The Colour and Humour of Foley Vereker’s Journals at the Royal Geographical Society’s Archives

Foley Charles Prendergast Vereker (1850-1900)

The five journals of Foley Vereker cover journeys from 1870 to 1885 that took him completely around the world via such places as the Red Sea, Borneo, the Philippines, Vancouver Island, South America and West Africa. Over that time he rose through the ranks from Midshipman through Lieutenant to Commander in the Surveying Service of the Royal Navy.

Last week, I had the brief opportunity with my fellow Royal Holloway MA Cultural Geography students to look at these journals, held in the Royal Geographical Society’s archives at Kensington Gore in London. I spent my time with the first of them, covering the years1870 to 1872 on “the East Indian and China Stations.” This journal starts with the commissioning of HMS Nassau “for Captain W. Chimnio for surveying services in East Indies” on Monday 25th April 1870. After having “exercised at Fire Quarters” and “mustered by divisions and inspected bedding” over the next few days, Vereker and HMS Nassau left the port of Plymouth for the Far East, but not before “a glass of grog at Mrs. Blakeley’s.”

Vereker’s journals revealed some fascinating details about the voyages and the man, even in the brief time we had with them. It was not possible to decipher and transcribe large amounts of the variable handwriting, (although this was far from being the worst I have seen in my brief encounters with archives.) But quantity isn’t everything, and with some focus offered by the guiding questions from our Royal Holloway tutor and guide, Innes Keigheren, and by allowing the eye and the mind to alight at points where my interest was piqued, some qualitative details proved quietly compelling.

The first of these was Vereker’s ‘collection’ of examples of his name written in various different languages, either by himself, or by others. The inside cover of the first journal contains his name in Persian and in Abyssinian, together with a Persian proverb written later (in 1872) by a Captain Speedy, (if I read the name correctly). Vereker’s name also appears in this volume in “Hindo” and “Singalese” among others. To me this suggests more than a passing interest in the languages he encountered, and the choice of translations of his name rather than other words perhaps gives an indication of an informal or personal sense of connection or openness.

He describes his encounters with places and people in a way that strikes me as light and engaging. Here are a few extracts that I think reveal something of the man as much as the places and the people he encountered.

“Having disposed our [materials?] to form pretty comfortable beds we lit lamps and read till [sic] sleep overtook us and we were all soon in the arms of Morpheus, except one enthusiast who kept up mournful ditties nearly all night.”

“The town is a most wretched place … several dhows were landed up on the beach some of which although they do not look up to much still they say go to Bombay.”

“About 5AM we arrived at our destination and found horses waiting. We soon mounted and presented I daresay a ludicrous appearance to the natives, one of the party’s legs being about half the length of his body and another a six footer being perched on a very small animal and a third had a horse with only one ear!”

There were “… a great number [of people] being carried in hammocks made of matting and carried by two men. They are pretty comfortable but are evidently not built for English men as they are very short. The [mestisa?] women seem to like them very much, they cock their legs under them and sit in them smoking their cigarettes as coolly as [illegible]. We had fine [fun?] chatting [to] them as we passed but usually got as good as we gave.”

“I invested in a Cockatoo here which has proved a source of some amusement. He is wonderfully tame …”

I read in these lines an engaging sense of humour and an eye for everyday details of places and people. His keen observations are even more evident in the extensive range of illustrations throughout the journals. The colour and diversity of Vereker’s images range from precise sketches, graphs and maps through to both detailed and evocative, broad-brush watercolours of scenes both in towns and rural locations. These, together with his decorative dates, initials and occasional titles are fascinating entries, and again are suggestive of the sense of both the man and his experiences that are there to be discovered in these journals.

Finally, I also found some humour in several of the fragments on the backs of relevant newspaper cuttings scattered through the journal; one of these describes how the Prince of Wales went deerstalking in the Ballochbuie Forest but, “owing to the rain, his Royal Highness returned to Abergeldie without firing a shot”.

I find the contrast with Vereker’s experiences curiously compelling.

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