During the first 80 years of white settlement, from 1788 to 1868, 165,000 convicts were transported from England to Australia.
Sketch & description of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland,
Transportation wasn’t limited to Australia – it was a method various governments had been using for dealing with convicted criminals. The most common reason for transportation was theft – this included pickpocketing, shoplifting, stealing horses and sheep, highway robbery, housebreaking and receiving stolen goods. In some cases, the theft was associated with violence.
You didn’t have to steal much to be exiled– even pinching a handkerchief was deemed a transportable offence.
Less common reasons for being transported were the crimes of rape, manslaughter, murder, forgery and even bigamy.
Governor Phillip often employed convicts according to their skills; they may have been carpenters, servants, cooks, farmers or shepherds before they were transported.
Convicts were a source of labour to build roads, bridges, courthouses, hospitals and other public buildings, or to work on government farms, while educated convicts may have been given jobs such as record-keeping for the government administration. Female convicts, on the other hand, were generally employed as domestic servants to the officers.
Views in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land: Australian scrap book 1830 – Government jail gang, London : J. Cross, 1830
Crime and punishment
Convict discipline was invariably harsh and often quite arbitrary. One of the main forms of punishment was a thrashing with the cat o’ nine tails, a multi-tailed whip that often also contained lead weights. Fifty lashes were a standard punishment, which was enough to strip the skin from someone’s back, but this could be increased to more than 100.
Just as dreadful as the cat o’ nine tails was a long stint on a chain gang, where convicts were employed to build roads in the colony. The work was backbreaking and was made difficult and painful as convicts were shackled together around their ankles with irons or chains weighing 4.5kg or more.
During the day, the prisoners were supervised by a military guard assisted by brutal convict overseers, convicts who were given the task of disciplining their fellows.
At night, they were locked up in small wooden huts behind stockades. Worse than the cat or chain gangs was transportation to harsher and more remote penal settlements in Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.
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Robert Jones – ‘Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemans land
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Robert Jones – ‘Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemans land
That’s the ticket
In the first 50 years of white settlement, society was changing rapidly. Free settlers were moving to Australia, and convicts were increasingly employed to work for them. As convicts either finished their sentence, or were pardoned, they were able to earn a living and sustain themselves through jobs and land grants. By the mid-1830s, most convicts were assigned to private employment.
The easiest way for a convict to reduce their sentence was to work hard and stay out of trouble. They could then be given a ticket-of-leave or pardon.
Ticket-of-leave holders were allowed to work for themselves, and to acquire property, on the condition that they live within a specified district and report regularly to a magistrate. Any misbehaviour at all could result in the ticket being taken away from them.
There were two types of pardon available – a conditional pardon was granted by the governor on the condition that the former convict stayed in the colony. An absolute pardon gave a convict unconditional freedom to travel wherever they liked in the world. Convicts who didn’t qualify for either a ticket-of-leave or pardon were given a certificate of freedom once their sentence had been served.
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William Anson – ticket of leave, 16 May 1828
16 May 1828
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Absolute pardon for Hannah Dodd alias Foster,1827
Until 1810, the government handed out civilian clothes or ‘slops’ to convicts – there was no need for a uniform because nearly everyone in the colony was a convict. However, as more free settlers moved to Australia, and convicts finished their sentences, it was necessary to be able to easily distinguish the convicts.
The new uniform consisted of a coarse woollen jacket, a yellow or grey waistcoat, a pair of trousers and long socks, shoes, two cotton or linen shirts, a neckerchief and hat.
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AA Co. [convict button]
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Convict jacket, ca. 1840
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Leg Irons, before 1849
Dixson, William, Sir, 1870-1952
The convict experience
In nineteenth century England, the sentence for a variety of crimes was transportation to Australia, a harsh punishment with many convicts never seeing their homeland again.
Don McLean wrote the song “American Pie” in 1971. What do the Lyrics mean?
A long, long time ago... American Pie was written in 1971 and the time McLean is going to talk about is the 1950’s. This seems like a long time ago ’cause of all the turmoil that occurred in the 60’s.
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. McLean’s favorite music was that of the 50’s.
And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while. In the 50’s, the major purpose of music was for dancing (sock hops). He wanted to play rock & roll so people could have a good time.
But February made me shiver Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa. He was McLean’s hero.
With every paper I’d deliver Donny boy’s only other job besides songwriting was a paper boy.
Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step This story was obviously on the frickn’ front page and made McLean freeze in his tracks.
I can’t remember if I cried He can’t remember if he cried.
When I read about his widowed bride Holly’s wife was pregnant when the accident occurred and soon after had a miscarriage.
But something touched me deep inside I don’t even wanna know!
The day the music died. The crash took the lives of three current rock legends: Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, so now Feb. 3, 1959 is called “The day the music died.” The music that died is considered the standard rock & roll songs. The crash was the final blow («–keyword) to this music ’cause these three were that only major artists left. Elvis was drafted, Little Richard (or “Little Dick”) turned gospel, and Chuck Berry was arrested for screwin’ a prostitute.
Did you write the book of love? “The Book of Love” was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones.
And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so? In 1955, Don Cornell wrote “The Bible Tells Me So” and there is a Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.”
Now do you believe in rock & roll? This is from the great song “Do You Believe in Magic?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, written by John Sebastin in 1965. One of the lines is like trying to teach a stranger ’bout rock & roll,” and another is “the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.” The “magic” this Johnny was talking about is the ability of a song to stick in your head. Often times songs bring back memories of the past, this is what the magic is. This magic is especially in rock & roll, ’cause you experience it without thinking about it or trying to analyze the bloody lyrics (like some asshole is right now). Another lyric is “so just blow your mind.” (Don’t think about it).
Can music save your mortal soul? Given all that, can music help you get though life? I’m sorry I can’t answer that. All of these questions ask about life and if God exists.
And, can you teach me how to dance real slow? Dancing in the 50’s wasn’t like it is today. If you danced with someone, you then were committed to them.
Now I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym. Like I said, dancing was serious shit. McLean caught his love cheating on him.
You both kicked off your shoes Reference to a “sock hop.”
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues He’s depressed, and you listen to that kinda of music. There’s a style of music for every feeling.
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck ummmm…..yeah, so was I……
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck A pickup truck was a symbol of sexual freedom (and it rhymes with “buck” and “luck”), and Marty Robbins had a hit with “A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation) in 1957.
But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died. These old crazy things that worked in the fifty’s no longer work, ’cause the 60’s brought a new social revolution. Peace Out!
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
The music died 1959, McLean more than likely started writing this song around 1969.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone The great Bob Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965. This was his first MAJOR change from folk music. In late 1966, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle accident, and hid in his house in Woodstock, NY for a good year, hence the “fat,” and the moss shows the time change. Dylan didn’t really get his muse back till 1975.
but that’s not how it used to be. McLean liked Dylan as a folk singer in the early sixties more than his folk-rock style in the mid sixties. (I wonder what he thinks of Dylan’s religious phase!)
When the jester sang for the king and queen Ok, the jester’s Bob Dylan. The king is Peter Seger and the queen is Joan Baez. These were the two big names in folk at the time early ’60’s). During the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Dylan was honored to play his own set and then combine with these two legends to sing his song “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean In the Dean movie “Rebel Without A Cause,” he wears a red windbreaker. On the cover of the Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” he is seen also in a red windbreaker. This cover also resembles a famous picture of Dean. This ties in with the previous line ’cause this album is were Dylan really took off, with such songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
And a voice that came from you and me. This means two things. 1. Dylan was the spokesman for the 60’s (and he was) and 2. He didn’t have the best singing voice in the world, and even you and me could sing like him (but you could write like him if Shakespeare «he’s in the alley» himself told you what to say!)
Oh, and while the king was looking down This could mean two things; Pete Seger remained a traditional folk singer, while Dylan was constantly reinvented himself and therefore became unbelievably popular. This could also be a reference to Elvis (the King of rock and roll), because he joined the U.S. Army and reportedly dropped his soap everyday in the shower.
The jester stole his thorny crown While Elvis was in the army, Dylan took his spotlight and changed the whole music business. The thorny crown is the price of fame, and is referenced with Jesus’s thorny crown before he was murdered.
The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned This deals with the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald was never convicted because he was murdered.
And while Lennon read a book of Marx This is about the Beatles music becoming political. Songs like “Revolution” (1968) (which actually mentions Chairman Mao) were much different then “Love Me Do” (1963). Many American adults thought the Beatles were bad for the American youth, especially after Lennon’s remark in 1966 about Christianity. He said “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first: rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” This started anti-Beatles burnings and such.
The quartet practiced in the park The quartet was the Beatles (there were four, not including if Paul McCartney is really dead!) and the park thing is Candlestick Park, the place of their last concert. It was practicing ’cause their music would grow after they stopped touring (their first project after this was “Sgt. Pepper” which is considered the best album of all time).
And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died. A dirge is a funeral song. These songs were for the Kennedy’s (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King, all who died in the mid 60’s. And remember- “Dark” rhythms with “Park”
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter Charles Manson is one of the most dangerous cereal killers ever (his favorite was coco-puffs). In the summer of 1968, he massacred an entire family ’cause of the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which appeared on the white album. He thought that the Beatles were warning America about the racial conflict and it was “coming down fast.” He thought the Beatles were the four angels mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Manson wrote the title of the song on the wall in blood after committing the murders. Also, he thought in “Revolution 9” that Lennon was saying “rise” instead of “right,” thought the line “They need a damn good wacking” from “Piggies” was telling him to kill people and the “Hollywood Song” in “Honey Pie” was about him ’cause he lived near Hollywood. He was dropping too much acid and thought the Beatles were talking directly to him and told him to kill those people.
The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group, with the huge cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965. One of the members was arrested for possession of marijuana and a fallout shelter was another name for a rehab program. A strange note is that Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared on his “Bringing It All Back Home” record, and on the lower left corner of the cover is a fallout shelter sign.
Eight miles high and falling fast. “Eight Miles High” was the first ever psychedelic song (it was written while high on speed, and the sound of the guitar was supposed to sound like a saxophone). The falling fast part is probably about the fact that the Byrd’s abandoned folk-rock for country music with the album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” in 1967
Then landed in the foul grass Foul grass meaning marijuana.
The players tried for a forward pass Here the football metaphor starts. The players are the protesters in the 60’s. The forward pass was their movement to change the situation they were in, full of government corruption.
With the jester, on the sidelines in a cast. emember jester=Dylan. In late 1966, while riding near his house in Woodstock, NY, he briefly glanced into the sun and lost control of his bike. When he went to brake, they locked up on him and sent him flying off the motorcycle. It took him about 9 months to recover (or was he just pregnant and trying to hide it from the world????), in which time he very rarely left the house, hence the cast.
Now the half time air was sweet perfume Flower Power, groovy baby! Drugs, man, drugs.
While sergeants played a marching tune Sgt. Pepper, Beatles, 1967, recently named the most influencal album of all time. First ever concept album. First to have lyrics printed on the back. First to have a design on the protector of the record. Included an elaborate cover design and cut-outs. As far as the music goes, it had drug references in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, sitars, animal sounds and studio trickery. In the song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” at one point in the sound the engineer was instructed to cut the tape into small pieces, scatter them around, then tape them back together. In “A Day in the Life” (which was banned from the radio ’cause of the drug reference line “I’d Love to Turn You On”), after the piano cords die out, there is a minute of silence, followed by a high pitched sound (by the request of John Lennon, especially to annoy the family dog), then a loop of Beatles gibberish to make the owners of the LP think that the needle had stuck! What was I talking about again?
We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance Oh yeah, American Pie!! That’s a good song…anyway, the Beatles helped to start a new kind of music that was meant to be listened and not danced to (how do you dance to “Within You and Without You”?).
‘Cause the players tried to take the field Players=Protesters. In 1968, at the Chicago Democratic convention, protesters rioted, and some were beaten by the police. It is now known as the days of rage. Also in 1970, at Kent State University, four students were killed by the National Guard in response to their anti-Vietnam protests, which inspired the song “Ohio” by CSN & Neil Young.
The marching band refused to yield The Beatles had some anti-violence songs that made protesters think twice about the way they were acting. “All You Need is Love” (1967) says there is a better way then violence, and in “Revolution” (1968) one of the lines is “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” The beatles were in no way pro-government (as seen in 1968’s “Piggies,” which is about Congressmen), but they were against violence.
Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died. So what was revealed? …well look at today, the president gets more ass then a toilet seat. As Dr. Evil says in Austin Powers, “Face it, freedom failed” or more accurately, the protests failed. The government is more corrupt now then ever before. McLean wasn’t a big 60’s fan and here is putting down the efforts of the failed generation.
And then we were all in one place Woodstock Performing Arts Festival took place in August in 1969. 400,000 of McLean’s generation were there. It took place at Woodstock (actually Bethel) because that’s were Dylan was hiding, and they were hoping he would come out and play. Unfortunately he turned it down for the “Isle of Wright” concert.
A generation lost in space The moon landing was of course in 1969, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was released (which was about ‘major Tom’ who got lost in space), there was a TV show called “Lost in Space” and this is a drug reference, the 60’s are generalized by saying everyone in the entire world was on acid.
With no time left to start again It took them a whole decade to get to this point, the generation’s time was quickly fading. McLean thinks they wasted most of there time on drugs.
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was a hit for the Rolling Stones. In this song, McJagger compares himself with Jesus. This line comes from the nursery rhyme that has the line “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumps over a candlestick.”
’cause fire is the devil’s only friend. The Stones sold out to the devil. Their only comeback to the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” was their album “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” Seeing that you’ve probably never heard of this, you can imagine that it pretty much sucks. Also, their song “Sympathy for the Devil,” proves that they were desperate to sell their records (the Beatles were SOOOOO much better!). Was it really worth celebrating the devil?
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage No, it wasn’t. In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock, this time at Altamont Speedway. This time it was a free concert, with the Hell’s Angel’s handling the security. The biggest mistake was paying them in advance, but instead of money, with beer and handfuls of acid. While the stones were singing “Sympathy for the Devil,” a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. They soon began beating everyone, include a member of the Jefferson Airplane.
My hands were clenched in fists of rage He was pissed.
No angel born in hell could brake that Satan’s spell “angels born in hell” a.k.a. the “Hell’s Angels!” When you have sympathy for the devil, you’re asking for trouble.
As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite The stones were helicoptered out of there it became so crazy, hence the “climbed high.” It’s like the Stones started the living hell, and left in the middle of it…what’s up with that? The sacrifice to the devil was the man’s life.
I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died. This was the definitive ending of the sixties. The generation that was lost in space was now lost on earth. Before the only violence was between the hippies and the police, now it was amongst themselves. Satan had won, in one final blow.
I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away. Janis Joplin is most the girl who sang the blues. Her big hits were “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” She died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. McLean is still trying to find happiness like in the beginning of the song “Maybe they’d be happy for a while,” “That music used to make me smile.” (Note the tone of the song is very similar in these to verses) But this time the smile isn’t for happiness but regret.
I went down to the sacred store Here he’s talking about record stores that sold 50’s albums.
Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn’t play By the 70’s, the 50’s music was almost ignored by everyone. Hundreds of great albums were released in the 60’s, and it seems that everyone has forgot about the 50’s.
And in the streets the children screamed
The youth of America were beaten in the streets especially at the end of the decade. (Like I said earlier, the Kent State murders and the Chicago Democratic Convention)
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed In Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” he says: “I met one man he was wounded in love, I met another man he was wounded in hatred,” showing that love hurts sometimes as much as hate.
But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken. Again in “A Hard Rain…,” the line is “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.” Simon and Garfunkel had a hit with “Sound of Silence.” The church bells all were broken shows that people have forgotten God. All things are are so sacred are gone, love, faith, happiness, peace. In Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” one verse goes: Disillusioned words like bullets bark . As human gods aim for their mark . Made everything from toy guns that spark . To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark . It’s easy to see without looking too far. That not much Is really sacred. McLean isn’t the only one that feels this way. He was obviously a religious man, and is very disappointed that they have abandoned God.
And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost The trinity of God, McLean was Catholic.
They caught the last train for the coast. God has left. Time magazine even featured a cover story “Is God Dead?” The generation has failed, and “with no time left to start again.” It was now up to the next generation to put things right (and they did a terrible job might I add).
The day the music died. And we were singing…. This last verse is the hardest to explain…Remember, McLean never would talk about what what the lyrics definitely mean, so it’s not perfectly clear. Some people believe there were more references to the Kennedy’s (him being the king and his wife the queen), but I feel his presence is felt though the songs from the 60’s better. Ps, this took me forever.
So bye, bye Miss American Pie Pimp Daddy McLean was dating one of the Miss America contestants during one of the pageants. Also the “American Pie” part is a symbol of the American Dream (at least of the 50’s), it was also the name of the plane that crashed and killed Holly (or so goes the rumor).
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry The American automobile was the Chevy. The levee business shows that America wasn’t fertile anymore (at least in the sense of music). “Chevy” rhymes with “levee.”
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing “This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.” The traditional Americans are depressed with the current lifestyle (60’s). The song comes from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the day,” that eventually says “that I die.”
Another interesting note brought to my attention by Scott Tilles, is that the Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean’s hometown. There is also a Levee, NY which is about 15 minutes from the school he attended.
Western Australian Parliamentary Papers 1Reports on Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prisoners 2 Report on Rottnest Island for the Year 1885 3Nominal Return of the Aboriginal Prisioners who died during 1885 Munderberry; 2. 5.1885; Fraser Range; Accidentally drowned when bathing Thally Bygalgoo; 16.10.1885; Upper Murchison; Old age 4 Report on Rottnest Island for the Year 1887 5Nominal Return of Aboriginal Prisioners who died during 1887
Anglo-Saxon paganism, sometimes termed Anglo-Saxon heathenism (hǣþendōm, “heathen practice or belief, heathenism”, although not used as a self-denomination by adherents), Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religion, or Anglo-Saxon traditional religion, refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England. A variant of Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of beliefs and cultic practices, with much regional variation.
Developing from the earlier Iron Age religion of continental northern Europe, it was introduced to Britain following the Anglo-Saxon migration in the mid 5th century, and remained the dominant belief system in England until the Christianisation of its kingdoms between the 7th and 8th centuries, with some aspects gradually blending into folklore. The pejorative terms paganism and heathenism were first applied to this religion by Christian Anglo-Saxons, and it does not appear that these pagans had a name for their religion themselves; there has therefore been debate among contemporary scholars as to the appropriateness of continuing to describe these belief systems using this Christian terminology. Contemporary knowledge of Anglo-Saxon paganism derives largely from three sources: textual evidence produced by Christian Anglo-Saxons like Bede and Aldhelm, place-name evidence, and archaeological evidence of cultic practices. Further suggestions regarding the nature of Anglo-Saxon paganism have been developed through comparisons with the better-attested pre-Christian belief systems of neighbouring peoples such as the Norse.
Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic belief system, focused around a belief in deities known as the ése (singular ós). The most prominent of these deities was probably Woden; other prominent gods included Thunor and Tiw. There was also a belief in a variety of other supernatural entities which inhabited the landscape, including elves, nicor, and dragons. Cultic practice largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. There is some evidence for the existence of timber temples, although other cultic spaces might have been open-air, and would have included cultic trees and megaliths. Little is known about pagan conceptions of an afterlife, although such beliefs likely influenced funerary practices, in which the dead were either inhumed or cremated, typically with a selection of grave goods. The belief system also likely included ideas about magic and witchcraft, and elements that could be classified as a form of shamanism.
The deities of this religion provided the basis for the names of the days of the week in the English language. What is known about the religion and its accompanying mythology have since influenced both literature and Modern Paganism.
A political map of Britain c. 650 (the names are in modern English)
The word pagan is a Latin term that was used by Christians in Anglo-Saxon England to designate non-Christians. In Old English, the vernacular language of Anglo-Saxon England, the equivalent term was hæðen (“heathen”), a word that was cognate to the Old Norse[GR1]heiðinn, both of which may derive from a Gothic word, haiþno. Both pagan and heathen were terms that carried pejorative overtones, with hæðen also being used in Late Anglo-Saxon texts to refer to criminals and others deemed to have not behaved according to Christian teachings. The term “paganism” was one used by Christians as a form of othering, and as the archaeologist Neil Price[GR2] put it, in the Anglo-Saxon context, “paganism” is “largely an empty concept defined by what it is not (Christianity)”.
There is no evidence that anyone living in Anglo-Saxon England ever described themselves as a “pagan” or understood there to be a singular religion, “paganism”, that stood as a monolithic alternative to Christianity. These pagan belief systems would have been inseparable from other aspects of daily life. According to the archaeologists Martin Carver[GR3] , Alex Sanmark, and Sarah Semple, Anglo-Saxon paganism was “not a religion with supraregional rules and institutions but a loose term for a variety of local intellectual world views.” Carver stressed that, in Anglo-Saxon England, neither paganism nor Christianity represented “homogenous intellectual positions or canons and practice”; instead, there was “considerable interdigitation” between the two. As a phenomenon, this belief system lacked any apparent rules or consistency, and exhibited both regional and chronological variation. The archaeologist Aleks Pluskowski suggested that it is possible to talk of “multiple Anglo-Saxon ‘paganisms'”.
