not land a hammer blow in the first debate. Endless rallies had turned Trump into a rock star. Then on October 7, ahead of the final debate the Washington Post published a hammer blow. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005” The story had audio outtakes from NBC’s Access Hollywood with Trump making crude remarks like “Grab them by the pussy”. Trump issued a brief statement calling it “locker room banter” and said Bill Clinton had said far worse to him on the golf course. But donors dived for cover, VP candidate Pence had distanced himself from the remarks, with prominent Republicans talking of him running for president with Condi Rice as VP. Even Priebus said “it’s over.”
But Bannon refused to bend. “Your supporters will still be with you,” he told Trump. The comparison with Clinton was handy and instead of apologising they needed to go on the attack. Trump took to Twitter (where he called himself the “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters”) and tweeted: “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA” and then at the last minute cancelled an ABC interview ahead of the debate as he refused to read a prepared apology speech written by Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie and instead went off to the debate where four women were present that said they were attacked by Bill Clinton.
Bannon did his bit with Breitbart writing stories about the Clinton accusers all day and Trump dutifully tweeted them all. When asked about the tape in the debate, he again referred to it as “locker room talk” but was nothing compared to ISIS “chopping off heads” and he would deal with them if elected. He pointed out Bill Clinton had done far worse and named two of the former president’s accusers in the audience. “When Hillary…talks about words I said 11 years ago, I think it is disgraceful and she should be ashamed of herself.” The moderator had to interrupt the applause to allow Clinton to speak.
It worked. The religious right vote closed ranks behind Trump. In swing state North Carolina conservative women chartered a bus urging women to vote for him. “The evangelical vote is out. We’ve got this,” Bannon was reassured when he visited the state. They also used Mike Pence well with numerous appearances in the swing states where they urged him to campaign on local issues as if he was running for governor.
Still on election day, the New York Times gave him just a 15pc chance of winning and exit polls suggested a Clinton victory. But all along it seemed as if the US was performing its own version of “shy Tory factor” and people were lying to pollsters about their true voting intentions. Clinton’s problems were exposed quickly as voting came in and African American and Latino turnout was down. Ohio was was called for Trump at 10.36pm, Florida 15 minutes later, then North Carolina and Iowa on midnight.
Obama called Clinton to say another uncertain outcome like 2000 would be bad for America and advised her to concede early. When Wisconsin was called for Trump at 2.29am, he had won the college, and improbably, the presidency. Clinton conceded shortly after. Bannon was convinced Trump was stunned having no idea he would win. “He never thought he would lose, but he didn’t think he would win. There’s a difference.”
That difference was quickly exposed with a total lack of a transition team. They had 4000 jobs to fill in 10 weeks and no one to manage it. If the election was chaotic, then it was only going to get worse. The rest of the book looks at the tensions in the White House between Trump and his family on one side (daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kuschner had free reign of the building and did not report to the chief-of-staff but had direct access to the new president) and the establishment Republican figures they needed to fill positions in the new administration.
The biggest clash was with Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn who Trump appointed head of the White House National Economic Council. Cohn wanted tax reform and less regulation as did Trump but Cohn was a globalist who believed in free trade which Trump hated. Cohn spent most of his time trying to talk Trump out of reneging on NAFTA and the free trade agreement with South Korea. Trump hated trade deficits and and try as Cohn might he couldn’t convince Trump they were good for America. For the first 12 months of his presidency the free traders relied on the fact Trump kept no task list and as long the matter did not land on his desk – or was discussed on the news channels he watched constantly – he would forget about it.
Eventually they ran out of time to convince Trump on trade. He wanted tariffs. Cohn buried him in data showing how tariffs on imported steel would hurt America. He showed him the tiny amount of revenue it raised when George W Bush imposed them for similar reasons. He told him tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in industries that consumed steel. Look, Trump said, if it doesn’t work, we’ll undo it. Cohn said that might not be possible, “it either works or you go bankrupt”. But he knew Trump had gone personally bankrupt six times and bankruptcy was just another business strategy. Walk away, threaten to blow up the deal. Or as Trump himself put it, real power is fear.
Trump’s exasperated advisers had to deal with the back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring and the “fake news” indignation but none of them, nor the media that reported on them, could bring them to say to the president, as Woodward said in his final crude line in the book: “You’re a fucking liar.” Joe Biden didn’t swear but perhaps that was the one line about Trump that did cut through from their chaotic debate. Four years in, everyone knows Trump is a liar.