03 May 2016

Faroe Islands, the Vikings and the Shetlands

The Faroe Islands archipelago lies halfway between Norway and Ice­land, 320 kilometres off the NE Scottish coast of Great Britain. The Faroe Islands were part of the Kingdom of Norway until 1814. when the Treaty of Kiel granted Denmark control over the Faroes in 1814, along with other ex-Norwegian regions: Greenland and Iceland. Since then the Faroe Islands have remained a part of Denmark, self-governing since 1948.

How close were the histories of the Faroes population to the histor­ies of the populations in Scandinavia or Scotland? And when did the first Christian inhabitants of the Faroe Islands settle? Saint Brend­an (484–578), an Irish monk, first described the Faroes in his written chronicles. Another Irish monk of the early C9th described "hermits from our land of Ireland" who had lived on the northerly islands of Britain for almost a century until the arrival of Norse pirates. Note that alth­ough the islands’ Celtic Christian slabs and crosses seem to date from c850 AD, the official conversion date for the islands did not occur until 999 AD.

Even if the Norse settlers did not come from Scandinavia directly, it did not matter. The Norse communities around the Irish Sea, including Scotland's Shetland and Orkney islands, were still seen as rugged invaders against whom there was no defence.

The Viking Age (800–1066 AD) was the era in Northern European history when Scandinavian Norse­men moved over waters for seasonal raids, permanent conquest and flourishing trade. No area escaped the dragon ships that filled local citizens with awe or horror. In this period, the Norsemen settled in Scot­land, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Newfoundland, Iceland and even furth­er afield eg Normandy.

Shetlanders celebrating their Viking heritage
with the Up Helly Aa festival

 In the Faroes, Viking influence is seen in the language, the place names, establishment of a Norwegian parliament in the C10th and the Saga Museum in Vestmanna. It would be useful to know how many settlers did not like King Harald I of Norway (850-932) and left Norway to settle instead in the Faroes. They certainly brought the Old Norse language to the Faroes and maintained it as the local language. And because the Norsemen were not celibate as the Irish monks had been, the population started increasing.

Since the Vikings originally established their parliament on the Tórshavn peninsula, Tórshavn has been the capital and largest city with a current population of 20,000. But it was not always important; in fact until the C18th, the settlement was very small. Only then did it become a centre for international trade, the seat of the bishop, a modern harbour and the site for regular markets. Today the Tourist Guide suggests that travel­l­ers enjoy the cultural events in cosy cafés by the harbour, concerts on the pedestrian street and in the old church, local paintings and sculpture at the Faroe Islands Art Museum, and the beautiful Nordic House packed with Scandinavian culture and esprit.

Tórshavn, capital of the Faroes.
Boating and fishing are always close at hand

Not far away are Scotland’s Shetland Islands which hover above the North Atlantic and lie closer to Scandinavia than to Scotland. In fact they were part of Scandinavia for 600 years, starting when Norwegian king Harald annexed Orkney and Shetland in 875. Only in 1469 was Shetland pledged by King Christian of Norway as the dowry of his daughter Margaret when she married King James III of Scot­land. The islands were soon directly annexed to the crown of Scotland.

In Shetland locals love Up Helly Aa, a mid winter fire festival celebrating their Viking heritage. The festival in­cl­udes the burning of a replica longship and copious amounts of alcohol.

Travelling to Orkney and Shetland is easy as NorthLink Ferries have daily sailings into the Scottish mainland. These Scottish islands are in turn linked with Denmark, Norway, the Faroes and Iceland by weekly ferries in summer. A heavenly curtain of coloured light, aurora borealis, can best be seen in the Arctic sky from October to January inclusive.

Aurora borealis/northern lights
as seen in the Faroes

The connections between Faroe Islands and the Scottish islands will continue into the future. Faroe is one of the world’s leading nations in producing sustainable electricity, with the majority of their electricity com­ing from renewable energy sources – wind and tidal power.

And the modern oil industry? Oil explor­ation got going in the Faroe Islands in 1993, and since then the industry has been busy with data acquisition, scientific work and the drilling of exploration wells. But note a strange event. As a result of the oil revenue and the cultural links with Norway, a small independence mov­ement developed in the Shetlands. It saw as its model the Faroe Islands in its relationship with Denmark. And the creation of flag of Shetland, shaped in the Nordic cross, marked the anniv­ers­ary of the transfer of Shetland from Norway to Scotland!