Adopting the terminology of the sociologist of religionMax Weber, the historian Marilyn Dunn described Anglo-Saxon paganism as a “world accepting” religion, one which was “concerned with the here and now” and in particular with issues surrounding the safety of the family, prosperity, and the avoidance of drought or famine. Also adopting the categories of Gustav Mensching, she described Anglo-Saxon paganism as a “folk religion“, in that its adherents concentrated on survival and prosperity in this world.
Using the expressions “paganism” or “heathenism” when discussing pre-Christian belief systems in Anglo-Saxon England is problematic. Historically, many early scholars of the Anglo-Saxon period used these terms to describe the religious beliefs in England before its conversion to Christianity in the 7th century. Several later scholars criticised this approach; as the historian Ian N. Wood stated, using the term “pagan” when discussing the Anglo-Saxons forces the scholar to adopt “the cultural constructs and value judgements of the early medieval [Christian] missionaries” and thus obscures scholarly understandings of the so-called pagans’ own perspectives. At present, while some Anglo-Saxonists have ceased using the terms “paganism” or “pagan” when discussing the early Anglo-Saxon period, others have continued to do so, viewing these terms as a useful means of designating something that is not Christian yet which is still identifiably religious. The historian John Hines proposed “traditional religion” as a better alternative, although Carver cautioned against this, noting that Britain in the 5th to the 8th century was replete with new ideas and thus belief systems of that period were not particularly “traditional”. The term “pre-Christian” religion has also been used; this avoids the judgemental connotations of “paganism” and “heathenism” but is not always chronologically accurate.
An early 20th century depiction of Bede, who provides much of the textual information on Anglo-Saxon paganism. Painting by James Doyle Penrose.[GR4]
The pre-Christian society of Anglo-Saxon England was illiterate. Thus there is no contemporary written evidence produced by Anglo-Saxon pagans themselves. Instead, our primary textual source material derives from later authors, such as Bede and the anonymous author of the Life of St Wilfrid, who wrote in Latin rather than in Old English. These writers were not interested in providing a full portrait of the Anglo-Saxons’ pre-Christian belief systems, and thus our textual portrayal of these religious beliefs is fragmentary and incidental. Also perhaps useful are the writings of those Christian Anglo-Saxon missionaries who were active in converting the pagan societies of continental Europe, namely Willibrord and Boniface, as well as the writings of the 1st century AD Roman writer Tacitus, who commented upon the pagan religions of the Anglo-Saxons’ ancestors in continental Europe. The historian Frank Stenton commented that the available texts only provide us with “a dim impression” of pagan religion in Anglo-Saxon England, while similarly, the archaeologist David Wilson commented that written sources “should be treated with caution and viewed as suggestive rather than in any way definitive”.
Far fewer textual records discuss Anglo-Saxon paganism than the pre-Christian belief systems found in nearby Ireland, Francia, or Scandinavia. There is no neat, formalized account of Anglo-Saxon pagan beliefs as there is for instance for Classical mythology and Norse mythology. Although many scholars have used Norse mythology as a guide to understanding the beliefs of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, caution has been expressed as to the utility of this approach. Stenton assumes that the connection between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian paganism occurred “in a past which was already remote” at the time of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, and claims that there was clear diversity among the pre-Christian belief systems of Scandinavia itself, further complicating the use of Scandinavian material to understand that of England. Conversely, the historian Brian Branston argued for the use of Old Norse sources to better understand Anglo-Saxon pagan beliefs, recognising mythological commonalities between the two rooted in their common ancestry.
Old English place-names also provide some insight into the pre-Christian beliefs and practices of Anglo-Saxon England. Some of these place-names reference the names of particular deities, while others use terms that refer to cultic practices that took place there. In England, these two categories remain separate, unlike in Scandinavia, where certain place-names exhibit both features. Those place-names which carry possible pagan associations are centred primarily in the centre and south-east of England, while no obvious examples are known from Northumbria or East Anglia. It is not clear why such names are rarer or non-existent in certain parts of the country; it may be due to changes in nomenclature brought about by Scandinavian settlement in the Late Anglo-Saxon period or because of evangelizing efforts by later Christian authorities. In 1941, Stenton suggested that “between fifty and sixty sites of heathen worship” could by identified through the place-name evidence, although in 1961 the place-name scholar Margaret Gelling cautioned that only forty-five of these appeared reliable. The literature specialist Philip A. Shaw has however warned that many of these sites might not have been named by pagans but by later Christian Anglo-Saxons, reflecting spaces that were perceived to be heathen from a Christian perspective.
“Although our understanding of Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religion from written sources and from place names is partial and far from complete, archaeology is beginning to reveal more.”
— Archaeologist Martin Welch, 2011.
According to Wilson, the archaeological evidence is “prolific and hence is potentially the most useful in the study of paganism” in Anglo-Saxon England. Archaeologically, the realms of religion, ritual, and magic can only be identified if they affected material culture. As such, scholarly understandings of pre-Christian religion in Anglo-Saxon England are reliant largely on rich burials and monumental buildings, which exert as much of a political purpose as a religious one. Metalwork items discovered by metal detectorists have also contributed to the interpretation of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The world-views of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons would have impinged on all aspects of everyday life, making it particularly difficult for modern scholars to separate Anglo-Saxon ritual activities as something distinct from other areas of daily life. Much of this archaeological material comes from the period in which pagan beliefs were being supplanted by Christianity, and thus an understanding of Anglo-Saxon paganism must be seen in tandem with the archaeology of the conversion.
Based on the evidence available, the historian John Blair[GR5] stated that the pre-Christian religion of Anglo-Saxon England largely resembled “that of the pagan Britons under Roman rule… at least in its outward forms”. However, the archaeologist Audrey Meaney[GR6] concluded that there exists “very little undoubted evidence for Anglo-Saxon paganism, and we remain ignorant of many of its essential features of organisation and philosophy”. Similarly, the Old English specialist Roy Page expressed the view that the surviving evidence was “too sparse and too scattered” to permit a good understanding of Anglo-Saxon paganism.
Arrival and establishment
During most of the fourth century, the majority of Britain had been part of the Roman Empire, which—starting in 380 AD with the Edict of Thessalonica—had Christianity as its official religion. However, in Britain, Christianity was probably still a minority religion, restricted largely to the urban centres and their hinterlands. While it did have some impact in the countryside, here it appears that indigenous Late Iron Age polytheistic belief systems continued to be widely practised. Some areas, such as the Welsh Marches, the majority of Wales (excepting Gwent), Lancashire, and the south-western peninsula, are totally lacking evidence for Christianity in this period.
Britons who found themselves in the areas now dominated by Anglo-Saxon elites possibly embraced the Anglo-Saxons’ pagan religion in order to aid their own self-advancement, just as they adopted other trappings of Anglo-Saxon culture. This would have been easier for those Britons who, rather than being Christian, continued to practice indigenous polytheistic belief systems, and in areas this Late Iron Age polytheism could have syncretically mixed with the incoming Anglo-Saxon religion. Conversely, there is weak possible evidence for limited survival of Roman Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon period, such as the place-name ecclēs, meaning ‘church’, at two locations in Norfolk and Eccles in Kent. However, Blair suggested that Roman Christianity would not have experienced more than a “ghost-life” in Anglo-Saxon areas. Those Britons who continued to practice Christianity were probably perceived as second-class citizens and were unlikely to have had much of an impact on the pagan kings and aristocracy which was then emphasizing Anglo-Saxon culture and defining itself against British culture. If the British Christians were able to convert any of the Anglo-Saxon elite conquerors, it was likely only on a small community scale, with British Christianity having little impact on the later establishment of Anglo-Saxon Christianity in the seventh century.
Prior scholarship tended to view Anglo-Saxon paganism as a development from an older Germanic paganism. The scholar Michael Bintley cautioned against this approach, noting that this “‘Germanic’ paganism” had “never had a single ur-form” from which later variants developed.
The conversion to Christianity
Anglo-Saxon paganism only existed for a relatively short time-span, from the fifth to the eighth centuries. Our knowledge of the Christianisation process derives from Christian textual sources, as the pagans were illiterate. Both Latin and ogham inscriptions and the Ruin of Britain by Gildas suggest that the leading families of Dumnonia and other Brittonic kingdoms had already adopted Christianity in the 6th century. In 596, Pope Gregory I ordered a Gregorian mission to be launched in order to convert the Anglo-Saxons to the Roman Catholic Church. The leader of this mission, Augustine, probably landed in Thanet, then part of the Kingdom of Kent, in the summer of 597. While Christianity was initially restricted to Kent, it saw “major and sustained expansion” in the period from c. 625 to 642, when the Kentish king Eadbald sponsored a mission to the Northumbrians led by Paulinus, the Northumbrian king Oswald invited a Christian mission from Irish monks to establish themselves, and the courts of the East Anglicans and the Gewisse were converted by continental missionaries Felix the Burgundian and Birinus the Italian. The next phase of the conversion took place between c.653 and 664, and entailed the Northumbrian sponsored conversion of the rulers of the East Saxons, Middle Anglicans, and Mercians. In the final phase of the conversion, which took place during the 670s and 680s, the final two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be led by pagan rulers — in Sussex and the Isle of Wight — saw their leaders baptized.
As with other areas of Europe, the conversion to Christianity was facilitated by the aristocracy. These rulers may have felt themselves to be members of a pagan backwater in contrast to the Christian kingdoms in continental Europe. The pace of Christian conversion varied across Anglo-Saxon England, with it taking almost 90 years for the official conversion to succeed. Most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms returned to paganism for a time after the death of their first converted king. However, by the end of the 680s, all of the Anglo-Saxon peoples were at least nominally Christian. Blair noted that for most Anglo-Saxons, the “moral and practical imperatives” of following one’s lord by converting to Christianity were a “powerful stimulus”.
It remains difficult to determine the extent to which pre-Christian beliefs retained their popularity among the Anglo-Saxon populace from the seventh century onward. Theodore’s Penitential and the Laws of Wihtred of Kent[GR7] issued in 695 imposed penalties on those who provided offerings to “demons”. However, by two or three decades later, Bede could write as if paganism had died out in Anglo-Saxon England. Condemnations of pagan cults also do not appear in other canons from this later period, again suggesting that ecclesiastical figures no longer considered persisting paganism to be a problem.
In the latter decades of the ninth century during the Late Anglo-Saxon period, Scandinavian settlers arrived in Britain, bringing with them their own, kindred pre-Christian beliefs. No cultic sites used by Scandinavian pagans have been archaeologically identified, although place names suggest some possible examples. For instance, Roseberry Topping in North Yorkshire was known as Othensberg in the twelfth century, a name which derived from the Old NorseÓðinsberg, or ‘Hill of Óðin’. A number of place-names also contain Old Norse references to mythological entities, such as alfr, skratii, and troll. A number of pendants representing Mjolnir, the hammer of the god Thor, have also been found in England, reflecting the probability that he was worshipped among the Anglo-Scandinavian population. Jesch argued that, given that there was only evidence for the worship of Odin and Thor in Anglo-Scandinavian England, these might have been the only deities to have been actively venerated by the Scandinavian settlers, even if they were aware of the mythological stories surrounding other Norse gods and goddesses. North however argued that one passage in the Old English rune poem, written in the eighth or ninth century, may reflect knowledge of the Scandinavian god Týr.
Archaeologically, the introduction of Norse paganism to Britain in this period is mostly visited in the mortuary evidence. A number of Scandinavian furnished burial styles were also introduced that differed from the Christian churchyard burials then dominant in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Whether these represent clear pagan identity or not is however debated among archaeologists. Norse mythological scenes have also been identified on a number of stone carvings from the period, such as the Gosforth Cross, which included images of .
The English church found itself in need of conducting a new conversion process to Christianize this incoming population. It is not well understood how the Christian institutions converted these Scandinavian settlers, in part due to a lack of textual descriptions of this conversion process equivalent to Bede’s description of the earlier Anglo-Saxon conversion. However, it appears that the Scandinavian migrants had converted to Christianity within the first few decades of their arrival.
The historian Judith Jesch suggested that these beliefs survived throughout Late Anglo-Saxon England not in the form of an active non-Christian religion, but as “cultural paganism”, the acceptance of references to pre-Christian myths in particular cultural contexts within an officially Christian society. Such “cultural paganism” could represent a reference to the cultural heritage of the Scandinavian population rather than their religious heritage. For instance, many Norse mythological themes and motifs are present in the poetry composed for the court of Cnut the Great, an eleventh-century Anglo-Scandinavian king who had been baptized into Christianity and who otherwise emphasized his identity as a Christian monarch.
“The pagan hierarchical structure disintegrated rapidly in the seventh century in the face of Christianity’s systematic organization. But folk practices were all-pervasive in everyday life. The animistic character of Germanic belief prior to Christianization, with its emphasis on nature, holistic cures, and worship at wells, trees, and stones, meant that it was hard to counteract on an institutional level of organized religion… The synthesis of Christian and Germanic ideas gradually transformed these practices, undoubtedly at the local level… In this way Christianity ultimately penetrated the homes and daily lives of the various Germanic peoples in the centuries after the arrival of the first missionaries.”
— Historian Karen Louise Jolly, 1996.
Although Christianity had been adopted across Anglo-Saxon England by the late seventh century, many pre-Christian customs continued to be practiced. Bintley argued that aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism served as the foundations for parts of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. Pre-Christian beliefs affected the folklore of the Anglo-Saxon period, and through this continued to exert an influence on popular religion within the late Anglo-Saxon period. The conversion did not result in the obliteration of pre-Christian traditions, but in various ways created a synthesis of traditions, as exhibited for instance by the Franks Casket, an artwork depicting both the pre-Christian myth of Weland the Smith and the Christian myth of the Adoration of the Magi. Blair noted that even in the late eleventh century, “important aspects of lay Christianity were still influenced by traditional indigenous practices”.
Both secular and church authorities issued condemnations of alleged non-Christian pagan practices, such as the veneration of wells, trees, and stones, right through to the eleventh century and into the High Middle Ages. However, most of the penitentials condemning such practices – notably that attributed to Ecgbert of York – were largely produced around the year 1000, which may suggest that their prohibitions against non-Christian cultic behaviour may be a response to Norse pagan beliefs brought in by Scandinavian settlers rather than a reference to older Anglo-Saxon practices. Various scholars, among them historical geographer Della Hooke and Price, have contrastingly believed that these reflected the continuing practice of veneration at wells and trees at a popular level long after the official Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon society.
Various elements of English folklore from the Medieval period onwards have been interpreted as being survivals from Anglo-Saxon paganism. For instance, writing in the 1720s, Henry Bourne stated his belief that the winter custom of the Yule log was a leftover from Anglo-Saxon paganism, however this is an idea that has been disputed by some subsequent research by the likes of historian Ronald Hutton[GR8] , who believe that it was only introduced into England in the seventeenth century by immigrants arriving from Flanders. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which is performed annually in the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, has also been claimed, by some, to be a remnant of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The antlers used in the dance belonged to reindeer and have been carbon dated to the eleventh century, and it is therefore believed that they originated in Norway and were brought to England some time in the late Mediaeval period, as by that time reindeer were extinct in Britain.
Little is known about the cosmological beliefs of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Carver, Sanmark, and Semple suggested that every community within Anglo-Saxon England likely had “its own take on cosmology”, although suggested that there might have been “an underlying system” that was widely shared. The later Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm mentions seven worlds, which may be a reference to an earlier pagan cosmological belief. Similarly, Bede claimed that the Christian king Oswald of Northumbria defeated a pagan rival at a sacred plain or meadow called Heavenfield (Hefenfelth), which may be a reference to a pagan belief in a heavenly plain. The Anglo-Saxon concept corresponding to fate was wyrd, although the “pagan” nature of this conception is subject to some debate; Dorothy Whitelock suggested that it was a belief held only after Christianisation, while Branston maintained that wyrd had been an important concept for the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He suggested that it was cognate to the Icelandic term Urdr and thus was connected to the concept of three sisters, the Nornir, who oversee fate in recorded Norse mythology. It is possible that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons held a belief in an apocalypse that bore similarities with the later Norse myth of Ragnarök.
Although we have no evidence directly testifying to the existence of such a belief, the possibility that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons believed in a cosmological world tree has also been considered. It has been suggested that the idea of a world tree can be discerned through certain references in the Dream of the Rood poem. This idea may be bolstered if it is the case, as some scholars have argued, that their concept of a world tree may be derived from a purported common Indo-European root. The historian Clive Tolley has cautioned that any Anglo-Saxon world tree would likely not be directly comparable to that referenced in Norse textual sources.
“The world of the Anglo-Saxon gods will forever remain a mystery to us, existing just beyond the reach of written history. This pagan world sits in an enigmatic realm that is in many respects prehistoric, an alien headspace far removed from our own intellectual universe. Situated within a polytheistic cosmos, clouded from us by centuries of Christian theology and Enlightenment rationalism, we can discern the existence of a handful of potential deities, who though long deceased have perhaps left their mark in place-names, royal genealogies, and the accounts of proselytizing monks. Such sources have led scholars to put together a pantheon for early medieval England, populated by such murky figures as Woden, Þunor, Tiw, and Frig.”
— Historian Ethan Doyle White, 2014
Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic belief system, with its practitioners believing in many deities. However, most Christian Anglo-Saxon writers had little or no interest in the pagan gods, and thus did not discuss them in their texts. The Old English words for a god were ēs and ōs, and they may be reflected in such place-names as Easole (“God’s Ridge”) in Kent and Eisey (“God’s Island”) in Wiltshire.
The deity for whom we have most evidence is Woden, as “traces of his cult are scattered more widely over the rolling English countryside than those of any other heathen deity”. Place names containing Wodnes- or Wednes- as their first element have been interpreted as references to Woden, and as a result his name is often seen as the basis for such place names as Woodnesborough (“Woden’s Barrow”) in Kent, Wansdyke (“Woden’s Dyke”) in Wiltshire, and Wensley (“Woden’s Woodland Clearing” or “Woden’s Wood”) in Derbyshire. The name Woden also appears as an ancestor of the royal genealogies of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia, resulting in suggestions that after losing his status as a god during the Christianisation process he was euhemerised as a royal ancestor. Woden also appears as the leader of the Wild Hunt, and he is referred to as a magical healer in the Nine Herbs Charm, directly paralleling the role of his continental German counterpart Wodan in the Merseburg Incantations. He is also often interpreted as being cognate with the Norse god Óðinn and the Old High German Uuodan. Additionally, he appears in the Old English ancestor of Wednesday, Ƿōdenesdæġ ( a calque from its Latin equivalent, as are the rest of the days of the week).
It has been suggested that Woden was also known as Grim – a name which appears in such English place-names as Grimspound in Dartmoor, Grimes Graves in Norfolk and Grimsby (“Grim’s Village”) in Lincolnshire – because in recorded Norse mythology, the god Óðinn is also known as Grímnir+. Highlighting that there are around twice as many Grim place-names in England as Woden place-names, the place-name scholar Margaret Gelling[GR9] cautioned against the view that Grim was always associated with Woden in Anglo-Saxon England.
The second most widespread deity from Anglo-Saxon England appears to be the god Thunor. It has been suggested that the hammer and the swastika were the god’s symbols, representing thunderbolts, and both of these symbols have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves, the latter being common on cremation urns. A large number of Thunor place-names feature the Old English word lēah (“wood”, or “clearing in a wood”), among them Thunderley and Thundersley in Essex. The deity’s name also appears in other compounds too, as with Thunderfield (“Thunor’s Open Land”) in Surrey and Thunores hlaew (“Thunor’s Mound”) in Kent.
A third Anglo-Saxon god that is attested is Tiw. In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, Tir is identified with the star Polaris rather than with a deity, although it has been suggested that Tiw was probably a war deity. Dunn has suggested that Tiw might have been a supreme creator deity who was nevertheless deemed distant. The name Tiw has been identified in such place-names as Tuesley (“Tiw’s Wood or Clearing”) in Surrey, Tysoe (“Tiw’s Hill-Spur”) in Warwickshire, and Tyesmere (“Tiw’s Pool”) in Worcestershire. It has been suggested that the “T”-rune which appears on some weapons and crematory urns from the Anglo-Saxon period may be references to Tiw. Also, there is Tīƿesdæġ, which in Modern English has become “Tuesday.”
“A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine [bits] … [Woden] established [the nine herbs] and sent [them] into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe’s hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures.”
Perhaps the most prominent female deity in Anglo-Saxon paganism was Frig; however, there is still very little evidence for her worship, although it has been speculated that she was “a goddess of love or festivity”. Her name has been suggested as a component of the place-names Frethern in Gloucestershire, and Freefolk, Frobury, and Froyle in Hampshire.
The East Saxon royalty claimed lineage from someone known as Seaxnēat, who might have been a god, in part because an Old Saxon baptismal vow calls on the Christian to renounce “Thunaer, Woden and Saxnot”. A runic poem mentions a god known as Ingwine and the writer Asser[GR10] mentioned a god known as Gēat. The Christian monk known as the Venerable Bede also mentioned two further goddesses in his written works: Eostre, who was celebrated at a spring festival, and Hretha, whose name meant “glory”.
