Remembering Victorian polar exploration

Friday, December 16th, 2011 | Anna Blackman | No Comments

Less well known than the Hocken’s New Zealand and Pacific material are our collections relating to Antarctica. We recently catalogued a letter with interesting links to Victorian Antarctic exploration and one of history’s most famous palaeontologists. Robert McCormick (1800-1890) was a surgeon and naturalist serving in the British Navy. After recovering from yellow fever contracted in the West Indies he evidently decided that tropical climates did not suit him, obtaining postings to cooler climes when he could. In 1827 he travelled to the Arctic under William Edward Parry on the Hecla, studying the natural history of Spitsbergen. After unhappy spells in the West Indies and Brazil, and several years back in Britain, in 1839 he travelled to the Antarctic as naturalist and surgeon aboard the Terror, commanded by James Clark Ross. In 1852 he returned to the Arctic regions on the North Star, mapping part of the Wellington Channel. In 1884 McCormick’s two-volume autobiography appeared, bearing the impressive title Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, and Round the World; Being Personal Narratives of Attempts to Reach the North and South Poles; and of an Open-boat Expedition up the Wellington Channel in Search of Sir John Franklin and Her Majesty’s Ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror,’ in Her Majesty’s Boat ‘Forlorn Hope,’ Under the Command of the Author.

Our copies of the two volumes of this book bear the inscription “To Sir Richard Owen K.C.B. F.R.S. &c &c &c With the Author’s kind regards & best wishes. Jany 29th 1884.” Owen (1804-1892) was one of the major figures of Victorian science, best known for his contributions to anatomy, his disagreements with Charles Darwin, and as founding director of England’s Natural History Museum. These books are part of Dr Hocken’s original collection and bear his signature, along with the pencil marks “2/12/6 2 vols 30/- net”, suggesting he obtained them from a book dealer some years after Owen’s death. The books include a few annotations by Owen and at the back of the second volume he notes the pages which include references to himself. In a section where McCormick describes a reindeer-shooting excursion, he marked the passage “Eleven deer altogether were killed by the party, four of them shot by myself” and noted “what did you do with ‘em?”

Title page of McCormick’s book, along with his portrait in naval uniform

We recently came across a stray letter from McCormick to Owen dated 14 January 1884, which seems likely to have come into Hocken’s collection together with McCormick’s book. McCormick thanks Owen for his “kind & friendly letter” with “its good wishes, for the success of my book.” He asks if Owen would “permit me, to wind up my book with it as the last addenda to this record of my life”. McCormick had presumably left it far too late to add more to his book: Owen’s copy he signed just two weeks later. The appendix does include, however, an 1865 letter from Owen to General Sabine, President of the Royal Society, testifying to McCormick’s ability as a naval surgeon and naturalist.

McCormick’s letter to Owen [Misc-MS-2133].

Blog post prepared by Ali Clarke, Reference Assistant

‘Although my country is against you […] I still remain the same to you as before’. Words of gratitude and uncertainty: Thai students’ wartime communications in New Zealand

Monday, December 5th, 2011 | Anna Blackman | 2 Comments

‘I am going to be shifted from Somes Island in a few weeks. I don’t like to go away from the old place. I enjoy the sea and watching ships steaming pass [sic] the island. Although it is rather windy and unhealthy, its scenery soothes our weary hearts to some extent.’

(excerpt from a letter by Bira Kalayasiri to Mr Gerald Francis Shiel, dated 19 December 1942)

So wrote Bira Kalayasiri, a Thai national, to his New Zealand guardian Gerald Shiel from the Somes Island Internment Camp in Wellington Harbour. This letter is the final item of correspondence we have between the two. Within a year, Kalayasiri would be dead, one of the victims of an undisclosed accident that took place during his forced repatriation to Thailand in 1943.

