Cannibals, Spies, and Rogue Librarians

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December 12, 2020 by libroshombre

            In “You Only Live Twice,” the recently deceased Sean Connery portrayed his iconic James Bond spy character pretending to be a naval commander, which led me to haul out my copy of Robert Morris’ 1965 “The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation.”  I met Morris in the late 1990s via a “listserv,” a now archaic computing term meaning, “A piece of software that automatically sends a copy of every e-mail received to all members of a group.”  Morris and I were avid fans of Patrick O’Brian, along with a small group of fascinating people who exchanged information on O’Brian’s historical novels about ships and espionage as well as his early 19th-century setting.   They included a leading D.C. patent attorney, a specialist in motion physics who was also the son of the author of the Hornblower books (who actively despised his dad), a prominent dealer in rare nautical books, and a dozen others.  The conversations were invariably informative and stimulating, with everyone agreeing to leave politics, religion, and sex out the discussions.   

Only after Morris died in 2002 did I learn that, like Bond, he was a naval commander (though in the U.S. Navy) and also a real-life spy, specializing in Soviet counterespionage for the CIA.  In the introduction to “Washing of the Spears” Morris described himself as “not a professional historian” but more of “an enthusiastic amateur.”  He got the idea for his book from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who admired an article on the Zulu War that Morris wrote in the 1950s, and he developed it while on assignment in Berlin in the early 1960s.   Despite his humility, Morris was a lucid writer with a strong command of our language and did extensive, footnoted research.  His book opened up to me the amazing history of the African Bantu people, nomadic cattle-raisers whose migrations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa eventually filled the continent and it became overpopulated in both people and cattle.  In the early 1800s the Zulus started dominating neighboring Bantu clans and began dislodging weaker ones, who in turn forced the evacuation of other clans until, as Morris put it, “a deadly game of musical chairs had started.”   It all culminated in 1823 in the “Dread Mantatisi Horde” one of the most horrific events in human history.  “As each clan was shaken loose, it attacked a fresh area … until something over two and a half million people were stumbling back and forth over the land … always in search of food and a security that no longer existed.  Over scores of thousands of square miles, not a single kraal existed, nor a single clan staunch enough to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom.   Cannibalism, which was fully as repugnant to Bantu civilization as it is to our own, became common, and reached the point where entire clans depended on it and nothing else to feed themselves.”

            The Horde was also known as the “Mfcane” (“the crushing of the people”), the “Difqane” (“the scattering of tribes”), and the Mantatisi Horde (after a large, terrifying, one-eyed woman chief whose clan was one of the first to be dislodged and grew infamous for its ravenous brutality).  Unknown millions died, but the event was largely lost to history since the Bantu people had no writing or libraries.  History helps keep things in perspective, good libraries retain and share history, and, since America has many excellent libraries, we have access to reliable records of terrible events, including a list from last week listing the “Deadliest Day in American History: 1. Galveston Hurricane – 8,000, 2. Antietam – 3,600, 3.  9/11 – 2.977, 4. Last Thursday – 2,861, 5. Last Wednesday – 2,461, 6. Last Tuesday – 2,461, 7. Last Friday – 2,439, 8. Pearl Harbor – 2,403.

            Today the Zulu word for “library is “umtapo,” in Swahili and Arabic it’s “maktaba,” and in Azerbaijani it’s “kitibxana,” “nom sang” in Mongolia, and in Finland “kirjasto.”  They’re called “biblioteque” in France, “biblioteca” in Italy, and similar terms in most European countries.    Bookstores are called “boekwinkel” in Dutch, “knihkupectvi” in Czech, and “boghadel” in Danish.  But in France it’s called a “librairie.”   I didn’t know this until near the end of my visit to France a few years ago, when my French host asked what was meant on my calling card by “rogue librarian.”  There have been many famous librarians who don’t fit the stereotype, but “once a librarian, always a librarian,” as we like to say; we hold even marginal ones close to our professional bosoms.  Mao Zedong, J. Edgar Hoover, and Casanova were all paid librarians, while Elvis was a school library volunteer worker and apparently not  very motivated.  However, Janis Joplin was gung-ho for her Port Arthur (Texas) High School Library.  A Texas colleague forwarded a copy of a newspaper clipping showing a young, smiling and quite perky Joplin (with that familiar, devilish gleam in her eyes) standing before the “Wizard of Oz” poster she made for the library.  “I always wanted to be an artist,” she said, “whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought.”  Obviously, a natural librarian.

Well, I told my French friend that by “rogue librarian” I was merely alluding to my retired-and-at-loose-ends librarian status using the second meaning of rogue: “playfully mischievous, a scamp.  He explained that “rogue” has far worse connotations in his language and that I was in essence proclaiming myself to be an adult bookstore owner.  Now my card reads “feral librarian.”  As Pierce Brosnan, a later James Bond reenactor, put it “I always enjoyed studying a new tongue.”

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