References to idols can be found in Anglo-Saxon texts. No wooden carvings of anthropomorphic figures have been found in the area that once encompassed Anglo-Saxon England that are comparable to those found in Scandinavia or continental Europe. It may be that such sculptures were typically made out of wood, which has not survived in the archaeological record. Several anthropomorphic images have been found, mostly in Kent and dated to the first half of the seventh century; however, identifying these with any particular deity has not proven possible. A seated male figure appears on a cremation urn’s lid discovered at Spong Hill in Norfolk, which was interpreted as a possible depiction of Woden on a throne. Also found on many crematory urns are a variety of symbols; of these, the swastikas have sometimes been interpreted as symbols associated with Thunor.
Many Anglo-Saxonists have also assumed that Anglo-Saxon paganism was animistic in basis, believing in a landscape populated by different spirits and other non-human entities, such as elves, dwarves, and dragons. The English literature scholar Richard North for instance described it as a “natural religion based on animism”. Dunn suggested that for Anglo-Saxon pagans, most everyday interactions would not have been with major deities but with such “lesser supernatural beings”. She also suggested that these entities might have exhibited similarities with later English beliefs in fairies
. Later Anglo-Saxon texts refer to beliefs in ælfe (elves), who are depicted as male but who exhibit gender-transgressing and effeminate traits; these ælfe may have been a part of older pagan beliefs. Elves seem to have had some place in earlier pre-Christian beliefs, as evidenced by the presence of the Anglo-Saxon language prefix ælf in early given names, such as Ælfsige (elf victory), Ælfwynn (elf friend), Ælfgar (elf spear), Ælfgifu (elf gift), Ælfric (elf power) and Ælfred (modern “Alfred”, meaning “elf counsel”), amongst others. Various Old English place names reference thrys (giants) and draca (dragons). However, such names did not necessarily emerge during the pagan period of early Anglo-Saxon England, but could have developed at a later date.
A 1908 depiction of Beowulf fighting the dragon, by J. R. Skelton.
In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, legends and other stories were transmitted orally instead of being written down; it is for this reason that very few survive today.
In both Beowulf and Deor’s Lament[GR11] there are references to the mythological smith Weyland, and this figure also makes an appearance on the Franks Casket. There are moreover two place-names recorded in tenth century charters that include Weyland’s name. This entity’s mythological stories are better fleshed out in Norse stories.
The only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the story of Beowulf, known only from a surviving manuscript that was written down by the Christian monk Sepa sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries AD. The story it tells is set not in England but in Scandinavia, and revolves around a Geatish warrior named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to defeat a monster known as Grendel, who is terrorizing the kingdom of Hrothgar, and later, Grendel’s Mother as well. Following this, he later becomes the king of Geatland before finally dying in battle with a dragon. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was commonly believed that Beowulf was not an Anglo-Saxon pagan tale, but a Scandinavian Christian one; it was not until the influential critical essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J. R. R. Tolkien, delivered in 1936, that Beowulf was established as a quintessentially English poem that, while Christian, looked back on a living memory of paganism. The poem refers to pagan practices such as cremation burials, but also contains repeated mentions of the Christian God and references to tales from Biblical mythology, such as that of Cain and Abel. Given the restricted nature of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England, it is likely that the author of the poem was a cleric or an associate of the clergy.
Nonetheless, some academics still hold reservations about accepting it as containing information pertaining to Anglo-Saxon paganism, with Patrick Wormald[GR12] noting that “vast reserves of intellectual energy have been devoted to threshing this poem for grains of authentic pagan belief, but it must be admitted that the harvest has been meagre. The poet may have known that his heroes were pagans, but he did not know much about paganism.” Similarly, Christine Fell declared that when it came to paganism, the poet who authored Beowulf had “little more than a vague awareness of what was done ‘in those days’.” Conversely, North argued that the poet knew more about paganism that he revealed in the poem, suggesting that this could be seen in some of the language and references.
As archaeologist Sarah Semple noted, “the rituals [of the early Anglo-Saxons] involved the full pre-Christian repertoire: votive deposits, furnished burial, monumental mounds, sacred natural phenomenon and eventually constructed pillars, shrines and temples”, thereby having many commonalities with other pre-Christian religions in Europe.
Places of worship
The Neolithic long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy may have had cultic symbolism for the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons
Place-name evidence may indicate some locations which were used as places of worship by the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. However, no unambiguous archaeological evidence currently supports the interpretation of these sites as places of cultic practice. Two words that appear repeatedly in Old English place names hearg and wēoh, have been interpreted as being references to cult spaces, however it is likely that the two terms had distinctive meanings. These hearg locations were all found on high ground, with Wilson suggesting that these represented a communal place of worship for a specific group, such as the tribe, at a specific time of year. The archaeologist Sarah Semple also examined a number of such sites, noting that while they all reflected activity throughout later prehistory and the Romano-British period, they had little evidence from the sixth and seventh centuries CE. She suggested that rather than referring to specifically Anglo-Saxon cultic sites, hearg was instead used in reference to “something British in tradition and usage.”
Highlighting that while wēoh sites vary in their location, some being on high ground and others on low ground, Wilson noted that the majority were very close to ancient routeways. Accordingly, he suggested that the term wēoh denoted a “small, wayside shrine, accessible to the traveler”. Given that some wēoh-sites were connected to the name of an individual, Wilson suggested that such individuals may have been the owner or guardian of the shrine.
A number of place-names including reference to pre-Christian deities compound these names with the Old English word lēah (“wood”, or “clearing in a wood”), and this may have attested to a sacred grove at which cultic practice took place. A number of other place-names associate the deity’s name with a high point in the landscape, such as dūn or hōh, which might represent that such spots were considered particularly appropriate for cultic practice. In six examples, the deity’s name is associated with feld (“open land”), in which case these might have been sanctuaries located to specifically benefit the agricultural actions of the community.
Some Old English place names make reference to an animal’s head, among them Gateshead (“Goat’s Head”) in Tyne and Wear and Worms Heath (“Snake’s Head”) in Surrey. It is possible that some of these names had pagan religious origins, perhaps referring to a sacrificed animal’s head that was erected on a pole, or a carved representation of one; equally some or all of these place-names may have been descriptive metaphors for local landscape features.
“The idol temples of that race [the English] should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God.”
— Pope Gregory’s letter to Mellitus.
No cultic building has survived from the early Anglo-Saxon period, and nor do we have a contemporary illustration or even a clear description of such a structure. However, there are four references to pre-Christian cultic structures that appear in Anglo-Saxon literary sources. Three of these can be found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. One is a quotation from a letter written in 601 by Pope Gregory the Great to the Abbott Mellitus, in which he stated that Christian missionaries need not destroy “the temples of the idols” but that they should be sprinkled with holy water and converted into churches. A second reference to cultic spaces found in Bede appears in his discussion of Coifi, an influential English pagan priest for King Edwin of Northumbria, who – after converting to Christianity – cast a spear into the temple at Goodmanham and then burned it to the ground. The third account was a reference to a temple in which King Rædwald of East Anglia kept an altar to both the Christian God and another to “demons”. Bede referred to these spaces using the Latin term fanum; he did not mention whether they were roofed or not, although he chose to use fanum over the Latin term templum, which would more clearly describe a roofed temple building. However, Bede probably never saw a pagan cultic space first hand, and was thus relying on literary sources for his understanding of what they looked like.
Summarizing the archaeological evidence, C. J. Arnold concluded that “the existence and nature of possible shrines remain intangible at present”. The best known archaeological candidate for a building used in pre-Christian cultic practice is Building D2 at the Yeavering complex in Northumberland. Inside the east door of the building was a pit filled with ox skulls, which have been interpreted as sacrificial deposits, while two post-holes inside the building have been interpreted as evidence for holding statues of the deities, and the building also showed no evidence of domestic usage, suggesting some special function. Blair suggested that the development of temple buildings in the late sixth and seventh centuries reflects the assimilation of Christian ideas.
“Bede’s evidence and archaeology show that sanctuaries associated with royal estates at the end of the pagan period are likely to have been enclosures containing buildings of organic materials, with images of the gods inside. Earlier, in the countryside, the sanctuaries were probably open air sites, on hills or in forest groves, with some kind of central feature. Ceremonies which took place at these sites included at least one annually (probably around November) which involved a large sacrifice of cattle.”
— Audrey Meaney, 1995.
Other possible temples or shrine buildings have been identified by archaeological investigation as existing within such Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as Lyminge in Kent and Bishopstone in Sussex. Although Pope Gregory referred to the conversion of pagan cult spaces into churches, no archaeological investigation has yet found any firm evidence of churches being built on top of earlier pagan temples in England. It may be that Gregory’s advice was never taken by the Anglo-Saxon Christians, although it is possible that the construction of crypts and the rebuilding of churches have destroyed earlier pagan foundations.
Blair highlighted evidence for the existence of square enclosures dating from the early Anglo-Saxon period which often included standing posts and which were often superimposed on earlier prehistoric monuments, most notably Bronze Age barrows. He argued that these were cultic spaces, and that – rather than being based on a tradition from continental Europe – they were based on a tradition of square enclosure building that dated back to the Pre-Roman Iron Age in Britain, thus reflecting the adoption of indigenous British ideas into early Anglo-Saxon cult. Building on Blair’s argument, the archaeologist Sarah Semple suggested that in Early Anglo-Saxon England such barrows might have been understood as “the home of spirits, ancestors or gods” and accordingly used as cultic places. According to Semple “ancient remains in the landscape held a significant place in the Anglo-Saxon mind as part of a wider, numinous, spiritual and resonant landscape”.
Blair suggested that the scant archaeological evidence for built cultic structures may be because many cultic spaces in early Anglo-Saxon England did not involve buildings. Supporting this, he highlighted ethnographically recorded examples from elsewhere in Northern Europe, such as among the Mansi, in which shrines are located away from the main area of settlement, and are demarcated by logs, ropes, fabrics, and images, none of which would leave an archaeological trace. Arnold suggested that it may be mistaken to assume that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons carried out ritual activity at specific sites, instead suggesting that such practices occurred within the domestic area. As evidence, he pointed to certain deposits that have been excavated in Anglo-Saxon settlements, such as the deposition of an adult cow above a pit of clay and cobbles which had been placed at Cowdery’s Down. The deposition of human and animal bone in settlement sites has parallels both with continental practices and with Iron Age and Romano-British practices in Britain.
Cultic trees and megaliths
“Let us raise a hymn, especially because He who thrust into Tartarus of terrible torture the ghastly three-tongued serpent who vomits torrents of rank and virulent poisons through the ages deigned in like measure to send to earth the offspring begotten of holy parturition… and because where once the crude pillars of the same foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity in profane shrines, in their place dwelling for students, not to mention holy houses of prayer, are constructed skilfully by the talents of the architect.”
— Aldhelm’s letter to Heahfrith, 680s.
Although there are virtually no references to pre-Christian sacred trees in Old English literature, there are condemnations of tree veneration as well as the veneration of stones and wells in several later Anglo-Saxon penitentials. In the 680s, the Christian writer Aldhelm referred to the pagan use of pillars associated with the “foul snake and stag”, praising the fact that many had been converted into sites for Christian worship. Aldhelm had used the Latin terms ermula cruda (“crude pillars”), although it was unclear what exactly he was referring to; possibly examples include something akin to a wooden totem pole or a re-used Neolithic menhir. Meaney suggested that Aldhelm’s reference to the snake and stag might be describing a representation of an animal’s head atop a pole, in which case it would be related to the animal-head place-names. North also believed that this snake and stag were animals with pagan religious associations.
It remains difficult to determine the location of any pre-Christian holy trees. However, there are cases where sacred trees and groves may be referenced in place-names. Blair suggested that the use of the Old English word bēam (“tree”) in Anglo-Saxon place-names may be a reference to a special tree. He also suggested that the place-names containing stapol (“post” or “pillar”) might have represented trees that had been venerated when alive and which were transformed into carved pillars after their death. For instance, both Thurstable Hundred in Essex and Thurstaple in Kent appear to have derived from the Old English Þunres-stapol, meaning ‘Pillar of Þunor’. Archaeologically, a large post was discovered at Yeavering which has been interpreted as having a religious function. The purpose of such poles remains debatable, however; some might have represented grave markers, others might have signalized group or kin identities, or marked territory, assembly places, or sacred spaces. Such wooden pillars would have been easy to convert into large crucifixes following the conversion to Christianity, and thus a number of these sacred sites may have survived as cultic spaces within a Christian context. It has also been suggested that the vinescroll patterns that decorated a number of Late Anglo-Saxon stone crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross, may have been a form of inculturation harking back to pre-Christian tree veneration. As Bintley commented, the impact of pre-Christian beliefs about sacred trees on Anglo-Saxon Christian beliefs should be interpreted “not as pagan survivals, but as a fully integrated aspect of early English Christianity”.
Christian sources regularly complained that the pagans of Anglo-Saxon England practiced animal sacrifice. In the seventh century, the first laws against pagan sacrifices appeared, while in the Paenitentiale Theodori one to ten years’ penance was allotted for making sacrifices or for eating sacrificed meat. Archaeological evidence reveals that meat was often used as a funerary offering and in many cases whole animal carcasses were placed in burials. Commenting on this archaeological evidence, Pluskowski expressed the view that this reflected “a regular and well-established practice in early Anglo-Saxon society.” It appears that they emphasized the killing of oxen over other species, as suggested by both written and archaeological evidence. The Old English Martyrology records that November (Old English Blótmónaþ “the month of sacrifice”) was particularly associated with sacrificial practices:
Se mónaþ is nemned Novembris on Léden, and on úre geþeóde “blótmónaþ”, forðon úre yldran, ðá hý hǽðene wǽron, on ðam mónþe hý bleóton á, ðæt is, ðæt hý betǽhton and benémdon hyra deófolgyldum ða neát ða ðe hý woldon syllan.
“The month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language ‘bloodmonth’, because our elders when they had been heathens, always in this month sacrificed, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer.”
There are several cases where animal remains were buried in what appears to be ritualistic conditions, for instance at Frilford, Berkshire, a pig or boar’s head was buried with six flat stones and two Roman-era tiles then placed on top, while at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Soham, Cambridgeshire, an ox’s head was buried with the muzzle facing down. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that these may be “evidence of sacrifices to a pagan god”. The folklorist Jacqueline Simpson[GR13] has suggested that some English folk customs recorded in the late medieval and early modern periods involving the display of a decapitated animal’s head on a pole may derive their origins from pre-Christian sacrificial practices.
Unlike some other areas of Germanic Europe, there is no written evidence for human sacrifice being practiced in Anglo-Saxon England. Dunn suggested that had Christian writers believed that such practices were being carried out then they would have strongly condemned them. Nevertheless, the historian Hilda Ellis Davidson expressed the view that “undoubtedly human sacrifice must have been known to the Anglo-Saxons, even if it played no great part in their lives”. She suggested that those who were used as victims included slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war, and that such sacrifices were only resorted to in times of crisis, such as plagues, famine, or attack. There has however been speculation that 23 of the corpses at the Sutton Hoo+ burial site were sacrificial victims clustered around a sacred tree from which they had been hanged. Alongside this, some have suggested that the corpse of an Anglo-Saxon woman found at Sewerby on the Yorkshire Wolds suggested that she had been buried alive alongside a nobleman, possibly as a sacrifice, or to accompany him to the afterlife.
Weapons, among them spears, swords, seaxes, and shield fittings have been found from English rivers, such as the River Thames, although no large-scale weapon deposits have been discovered that are akin to those found elsewhere in Europe.
Priests and kings
Wilson stated that “virtually nothing” was known of the pre-Christian priesthood in Anglo-Saxon England, although there are two references to Anglo-Saxon pagan priests in the surviving textual sources. One is that provided by Bede, which refers to Coifi of Northumbria. North has backed Chaney’s view that kings mediated between the gods and the people on the basis of a lack of any obvious priesthood.
One of the inhumation burials excavated at Yeavering, classified as Grave AX, has been interpreted as being that of a pre-Christian priest; although the body was not able to be sexed or aged by osteoarcheologist’s, it was found with a goat’s skull buried by its feet and a long wooden staff with metal fittings beside it. There have also been suggestions that individuals who were biologically male but who were buried in female costume may have represented a form of magico-religious specialists in Anglo-Saxon England. It has been suggested that these individuals were analogous to the Seiðmenn recorded in Old Norse sources. This possibility is linked to an account provided by Tacitus in his Germania in which he refers to a male pagan priest who wore female clothing.
Campbell suggested that it might have been priestly authorities who organised the imposition of physical penalties in early Anglo-Saxon England, with secular authorities only taking on this role during the conversion to Christianity. The concept of ‘sacral kingship’ no longer has much credibility within scholarship.
Germanic pagan society was structured hierarchically, under a tribal chieftain or cyning (“king”) who at the same time acted as military leader, high judge and high priest. The tribe was bound together by a code of customary proper behaviour or sidu regulating the contracts (ǽ) and conflicts between the individual families or sibbs within the tribe. The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman, thegn, heah-gerefa and gerefa.
Offices at the court included that of the thyle and the scop. The title of hlaford (“lord“) denoted the head of any household in origin and expressed the relation to allegiance between a follower and his leader. Early Anglo-Saxon warfare had many aspects of endemic warfare typical of tribal warrior societies. It was based on retainers bound by oath to fight for their lords who in turn were obliged to show generosity to their followers.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the common Germanic institution of sacral kingship+. A king (cyning) was elected from among eligible members of a royal family or cynn by the witena gemōt, an assembly of an elite that replaced the earlier folkmoot, which was the equivalent of the Germanic thing, the assembly of all free men. The person elected was usually the son of the last king. Tribal kingship came to an end in the 9th century with the hegemony of Wessex culminating in a unified kingdom of England by the 10th century. The cult of kingship was central to pagan Anglo-Saxon society. The king was equivalent to the position of high priest. By his divine descent he represented or indeed was the “luck” of the people. The central importance of the institution of kingship is illustrated by the twenty-six synonyms for “king” employed by the Beowulf poet.
The title of Bretwalda appears to have conveyed the status of some sort of formal or ceremonial overlordship over Britain, but it is uncertain whether it predates the 9th century, and if it does, what, if any, prerogatives it carried. Patrick Wormald interprets it as “less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status” and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings.
Cemeteries are the most widely excavated aspect of Anglo-Saxon archaeology and thus much information about the funerary aspects of Anglo-Saxon pagan religion has been obtained.
One of the aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism that we know most about is their burial customs, which we have discovered from archaeological excavations at various sites, including Sutton Hoo, Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, and we today know of the existence of around 1200 Anglo-Saxon pagan cemeteries. There was no set form of burial among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, with cremation being preferred among the Angles in the north and burial among the Saxons in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries. When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods. According to archaeologist Dave Wilson, “the usual orientation for an inhumation in a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery was west-east, with the head to the west, although there were often deviations from this.” Indicating a possible religious belief, grave goods were common among inhumation burials as well as cremations; free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. There are also a number of recorded cases of parts of non-human animals being buried within such graves. Most common among these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep, although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose, crab apples, duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves. It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased. In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice that was also found in earlier Roman Britain.
Certain Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have ritualistic elements to them, implying that a religious rite was performed over them during the funeral. While there are many multiple burials, where more than one corpse was found in a single grave, that date from the Anglo-Saxon period, there is “a small group of such burials where an interpretation involving ritual practices may be possible”. For instance, at Welbeck Hill in Lincolnshire, the corpse of a decapitated woman was placed in reverse on top of the body of an old man, while in a number of other similar examples, female bodies were again placed above those of men. This has led some archaeologists to suspect a form of suttee, where the female was the spouse of the male, and was killed to accompany him upon death. Other theories hold that the females were slaves who were viewed as the property of the men, and who were again killed to accompany their master. Similarly, four Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated where it appears that the individual was buried while still alive, which could imply that this was a part of either a religious rite or as a form of punishment. There are also many cases where corpses have been found decapitated, for instance, at a mass grave in Thetford, Norfolk, fifty beheaded individuals were discovered, their heads possibly having been taken as trophies of war. In other cases of decapitation it seems possible that it was evidence of religious ritual (presumably human sacrifice) or execution.
One of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo
Archaeological investigation has displayed that structures or buildings were built inside a number of pagan cemeteries, and as David Wilson noted, “The evidence, then, from cemetery excavations is suggestive of small structures and features, some of which may perhaps be interpreted as shrines or sacred areas”. In some cases, there is evidence of far smaller structures being built around or alongside individual graves, implying possible small shrines to the dead individual or individuals buried there.
Eventually, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the idea of burial mounds began to appear in Anglo-Saxon England, and in certain cases earlier burial mounds from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods were simply reused by the Anglo-Saxons. It is not known why they adopted this practice, but it may be from the practices of the native Britons. Burial mounds remained objects of veneration in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, and numerous churches were built next to tumuli. Another form of burial was that of ship burials, which were practiced by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed in a ship that was either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases burned. In Suffolk however, ships were not burned, but buried, as is the case at Sutton Hoo, which it is believed, was the resting place of the king of the East Angles, Raedwald. Both ship and tumulus burials were described in the Beowulf poem, through the funerals of Scyld Scefing[GR14] and Beowulf respectively.
It has been considered largely impossible to distinguish a pagan grave from a Christian one in the Anglo-Saxon context after the latter had spread throughout England.
