Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Old Books - Sometimes the past owner is more interesting than the book

I think it's a fairly common practice among bibliophiles to devote a few moments to Googling the name of an author previously unknown to us, or perhaps to check the name of previous owner of the book if we sense a story. If you buy enough books you cannot help encountering interesting ephemera once used to mark a page or affinity items which relate somehow to a previous owner's enjoyment of their book. Occasionally I do buy a volume knowing that I intend to research its provenance.

This morning I purchased a book which teased three of my interests - Poetry, African history and World War II. The book is OTHER MEN'S FLOWERS, (1944) an anthology prepared by Field Marshal Viscount A.P. Wavell while he was serving in India. I was interested in the selection of war poetry which Wavell favored, as well as his anecdotes about sharing verse with Churchill and Allenby. Ian Jack wrote a marvelous backgrounder on the Wavell book for The Guardian in 2005. He even quotes the publisher's wounding rejection letter.

The previous owner had used her copy as a repository, and that was a bonus because it promised to reveal a bit of her life experience if I cared to press. I got a bit carried away - investing at least two hours researching the photos, clippings and her annotations. Writing this short Blog completes my learning experience.

Verna Mabel Finlayson of Galiano Island signed the flyleaf in 1945 and later added a bookplate. Galiano is found in the Georgia Strait, a body of water which is currently under consideration for renaming as "the Salish Sea". Her pencil annotations and mementos hinted that she might have lost a son in WW II. Further, following the war she had corresponded with a Catholic Priest in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and probably involved herself in fundraising for church missions.A Catalina flying boat arriving at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, after a mission hunting German U-Boats. Many Canadians flew from the busy Flying Boat harbour.

U-Boat hunters in the North Sea : Within a few moments I learned that she had indeed lost a son, Flight Sergeant John Norman Gilbert Finlayson, R.C.A.F., killed in 1943. The sergeant was seconded to the R.A.F. and serving with 190 Squadron when he died. His parents were living on Galiano Island at the time of his death but Sgt. Finlayson had been born in the old gold mining town of Wells, B.C. The Province of B.C. honoured the airman in 1955 by naming a peak after him - Mount Finlayson.

I wanted to know more. Fortunately the details of the wartime crash were accessible. I learned that Sgt. Finlayson was one of nine crew aboard a Catalina, a "flying boat" based at Sullom Voe, in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. Their mission was convoy protection and duty often required long flights searching for German U-Boats inside the immense ocean triangle formed by the Shetlands, Iceland and Murmansk, Russia. On April 22, 1943 Finlayson's Catalina flew into a sheer cliff at the head of a Fjord in the Faeroe Islands and the compacted wreckage fell to the base of the wall.

A rescue party from 9th Field Hospital, Torshavn in the Faeroe Islands was dispatched by fishing boat but there were no survivors at the wreck site. It took three days to extricate the bodies and the unexploded depth charges. Sgt. Finlayson and the others are buried in the cemetery at Torshavn. The book of poetry constitutes a memorial of sorts in that Mrs. Finlayson underlined and annotated lines of verse. In Rudyard Kipling's poem "My Boy Jack" she found meaning in: Then hold your head up all the more, ... he was the son you bore, And gave to that wind and that tide! The B.C. mother gave particular attention to a more famous poem. It is "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death," by W.B. Yeats. She underlined only one of Yeat's lines, "Those that I guard I do not love". In the margin she added, "John wrote this in his log book Apr/41". And so two years before his death the Canadian airman sought inspiration or comfort in verse, pondering his future and his fate. His grieving mother later clipped Binyon's verse "They shall Not Grow Old" from a Vancouver paper, and taped it inside the back cover.

The White Fathers in Northern Rhodesia: An equally interesting story derives from a photo preserved in the book. On the back is a message written in tiny, neat handwriting and signed Father H. Marsan, W.F. I spent only an hour at it, but learned more about him than is suitable for a Blog article. No doubt I will learn more when I consult the Africana section of my library. "White Fathers" seemed an unfortunate and paternalistic name for a Missionary Order working in Africa, but it is nothing sinister. They took their name from the white cassock they wear, a pactical garment in Algiers where the Order was founded in 1868.

