Project Overhaul: Pacific Update!

Exhausted, happy, a little anxious about not being prepared for the week ahead, I’ve spent the entire weekend overhauling and updating Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures, and I confess to great fascination and love for this project. I discover that we’re probably better known on our mirror site at obdurodon.org, which is right and proper, since our site was raised in an Australian monotreme’s nest and maintains a home there. I needed to update the site with the results of our course projects from the Digital Humanities course last December: new voyage files, graphs, charts, and maps—adventures with latitude and longitude extraction and conversion from 18th-century records. We’re making a point of sharing resources on the Pacific voyages that are hard to find, and this has sent us to studying the Forsters, father and son, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second circumnavigation voyage and shared an in-depth perspective on their cultural encounters with Pacific islanders.

So, this weekend Georg Forster (the younger Forster) sent me off on an unexpected adventure chasing after, I kid you not, belching seals in ancient Greek with diacritical markings. We autotagged the Forster texts from ancient word processing files sent us by Nicholas Thomas, who’d edited them for print publication–and we’re grateful to have them since they’re the ONLY digital resource we have of their work! But autotagging TEI XML from old word-processing files of gigantic voyage publications is fraught with perils, one of them being that you lose track of ancient Greek text that didn’t manage to be typed in a Unicode font. So, I happened to stumble into a passage of nonsense that, on consulting the printed text, turned out indeed to be the kind of classical Greek with an impressive variety of little accents and circumflexes and suchlike… and after some dedicated research of a few hours on Saturday, I was able to produce this:

We fell in with many herds of sea-bears, and sea-lions, which we did not attack, as another party was sent out upon that errand. We observed however, that these two species, though sometimes encamped on the same beach, always kept at a great distance asunder, and had no communication with each other. A strong rank stench is common to them, as well as to all other seals; a circumstance as well known to the ancients, as their inactivity and drowsiness whilst they lie on shore.

__________Φῶκαι νέποδες__________ 

ἀθρόαι εὕδουσιν, πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἐξαναδὐσαι, 

πικρὸν ἀποπνείουσαι ἁλὸς πολυβενθέος ὀδμήν.

 Webfooted seals forsake the whitening waves,
And sleep in herds, exhaling nauseous stench. 

Rowing along shore, we fell in with a spot where several thousand shags had built their nests, on those elevated tufts which I have mentioned before. Here was an opportunity to provide the whole ship’s company with a fresh meal, which was not neglected. The birds were for the greatest part so tame, as to let our boat’s crew come among them with clubs and staves; by which means several hundreds of them were killed. On this day’s excursion we found a bird of a new genus, which was of the size of a pigeon, and perfectly white. It belonged to the class of wading water-fowl, its toes were half webbed, and its eyes, as well as the base of the bill, surrounded by many little white glands or warts. It had such an horrid offensive smell, that we could not taste the flesh, though at this time we were not easily disgusted. 

It’s a wonderfully stinky passage–redolent of much of what ought to fascinate us about the Pacific voyages if we could only read them in fascinating snippets like this. Forster’s source for the Greek is none other than the Odyssey’s Book 4, as I quickly learned from the Perseus Project.

Meanwhile, the question is whether I’ve mismanaged my time horribly by posting students’ project work from last December rather than concentrating on the steadily aging digital grading piles my students have submitted this semester. I don’t know, but I can say this: I’m glad I had students to help with the Pacific project, and that they’ve had a chance to contribute to some real research resources—their time was not wasted and the Worldwide Web of Ideas is smarter because of their work and my finally getting around to posting it. And the site is actually fun, after all—if you haven’t spun one of our Google Earth KML viewers and read out bits of the voyages, it’s high time to go try that out… Spin Cook’s Second Voyage map over to the Cape of Good Hope and read about the fire-in-the-water from  the wee phosphorescent floating creatures that Cook and company sampled in buckets to study, and be amazed at the sight of strange worlds and the pungent odors of unknown species!

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Elisa Beshero-Bondar

Associate Professor of English http://about.me/ebbondar

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