“These few remarks by Bede show us a people who of necessity fitted closely into the pattern of the changing year, who were of the earth and what grows in it, who breathed the farmy exhalations of cattle and sheep, who marked the passage of time according to the life-cycle of their stock and the growth of their plants or by the appropriate period for offerings to the gods”.
— Historian Brian Branston, 1957.
Everything that we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book written by Bede, titled De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), in which he described the calendar of the year. However, its purpose was not to describe the pagan sacred year, and little information within it can be corroborated from other sources. Bede provided explanations for the names of the various pre-Christian festivals that he described, however these etymologies are questionable; it is unknown if these etymologies were based on his pre-existing knowledge or whether they represented his own theories. Casting further doubt over some of his festival etymologies is the fact that some of the place-name etymologies that Bede provides in his writings are demonstrably wrong.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar with twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht (meaning Mothers’ Night), which was situated at the Winter solstice, which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year.
Following this festival, in the month of Solmonað (February), Bede claims that the pagans offered cakes to their deities. Then, in Eostur-monath Aprilis (April), a spring festival was celebrated, dedicated to the goddess Eostre, and the later Christian festival of Easter took its name from this month and its goddess. The month of September was known as Halegmonath, meaning Holy Month, which may indicate that it had special religious significance. The month of November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning Blood Month, and was commemorated with animal sacrifice, both in offering to the gods, and probably also to gather a source of food to be stored over the winter.
Remarking on Bede’s account of the Anglo-Saxon year, the historian Brian Branston noted that they “show us a people who of necessity fitted closely into the pattern of the changing year, who were of the earth and what grows in it” and that they were “in fact, a people who were in a symbiotic relationship with mother earth and father sky”. Stenton thought that Bede’s account reveals “that there was a strong element of heathen festivity” at the heart of the early Anglo-Saxon calendar. The historian James Campbell described this as a “complicated calendar”, and expressed the view that it would have required “an organised and recognised priesthood” to plan the observation of it.
Various recurring symbols appear on certain pagan Anglo-Saxon artefacts, in particular on grave goods. Most notable among these was the swastika, which was widely inscribed on crematory urns and also on various brooches and other forms of jewellery as well as on certain pieces of ceremonial weaponry. The archaeologist David Wilson remarked that this “undoubtedly had special importance for the Anglo-Saxons, either magical or religious, or both. It seems very likely that it was the symbol of the thunder god Thunor, and when found on weapons or military gear its purpose would be to provide protection and success in battle”. He also noted however that its widespread usage might have led to it becoming “a purely decorative device with no real symbolic importance”. Another symbol that has appeared on several pagan artefacts from this period, including a number of swords, was the rune ᛏ, which represented the letter T and may be associated with the god Tiw.
In the later sixth and seventh centuries, a trend emerged in Anglo-Saxon England entailing the symbolism of a horn-helmeted man. The archaeologist Tim Pestell stated that these represented “one of the clearest examples of objects with primarily cultic or religious connotations”. This iconography is not unique to England and can be found in Scandinavia and continental Germanic Europe too. The inclusion of this image on helmets and pendants suggests that it may have had apotropaic or amuletic associations. This figure has often been interpreted as a depiction of Woden, although there is no firm evidence to support this conclusion.
In 2011, Pluskowski noted that the term “shamanism” was increasingly being used by scholars of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Glosecki argued that evidence for shamanic beliefs were visible in later Anglo-Saxon literature. Williams also argued that paganism had had a shamanic component through his analysis of early funerary rites. Summarizing this evidence, Blair noted that it was “hard to doubt that something like shamanism lies ultimately in the background” of early Anglo-Saxon religion. He nevertheless highlighted problems with the use of “shamanism” in this context, noting that any such Anglo-Saxon practices would have been different from the shamanism of Siberia. Conversely, Noël Adams expressed the view that “at present there is no clear evidence of shamanistic beliefs” in Anglo-Saxon England.
Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft+. There are various Old English terms for “witch”, including hægtesse “witch, fury”, whence Modern English hag, wicca, gealdricge, scinlæce and hellrúne. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e.g. from the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890). It is possible that the Anglo-Saxons drew no distinction between magic and ritual in the same manner as modern Western society does.
The Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft, with the Paenitentiale Theodori attributed to Theodore of Tarsus condemning “those that consult divinations and use them in the pagan manner, or that permit people of that kind into their houses to seek some knowledge”. Similarly, the U version of the Paenitentiale Theodori condemns those “who observe auguries, omens or dreams or any other prophecies after the manner of the pagans”.
The word wiccan “witches” is associated with animistic healing rites in the Paenitentiale Halitgari where it is stated that:
Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons also appeared to wear amulets, and there are many cases where corpses were buried with them. As David Wilson noted, “To the early [Anglo-]Saxons, they were part and parcel of the supernatural that made up their world of ‘belief’, although occupying the shadowy dividing area between superstition and religion, if indeed such a division actually existed.” One of the most notable amulets found in Anglo-Saxon graves is the cowrie shell, which has been often interpreted by modern academics as having been a fertility symbol due to its physical resemblance to the vagina and the fact that it was most commonly found in female graves. Not being native to British seas, the cowrie shells had to have been brought to England by traders who had come all the way from the Red Sea in the Middle East. Animal teeth were also used as amulets by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and many examples have been found that had formerly belonged to boar, beaver, and in some cases even humans. Other amulets included items such as amethyst and amber beads, pieces of quartz or iron pyrite, worked and unworked flint, pre-Anglo-Saxon coinage and fossils, and from their distribution in graves, it has been stated that in Anglo-Saxon pagan society, “amulets [were] very much more the preserve of women than men”.
Reception and legacy
Days of the week
Four of the modern English days of the week derive their names from Anglo-Saxon deities. These names have their origins in the Latin system of week-day names, which had been translated into Old English.
The Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples, adapted the week-day names introduced by their interaction with the Roman Empire but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as Interpretatio germanica:
“Previous understanding of the topic, well rooted in the ideas of its time, regarded the English as adherents of two consecutive religions: paganism governed the settlers of the 4th-6th century, but was superseded in the 7th-10th century by Christianity. Of the two, Christianity, a religion of the book, documented itself thoroughly, while in failing to do so paganism laid itself open to centuries of abuse, conjecture or mindless admiration.”
— Archaeologists Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark, and Sarah Semple, 2010.
While historical investigation into Germanic paganism and its mythology began in the seventeenth century with Peder Resen’s Edda Islandorum (1665), this largely focused only upon Norse mythology, much of which was preserved in Old Icelandic sources. In the eighteenth century, English Romanticism developed a strong enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture, expressed in original English poems extolling Viking virtues, such as Thomas Warton’s “Runic Odes” of 1748. With nascent nationalism in early nineteenth-century Europe, by the 1830s both Nordic and German philology had produced “national mythologies” in N. F. S. Grundtvig‘s Nordens Mytologi and Jacob Grimm‘s Deutsche Mythologie, respectively. British Romanticism at the same time had at its disposal both a Celtic and a Viking revival, but nothing focusing on the Anglo-Saxons because there was very little evidence of their pagan mythology still surviving. Indeed, so scant was evidence of paganism in Anglo-Saxon England that some scholars came to assume that the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized essentially from the moment of their arrival in Britain.
The study of Anglo-Saxon paganism began only in the mid nineteenth century, when John Kemble published The Saxons in England Volume I (1849), in which he discussed the usefulness of examining place-names to find out about the religion. This was followed by the publication of John Yonge Akerman‘s Remains of Pagan Saxondom (1855). Akerman defended his chosen subject in the introduction by pointing out the archaeological evidence of a “Pagan Saxon mode of sepulture” on English soil lasting from the “middle of the fifth to the middle or perhaps the end of the seventh century”. From this point onward, more academic research into the Anglo-Saxons’ pagan religion appeared. This led to further books on the subject, such as those primarily about the Anglo-Saxon gods, such as Brian Branston’s The Lost Gods of England (1957), and Kathy Herbert’s Looking for the Lost Gods of England (1994). Others emphasised archaeological evidence, such as David Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992) and the edited anthology Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited (2010).
The deities of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion have been adopted by practitioners of various forms of modern Paganism, specifically those belonging to the new religious movement of Heathenry+. The Anglo-Saxon gods have also been adopted in forms of the modern Pagan religion of Wicca, particularly the denomination of Seax-Wicca, founded by Raymond Buckland[GR15] in the 1970s, which combined Anglo-Saxon deity names with the Wiccan theological structure. Such belief systems often attribute Norse beliefs to pagan Anglo-Saxons.
[GR2]Neil Stuppel Price is an English archaeologist specialising in the study of Viking Age-Scandinavia and the archaeology of shamanism. He is currently a professor in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, Sweden.
Born in south-west London, Price went on to gain a BA in Archaeology at the University of London, before writing his first book, The Vikings in Brittany, which was published in 1989. He undertook his doctoral research from 1988 through to 1992 at the University of York, before moving to Sweden, where he completed his PhD at the University of Uppsala in 2002. In 2001, he edited an anthology entitled The Archaeology of Shamanism for Routledge, and the following year published and defended his doctoral thesis, The Viking Way. The Viking Way would be critically appraised as one of the most important studies of the Viking Age and pre-Christian religion by other archaeologists like Matthew Townend and Martin Carver. In 2017 Price was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (CorrFRSE)
[GR3]Carver practised as a free-lance archaeologist (1973-1986), setting up the Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit (BUFAU), later called Birmingham Archaeology at the University of Birmingham to carry out archaeological contract work. He chairs Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd (FAS), now FAS Heritage, that was created in 1992. FAS Heritage is currently based in York and carries out archaeological research and heritage work in England and Scotland. Carver was the first secretary of the Institute of Field Archaeology, now Institute for Archaeologists. He has developed a number of procedures for archaeological investigation and analytical methods for writing up excavations, and has championed evaluation and project design as key elements in “value-led” archaeology.
In 1986 he was appointed Professor of Archaeology at the University of York (Head of Department 1986-1996; Emeritus 2008-). At York he introduced courses on World Archaeology and Field Archaeology, conducted research investigations at Sutton Hoo and Portmahomack, and researched Early Medieval Britain (5-11th century), publishing a comprehensive synthesis of his findings in 2019 as Formative Britain. He has served on UK, British, Irish, Danish and European research councils.
Since becoming emeritus he has been researching in early medieval Sicily with Alessandra Molinari (University of Rome Tor Vergata) and Girolamo Fiorentino (University of Lecce)
Martin Carver was editor of the world archaeology journal Antiquity from 2002-2012, personally editing some 800 articles.
He is a director of The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company, which aims to be build a full-size and seaworthy replica of the Anglo-Saxon ship found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo
Penrose left Ireland with his father and family about 1890 to settle in Hertfordshire near London. He exhibited his work regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from the 1890s until 1927. He also travelled extensively in Canada.
They had a strict upbringing at Oxhey Grange, Watford. James Doyle Penrose owned the wider Oxhey Grange Estate. In its development of Watford Heath, he included the Rose Tea Cottage and Gardens, in an attempt to attract the local workforce away from the nearby public houses.
His wife Elizabeth aged 72 died in July 1930 at Watford. He died in Bognor Regis on Saturday 2 January 1932
[GR5]Blair was born on 4 March 1955 in Woking, Surrey, England. His father was Claude Blair, a museum curator and “one of the foremost authorities on historic European metalwork, especially arms and armour”, and his mother was Joan Mary Greville Blair (née Drinkwater).
[GR6]Meaney was born in England on 19 March 1931, and took a BA in English at Oxford. In 1955, she was appointed Carlisle Research Student at Girton College, Cambridge, to undertake her PhD in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (completed in 1959), entitled A Correlation of Literary and Archaeological Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Heathenism. This established Meaney’s interdisciplinary approach to early medieval history, which is noteworthy for its combination of archaeological and textual sources.
On finishing her PhD, Meaney moved to Australia, to the English Department at the University of New England; ‘in the interests of her marriage’ she moved to Sydney, taking temporary academic positions there until, in 1968, she was appointed to the recently formed Macquarie University, where she taught until her retirement in 1989, balancing the requirements of work with those of motherhood. In 1984, she became the first Macquarie academic to be elected as a Fellow to the Australian Academy of the Humanities. According to Di Yerbury:
Her contribution to Macquarie University extended deep into its fabric and well-being. She was very influential in the early development of the new University’s teaching programs. She was active in several committees, and took on the responsibilities of Acting Head of the School of English and Linguistics. She quietly but persistently promoted the role of women and women’s studies. Indeed, her interest in the role of women has been a dominant theme in her research into Anglo-Saxon culture, removing yet another layer of invisibility over women’s place in history.
Meaney took a leading role in founding the Sydney Medieval and Renaissance Group and the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. On her retirement, she moved to Cambridge.
Meaney produced A Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites, published by George Allen & Unwin in 1964. Asserting that it was “in intention exhaustive up to the end of 1960”, she noted that she had not included later discoveries due to her residence in Sydney. While teaching in Australia, Meaney returned frequently to the UK to undertake excavations and 1970 saw her publication, jointly with Sonia Hawkes, of the excavation report for Two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries at Winnall, Winchester, Hampshire. The 1980s saw Meaney shifting her focus from archaeology to written texts, developing her work on amulets in an influential series of articles on Anglo-Saxon medicine which have made her one of the most important commentators on the history of early medieval Western medicine.
A detailed list of Meaney’s publications up to around 1992 was provided by Spinks.
[GR7]Wihtred (Latin: Wihtredus) (c. 670 – 23 April 725) was king of Kent from about 690 or 691 until his death. He was a son of Ecgberht I and a brother of Eadric. Wihtred ascended to the throne after a confused period in the 680s, which included a brief conquest of Kent by Cædwalla of Wessex, and subsequent dynastic conflicts. His immediate predecessor was Oswine, who was probably descended from Eadbald, though not through the same line as Wihtred. Shortly after the start of his reign, Wihtred issued a code of laws—the Law of Wihtred—that has been preserved in a manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis. The laws pay a great deal of attention to the rights of the Church (of the time period), including punishment for irregular marriages and for pagan worship. Wihtred’s long reign had few incidents recorded in the annals of the day. He was succeeded in 725 by his sons, Æthelberht II, Eadberht I, and Alric.
Born in Ootacamund, India, his family returned to England, and he attended a school in Ilford and became particularly interested in archaeology. He volunteered in a number of excavations until 1976 and visited the country’s chambered tombs. He studied history at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and then Magdalen College, Oxford, before he read history at the University of Bristol in 1981. Specialising in Early Modern Britain, he wrote three books on the subject: The Royalist War Effort (1981), The Restoration (1985) and Charles the Second (1990).
In the 1990s, he wrote books about historical paganism, folklore and Contemporary Paganism in Britain; The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991), The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994), The Stations of the Sun (1996) and The Triumph of the Moon (1999), the latter of which would come to be praised as a seminal text in the discipline of Pagan studies. In the following decade, he wrote on other topics: a book about Siberian shamanism in the western imagination, Shamans (2001), a collection of essays on folklore and Paganism, Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003) and then two books on the role of the Druids in the British imagination, The Druids (2007) and Blood and Mistletoe (2009)
Born in Manchester and raised in Kent, she studied at St Hilda’s College, becoming involved in socialist activism. She proceeded to work for the English Place-Name Society from 1946 to 1953, focusing her research on the place-names of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Marrying archaeologist Peter Gelling of the University of Birmingham in 1952, she moved to Harborne in Birmingham while undertaking her PhD research into the place-names of West Berkshire. Lecturing on the subject across the Midlands, she published her research in a series of books, achieving prominence within academia for her 1978 work Signposts to the Past: The Geographical Roots of Britain’s Place-names. In the coming decades she focused on researching the place-names of Shropshire, resulting in a multi-volume publication, earning a number of awards and prominent appointments for her life’s work.
Gelling’s work focused on establishing the Old English origins of English place-names in the Midlands, and her approach sought to connect toponyms to geographical features in the landscape.
In 893, Asser wrote a biography of Alfred, called the Life of King Alfred. The manuscript survived to modern times in only one copy, which was part of the Cotton library. That copy was destroyed in a fire in 1731, but transcriptions that had been made earlier, together with material from Asser’s work which was included by other early writers, have enabled the work to be reconstructed. The biography is the main source of information about Alfred’s life and provides far more information about Alfred than is known about any other early English ruler. Asser assisted Alfred in his translation of Gregory the Great‘s Pastoral Care, and possibly with other works.
Asser is sometimes cited as a source for the legend about Alfred’s having founded the University of Oxford, which is now known to be false. A short passage making this claim was interpolated by William Camden into his 1603 edition of Asser’s Life. Doubts have also been raised periodically about whether the entire Life is a forgery, written by a slightly later writer, but it is now almost universally accepted as genuine.
Weland, the strong man, had experience of persecution; he suffered a lot. Sorrow and longing were his companions, along with exile in the cold winter; he experienced misfortunes after Nithad laid constraints upon him, supple bonds of sinew on a better man.
That went away, this also may.
In Beadohild’s mind her brothers’ death was not as grieving as her own situation, when she realized she was pregnant; she couldn’t fathom the outcome.
That went away, this also may.
Many of us have heard that the Geat’s love for Maethild passed all bounds, that his love robbed him of his sleep.
That went away, this also may.
For thirty years, Theodric ruled the stronghold of the Maerings; which has become common knowledge.
That went away, this also may.
We have learned of Eormanric’s ferocious disposition; a cruel man, he held dominion in the kingdom of the Goths. Many men sat, full of sorrow, anticipating trouble and constantly praying for the fall of his country.
That went away, this also may.
If a man sits in despair, deprived of joy, with gloomy thoughts in his heart; it seems to him that there is no end to his suffering. Then he should remember that the wise Lord follows different courses throughout the earth; to many he grants glory, certainty, yet, misery to some. I will say this about myself, once I was a minstrel of the Heodeningas, my Lord’s favourite. My name was Deor. For many years I had an excellent office and a gracious Lord, until now Heorrenda, a skillful man, has inherited the land once given to me by the protector of warriors.
That went away, this also may.
[GR12]Charles Patrick Wormald (9 July 1947 – 29 September 2004) was a British historian born in Neston, Cheshire, son of historian Brian Wormald.
Wormald taught early medieval history at the University of Glasgow from 1974 to 1988, where his lectures drew huge enthusiasm from students. There he also met fellow-historian Jenny Brown, whom he married in 1980. They had two sons, but divorced in 2001. While at Glasgow, he became a participant in the Bucknell Group of early medievalists, hosted by Wendy Davies – the group taking its name from a village on the Welsh-English border where it often met. He delivered the Jarrow Lecture in 1984.
Following a British Academy Research Readership (1987–89), Wormald returned to Oxford in 1989 as a college lecturer at Christ Church, where he was then appointed a fellow and university lecturer from 1990, tutoring students in medieval history. He delivered the Deerhurst Lecture in 1991 and the British Academy’s Raleigh Lecture in History in 1995. In 1996 he gave the inaugural Richard Rawlinson Center Congress Lecture at the 31st International Congress on Medieval Studies in Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His greatest work, which took many years to produce, was The Making of English Law, the first volume of which was published in 1999. Volume II was unfinished at the time of his death, although his extensive preparatory papers for the book have now been published online. Following his early retirement from Christ Church in 2001, he was re-engaged as a lecturer by the History Faculty at Oxford, and entered Wolfson College, Oxford. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2003, and that year also delivered the Brixworth Lecture.
She has been a point of reference for Terry Pratchett since he met her at a book signing in 1997. Pratchett, who was then researching his novel Carpe Jugulum, was asking everyone in the queue how many “magpie” rhymes they knew; and while most people gave one answer – the theme from the TV series Magpie – Simpson was able to supply considerably more. According to Pratchett’s version of their conversation, there were “about nineteen”, but she suspects this is creative embroidery. Their encounter eventually led to collaboration
In the Skjöldunga saga and the Ynglinga saga, Odin came from Asia (Scythia) and conquered Northern Europe. He gave Sweden to his son Yngvi and Denmark to his son Skjöldr. Since then the kings of Sweden were called Ynglings and those of Denmark Skjöldungs.
Scyld Scefing is the legendary ancestor of the Danish royal lineage known as the Scyldings. He is the counterpart of the Skioldus or Skjöldr of Danish and Icelandic sources.
He appears in the opening lines of Beowulf, where he is referred to as Scyld Scefing, implying he is a descendant of Sceafa, Scyld son of Scef, or Scyld of the Sheaf. The Beowulf poet places him in a boat which is seen in other stories about Scef as a child in a boat:
Scyld the Sheaf-Child from scourging foemen, From raiders a-many their mead-halls wrested. He lives to be feared, the first has a waif, Puny and frail he was found on the shore. He grew to be great, and was girt with power Till the border-tribes all obeyed his rule, And sea-folk hardy that sit by the whale-path Gave him tribute, a good king was he.
After relating in general terms the glories of Scyld’s reign, the poet describes Scyld’s funeral, his body was laid in a ship surrounded by treasures:
They decked his body no less bountifully with offerings than those first ones did who cast him away when he was a child and launched him alone out over the waves.
In Beowulf 33, Scyld’s ship is called is īsig, literally, “icy.” The meaning of this epithet has been discussed many times. Anatoly Liberman gives a full survey of the literature and suggests that the word meant “shining.”