Quebec born Father Henri Marsan with three local Catholic priests at Fort Rosebery. He chose Africa and served over fifty years as a teaching missionary in what is now Zambia.

It seems that postwar Mrs. Finlayson gave her time to charitable work on behalf of foreign missions. Father Marsan sent her Christmas greetings in December of 1952, adding an envelope " containing small souvenirs, but large enough to bring a smile". Lost to us is a copy of his annual letter to his family and friends in Canada. Intrigued, I sought to learn where in Canada he once lived, something of his family, and of course more about the mission station at Fort Rosebery. "Decolonizition" initiatives by assorted governments have completely redrawn the map of the continent, especially in Zimbabwe and Zambia, but I managed to find a map of Fort Rosebery as it was in 1961, little more than a cluster of Mission schools and a hospital. It is now called Mansa and is located approximately 50 Km in from the Congo border.

For over a century the White Fathers, a Catholic missionary teaching order, operated dozens of schools in Central Africa. Father Marsan of Fort Rosebery corresponded with Verna Finlayson.

I found a few published references to Father Marsan, sufficient to learn that he had arrived in the Copper Belt quite early and that approximately 25% of the native population had been converted to Catholicism. "In March 1911, Father Henri Marsan, a French Canadian, was asked to begin a serious course in English for the catechists" a mission diarist recorded, because "the varnish of English" common to the mixed clergy was impeding the work. Priests and Catholic nuns were going out from a half dozen countries, including Canada, France, Belgium, and Ireland, and required a common tongue.

Fifty years later Father Marsan was still hard at work. The author of a book published in 1961, MUD AND MOSAICS, reported, "At the mission I met Father Marsan, a Canadian of 75 years of age, who was one of the first missionaries out here. He still goes on 'trek' on a push-bike and is still full of enthusiasm. He loves his Africans and they would do anything for him.”

An Accomplished Quebec Family: Henri Marsan was following his father's example when he became a teacher priest. His father, Amedee Marsan, was an agricultural engineer who taught for thirty years at the school of agriculture in Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, Quebec. Henri's parents, married in 1871 and had twelve children, nine of whom made it to adulthood. An article in a genealogical newsletter (2003) records that two brothers entered the priesthood. "Probably inspired by their mother's two brothers who were priests and by their three aunts who were nuns on their father's side, their son Henri joined The White Fathers, a missionary order, and Ernest was ordained priest in 1907." There is a wiki page for the White Fathers here.

I don't yet know what became of Father Marsan but I'm hoping he simply died of old age. In 1964 began the horrible campaign of mass murder of Christian missionaries in the neighboring Congo, and I am sure his great heart would have been broken by the senseless decimation of his co-workers. As the so-called "wars of liberation" spread throughout the region, many Catholic priests and nuns took a stand against Marxist ideology and scores of them (the Black with the White) were butchered by guerrillas in Zambia and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.

By the mid-1950s the African National Congress (ANC) established a base of operations in Fort Rosebery, secretly assisted by two Black leaders in the Catholic Church. From that point onward the political views of foreigners ("settlers") like the Father Marsan were monitored by the revolution. ANC members soon defected to the ZANC, and when the Zambian government under Kuanda became a client of the Red Chinese in the 1960-70s, the political atmosphere was choking. The irony is that the very ANC revolutionary leaders who made their early reputation at Fort Rosebery, were themselves purged by a succeeding Zambian regimes and became deeply embittered. Such is the internecine nature of politics in the region. The only constant in many black lives were the schools and churches run efficiently by the Catholic orders for the benefit of all.

I already have several books on Chinese, Indian and African auxilliaries in World War I, but I missed this monograph which was published in London. I wonder if Father Henri Marsan had Great War service?

If you can peel back another layer of today's onion, please contact your Runagate Blogger... Ron Jack in Vancouver, B.C.

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