When more oil is discovered and exploited in the North Sea, the ind­ustry will boom. As Scotland is the closest nation with an existing oil industry, the new site at Rockall in the Atlantic was declared to be Scottish. But ownership of Rockall oil and fishing rights is disputed, between the UK, Faroe Islands via Denmark, Ireland and Iceland.

Locate the Faroe Islands in relation to 
Norway, Denmark, Shetland Islands and Iceland

I have read many Scottish mystery writers before eg Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride etc and found them dark, gritty and rather scary, but I was not familiar with Ann Cleeves' Shetland series. So now I am watching Shetland, a BBC Scotland crime drama series on tv starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. Yes the series is dark, and the landscapes are rugged, but the Shetland stories and characters are well worth watching.

30 April 2016

The German American Bund in 1939

Initial support for American fascist organizations came from Germany. In May 1933 Nazi Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess gave authority to German immigrant Heinz Spanknobel to create an American Nazi organisation. In fact the Friends of New Germany was created with help from the German consul in New York City. Led by Spanknobel, these openly pro-Nazi fascists were based in New York and had a strong presence in Chicago.

The Friends existed into the mid-1930s, although it always remained small, with a membership of German citizens living in America and German emigrants who had already become American citizens. The organisation, openly supported by the Third Reich until 1935, busied itself with verbal attacks against Jews, Communists and the Versailles Treaty.

So who was Fritz Kuhn (1896-1951)? He was born in Munich, earned honours as a German infantry officer during the Great War, then returned to civilian life where he studied chemical engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In 1928, Kuhn emigrated to the United States and by 1934 had became a naturalised citizen. Thanks to Arnie Bernstein in Tablet, I can now link the Bund history to an important story I have already told in this blog: “1949 New York State - anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Soviet riots”.

Kuhn moved to Detroit where his master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Munich got him hired at Henry Ford Hospital — a medical facility with an employment ban on Jewish doctors. Kuhn joined the Friends of New Germany and quickly rose to the top of the organisation’s Midwest division. When the Friends closed down, Kuhn declared that the only way for a pro-Hitler movement to succeed in the USA was by building a new organisation based on core American principles and the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The new group, the Bund, adhered to a detailed constitution that mimicked the language of Jeff­erson’s Declaration of Independence in its call for the “preservation of the inalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in a truly sovereign United States of America, ruled in accordance with Aryan Christian Precepts.”

Advertising poster for the mass demonstration at
Madison Square Garden
February 1939.
Note the appeal for American patriotism, more than German patriotism

Bund's Washington’s Birthday Rally
Madison Square Garden, New York
Feb 1939

Members considered themselves to be loyal, patriotic Americans who were strengthening their adopted homeland, protecting it from Jewish-Communist plots and black cultural influences such as jazz music. They thought of the Bund as “the German element which was in touch with its race but owed its first duty to America”. And to avoid a clash between Germany and America, they urged US neutrality in European affairs. The Bund took care to display patriotism for America during their gatherings. At Bund rallies and on stage, the American flag and portraits of George Washington appeared, alongside the swastika. Both countries’ national anthems were played.

Kuhn was a skilled entrepreneur. Under his leadership, the Bund was transformed into a money-making machine with interests that included publishing newspapers and other propaganda, sales of Bund ephemera and uniforms, and a nationwide constellation of family retreats. Though membership records were both secretive and poorly kept, the FBI believed there were 5,000-8,000 Bundists, while the American Legion estimated the Bund had 25,000+ members. Kuhn claimed he had 200,000+ followers.

Bernstein tells of an unprecedented political moment: in Feb 1939, Kuhn held the largest, most publicised rally in the Bund's history at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This charismatic leader took the stage in an arena overflowing with fanatical supporters and delivered a rousing and most assuredly politically incorrect speech decrying the USA’s “suicidal tolerance of parasitical aliens, making something entirely different out of the nation, destroying its ethics, morals, patriot­ism and religious conceptions.” He told his devoted audience to pledge their loyalty to him and their desires for a greater America. In the media gallery reporters were ejected as they openly mocked the speaker. Isidore Greenbaum, a wild-eyed protester rushed the stage, but was beaten to a pulp as the crowd roared its approval.