William of Malmesbury‘s 12th century Chronicle tells the story of Sceafa as a sleeping child in a boat without oars with a sheaf of corn at his head.
[GR15]Raymond Buckland (31 August 1934 – 27 September 2017) whose craft name was Robat, was an English writer on the subject of Wicca and the occult, and a significant figure in the history of Wicca, of which he was a high priest in both the Gardnerian and Seax-Wica traditions.
According to his written works, primarily Witchcraft from the Inside, published in 1971, he was the first person in the United States to openly admit to being a practitioner of Wicca, and he introduced the lineage of Gardnerian Wicca to the United States in 1964, after having been initiated by Gerald Gardner‘s then-high priestess Monique Wilson in Britain the previous year. He later formed his own tradition dubbed Seax-Wica which focuses on the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon paganism
The following is an article By Serge Trifkovic and we reprint it here with his permission.
The husband routinely beat his 26-year-old German-born wife, mother of their two young children, and threatened to kill her when the court ordered him to move out of their apartment in Hamburg. The police were called repeatedly to intervene. The wife wanted a quick divorce – without waiting a year after separation, as mandated by German law – arguing that that the abuse and death threats she suffered easily fulfilled the “hardship” criteria required for an accelerated decree absolute. The judge – a woman by the name of Christa Datz-Winter – refused, however, arguing that the Kuran allows the husband to beat his wife and that the couple’s Moroccan origin must be taken into account in the case. They both come from a cultural milieu, Her Honor wrote, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives – and the Kuran sanctions such treatment. “The [husband’s] exercise of the right to castigate does not fulfill the hardship criteria as defined by Paragraph 1565” of German federal law, the judge’s letter said. [emphasis added] The judge further suggested that the wife’s Western lifestyle would give her husband grounds to claim his honor had been compromised.
The reports in German and English do not state this, but Turkish papers have reported that the judge made specific reference to Sura 4, which contains the infamous Verse 34: Men have the authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. The wife’s lawyer, Barbara Becker-Rojczyk, could not believe her eyes: a German judge was invoking Kuran in a German legal case to assert the husband’s “right to castigate” his wife. The meaning was clear: “the husband can beat his wife,” Becker-Rojczyk commented. She decided to go public with the case last Tuesday because the judge was still on the bench, two months after the controversial verdict was handed down.
The judge was subsequently removed from the case, but not from the bench. A spokesman for the court, Bernhard Olp, said the judge did not intend to suggest that violence in a marriage is acceptable, or that the Kuran supersedes German law. “The ruling is not justifiable, but the judge herself cannot explain it at this moment,” he said. But according to Spiegel Online this was not the first time that German courts have used “cultural background” to inform their verdicts. Christa Stolle of the women’s rights organization Terre des Femmes said that in cases of marital violence there have been a number of cases where the perpetrator’s culture of origin has been considered as a mitigating circumstance.
Of some 25 million Muslims in Western Europe, the majority already consider themselves autonomous, a community justifiably opposed to the decadent host society of infidels. They already demand the adoption of sharia within segregated Muslim communities, which but one step that leads to the imposition of sharia on the society as a whole. Swedish courts are already introducing sharia principles into civil cases. An Iranian-born man divorcing his Iranian-born wife was ordered by the high court in the city of Halmestad to pay Mahr, Islamic dowry ordained by the Kuran as part of the Islamic marriage contract. As Chronicles readers may recall, Europe’s elite class is ready for further surrenders. Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner—a Christian Democrat—sees the demand for Sharia as perfectly legitimate, and argues that it could be introduced “by democratic means.” Muslims have a right to follow the commands of their religion, he says, even if the exercise of that right included some “dissenting rules of behavior”: “It is a sure certainty for me: if two thirds of all Netherlanders tomorrow would want to introduce Sharia, then this possibility must exist. Could you block this legally? It would also be a scandal to say ‘this isn’t allowed’! The majority counts. That is the essence of democracy.” The same “essence” was reiterated in similar terms last July by Jens Orback, the Swedish Integration [sic] Minister, who declared in a radio debate on Channel P1, “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.”
To all forward-looking Europeans it must be a welcome sign that continental courts are catching up with the leader in Sharia compliance, Great Britain. A key tenet of Sharia is that non-Muslims cannot try Muslims. Peter Beaumont, QC, senior circuit judge at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, accepts the commandment not only in civil, but also in criminal cases. He banned Jews and Hindus—and anyone married to one—from serving on the jury in the trial of Abdullah el-Faisal, accused of soliciting the murder of “unbelievers.” “For obvious reasons,” he said, “members of the jury of the Jewish or Hindu faith should reveal themselves, even if they are married to Jewish or Hindu women, because they are not fit to arbitrate in this case.” One can only speculate what the reaction would be if equally “obvious reasons” were invoked in an attempt to exclude Muslims from a trial of an alleged “Islamophobe.”
Here at home, The New York Times had a bone to pick with the German judge mainly because of her suggestion that Islam justified violence against women. It stated matter-of-factly, “While the verse cited by Judge Datz-Winter does say husbands may beat their wives for being disobedient — an interpretation embraced by fundamentalists— mainstream Muslims have long rejected wife-beating as a medieval relic.”
In reality “mainstream Muslims” do nothing of the sort. New York Times’ claim notwithstanding, the original sources for “true” Islam—the Kuran and Hadith—provide ample and detailed evidence on Islamic theory and the sources of Shari’a practice that remains in force all over the Islamic world today.
According to orthodox Islamic tradition, the verse invoked by the German judge (4:34) was revealed in connection with a woman who complained to Mohammad that her husband had hit her on the face, which was still bruised. At first he told her to get even with him, but then added, “Wait until I think about it.” The revelation duly followed, after which he said: “We wanted one thing but Allah wanted another, and what Allah wanted is best.” Qatari Sheikh Walid bin Hadi explains that every man is his own judge when using violence: “The Prophet said: Do not ask a husband why he beats his wife.”
The scholars at the most respected institution of Islamic learning, Cairo’s Azhar University, further explain: “If admonishing and sexual desertion fail to bring forth results and the woman is of a cold and stubborn type, the Qur’an bestows on man the right to straighten her out by way of punishment and beating, provided he does not break her bones nor shed blood. Many a wife belongs to this querulous type and requires this sort of punishment to bring her to her senses!”
Physical violence against one’s wife, far from being Haram, remains divinely ordained and practically advised in modern Islam. “Take in thine hand a branch and smite therewith and break not thine oath,” the Kuran commands. Muslim propagators in the West “explain” that the Islamic teaching and practice is in line with the latest achievements of clinical psychology: it is not only correct, but positively beneficial to them because “women’s rebelliousness (nushuz) is a medical condition” based either on her masochistic delight in being beaten and tortured, or sadistic desire to hurt and dominate her husband. Either way,
Such a woman has no remedy except removing her spikes and destroying her weapon by which she dominates. This weapon of the woman is her femininity. But the other woman who delights in submission and being beaten, then beating is her remedy. So the Qur’anic command: ‘banish them to their couches, and beat them’ agrees with the latest psychological findings in understanding the rebellious woman. This is one of the scientific miracles of the Qur’an, because it sums up volumes of the science of psychology about rebellious women.
According to Allah’s commandment to men (Kuran 2:223), “Your wives are as a soil to be cultivated unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will.” Therefore “the righteous women are devoutly obedient.” Those that are not inhabit the nether regions of hell. Muhammad has stated that most of those who enter hell are women, not men. Contemporary Azhar scholars of Egypt agree: “Oh, assembly of women, give charity, even from your jewelry, for you (comprise) the majority of the inhabitants of hell in the day of resurrection.”
In the same spirit, courts in Muslim countries, to mention a particularly egregious legal practice, routinely sentence raped women to death for “adultery,” usually by stoning, because they follow the Sharia that mandates this punishment. To the outright divine command of every wife’s obedience to her husband, Muhammad has added a few comments of his own. When asked who among women is the best, he replied: “She who gives pleasure to him (husband) when he looks, obeys him when he bids, and who does not oppose him regarding herself and her riches fearing his displeasure.” Even in basic necessities the needs of the husband take precedence: “You shall give her food when you have taken your food, you shall clothe her when you have clothed yourself, you shall not slap her on the face, nor revile (her), nor leave (her) alone, except within the house.” The husband’s sexual needs have to be satisfied immediately: “When a man calls his wife to his bed, and she does not respond, the One Who is in the heaven is displeased with her until he is pleased with her.”
Such treatment of women might be expected to make Islam abhorrent within the cultural milieu epitomized by the equal-rights obsessed European Union and the neofeminist New York Times, but this has not happened. There is a reason for this. It is the refusal of Islam to accept the wife as her husband’s closest and inseparable loving partner and companion. Islam therefore challenges Christian marriage in principle and in practice. Muslim teaching on marriage and the family, though “conservative” about “patriarchy,” denies the traditional Christian concept of matrimony. Islam is therefore an “objective” ally of postmodernity, a few beatings here and a few rapes there notwithstanding.
The Australian frontier wars is a term applied by some historians to violent conflicts between Indigenous Australians[JS1] and white settlers during the British colonisation of Australia. The first fighting took place several months after the landing of the First Fleet in January 1788 and the last clashes occurred in the early 20th century, as late as 1934. A minimum of 40,000 Indigenous Australians and between 2,000 and 2,500 settlers died in the wars. However, recent scholarship on the frontier wars in what is now the state of Queensland indicates that Indigenous fatalities may have been significantly higher. Indeed, while battles and massacres occurred in a number of locations across Australia, they were particularly bloody in Queensland, owing to its comparatively larger pre-contact Indigenous population.
In 1770 a British expedition under the command of then-Lieutenant James Cook[JS2] made the first voyage by Europeans along the Australian east coast. On 29 April Cook and a small landing party fired on a group of Dharawal people who sought to prevent the British from landing at the foot of their camp at Botany Bay, described by Cook as “a small village”. Two Dharawal men made threatening gestures and a stone was thrown to underline that the British were not welcome to land at that spot. Cook then ordered “a musket to be fired with small-shot” and the elder of the two was hit in a leg. This caused the two Dharawal men to run to their huts and seize their spears and shields. Subsequently, a single spear was thrown towards the British party, which “happily hurt nobody”. This then caused Cook to order “a third musket with small-shots” to be fired, “upon which one of them threw another lance and both immediately ran away.” Cook did not make further contact with the Dharawal.
Cook, in his voyage up the east coast of Australia, observed no signs of agriculture or other development by its inhabitants. Some historians argue that under prevailing European law such land was deemed terra nullius or land belonging to nobody or land ’empty of inhabitants’ (as defined by Emerich de Vattel). Cook wrote that he formally took possession of the east coast of New Holland on 22 August 1770 when on Possession Island off the west coast of Cape York Peninsula.
The British Government decided to establish a prison colony in Australia in 1786. Under the European legal doctrine of terra nullius, Indigenous Australians were not recognised as having property rights and territory could be acquired through ‘original occupation’ rather than conquest or consent. The colony’s Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, [JS3] was instructed to “live in amity and kindness” with Indigenous Australians and sought to avoid conflict.
The British settlement of Australia commenced with the First Fleet[JS4] in mid-January 1788 in the south-east in what is now the federal state of New South Wales. This process then continued into Tasmania and Victoria from 1803 onward. Since then the population density of non-Indigenous people has remained highest in this region of the Australian continent. However, conflict with Aboriginal people was never as intense and bloody in the south-eastern colonies as in Queensland and the north-east of the continent. More settlers, as well as Indigenous Australians, were killed on the Queensland frontier than in any other Australian colony. The reason is simple, and is reflected in all evidence and sources dealing with this subject: There were more Aborigines in Queensland. The territory of Queensland was the single most populated section of pre-contact Indigenous Australia, reflected not only in all pre-contact population estimates, but also in the mapping of pre-contact Australia (see Horton’s Map of Aboriginal Australia).
The indigenous population distribution illustrated below is based on two independent sources, firstly on two population estimates made by anthropologists and a social historian in 1930 and in 1988, secondly on the basis of the distribution of known tribal land.
The Distribution of the Pre-Contact Indigenous Population when Imposed on the Current Australian States and Territories.
Share of Population in the 1930-Estimates
Share of Population in the 1988-Estimates
Distribution of tribal land
New South Wales
All evidence suggests that the territory of Queensland had a pre-contact Indigenous population density more than double that of New South Wales, at least six times that of Victoria and at least twenty times that of Tasmania. Equally there are signs that the population density of Indigenous Australia was comparatively higher in the north-eastern sections of New South Wales, and along the northern coast from the Gulf of Carpentaria and westward including certain sections of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Estimated Minimum Indigenous Population by 1788 (based on Prentis 1988).
Population in numbers
Population in percentage
New South Wales
Impact of disease
The effects of disease, infertility, loss of hunting grounds, and starvation on the Aboriginal population were significant. There are indications that smallpox epidemics may have impacted heavily on some Aboriginal tribes, with depopulation in large sections of what is now Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland up to 50% or more, even before the move inland from Sydney of squatters[JS5] and their livestock. Other diseases hitherto unknown in the Indigenous population—such as the common cold, flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis—also had an impact, significantly reducing their numbers and tribal cohesion, and so limiting their ability to adapt to or resist invasion and dispossession.
Traditional Aboriginal warfare
According to the historian John Connor, traditional Aboriginal warfare should be examined on its own terms and not by definitions of war derived from other societies. Aboriginal people did not have distinct ideas of war and peace, and traditional warfare was common, taking place between groups on an ongoing basis, with great rivalries being maintained over extended periods of time. The aims and methods of traditional Aboriginal warfare arose from their small autonomous social groupings. The fighting of a war to conquer enemy territory was not only beyond the resources of any of these Aboriginal groupings, it was contrary to a culture that was based on spiritual connections to a specific territory. Consequently, conquering another group’s territory may have been seen to be of little benefit. Ultimately, traditional Aboriginal warfare was aimed at continually asserting the superiority of one’s own group over its neighbor’s, rather than conquering, destroying or displacing neighbouring groups. As the explorer Edward John Eyre[JS6] observed in 1845, whilst Aboriginal culture was “so varied in detail”, it was “similar in general outline and character”, and Connor observes that there were sufficient similarities in weapons and warfare of these groups to allow generalisations about traditional Aboriginal warfare to be made.
In 1840, the American-Canadian ethnologistHoratio Hale[JS7] identified four types of Australian Aboriginal traditional warfare; formal battles, ritual trials, raids for women, and revenge attacks. Formal battles involved fighting between two groups of warriors, which ended after a few warriors had been killed or wounded, due to the need to ensure the ongoing survival of the groups. Such battles were usually fought to settle grievances between groups, and could take some time to prepare. Ritual trials involved the application of customary law to one or more members of a group who had committed a crime such as murder or assault. Weapons were used to inflict injury, and the criminal was expected to stand their ground and accept the punishment. Some Aboriginal men had effective property rights over women and raids for women were essentially about transferring property from one group to another to ensure the survival of a group through women’s food-gathering and childbearing roles. The final type of Aboriginal traditional warfare described by Hale was the revenge attack, undertaken by one group against another to punish the group for the actions of one of its members, such as a murder. In some cases these involved sneaking into the opposition camp at night and silently killing one or more members of the group.
Connor describes traditional Aboriginal warfare as both limited and universal. It was limited in terms of:
the number of members of each group, which restricted the number of warriors in any given engagement;
the fact that their non-hierarchical social order militated against one leader combining many groups into a single force; and
duration, due to social groups needing to regularly hunt and forage for food.
Traditional Aboriginal warfare was also universal, as the entire community participated in warfare, boys learnt to fight by playing with toy melee and missile weapons, and every initiated male became a warrior. Women were sometimes participants in warfare as warriors and as encouragers on the sidelines of formal battles, but more often as victims.
While the selection and design of weapons varied from group to group, Aboriginal warriors used a combination of melee and missile weapons in traditional warfare. Spears, clubs and shields were commonly used in hand-to-hand fighting, with different types of shields favoured during exchanges of missiles and in close combat, and spears (often used in conjunction with spear throwers), boomerangs[JS8] and stones used as missile weapons.
Available weapons had a significant influence over the tactics used during traditional Aboriginal warfare. The limitations of spears and clubs meant that surprise was paramount during raids for women and revenge attacks, and encouraged ambushing and night attacks. These tactics were offset by counter-measures such as regularly changing campsites, being prepared to extinguish camp-fires at short notice, and posting parties of warriors to cover the escape of raiders.
Initial peaceful relations between Indigenous Australians and Europeans began to be strained several months after the First Fleet established Sydney on 26 January 1788. The local Indigenous people became suspicious when the British began to clear land and catch fish, and in May 1788 five convicts were killed and an Indigenous man was wounded. The British grew increasingly concerned when groups of up to three hundred Indigenous people were sighted at the outskirts of the settlement in June. Despite this, Phillip attempted to avoid conflict, and forbade reprisals after being speared in 1790. He did, however, authorize two punitive expeditions in December 1790 after his huntsman was killed by an Indigenous warrior named Pemulwuy,[JS10] but neither was successful.
Coastal and inland expansion
During the 1790s and early 19th century the British established small settlements along the Australian coastline. These settlements initially occupied small amounts of land, and there was little conflict between the settlers and Indigenous peoples. Fighting broke out when the settlements expanded, however, disrupting traditional Indigenous food-gathering activities, and subsequently followed the pattern of European settlement in Australia for the next 150 years. Indeed, whilst the reactions of the Aboriginal inhabitants to the sudden arrival of British settlers were varied, they became inevitably hostile when their presence led to competition over resources, and to the occupation of their lands. European diseases decimated Indigenous populations, and the occupation or destruction of lands and food resources sometimes led to starvation. By and large neither the Europeans nor the Indigenous peoples approached the conflict in an organised sense, with the conflict more one between groups of settlers and individual tribes rather than systematic warfare, even if at times it did involve British soldiers and later formed mounted police units. Not all Indigenous Australians resisted white encroachment on their lands either, whilst many also served in mounted police units and were involved in attacks on other tribes. Settlers in turn often reacted with violence, resulting in a number of indiscriminate massacres. European activities provoking significant conflict included pastoral squatting and gold rushes[JS11] .
Fighting between Burke and Wills‘ supply party and Indigenous Australians at Bulla, Queensland in 1861
Opinions differ on whether to depict the conflict as one-sided and mainly perpetrated by Europeans on Indigenous Australians or not. Although tens of thousands more Indigenous Australians died than Europeans, some cases of mass killing were not massacres but quasi-military defeats, and the higher death toll was also caused by the technological and logistic advantages enjoyed by Europeans. Indigenous tactics varied, but were mainly based on pre-existing hunting and fighting practices—utilising spears, clubs and other simple weapons. Unlike the indigenous peoples of New Zealand and North America, in the main they failed to adapt to meet the challenge of the Europeans, and although there were some instances of individuals and groups acquiring and using firearms, this was not widespread. In reality the Indigenous peoples were never a serious military threat, regardless of how much the settlers may have feared them. On occasions large groups attacked Europeans in open terrain and a conventional battle ensued, during which the Aborigines would attempt to use superior numbers to their advantage. This could sometimes be effective, with reports of them advancing in crescent formation in an attempt to outflank and surround their opponents, waiting out the first volley of shots and then hurling their spears whilst the settlers reloaded. Usually, however, such open warfare proved more costly for the Indigenous Australians than the Europeans.
Central to the success of the Europeans was the use of firearms, but the advantages this afforded have often been overstated. Prior to the 19th century, firearms were often cumbersome muzzle-loading, smooth-bore, single shot weapons with flint-lock mechanisms. Such weapons produced a low rate of fire, whilst suffering from a high rate of failure and were only accurate within 50 metres (160 ft). These deficiencies may have given the Aborigines some advantages, allowing them to move in close and engage with spears or clubs. However, by 1850 significant advances in firearms gave the Europeans a distinct advantage, with the six-shot Colt revolver, the Snider single shot breech-loading rifle[JS12] and later the Martini-Henry rifle as well as rapid-fire rifles such as the Winchester rifle, becoming available. These weapons, when used on open ground and combined with the superior mobility provided by horses to surround and engage groups of Indigenous Australians, often proved successful. The Europeans also had to adapt their tactics to fight their fast-moving, often hidden enemies. Strategies employed included night-time surprise attacks, and positioning forces to drive the Aborigines off cliffs or force them to retreat into rivers while attacking from both banks.
Native police in 1865
Fighting between Indigenous Australians and European settlers was localized, as Indigenous groups did not form confederations capable of sustained resistance. Conflict emerged as a series of violent engagements, and massacres across the continent. According to the historian Geoffrey Blainey[JS13] , in Australia during the colonial period: “In a thousand isolated places there were occasional shootings and spearing’s. Even worse, smallpox, measles, influenza and other new diseases swept from one Aboriginal camp to another … The main conqueror of Aborigines was to be disease and its ally, demoralization”.