Letter to the Shiels from the internment camp

Kalayasiri and two of his compatriots, Aun Apibalsree and Yuwan Saraniyama, arrived in Dunedin to start study at the Otago School of Mines late in 1940. The trio appear to have received financial support from the Thai government and the firm Kampong Toh Tin Ltd. Patrick Shiel, the Singapore-based brother of Gerald, was connected with this company, and asked his Dunedin brother to take an interest in the students. A close association between Gerald, his wife Ina, and the Thai students developed; to the extent that the students suggested Gerald assume the role of their New Zealand guardian.

The folder of correspondence mostly holds letters written by Kalayasiri, Apibalsree and Saraniyama to Mr or Mrs Shiel (referred to by them as ‘Ma’) from their time spent carrying out work experience for their studies at the Wallsend Mine, near Greymouth, through to their internment at Somes Island. Although Kalayasiri tends to voice their experiences and predicament most vividly, all three initially express gratitude and affection to the Shiels for their goodness in Dunedin, and describe some of their working conditions and impressions of their workmates. As time progresses, the trio’s letters refer increasingly to the war underway and how they feel about it, and eventually move into expressions of frustration, conflicted emotion, and despair.

‘[…] although my country is against you but I still remain the same to you as before. Your generosity and kindness towards me are still impressing in my heart. I will never forget until the end of my life. So please consider me individually. What happens in my country should not be mixed.’
(excerpt from a letter to ‘Ma’ Shiel from Kalayasiri, December 1941)

‘Regarding my home in Thailand, I wonder whether I lost my father and mother or not. They stay in the fighting zone. I have lost my country. I do not know what will happen in future. I have lost my future. I have lost everything. Only thing I have now is only my poor humble soul waiting for the time when death calls upon me. I have to struggle for my life to see the future misery. I think what will happen in future will be worse than it is now. When I think of this I want to do something which will end my life.
I want to join the army here, but I do not expect to get it because I am an alien.’
(excerpts from a letter from Kalayasiri to Mr Shiel, December 1941)
Letter to ‘Ma’ in Dunedin from Greymouth

Each of the group expresses a desire to join the New Zealand Army early on, and Saraniyama in particular made a concerted effort to enlist with the allied forces. All endeavours to sign up were futile, due to their status as enemy aliens. Their frustrations were amplified in their attempts to establish contact with groups that may have been able to provide them with advice or assistance, such as the recently established Free Thai Movement. Any ventures into overseas communication were thwarted by misinformation, lack of reply, and eventually censorship.

Few of the conditions of their internment are revealed, no doubt partially due to the censorship of letters written by those held in the camp. All three express boredom and frustration with their situation, but are able to continue with their studies, and financial support from the Thai government still reaches them, albeit with increasing delays. It is unclear exactly when in 1942 their internment commenced, or the point in 1943 that their fateful repatriation took place.

The Shiels, too, must have been aggravated with the situation the trio faced, and equally exasperated by the limited official information they eventually received after the youths lost their lives. A letter from the Minister of Defence to Mr Shiel states that ‘an accident occurred while in transit, as a result of which they died,’ and that ‘it is not desired that publicity be given to this matter and it would therefore be appreciated if you would treat this information as confidential.’ Compounding this tragedy, Gerald Shiel’s brother Patrick went missing, allegedly having met his death in an accident while fleeing Singapore in 1942; but the family had still not received any confirmation of his death by 1945.
Official notification of the trio’s deaths

Information regarding the internment and death of the Thai trio sits in Ministry of Defence files held at Archives New Zealand. The files are restricted to preserve the personal privacy of those concerned, however, researcher may make application to the Chief Archivist for permission to view the files.

Kari Wilson-Allan

Assistant Archivist
Sources: AG-870/015 Correspondence relating to and with Bira Kalayasiri, Aun Apibalsree, and Yuwan Saraniyama and AG-870/016 Correspondence relating to the disappearance of Patrick Ormond Shiel, (Singapore 1945)

1941 School of Mines photo, Bira, Aun and Yuwan are in the back rows