Fritz Kuhn, 1939

This German-American Bund gathered at their Washington’s Birthday Rally. A packed house of 20,000+ whooped it up the leader Fritz Kuhn, the man with vainglorious dreams who roused crowds by targeting perceived religious, racial, ethnic, and/or political enemies. Kuhn had an uncanny talent for tapping into populist sentiments. He condemned President Roosevelt by repeatedly calling him Frank D. Rosenfeld, calling his New Deal the Jew Deal and criticising the Bolshevik-Jewish American leadership.

Kuhn was an audacious egotist, a notorious truth-stretcher and outright liar. Among other things, Kuhn bragged that he’d been part of the mob that followed Hitler into the Beer Hall putsch.

In 1930s Germany, standing up to Hitler had meant death. But in the USA, when Kuhn laid out his plan to his followers in Madison Square Garden, the streets surrounding the venue were choked with c100,000 people of all stripes. College students, Trotskyites and button-down businessmen were all determined to stop Kuhn and the German-American Bund. Dorothy Thompson, the journalist tossed out from the event, marked this moment with pride as the second time she was kicked out by a Fascist: Thompson was the first foreign correspondent sent packing by Nazi Germany after Harper’s published her interview with Hitler, describing the Fuhrer as a formless, almost faceless little man.

Most shocking to American sensibilities was the outbreak of violence between protesters and Bund henchmen. But in any case Kuhn, America’s want-to-be Fuhrer, self-destructed. In 1939 he went to prison after being caught embezzling from Bund coffers. Stripped of American citizenship and sent to Sing Sing, Kuhn was deported after WW2 back to Germany. He died there in 1951, broken and forgotten.


But was the German-American Bund also broken and forgotten? Hist­orians have suggested that the Madison Garden demonstration was the peak of the movement’s history, but certainly not its end. Kuhn was replaced by a leader who may have wanted to continue Kuhn’s crusade, but WW2 broke out in August 1939. The Bund was formally dissolved in 1941.

German American Bund 
complete with flags and marching band, 
New York 1939

Other homegrown racist groups continued the crusade, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Enforcers and the Silver Shirts who found common ground with the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist Bund.

So which group was responsible for funding, publicising and organising the anti-Semitic, anti-Black riots at a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill New York in 1949? The Ku Klux Klan. 80% of the concert goers were Jewish. Despite the most tragic world war having finished only a couple of years before, the pro-Fascist mobs screamed “We are Hitler’s boys, here to finish his job”. The violence overflowed even to people who had not attended the concert. Some locals noticed a bus of blacks travelling along the highway from a field trip to visit the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park and attacked it violently. 145 Jews and blacks were hospitalised.

Bernstein is correct that decent Americans ultimately cast Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund onto the ash-heap of history. But other pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-black organisations in the USA continued to carry the flag high. 

27 April 2016

Clunes: a delightful goldrush town (from 1857 on)

The first European settler in this part of central Victoria, a young Sydney man called Donald Cameron, took up a pastoral run in 1839. The area was 36 ks north of Ballarat, a place Cameron named Clunes after his birthplace in Scotland. He focussed on sheep. Other people settled in the area, and they too ran sheep or cattle.

Only 11 years later, the tiny town of Clunes was the site of Victoria's first gold find,  unexpectedly. Gold traces were first found on this property by a friend, William Campbell, in March 1850. There had already been many rumours of gold being found in the area by young lads, but the squatters suppressed the rumours/true stories in order to maintain the district as a quiet pastoral district.

Then Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851 and became a colony in its own right. I am sure the good leaders of the new colony wanted to increase the population of Victoria and hoped to establish new rural centres where families would find plenty of work.

1851 was a magic year! In July 1851 James Esmond, who had been to the goldfields of California, arrived in Clunes and mined some samples from the quartz; then he travelled to Geelong to report the discovery. He reached Geelong on 5th July 1851, to great acclaim. Almost immediately the news of his gold find was published in the Geelong Advertiser and soon the Melbourne Daily News carried the story.

Thus the gold rush began in Victoria!

For the first six years, mining was still on a very small scale, and people lived and worked in very difficult conditions. In 1855 Donald Cameron sold his station property and returned to Scotland where he purchased a property near Inverness and named it "Clunes".