The Caledon Bay crisis[JS14] of 1932–4 saw one of the last incidents of violent interaction on the ‘frontier’ of indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, which began when the spearing of Japanese poachers who had been molesting Yolngu women was followed by the killing of a policeman. As the crisis unfolded, national opinion swung behind the Aboriginal people involved, and the first appeal on behalf of an Indigenous Australian, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, was launched to the High Court of Australia in Tuckiar v The King. Following the crisis, the anthropologist Donald Thomson was dispatched by the government to live among the Yolngu. Elsewhere around this time, activists like Sir Douglas Nicholls[JS15] were commencing their campaigns for Aboriginal rights within the established Australian political system and the age of frontier conflict closed.
The first frontier war began in 1795 when the British established farms along the Hawkesbury River west of Sydney. Some of these settlements were established by soldiers as a means of providing security to the region. The local Darug people raided farms until Governor Macquarie[JS18] dispatched troops from the British Army46th Regiment in 1816. These troops patrolled the Hawkesbury Valley and ended the conflict by killing 14 Indigenous Australians in a raid on their campsite. Indigenous Australians led by Pemulwuy also conducted raids around Parramatta during the period between 1795 and 1802. These attacks led Governor Philip Gidley King[JS19] to issue an order in 1801 which authorized settlers to shoot Indigenous Australians on sight in Parramatta, Georges River and Prospect areas.
Conflict began again when the British expanded into inland New South Wales. The settlers who crossed the Blue Mountains were harassed by Wiradjuri warriors, who killed or wounded stock-keepers and stock and were subjected to retaliatory killings. In response, Governor Brisbane proclaimed martial law on 14 August 1824 to end “…the Slaughter of Black Women and Children, and unoffending White Men…”. It remained in force until 11 December 1824, when it was proclaimed that “…the judicious and humane Measures pursued by the Magistrates assembled at Bathurst have restored Tranquility without Bloodshed…”. There is a display of the weaponry and history of this conflict at the National Museum of Australia. This includes a commendation by Governor Brisbane of the deployment of the troops under Major Morisset[JS20] :
I felt it necessary to augment the Detachment at Bathurst to 75 men who were divided into various small parties, each headed by a Magistrate who proceeded in different directions in towards the interior of the Country … This system of keeping these unfortunate People in a constant state of alarm soon brought them to a sense of their Duty, and … Saturday their great and most warlike Chieftain has been with me to receive his pardon and that He, with most of His Tribe, attended the annual conference held here on the 28th Novr….
From the 1830s British settlement spread rapidly through inland eastern Australia, leading to widespread conflict. Fighting took place across the Liverpool Plains, with 16 British and up to 500 Indigenous Australians being killed between 1832 and 1838. The fighting in this region included several massacres of Indigenous people including as the Waterloo Creek massacre[JS21] and Myall Creek massacres[JS22] in 1838 and did not end until 1843. Further fighting took place in the New England region during the early 1840s.
Poster issued in Van Diemen’s Land during the Black War implying a policy of friendship and equal justice for white settlers and Indigenous Australians. Such a policy did not actually exist at the time.
The British established a settlement in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) in 1803. Relations with the local Indigenous people were generally peaceful until the mid-1820s when pastoral expansion caused conflict over land. This led to sustained frontier warfare (the ‘Black War‘), and in some districts farmers were forced to fortify their houses. Over 50 British were killed between 1828 and 1830 in what was the “most successful Aboriginal resistance in Australia’s history”.
In 1830 Lieutenant-GovernorArthur[JS23] attempted to end the ‘Black War’ through a massive offensive. In an operation which became known as the ‘Black Line‘ ten percent of the colony’s male civilian population were mobilized and marched across the settled districts in company with police and soldiers in an attempt to clear Indigenous Australians from the area. While few Indigenous people were captured, the operation discouraged the Indigenous raiding parties, and they gradually agreed to leave their land for a reservation which had been established at Flinders Island.
Portrait of Noongar warrior Yagan’s severed head, 1833
The first British settlement in Western Australia was established by the British Army at Albany in 1826. Relations between the garrison and the local Minang people were generally good. Open conflict between Noongar and European settlers broke out in Western Australia in the 1830s as the Swan River Colony expanded from Perth. The Pinjarra Massacre,[JS24] the best known single event, occurred on 28 October 1833 when a party of British soldiers and mounted police led by GovernorStirling[JS25] attacked an Indigenous campsite on the banks of the Murray River.
The Noongar people, forced from traditional hunting grounds and denied access to sacred sites, turned to stealing settlers’ crops and killing livestock to supplement their food supply. In 1831 a Noongar person was killed taking potatoes; this resulted in Yagan killing a servant of the household, as was the response permitted under tribal law. In 1832 Yagan and two others were arrested and sentenced to death, but settler Robert Menli Lyon[JS26] argued that Yagan was defending his land from invasion and therefore should be treated as a prisoner of war. The argument was successful and the three men were exiled to Carnac Island under the supervision of Lyon and two soldiers. The group later escaped from the island.
In the Busselton region, relations between the white settlers and the native Wardandi people were strained to the point of violence, resulting in several Aboriginal deaths. In June 1841, George Layman was speared to death by Wardandi elder Gaywal. According to one source, Layman had got involved in an argument between Gaywal and another Wardandi tribesman over their allocation of damper, and had pulled Gaywal’s beard, which was considered a grave insult. According to another source, Layman had hired two of Gaywal’s wives to work on his farm and would not let them go back to their husband. A manhunt for Layman’s killer went on for several weeks, involving much bloodshed as Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers, and troops killed unknown numbers of Aboriginals in what has become known as the Wonnerup Massacre. The posse eventually shot Gaywal and captured his three sons, two of whom were imprisoned on Rottnest Island[JS27] .
The discovery of gold near Coolgardie in 1892 brought thousands of prospectors onto Wangkathaa land, causing sporadic fighting.
Continued European expansion in Western Australia led to further frontier conflict, Bunuba raiders also attacked European settlements during the 1890s until their leader Jandamarra was killed in 1897. Sporadic conflict continued in northern Western Australia until the 1920s, with a Royal Commission held in 1926 finding that at least eleven Indigenous Australians had been killed in the Forrest River massacre[JS28] by a police expedition in retaliation for the death of a European.
Aborigines attack squatters sleeping near Lake Hope, 1866
South Australia was settled in 1836 with no convicts and a unique plan for settlers to purchase land in advance of their arrival, which was intended to ensure a balance of landowners and farm workers in the colony. The Colonial Office were very conscious of the recent history of the earlier settlements in the eastern states, where there was significant conflict with the Aboriginal population. At the initial proclamation day in 1836 Governor Hindmarsh[JS29] , made a brief statement that explicitly stated how the native population should be treated. He said in part:
It is also, at this time especially, my duty to apprize the Colonists of my resolution, to take every lawful means of extending the same protection to the native population as to the rest of His Majesty’s Subjects, and of my firm determination to punish with exemplary severity, all acts of violence or injustice which may in any manner be practiced or attempted against the natives, who are to be considered as much under the Safeguard of the law as the Colonists themselves, and equally entitled to the privileges of British Subjects.
Governor Gawler[JS30] declared in 1840 that Aboriginal people “have exercised distinct, defined, and absolute right or proprietary and hereditary possession … from time immemorial.” The Governor ordered land to be set aside for Aborigines, but there was bitter opposition from landowners who insisted on a right to choose the best land. Eventually the land was available to Aborigines only if it promoted their ‘Christianisation’ and they became farmers.
The designation of the Aboriginal population as British citizens gave them rights and responsibilities of which they had no knowledge, and ignored existing Aboriginal customary law. However, Aboriginal people could not testify in court, since, not being Christians, they could not swear an oath on a bible. There was also great difficulty in translation. The good intentions of those establishing and leading the new colony soon came into conflict with the fears of the Aboriginal people and the new settlers. “In South Australia, as across Australia’s other colonies, the failure to adequately deal with Aboriginal rights to land was fundamental to the violence that followed.”
Soon after the colony was established, large numbers of sheep and cattle were brought overland from the eastern colonies. There were many instances of conflict between Aborigines and the drovers, with the former desiring the protection of their land and the sheep and the latter quick to shoot to protect themselves and their flocks. One expedition leader (Buchanan) recorded at least six conflicts and the deaths of eight Aboriginal people.
In 1840 the ship Maria[JS31] was wrecked on Encounter Bay, about 100 km south of Adelaide. A search party found that all 26 survivors of the wreck had been massacred. The Governor summoned the Executive Council under martial law and a police party was sent to the district to deliver summary justice against the offending tribe. The police party apprehended a number of Aboriginal people; two men were implicated, tried by a tribunal from members of the expedition, found guilty and hanged. There was vigorous debate in the colony between those approving the immediate punishment for the massacre and those condemning this form of justice outside the normal law.
The town of Port Lincoln, which was readily accessible by sea from Adelaide, became an early new settlement. A small number of shepherds began to encroach on the land occupied by a large Aboriginal population. Deaths on both side occurred and the settlers demanded better protection. Police and soldiers were sent to Eyre Peninsula, but were often ineffective due to the size of the area and the number of isolated settlements. By the mid ’40s. after conflicts sometimes involving large numbers of Aborigines, the greater lethality of the white people’s weapons had their effect. Several alleged leaders of attacks by Aboriginal people were tried and executed in Adelaide.
The experience of the Port Lincoln settlement on Eyre Peninsula was repeated in the South East of the state and in the north as settlers encroached on the Aboriginal people. The government attempted to apply the sentiments of the state’s proclamation, but the contradictions between these sentiments and the dispossession that the settlement involved made conflict inevitable.
Fighting also took place in early pre-separation Victoria after it was settled in 1834.
A clash at Benalla in 1838 known as the Battle of Broken River of which at least seven white settlers were killed, marked the beginning of frontier conflict in the colony which lasted for fifteen years.
The Indigenous groups in Victoria concentrated on economic warfare, killing tens of thousands of sheep. Large numbers of British settlers arrived in Victoria during the 1840s, and rapidly outnumbered the Indigenous population.
In 1842, white inhabitants from the Port Fairy area wrote a letter to the Charles Latrobe[JS35] requesting the government improve security from “outrages committed by natives” and listing many incidents of conflict and economic warfare. An excerpt of the letter printed on 10 June:
“We, the undersigned, settlers and inhabitants of the district of Port Fairy, beg respectfully to represent to your Honor the great and increasing want of security to life and property which exists here at present, in consequence of the absence of any protection against the natives. Their number, their ferocity, and their cunning, render them peculiarly formidable, and the outrages of which they are daily and nightly guilty, and which they accomplish generally with impunity and success, may, we fear, lead to a still more distressing state of things, unless some measures, prompt and effective, be immediately taken to prevent matters coming to that unhappy crisis.”
In the late 1840s, frontier conflict continued in the Wimmera[JS36] .
Aftermath of the 1861 Cullin-La-Ringo massacre[JS37] in which 19 settlers were killed by Aborigines, the deadliest attack on settlers in the frontier wars
Fighting near Creen Creek, Queensland in September 1876
The frontier wars were particularly bloody and bitter in Queensland, owing to its comparatively large Indigenous population. This point is emphasised in a 2011 study by Orsted-Jensen, which by use of two different sources calculated that colonial Queensland must have accounted for upwards of one third and close to forty percent of the indigenous population of the pre-contact Australian continent.
Queensland represents the single bloodiest colonial frontier in Australia. Thus the records of Queensland document the most frequent reports of shootings and massacres of indigenous people, the three deadliest massacres on white settlers, the most disreputable frontier police force, and the highest number of white victims to frontier violence on record in any Australian colony. In 2009 professor Raymond Evans calculated the indigenous fatalities caused by the Queensland Native Police Force[JS38] alone as no less than 24,000. In July 2014, Evans, in cooperation with the Danish historian Robert Ørsted-Jensen, presented the first-ever attempt to use statistical modelling and a database covering no less than 644 collisions gathered from primary sources, and ended up with total fatalities suffered during Queensland’s frontier wars being no less than 66,680—with Aboriginal fatalities alone comprising no less than 65,180—whereas the hitherto commonly accepted minimum overall continental deaths had previously been 20,000. The 66,680 covers Native Police and settler-inflicted fatalities on Aboriginal people, but also a calculated estimate for Aboriginal inflicted casualties on the invading forces of whites and their associates. The continental death toll of Europeans and associates has previously been roughly estimated as between 2,000 and 2,500, yet there is now evidence that Queensland alone accounted for an estimated 1,500 of these fatal frontier casualties.
The invasion of what is now Queensland commenced as the Moreton Bay penal settlement from September 1824. It was initially located at Redcliffe but moved south to Brisbane River a year later. Free settlement began in 1838 but a wholesale invasion and settlement only really began with the great rush to take up the surrounding land in the Darling Downs, Logan and Brisbane Valley and South Burnett onwards from 1840, in many cases leading to widespread fighting and heavy loss of life. The conflict later spread north to the Wide Bay and Burnett River and Hervey Bay region, and at one stage the settlement of Maryborough was virtually under siege. Both sides committed atrocities, with settlers poisoning a large number of Indigenous people, for example at Kilcoy on the South Burnett in 1842 and on Whiteside near Brisbane in 1847, and Indigenous warriors killing 19 settlers during the Cullin-La-Ringo massacre[JS39] on 17 October 1861.
Queensland’s Native Police Force was formed by the Government of New South Wales in 1848, under the well connected Commandant Frederick Walker[JS40] .
The largest reasonably well documented massacres in south east Queensland were the Kilcoy and Whiteside poisonings, each of which was said to have taken up to 70 Aboriginal lives by use of gift of flour laced with strychnine. Central Queensland was particularly hard hit during the 1860s and 1870s, several contemporary settlers mention the “Skull Hole” or Mistake Creek massacre on Bladensburg station near Winton which in 1901 was said to have taken up to 200 Aboriginal lives. In 1869 the Port Denison Times reported that “Not long ago 120 aboriginals disappeared on two occasions forever from the native records” Frontier violence peaked on the northern mining frontier during the 1870s, most notably in Cook district and on the Palmer and Hodgkinson River goldfields, with heavy loss of Aboriginal lives and several well known massacres. Battle Camp and Cape Bedford belong among the best known massacres of Aboriginal people in Cook district, but they were certainly not the only ones. The Cape Bedford massacre on 20 February 1879 alone was reported to have taken as many as 28 lives, this was retaliation for the injuring (but not killing) of two white “ceder-getters” from Cooktown. In January 1879 Carl Feilberg[JS41] , the editor of the short lived Brisbane Daily News (later editor-in-chief of the Brisbane Courier), conveyed a report from a “gentleman, on whose words reliance can be placed” that he had after just “one of these raids…counted as many as seventy-five natives dead or dying upon the ground.”
Raids conducted by the Kalkadoon held settlers out of Western Queensland for ten years until September 1884 when they attacked a force of settlers and native police at Battle Mountain near modern Cloncurry. The subsequent battle of Battle Mountain ended in disaster for the Kalkadoon, who suffered heavy losses. Fighting continued in north Queensland, however, with Indigenous raiders attacking sheep and cattle while native police mounted punitive expeditions. Two reports from 1884 and 1889 written by one of the prime combatants of the Kalkadoons, Sub-inspector of Native Police (later Queensland Police Commissioner) Frederic Charles Urquhart[JS42] described how he and his detachment pursued and killed up to 150 Aborigines in just three or four so-called “dispersals” (he provided numbers up to about 80 of these killings, the rest was just described without estimating the actual toll).
The conflict in Queensland was the bloodiest in the history of Colonial Australia. The latest studies gives evidence of some 1,500 whites and associates (meaning Aboriginal servants, as well as Chinese, Melanesian and other non-Europeans) killed on the Queensland frontier during the 19th century, while some recent studies suggest that upwards of 65,000 Aborigines were killed, with sections of Central and North Queensland witnessing particularly heavy fighting. The figure of 65,000 is considerably higher than the common national minimum of 20,000 colonial Aboriginal casualties.
The British made three early attempts to establish military outposts in northern Australia. The initial settlement at Fort Dundas[JS43] on Melville Island was established in 1824 but was abandoned in 1829 due to attacks from the local Tiwi people. Some fighting also took place near Fort Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula between its establishment in 1827 and abandonment in 1829. The third British settlement, Fort Victoria, was also established on the Cobourg Peninsula in 1838 but was abandoned in 1849.
The final battles took place in the Northern Territory. A permanent settlement was established at modern-day Darwin in 1869 and attempts by pastoralists to occupy Indigenous land led to conflict. This fighting continued into the 20th century, and was driven by reprisals against European deaths and the pastoralists’ desire to secure their land. At least 31 Indigenous men were killed by police in the Coniston massacre[JS44] in 1928 and further reprisal expeditions were conducted in 1932 and 1933.
Armed resistance to British settlement was generally given little attention by historians until the 1970s, and was not regarded as a “war”. In 1968 anthropologistW.E.H. Stanner[JS45] wrote that historians’ failure to include Indigenous Australians in histories of Australia or acknowledge widespread frontier conflict constituted a ‘great Australian silence’. Works which discussed the conflicts began to appear during the 1970s and 1980s, and the first history of the Australian frontier told from an Indigenous perspective, Henry Reynolds‘ The Other Side of the Frontier, was published in 1982.
Between 2000 and 2002 Keith Windschuttle[JS46] published a series of articles in the magazine Quadrant and the book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. These works argued that there had not been prolonged frontier warfare in Australia, and that historians had in some instances fabricated evidence of fighting. Windschuttle’s claims led to the so-called “history wars” in which historians debated the extent of the conflict between Indigenous Australians and European settlers.
[JS1]Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. The time of arrival of the first peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP. Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP. Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP. Evidence of fires in South-West Australia suggest ‘human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago’, although more research is required. Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years and 125,000 years BP
After much experience at sea, Phillip sailed with the First Fleet as Governor-designate of the proposed British penal colony of New South Wales. In January 1788, he selected its location to be Port Jackson (encompassing Sydney Harbour).
Phillip was a far-sighted governor who soon saw that New South Wales would need a civil administration and a system for emancipating the convicts. But his plan to bring skilled tradesmen on the voyage had been rejected, and he faced immense problems of labour, discipline and supply.
[JS5]Squatting in Australian history referred to someone who occupied a large tract of crown land in order to graze livestock. Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first (and often the only) settlers in the area. Eventually, the term squattocracy, a play on “aristocracy”, developed to refer to some of these squatters.
[JS6]Edward John Eyre (5 August 1815 – 30 November 1901) was an English land explorer of the Australian continent, colonial administrator, and a controversial Governor of Jamaica.
[JS7]Horatio Emmons Hale (May 3, 1817 – December 28, 1896) was an American-Canadian ethnologist, philologist and businessman who studied language as a key for classifying ancient peoples and being able to trace their migrations.
[JS8]A boomerang is a thrown tool, typically constructed as a flat airfoil, that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. It is well-known as a weapon used by Indigenous Australians for hunting.
[JS10]Pemulwuy (also rendered as Pimbloy, Pemulvoy, Pemulwoy, Pemulwy, Pemulwye, or sometimes by contemporary Europeans as Bimblewove or Bumbleway) (c. 1750 – 2 June 1802) was a First Nations man of Eora descent, born around 1750 in the area of Botany Bay in New South Wales. He is noted for his resistance to the European settlement of Australia which began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788
[JS11]During the Australian gold rushes, significant numbers of workers (both from other areas within Australia and from overseas) relocated to areas in which gold had been discovered. A number of gold finds occurred in Australia prior to 1851, but only the gold found from 1851 onwards created gold rushes.
[JS13]Geoffrey Norman BlaineyACFAHAFASSA (born 11 March 1930) is an Australian historian, academic, philanthropist and commentator with a wide international audience. He is noted for having written authoritative texts on the economic and social history of Australia, including The Tyranny of Distance.
[JS17]Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson, OBE (26 June 1901 – 12 May 1970) was an Australian anthropologist and ornithologist who was largely responsible for turning the Caledon Bay crisis into a “decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations”. He is remembered as a friend of the Yolngu people, and as a champion of understanding, by non-Indigenous Australians, of the culture and society of Indigenous Australians
[JS24]The Pinjarra Massacre, also known as the Battle of Pinjarra, is an attack that occurred in 1834 at Pinjarra, Western Australia on an uncertain number of Bindjareb Noongar men, women and children by a detachment of 25 soldiers, police and settlers including—and personally led by—Governor James Stirling.:25 Stirling estimated the Binjareb attacked to number “about 60 or 70” and John Roe, who also participated, to about 70–80, which roughly agree with an estimate of 70 by an unidentified eyewitness
[JS25]AdmiralSir James Stirling (28 January 1791 – 22 April 1865) was a British naval officer and colonial administrator. His enthusiasm and persistence persuaded the British Government to establish the Swan River Colony and he became the first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia.
[JS26]Robert Menli Lyon (1789–1874) was a pioneering Western Australian settler who became one of the earliest outspoken advocates for Indigenous Australian rights and welfare in the colony. He published the first information on the Aboriginal language of the Perth area.
[JS31]Aboriginal Australians on the Coorong massacred some or all of the 17 survivors of the wreck as they journeyed to Adelaide, an event which became known as the Maria massacre. A punitive expedition, acting under instructions from Governor Gawler that were later found to be unlawful, summarily hanged two presumed culprits.
[JS32]The Convincing Ground Massacre was a skirmish between the indigenous Gunditjmara people Kilcarer gundidj clan and local whalers based in Portland, Victoria in South-Eastern Australia. Tensions between the two groups had been building since the establishment of the town as a whaling station some five years previously, however, around eighteen thirty three or eighteen thirty four, a dispute over a beached whale would cause events to escalate.
[JS33]Campaspe Plains massacre, occurred in 1839 in Central Victoria, Australia as a reprisal raid against Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and occupation of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung lands. Charles Hutton took over the Campaspe run, located near the border of Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung, in 1838 following sporadic confrontations.
[JS34]The Eumeralla Wars were the violent encounters between European settlers and Gunditjmara aboriginals in the Western District area of south west Victoria.
[JS37]In mid October 1861, a squatter party from the colony of Victoria under Horatio Wills began a temporary tent camp to start the process of setting up the grazing property of Cullin-la-ringo. Wills’s party, an enormous settlement train including bullock wagons and more than 10,000 sheep, had set out from Brisbane eight months earlier to set up a farm at Cullin-la-ringo, a property formed by amalgamating four blocks of land with a total area of 260 square kilometres (64,000 acres). The size of the group had attracted much attention from other settlers, as well as the Indigenous people.
[JS38]Australian native police units, consisting of Aboriginal troopers under the command usually of a single white officer, existed in various forms in all Australian mainland colonies during the nineteenth and, in some cases, into the twentieth centuries. The Native Police were utilised as a cost effective and brutal paramilitary instrument in the expansion and protection of the British colonial frontier in Australia. Mounted Aboriginal troopers of the Native Police, armed with rifles, carbines and swords escorted surveying groups, pastoralists and prospectors into frontier areas.
[JS40]Frederick Walker (14 April 1820 – 19 November 1866) public servant, property manager, Commandant of the Native Police, squatter and Australian explorer.
[JS41]Carl Adolph Feilberg (21 August 1844 – 25 October 1887) was a Danish-born Australian journalist, newspaper editor, general political commentator, who are today best known as an Australian indigenous human-rights activist
[JS45]William Edward Hanley “Bill” StannerCMG (24 November 1905 – 8 October 1981), often cited as W.E.H. Stanner, was an Australian anthropologist who worked extensively with Indigenous Australians. Stanner had a varied career that also included journalism in the 1930s, military service in World War II, and political advice on colonial policy in Africa and the South Pacific in the post-war period.
As the aircraft flew eastwards over the outer suburbs of Perth numerous witnesses observed that it was flying at a lower altitude than usual for the daily Skymaster services, and at least one of the engines was running roughly and backfiring at regular intervals. In the minutes before it crashed, witnesses heard a number of different engine noises – sometimes operating normally, sometimes all engine noise ceased, only to be replaced by what was described as a very loud, high-pitched “scream”. When the wrecked engines were examined many weeks after the accident a significant amount of corrosion product was found in the fuel system within two of the engines. After a preliminary investigation, Investigators from the Department of Civil Aviation[GR2] believed the water responsible for the corrosion was also responsible for rough running of at least one engine, and ultimately temporary loss of power from all engines on at least one occasion. The Investigators did not find a likely source for the water.
All but one of the 29 occupants on board the aircraft died, either from multiple injuries and burns, or from incineration. One elderly male passenger survived the crash. The first rescuers at the crash site found him wandering about, dazed and distressed. He suffered serious burns and was admitted to hospital where he died six days later.
The accident became the subject of an Inquiry chaired by a Supreme Court judge. In the absence of evidence indicating the source of any water in the fuel, the Inquiry dismissed the submission that water was responsible for the accident. The Inquiry did not determine the cause of the accident but it made recommendations to enhance the safety of aircraft operations.
The Amana departed from Perth Airport at 9:55 pm for the 8-hour flight to Adelaide. On board were 24 passengers, 3 pilots and two air hostesses.
A radio report was received from the Amana at 10:00 pm advising it was on course and climbing to 9,000 feet. Nothing more was heard from the aircraft. As it flew east over the outer suburbs of Perth numerous people on the ground observed that it was flying unusually low, and heard at least one of its engines running roughly and backfiring repeatedly. Amana crashed at about 10:13 pm.
The debris field
A number of residents on farming properties to the west of York heard a large aircraft flying low over the area. The aircraft seemed to be in trouble because the noise from the engines was changing significantly. At times the engines seemed to be operating normally but on at least one occasion all engine noise ceased for a brief time and then returned as a very loud, high-pitched noise. One resident reported that when all engine noise ceased he could hear a rushing sound until the scream from the engines returned. Several residents reported seeing a bright flash of white light in the distance, followed by a loud crashing and scraping noise. Those closest to the crash could then see the yellow glow of a major fire.
Ten minutes after the Amana set course for Adelaide, a Douglas DC-4 operated by Trans Australia Airlines[GR4] became airborne at Perth, also heading for Adelaide. As the TAA aircraft set course for Adelaide, the captain, Douglas MacDonald, saw a vivid white flash on the horizon in precisely the direction in which he was heading. It lasted about six seconds, long enough for him to draw it to the attention of the two other crew members. Eight minutes later, the TAA aircraft passed over a band of fire on the ground. MacDonald estimated the fire was 28 nautical miles (52 km) east of Perth Airport. As MacDonald approached Cunderdin, he was aware the Amana, flying about ten minutes ahead of him, had not yet radioed its position report at Cunderdin. He became concerned that the vivid white flash and the ground fire might indicate some tragedy had befallen the Amana so he advised Air Traffic Control about his observations. Air Traffic Control was also concerned about the Amana’s failure to report at Cunderdin so on hearing MacDonald’s observations of the vivid white flash and the ground fire they activated emergency procedures. They asked MacDonald to fly back to the fire and determine its position. MacDonald did so and advised Air Traffic Control of bearings from the fire to York and Northam, the towns nearest the crash site.
Search and rescue
Frank McNamara (62), an apiarist, and Geoff Inkpen (25), a young farmer, heard the sound of a big aircraft in serious trouble, flying low nearby. McNamara described the noise from the engines as “terrifying”. They investigated and saw the bright light of a flash fire. McNamara sent his two teenage sons in his utility truck to York to alert the police. McNamara and Inkpen then set out on foot in the direction of the fire. As there was bright moonlight, they were able to hurry through the bush. After about half an hour, they came upon a scene of devastation. They were astonished to find an elderly man in a dazed state wandering around the burning wreckage. He gave his name and explained that he had been a passenger on a large aircraft. He had survived the crash despite being badly burned. No one else was found alive.
In response to notification from Air Traffic Control, three ambulances from Perth were dispatched in the direction of the crash site, known to be somewhere between Chidlow[GR5] and York. The crash site was several miles from the road so the ambulance crews travelled eastwards all the way to York without sighting a fire. The crews were eventually guided back along the main road and then along a dirt road that enabled them to drive to within three or four miles of the crash site. The crews then took their first-aid boxes and set out on foot.
Frank McNamara made a bed of leaves for the survivor and built a fire to help keep him as warm and comfortable as possible. McNamara stayed with the survivor while Inkpen went to summon help. After several hours, ambulance crews arrived and administered first-aid and morphia. Rescue workers constructed a stretcher using saplings, bandages and overcoats. They covered the survivor with an overcoat and carried him for two hours to cover about two miles through thickly wooded country to McNamara’s utility truck, which then carried him and his rescuers to a waiting ambulance.
Frank McNamara and Geoff Inkpen were publicly thanked by the Minister for Civil Aviation for the great assistance they rendered to the rescue effort throughout the night. In a public letter to Frank McNamara, the minister acknowledged the unrelenting effort of McNamara and his sons under extremely difficult conditions. He also acknowledged McNamara’s care of the survivor and regretted that McNamara was not rewarded by seeing the survivor recover. In a public letter to Geoff Inkpen, the Minister expressed his deep appreciation for Inkpen’s actions on the night of the crash. During World War II, Inkpen had served in the Royal Australian Air Force[GR6] (RAAF) as a navigator and the minister acknowledged that, in peacetime, Inkpen had continued to uphold “the fine traditions” of the RAAF.
Fate of those onboard
The sole survivor was the 67-year-old Managing-Director of Forwood Down and Company Ltd., a South Australian engineering company. He was the oldest person on board the flight, and probably the most experienced air traveler. He was interviewed by police in hospital in Perth, but was not aware of much detail about the final minutes of the flight. He said there was no sign of fire prior to the crash and no announcement to passengers to fasten their seat belts. He died six days after the crash and was buried at the North Road cemetery in Adelaide, his home town.
Investigators believed the aircraft captain survived for a short time after the crash. His body was a short distance away from his seat and both were a few metres ahead of the wreckage where they had been thrown after the nose of the aircraft was split open in the impact with a large tree. The seat belt had not broken, but it had been undone. The captain’s tunic was pulled up over his head as though to protect his face from the heat of the nearby inferno. Investigators believed he survived the crash and undid his seat belt to drag himself away from the fire. His body was not burnt, but autopsy showed both his legs were broken and he died from a fractured skull.
Postmortem examinations were performed on the 28 victims of the crash. The two co-pilots died from multiple injuries. Twenty-three passengers and the two air hostesses were found to have died from multiple injuries and burns, or incineration. Only 12 of the 28 victims could be formally identified. The remaining 16 victims were either unrecognizable or unable to be identified and were buried in a mass grave at Perth’s Karrakatta cemetery.
On its fatal flight the Amana was carrying 24 passengers, including 2 infants. All but one died in the crash or the ensuing inferno.
Part of the Amana’s fuselage
One of the Amana’s engines
The wreckage burned for several hours
Western Australian police examining the still-burning wreckage
Three investigators from the Department of Civil Aviation began work at the crash scene the day after the accident. They found the Amana had crashed in a heavily timbered area on the Inkpen family property Berry Brow, on the easterly track between Perth airport and Kalgoorlie, at a point where the elevation was about 1,100 feet (340 m) above sea level. The aircraft struck the tops of tall gum trees while descending at an angle of about 15° below horizontal. Its speed at impact was estimated at 250 miles per hour (400 km/h). It crashed through large trees, breaking them off as if they were matchsticks, before impacting the ground violently and gouging a long, wide furrow. The left wing was torn away from the fuselage and then the aircraft broke up and burst into flames. Only the rear fuselage with the fin and rudder were not affected by fire. The wreckage trail was about 280 yards (260 m) long and 35 yards (32 m) wide. At the time of impact the Amana’s left wing was lower than its right, suggesting it may have been turning left. It was heading north, not east towards Cunderdin. Investigators speculated that the crew may have been turning with the intention of returning to Perth airport; or they may have been preparing for a crash-landing in a large clear area to the north of the crash site.
Possibly as a result of rough-running of one or more of its engines, the Amana was observed flying over Perth’s outer-eastern suburbs at an unusually low altitude. No witness report was received from anyone along the next 16 nautical miles (30 km) of the Amana’s track from Perth’s outer suburbs to within 5 nautical miles (9 km) of the crash site. In the minute before it crashed, eight witnesses heard a large airplane in distress and reported unusual engine noise, including engine noise ceasing on at least one occasion, followed by the sudden return of very loud engine noise. This suggested that, on at least one occasion, none of the engines were producing power, followed by a resumption of power on some of the engines. The investigation team concluded that the Amana failed to reach its assigned altitude of 9,000 feet, and that it experienced intermittent engine problems of such severity that all engine power was lost on at least one occasion. Without power and with only one of its propellers feathered[GR7] , a Douglas DC-4 loses altitude at a great rate, possibly as fast as 100 feet per second (6,000 feet per minute).
Engines and propellers numbers 1 to 3 suffered substantial damage in the crash, but engine and propeller number 4 suffered much less damage. The investigators determined that at the time of impact, propellers 1, 2 and 3 were turning normally and their engines were producing power but propeller number 4 was feathered and its engine was not operating. There was also some evidence that action was taken by the crew to unfeather propeller number 4 in the moments before impact. None of the engines contained evidence of any internal failure prior to impact. All the magnetos were tested and the results indicated normal ignition was available to all engines up to the time of impact.
Engine number 4 suffered only minor, external damage. It was dismantled by the investigation team in an attempt to determine why it might have been shut down by the crew. A substantial amount of corrosion product was found in the passages of the fuel flow meter on engine number 4. Western Australia’s Deputy Mineralogist identified the corrosion product as magnesium hydroxide[GR8] . This is a corrosion product formed by reaction of magnesium and water, suggesting the fuel passages had been filled with water in the months between the crash and the detailed examination of the engine. Charles Gibbs, an engine specialist employed by the Department of Civil Aviation, estimated at least 45 cubic centimeters of water must have been involved. Rain falling on the crash site before engine number 4 was removed could not account for this much water in the fuel passages. Gibbs first examined the fuel system of engine number 4 and discovered the corrosion about two months after the accident. He conducted a test on an identical flow meter and found that after he left water in the fuel flow passages for approximately 8 weeks a similar amount of corrosion product developed. This suggested the rough running heard by witnesses on the ground may have been caused by water in the fuel reaching engine number 4. The steel rotor in the fuel pump of engine number 1 was slightly corroded but the fuel systems of engines 2 and 3 showed no evidence of corrosion. Investigators formed the opinion that the rough running heard by witnesses on the ground, and the crew’s decision to shut down engine number 4 and feather its propeller, may have been related to water in the fuel reaching that engine. Similarly, the intermittent loss of power on all engines in the final minutes of the flight may indicate that all engines were receiving fuel contaminated with water.
The only abnormality found in all four engines was the vapor vent float in the fuel strainer chamber of the carburetors. The floats had been crushed by extreme fuel pressure. Inquiries were made to the engine manufacturer and other civil aviation authorities but none had prior experience of vapour vent floats collapsing. Tests on carburetors were also carried out in Australia by the Aeronautical Research Laboratories but without finding any suitable explanation. Whether the floats were crushed in flight or in the crash could not be determined, but even if it had occurred in flight it would not have affected operation of the engines.
The earliest reports from the crash site speculated that the Amana was already on fire when it struck the tops of trees because those trees, and pieces of the aircraft’s left wing torn off in the impact with them, showed signs of scorching. Several eyewitnesses reported seeing flames in the sky before the aircraft struck the ground. Department of Civil Aviation investigators discounted this speculation because only one of the Amana’s push-button engine fire extinguishers had activated and this had most likely occurred during the crash or the fire.
Australian National Airways (ANA) ground staff in Sydney checked the Amana’s fuel tanks for the presence of water prior to its first departure on 26 June. They found none. The Amana was subsequently re-fueled in Melbourne and Adelaide but no check of the fuel tanks was made on these occasions. After being re-fueled in Perth immediately prior to the fatal flight, the fuel filters in all 4 engines and the fuel drain serving the cross-feed pipe in the wing centre-section were all checked for the presence of water. The fuel tanks themselves were not checked, partly because, on the night of 26 June, the ground staff were “pressed for time” because one despatch engineer was absent due to illness.
ANA was of the opinion that if a small amount of water entered a fuel tank during refuelling it would only reach the drain cocks when the aircraft was in level flight so it could not be detected immediately after re-fuelling. For 15 years ANA had operated in the knowledge that the only satisfactory time to check fuel tanks for the presence of water was prior to the first flight of the day, after the aircraft had been stationary overnight. Throughout this time ANA checked fuel tanks for the presence of water prior to the first flight of the day.
Prior to its final flight, the Amana received 1,756 US gallons (6,650 L) of fuel from a tanker operated by the Vacuum Oil Company. The tanker had been checked for the presence of water in the morning and again at 6:30 pm, about 2 hours prior to re-fuelling the Amana. It had also supplied fuel to 3 de Havilland Dove aircraft, none of which suffered any engine problems or were found to have water in the fuel.
The Department of Civil Aviation performed tests on parts of the DC-4 fuel system. Tests on the engine fuel system showed that when the engine boost pump was operating, a vortex[GR9] formed in the engine fuel tank. If a small amount of water was present, this vortex held the water in suspension and prevented it from entering the engine. The tests also showed that when the boost pump was turned off, the vortex dissipated and any water would soon find its way into the engine. Investigators believed this might explain why all engines were operating normally during the takeoff but at least one engine began to run roughly around the time the engine boost pumps would be turned off.
Western Australia’s Deputy Mineralogist gave evidence that he had identified magnesium hydroxide, a corrosion product, in fuel passages in one of Amana’s engines. Counsel for the Department of Civil Aviation explained that evidence gathered during investigation of the crash indicated water in some of the fuel on board Amana was responsible for the corrosion products found in engines numbers 1 and 4; for the rough running of an engine heard by a number of witnesses; and for the intermittent failure of all engines, leading to the aircraft descending to ground level. The Inquiry heard evidence from the Department of Civil Aviation’s Acting Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, C.A.J. Lum, a former RAAF Douglas Dakota pilot, who described his personal experience of a flight in 1946 in which all fuel tanks were checked for the presence of water prior to take-off and the flight proceeded normally for 20 minutes until both engines began running roughly. Lum returned to the aerodrome and checked again for water in the tanks, this time finding a significant amount of water. Counsel for the Vacuum Oil Co. explained that it was almost impossible for water to be introduced to an aircraft during refuelling, and vigorously rejected the theory that water in the fuel contributed to the crash.
Counsel for the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor presented evidence that the Amana was on fire before it first struck trees. Counsel for the widow of one of the victims suggested the crash may have been caused by the elevatortrim tab[GR10] jamming in the diving position.
In April 1951 Justice Simpson advised the Minister for Civil Aviation that new evidence had become available. The Minister gave permission for the Inquiry to be re-opened. The Inquiry re-opened in Melbourne on 4 June 1951. The Department of Civil Aviation had recently completed tests on the DC-4 fuel system. The tests showed that when an engine boost pump was operating, a vortex in the engine fuel tank prevented water from entering the engine. The tests also showed that when the boost pump was turned off, any water would soon find its way into the engine. The Department of Civil Aviation believed this might explain why all engines were operating normally during the takeoff but at least one engine began to run roughly around the time the engine boost pumps would be turned off. However, Justice Simpson stated that the re-opened Inquiry served only to confirm his view that the Amana’s loss of power was not due to water in the fuel.
Justice Simpson’s report was tabled in the House of Representatives on 28 June 1951 by the new Minister for Civil Aviation, Larry Anthony. The Inquiry found that the Amana suffered total loss of engine power on at least one occasion, followed by rapid loss of height until it struck the ground. However, the evidence did not allow the court to determine the cause of the total loss of engine power. Consequently, the court was unable to determine the cause of the accident. Simpson stated he was satisfied water had not been introduced into the Amana’s fuel system in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth.
The Inquiry uncovered two deviations from the Air Navigation Regulations although it did not consider these deviations contributed to the accident:
ANA was not in the practice of performing a fuel-drain check immediately after each re-fuelling, as required by Air Navigation Orders.
On the fatal flight, 8,545 feet of photographic film were carried as cargo. Air Navigation Orders specified that a maximum of 3,000 feet of photographic film may be carried.
The Inquiry also uncovered three irregularities in the safety regulation of civil aviation in Australia although none of these irregularities contributed to the accident. Justice Simpson’s report contained recommendations to deal with the irregularities:
fuel companies that supply fuel to aircraft should be required to check every compartment in a tanker wagon for the presence of water each time fuel in the tanker wagon is replenished.
when fuel was being drained from an aircraft’s tanks to check for the presence of impurities, the sample should be collected in a transparent vessel to allow more reliable identification of any water that might be present.
when pilots who regularly fly four-engine aeroplanes perform 6-monthly checks for renewal of their commercial pilot licenses, the check should be carried out in a four-engine airplane rather than in a two-engine airplane as was the common practice.
During the House of Representatives debate on the report, the Minister, Larry Anthony, stated that he had already asked fuel companies to check their tanker wagons for the presence of water after each replenishment, and the relevant Air Navigation Order would be amended to require fuel to be drained into transparent containers. He stated that his Department did not intend to amend the relevant Air Navigation Order to require pilots of four-engine aeroplanes to perform the periodic checks in a four-engine airplane because it considered it was more challenging to fly with one engine inoperative in a two-engine airplane than in a four-engine airplane.
Subsequent speculation about cause of the crash
Investigators from the Department of Civil Aviation believed water in some of the fuel tanks of VH-ANA was responsible for rough running of one or more of the engines; and this ultimately led to intermittent failure of all the engines. The Inquiry led by Mr Justice Simpson found no evidence that there was significant water in the fuel tanks. No radio call was received from Amana to indicate the nature of any problem, or even that the crew was aware of a problem. The Inquiry concluded without determining the cause of the crash.
In the weeks and months after conclusion of the Inquiry one possible explanation of the crash began to circulate among employees of ANA. This possibility began with one piece of evidence uncovered by the Inquiry during cross-examination of ANA’s ground staff. It was reported that after sunrise the morning after the crash the one-gallon container used to check Amana’s fuel filters was found empty and lying on its side on the apron a short distance from where Amana had been parked. The Inquiry attached no significance to this evidence and did not explore it further.
Employees of ANA believed the container had last been used to drain fuel from the cross-feed drain cock, the fuel cock that serves the pipe in the wing centre-section for cross-feeding of fuel from tanks in one wing to engines in the other wing. Moments after this procedure commenced, the staff member was advised of a telephone call from his wife and he went to answer the telephone. With the cross-feed selector valves closed, little fuel ran out when the drain cock was opened. Some employees believed that because no fuel was running out neither the staff member nor anyone else noticed the drain cock was still open. Due either to the wind or the slipstream from Amana’s propellers as it began to taxi prior to take-off, the almost-empty container was blown over and rolled some distance along the apron where it was found the next morning.