 Nichol and Wallace warehouse, c1860, 
now the Clunes Museum

In 1857, the Port Philip Co. became interested in the Clunes reefs. A lease was drawn up with the owners of the land to give the Company the right to mine on the land for 21 years, with the owners to receive 10% of all gold mined. This proved very profitable, with rich royalties in the early years. Clunes began to prosper from 1857; from a group of flimsy huts, it grew into a decent town. However because the gold occurred mainly in quartz veins in the basement rock, it would have taken a lot of capital and large mining projects to recover the gold. In the end, many miners were attracted to easier and richer alluvial gold discoveries e.g Ballarat.

Still, the mines were paying well and money was flowing. The population reached 1,000 and the post office, arguably the centre of civilisation in rural towns, opened in 1857.

Clunes town hall and court house, 1872

By 1866, Clunes had its own council, 8 small schools, a population of 3,500, 850 dwellings, 5 churches and 7 quartz mines. Plus every religious and fraternal organisation known to the British Empire. There were 15 hotels, many shops, ironmongers, black smiths, wheelwrights, foundries, a gas works and some brick making yards. The former Union Bank, erected in 1865, was a forerunner of many new and rebuilt premises during the late 1860s and early 1870s; by then mining led Clunes to its peak of prosperity.

By the early 1870s businesses grew slowly and hotels grew rapidly. Bailey Street was the centre of important public buildings including a town hall and courthouse (1872),  a new post office (1878) and several churches. Clunes Town Hall was very significant, because of its unusual combined-hall-and court-facilities, and because of its distinctive architecture. Many early features survive internally, including a rare painted backdrop to the main hall. The timber hall at the rear is the former Bible Christian Church.

The Free library was erected in the 1870s during the peak of prosperity at Clunes. The double gable form was unusual although, as I have discussed many times in this blog, a library or mechanics institute was to be found in most Victorian towns during the 19th century.

Mostly importantly for this town, Clunes was connected to the Victorian railway network in 1874 and Clunes station was built the next year, complete with a fine cast iron platform veranda. The Railway Hotel was also built in the 1870s, to profit from its close proximity to the new station.

Citizens wanted a pleasant place to stroll in the heat of summer, so the shady grounds of Queens Park opened in the 1870s and a fountain and pergola were built in 1887. The end of the prosperous era was nigh, but gold mining did not actually close until 1893.

Clunes State School, 1881, 
now a museum

Erected in 1881, a Church of England school became Clunes’ first Commons State School #136. Although I personally have never seen a purpose-built school like this, Richard Aitken reported that the design was first used at Horsham and was the first in Victoria to incorporate a large area of veranda. To my eyes, #136 looks Federation/Queen Anne in taste. In any case, the building was reused as a knitting mill from the 1920s and more recently as a museum.

Although the population is now tiny (1,050 people), Clunes is one of the most intact 19th-century towns in the Central Goldfields, with lovely bluestone and brick buildings. Fraser St, the main shopping road, still has original 19th-century shop fronts and verandas, including the National Hotel (1862), Club Hotel (1870) and new Union Bank (1865). The c1860 building that had once been the warehouse of mining contractors Nichol and Wallace is now the Clunes Museum, established in 1976 and owned by the local Shire Council.

Today the town’s claim to fame is as the largest collection of books in any regional centre of Australia. I am pleased the old buildings are being reused, but the town still has a somewhat sad sense of loss.


Long after this post was written, the old State Savings Bank in Clunes reappeared in the newspapers. Prominent in the commercial centre of the township, the former bank was built from rendered triple brick and contains a 4 bedroom residence with study, retail space, cellar and steel plated walk in bank vault. It has been used in film and television programmes, notably Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger. Many of the original grand period features have been lovingly maintained including the pressed metal ceilings, marble fire places, stately living area, maid's room complete with bell and a cloak room. Downstairs includes the kitchen, bank chambers, manager's sitting room and course the vault.

Clunes State Savings Bank, 1871

The closure of the banks was a telling part of Clune's not-so-glory-days. The Old Savings Bank now sells a collection of natural gold nuggets, jewellery, antiques, reproductions and giftware to the public. But inside its financial origins are clear - the interiors are filled with original detailing designed to connote an air of security and prosperity. The Union Bank of Australia was erected in 1865. This building is largely intact and with its modern extension has been converted for use as an art studio facility and accommodation. The Clunes London Chartered Bank was commenced in 1871. In 1921 it became the English, Scottish and Australian Bank and is currently used by the Clunes RSL as club rooms and to house their collection of memorabilia.

CAE students may be interested in the course on Gold Rush Cities in Victoria, starting on 4th May 2016.