Some employees of ANA speculated that approximately ten minutes after take-off the crew of Amana were aware of the seriousness of rough running on number 4 engine so decided to shut it down. Company procedures specified that if an operational problem occurred prior to reaching Kalgoorlie[GR11] , 290 nautical miles (540 km) east of Perth, the aircraft was to return to Perth; but if a problem occurred after reaching Kalgoorlie the flight could continue to Adelaide. The Douglas DC-4 was capable of flying from Perth to Adelaide with one engine inoperative. The crew of Amana on the fatal flight might have decided to wait until past Kalgoorlie before making a radio call to report one engine had been shut down, and then continue to Adelaide. To manage fuel usage and balance the weight of fuel across the wing, the crew might have selected some of the operating engines to draw fuel from number 4 tank. The DC-4 had a complex fuel selection system and, either deliberately or inadvertently, all operating engines might have been connected to number 4 tank. If the drain cock in the cross-feed pipe was still open to the atmosphere, air would be drawn into the pipe, causing an interruption of fuel supply to the engines, all engines to stop operating and their propellers to move to fine pitch. When the crew realized engines 1, 2 and 3 had all suddenly failed and that cross-feeding of fuel was the source of the problem they would have changed the fuel selections and restored fuel to the engines, causing the sudden screaming noise heard by witnesses as the engines burst back into life with their propellers in fine pitch. Amana had been flying at lower altitude than usual so there was inadequate height for the crew to arrest the high rate of descent before the aircraft struck high ground on the Inkpen family property. (At the Air Court of Inquiry, George Pape, representing ANA, described as “fantastic” any suggestion that the crew of the Amana would be cross-feeding fuel from one wing to the engines on the other wing at such an early stage of the flight.)
The Flight Superintendent and the Technical Superintendent of ANA simulated some of these events during a test flight in another DC-4. They were satisfied that the time intervals between events were compatible with the likely sequence of events leading to the crash of the Amana, and that it was a plausible explanation of the accident. However, on legal advice this possible explanation of the crash was not made public. Two accidents involving Douglas DC-4s, one approaching Dublin Airport, Ireland, in 1961 and another approaching Stockport Airport, Manchester, United Kingdom, in 1967 were attributed to interruption of fuel supply when engines were supplied from the cross-feed system which was open to an empty fuel tank, allowing air to be drawn into the cross-feed pipe.
Recent archaeological finds and re-evaluation of Amana’s final moments[GR12]
Around 2002 further wreckage from Amana’s port wing outboard of the engines was investigated about 1.5 miles from the crash site. This wreckage had not been located during the 1951 investigation, although it had subsequently been located during farming operations and shifted to a barren area where it avoided significant subsequent degradation by grass fires. It suggests that having attained substantially level flight, Amana hit one or more trees several seconds before reaching its final impact site, causing sufficient damage to result in the in-flight fire observed by witnesses at the time, and a deviation from its original flight path. Part of this wreckage is now on display at The Civil Aviation Historical Society & Airways Museum at Essendon Airport.
A high-speed impact on part of the wing and fuel system might explain a surge in fuel pressure sufficient to cause the crushed vapour vent float found in the carburetor of each of Amana’s engines.
After the accident, souvenir hunters proved to be such a problem that the owners of Berry Brow kept all gates locked. Geoff Inkpen stated that after completion of an Inquiry a bulldozer would be used to dig a ditch at the crash site and what remained of the Amana would be buried.
A small memorial to the loss of the Amana, its passengers and crew, has been created in the aeronautical museum in the town of Beverley, 29 miles (47 km) south-east of the crash site. The memorial includes the nose undercarriage from the Amana. A memorial plaque was erected in the main street of Beverley on 26 June 2001, the fifty-first anniversary of the crash.
Australian National Airways (ANA) never fully recovered from the crash of the Amana. Since the beginning of 1945, 77 people had been killed in accidents in aircraft operated by ANA. In late 1948, ANA suffered 4 crashes in 4 months. The loss of ANA’s reputation as a safe airline, together with the unblemished safety record and growing commercial success of its rival Trans Australia Airlines, sent ANA into decline. In 1957 ANA was taken over by Ansett Transport Industries Limited and merged with Ansett Airways to form the domestic airline Ansett-ANA.
Photographs supplied by Father Ted Doncaster
The memorial and mass grave commemorate the victims of the Amana Plane Crash.
In June 1950 the Australian National Airways Skymaster Amana, the flagship of the company`s fleet, crashed into a wooded hillside northwest of York. Of the twenty-four passengers and five crew, only one man managed to get out alive. His name was Edgar W. Forwood, aged sixty-seven. Unfortunately, his condition steadily deteriorated and he died on Saturday of the same week. This crash is the worst aviation disaster in Western Australia’s history.
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This photo of the late forties shows the graceful ANA flagship VH-ANA Amana at Essendon Airport Melbourne. Not long after this picture was taken she would be smashed to pieces a long way from home.
On the 26 of June 1950 in Perth West Australia a typically fine and moonlit evening greeted the 24 passengers and 5 crew that boarded Amana for a scheduled flight to Adelaide and then on to Melbourne.
By 21:50 the DC 4 was taxiing for a departure off Perth Runway 29, the same strip, but opposite direction to that used by the R4D-5 Blue Goose five years earlier and unfortunately destined for a similar fate.
Looking down Guildfords (Perth) Runway 29 off which Amana departed.
Making a left turn to set heading overhead the Airport, Amana tracked due east towards her first waypoint Cunderdin. Unfortunately fate intervened less than 30 nautical miles later when the aircraft inexplicably crashed in the West Australian bush.
The port undercarriage leg from Amana, taken in 2001 lying under a tree near the crashsite
Witnesses that night from along the route taken by Amana reported rough running, backfiring and even periods of silence from the engines. The accident investigation team determined that earlier in the short flight, number four engine had been shut down by the flight crew and subsequently, the remaining three engines had all failed for indeterminate periods. There was evidence that immediately prior to impact, number four engine had been un-feathered in an attempted restart, and that power had been restored to the other three. Additionally the aircraft had commenced a left turn apparently returning to Guildford. Unfortunately it was all too late to save VH-ANA. In the dark, in a 15 degree turn to port, the aircraft barely cleared a ridge line, struck a tree 30 feet off the ground and ploughed into a downward slope shredding itself and contents into small pieces as it went.
Notice where Amana sheared off the top of this tree immediately prior to impact with the ground.
It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of the forces that reduced this flap actuating mechanism to a single component of twisted stainless steel.
Above: Looking back in the direction of the impact tree (note the small piece of aluminium protruding from the ground). Below: Taken close to the initial impact site, looking in the direction of travel, 330 Magnetic. Despite years of cultivation you can still see small pieces of wreckage that litter the ground.
In the course of the accident something, possibly a fuel tank, has burned fiercely here; consequently nothing has grown on this spot in the ensuing years.
Depending on the legal system of the jurisdiction, a NAA will derive its powers from an act of parliament (such as the Civil or Federal Aviation Act), and is then empowered to make regulations within the bounds of the act. This allows technical aspects of airworthiness to be dealt with by subject matter experts and not politicians.
[GR3]An aircraft registration, alternatively called a tail number, is a code unique to a single aircraft, required by international convention to be marked on the exterior of every civil aircraft. The registration indicates the aircraft’s country of registration, and functions much like an automobile license plate or a ship registration. This code must also appear in its Certificate of Registration, issued by the relevant National Aviation Authority (NAA). An aircraft can only have one registration, in one jurisdiction, though it is changeable over the life of the aircraft.
[GR4]Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), renamed Australian Airlines in 1986, was one of the two major Australian domestic airlines between its inception in 1946 and its merger with Qantas in September 1992. As a result of the “COBRA” (or Common Branding) project, the entire airline was rebranded Qantas about a year later with tickets stating in small print “Australian Airlines Limited trading as Qantas Airways Limited” until the adoption of a single Air Operator Certificate a few years later. At that point, the entire airline was officially renamed “Qantas Airways Limited” continuing the name and livery of the parent company with the only change being the change of by-line from “The Spirit of Australia” to “The Australian Airline” under the window line with the existing “Qantas” title appearing above.
[GR5]The Chidlow townsite was originally known variously as Chidlow’s Flat, Chidlow’s Springs or Chidlow’s Well after a well and stockyard on the old Mahogany Creek to Northam road. The well was sunk by William Chidlow, a pioneer of the Northam district, who originally established the Northam road. Chidlow arrived in the Swan River Colony in 1831. Settlement began in 1883 when it became known that Chidlow’s Well was to be the terminus of the second section of the Eastern Railway, which was opened in March 1884. Chidlow’s Well railway station and townsite were renamed Chidlow in 1920.
Formed in March 1921, as the Australian Air Force, through the separation of the Australian Air Corps from the Army, which in turn amalgamated the separate aerial services of both the Army and Navy. It directly continues the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), formed on 22 October 1912.
[GR7]On most variable-pitch propellers, the blades can be rotated parallel to the airflow to stop rotation of the propeller and reduce drag when the engine fails or is deliberately shut down. This is called feathering, a term borrowed from rowing. On single-engined aircraft, whether a powered glider or turbine-powered aircraft, the effect is to increase the gliding distance. On a multi-engine aircraft, feathering the propeller on an inoperative engine reduces drag, and helps the aircraft maintain speed and altitude with the operative engines.
Most feathering systems for reciprocating engines sense a drop in oil pressure and move the blades toward the feather position, and require the pilot to pull the propeller control back to disengage the high-pitch stop pins before the engine reaches idle RPM. Turboprop control systems usually utilize a negative torque sensor in the reduction gearbox which moves the blades toward feather when the engine is no longer providing power to the propeller. Depending on design, the pilot may have to push a button to override the high-pitch stops and complete the feathering process, or the feathering process may be totally automatic.
[GR8]Magnesium hydroxide is the inorganic compound with the chemical formula Mg(OH)2. It occurs in nature as the mineral brucite. It is a white solid with low solubility in water (Ksp = 5.61×10−12). Magnesium hydroxide is a common component of antacids, such as milk of magnesia.
Vortices are a major component of turbulent flow. The distribution of velocity, vorticity (the curl of the flow velocity), as well as the concept of circulation are used to characterise vortices. In most vortices, the fluid flow velocity is greatest next to its axis and decreases in inverse proportion to the distance from the axis.
In the absence of external forces, viscous friction within the fluid tends to organise the flow into a collection of irrotational vortices, possibly superimposed to larger-scale flows, including larger-scale vortices. Once formed, vortices can move, stretch, twist, and interact in complex ways. A moving vortex carries some angular and linear momentum, energy, and mass, with it.
[GR10]Trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft, used to control the trim of the controls, i.e. to counteract hydro- or aerodynamic forces and stabilise the boat or aircraft in a particular desired attitude without the need for the operator to constantly apply a control force. This is done by adjusting the angle of the tab relative to the larger surface.
Changing the setting of a trim tab adjusts the neutral or resting position of a control surface (such as an elevator or rudder). As the desired position of a control surface changes (corresponding mainly to different speeds), an adjustable trim tab will allow the operator to reduce the manual force required to maintain that position—to zero, if used correctly. Thus the trim tab acts as a servo tab. Because the center of pressure of the trim tab is farther away from the axis of rotation of the control surface than the center of pressure of the control surface, the moment generated by the tab can match the moment generated by the control surface. The position of the control surface on its axis will change until the torques from the control surface and the trim surface balance each other.
[GR12]Essendon Fields Airport (IATA: MEB, ICAO: YMEN), colloquially known as Essendon Airport, is a 305 ha (750 acres) public airport serving scheduled commercial, corporate-jet, charter and general aviation flights. It is located next to the intersection of the Tullamarine and Calder Freeways, in the north western suburb of Essendon Fields of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The airport is the closest to Melbourne’s City Centre, approximately a 13 km (8.1 mi) drive north-west from it and 8 km (5.0 mi) south-east from Melbourne Tullamarine Airport. In 1970, Tullamarine Airport replaced Essendon as Melbourne’s main airport.
The Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine remains the most catastrophic nuclear accident of the 20th century.
The Chernobyl disaster of April 25 and 26, 1986, was the most catastrophic nuclear accident of the 20th century. It has shaped and inspired nuclear policy, influenced environmentalist and activist groups, and left a direct, physiological impact on Pripyat, Ukraine and the Eastern European regions it contaminated.
The event happened due just as much to negligence as inevitability — with no fail-safes to prevent radiation from escaping in case of an accident, improperly trained personnel, and no enacted safety measures to ensure that those mistakes wouldn’t occur in the first place, the disaster was arguably lying in wait.
When a late-night safety test went awry and subsequent human error interfered with preventative measures, Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 became unmanageable. Water and steam merged together which lead to an explosion and a resulting open-air graphite fire. Two plant workers died that night and arguably suffered the least out of all those who eventually died from radiation or grew up with birth defects.
The Pripyat Amusement Park was set to open on May 1, 1986 — a week after the Chernobyl disaster.
Over the next few days, 134 servicemen involved with the clean-up in and around Pripyat were hospitalized, 28 died of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the following weeks, and 14 died of radiation-induced cancer within the next ten years. Indeed, the complete effects the disaster had on the health of the public in Pripyat and the surrounding area is still not totally known.
A simple miscalculation in safety measures during a late-night test quickly became the biggest nuclear disaster of the modern era. Brave souls on the ground sacrificed everything to stop it as the rest of the world watched in horror. 33 years later, the radioactivity of the Chernobyl disaster still lingers.
Emergency workers cleaning up radiated materials with shovels in Pripyat, 1986.
Ground Zero: A Timeline Of Events That Led To The Chernobyl Disaster
The accident occurred a full year before President Reagan famously ordered USSR General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” The Pripyat Amusement Park was set to open on May 1st as part of the May Day celebrations, but that opportunity never came.
It was 1:23 A.M. local time when Reactor 4 suffered a fateful power increase too high to handle. This was before nuclear reactors were encased in a now standardized, protective containment vessel.
Workers hosing the plant down with a decontaminant, 1986.
Chernobyl’s failings allowed vast amounts of radioactive isotopes to billow out into the atmosphere, covering parts of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and the American east coast in varying amounts of fallout.
Areas closest to the site, like Pripyat, were affected most drastically, with Ukraine’s capital Kiev receiving around 60 percent of the fallout while a significant amount of Russian territory sustained considerable contamination as well. UNICEF estimated that over 350,000 people evacuated their homes in Pripyat and far beyond between 1986 and 2000 specifically due to Chernobyl’s after effects.
The Design Flaws And Misuse Of Reactor 4
The Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear plant is about 65 miles north of Kiev on the banks of the Pripyat River. The town of Pripyat or Prypyat was founded in 1970 to serve the nuclear plant specifically as a closed, nuclear city. It only became an official city nine years later.
Chernobyl had four reactors and each was capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electric power. For context, the California Independent System Operator which oversees the bulk of the state’s electric power system, says one megawatt is capable of producing enough electricity for the instantaneous demand of 1,000 homes at once.
Recording radiation levels during construction of a new sarcophagus for Reactor 4, August 1986.
Chernobyl’s four reactors were different than most others worldwide. The Soviet-designed RBMK reactor, or Reactor Bolsho-Moshchnosty Kanalny meaning “high-power channel reactor,” was water-pressurized and intended to produce both plutonium and electric power and as such, used a rare combination of water coolant and graphite moderators that made them fairly unstable at low power.
If the reactors lost cooling water, they’d dramatically decrease power output which would rapidly facilitate nuclear chain reactions. What’s more, the RBMK design didn’t have a containment structure which is exactly what it sounds like: a concrete and steel dome over the reactor itself meant to keep radiation inside the plant even if the reactor fails, leaks, or explodes.
These design flaws compounded with the staff of untrained operators made for the perfect storm of Nuclear failures.
The rather inadequately trained personnel working on the Number 4 reactor late that night on April 25 decided to complicate a routine safety test and conduct an electrical-engineering experiment of their own. Their curiosity of whether or not the reactor’s turbine could operate emergency water pumps on inertial power, unfortunately, got a hold of their judgment.
First, the team disconnected the reactor’s emergency safety systems as well as its essential power-regulating system. Things quickly worsened when they set the reactor at a power level so low that it became unstable and removed too many of its control rods in an effort to regain some control.
At this point, the reactor’s output reached over 200 megawatts. At that fateful hour of 1:23 A.M., the engineers shut the turbine engine off completely to confirm whether or not its inertial spinning would force the reactor’s water pumps to kick in. Tragically, it did not. Without the requisite water-coolant to maintain temperatures, the reactor’s power level spiked to unmanageable levels.
The Chernobyl Disaster
In an effort to prevent the situation from rapidly getting worse, the engineers reinserted all the control rods — about 200 — taken out earlier in the hopes of recalibrating the reactor and bringing it back to reasonable levels. Unfortunately, they reinserted those rods all at once, and because the rods’ tips were made of graphite, this set off a chemical reaction which resulted in an explosion that was then ignited by steam and gas.
The explosion ripped through the 1,000-metric-ton concrete and steel lid and reportedly ruptured all 1,660 pressure tubes as well — thereby causing another explosion that ultimately exposed the reactor core to the world outside.
The resultant fire allowed more than 50 tons of radioactive material to waft into the sky where it was inevitably carried away and spread across the continent by wind currents. The graphite moderator, leaking radioactive material, burned for 10 days straight.
It didn’t take long for the Soviets to order an evacuation of Pripyat’s 30,000. Authorities scrambled to problem-solve their way out of the fiasco on their hands and began with an attempted cover-up that failed a mere day later. Sweden’s radiation monitoring stations over 800 miles northwest of Chernobyl detected radiation levels 40 percent higher than standard levels just a day after the explosion. The Soviet news agencies had no choice but to admit to the world what had happened.
The amount of radiation relinquished into the skies from the Chernobyl disaster was several times that of U.S. atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the help of global air currents, the nuclear disaster affected Eastern and Northern Europe and contaminated millions of acres of pristine farmland in the region.
A crumbling school building in Pripyat, 2018.
The “Suicide Squad” Makes A Sacrifice For The Greater Good
Unbelievably, the events of the Chernobyl disaster could have been even worse if not for real-life hero Alexander Akimov and his brave team.
Akimov was the first to declare an emergency in the plant as soon as the reactor was shut down, though by then the damage had already been done. He realized too late the extent of the damage; already the reactor had exploded and began to leak extremely high levels of radiation.
Rather than evacuate the plant as the explosion ensued, Akimov stayed behind. He and his crew of Valeri Bezpalov, Alexi Ananeko, and Boris Baranov entered the reactor’s chamber in waist-high radioactive waters beside the exploded reactor to release water. Bezpalov, Ananeko, and Baranov comprised a ‘Suicide Squad’ that descended into the water even deeper to turn on the emergency feedwater pumps to flood the reactor and stave off the release of more radioactive materials.
They manually pumped emergency feedwater into the reactor without any protective gear. The work of the engineers ended up costing them their lives from radiation poisoning, but they dramatically changed the impact of the disaster. Their sacrifice saved countless others from a resulting fallout that would have covered most of Europe.
The Toll Of Cleanup Operations In Pripyat
While the physical illnesses and disease were reportedly difficult to specifically tie to the disaster itself, the short- and long-term efforts to minimize any harrowing consequences were substantial.
The initial explosion resulted in the death of two workers and 28 firemen and emergency clean-up workers, including 19 others, died within three months of the explosion from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS). Around 1,000 on-site reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation as well as more than 200,000 emergency and recovery operation workers.
Managing Reactor 4 proved more difficult and complex compared with the relatively basic task of moving people from one place to another. Soviet estimates have calculated that 211,000 workers took part in the cleanup activities during the first year with anywhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people participating within the first two.
Evacuations began 36 hours after the incident with Soviet authorities having successfully relocated everyone in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone within a month. About 116,000 people had to pick up their things and find new homes — or potentially die from radiation-induced illnesses.
But a 2005 United Nations Report maintains that “the largest public health problem created by the accident” was its effect on the mental health of the 600,000 people living in areas impacted by the event.
The Nuclear Energy Institute claimed Chernobyl’s failings resulted in about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, with some deaths occurring as late as 2004 — while the UN study argued that less than 50 deaths could be guaranteed to have resulted from the event’s radiation exposure.
‘Liquidators’ preparing for cleanup, 1986.
Children in contaminated areas were given high doses of thyroid medication in order to combat the increase in radioiodine — a contaminant isotope that had seeped into the regional milk. This isotope had a half-life of eight days. Meanwhile, the soil was found to be contained by cesium-137 — which has a half-life of 30 years.
The efforts appeared to be to little avail. Numerous studies found that the number of thyroid cancer in children under 15 years of age in Belarus as well as Russia and Ukraine in general, showed a steep, concerning spike. Many of these children had developed a particular form of cancer from drinking milk — as cows grazed on contaminated soil, and produced contaminated milk.
A mural in Pripyat depicting children before the meltdown, 2018.
It hadn’t yet become clear, in the frenzy of day to day cleanup operations in those first months following the Chernobyl disaster, but an entire generation of children would grow up permanently changed by the event.