The glory days of sail.

Great Tea race

Ariel leading Taeping, Great Tea Race, 1866 by Jack Spurling

Here on Mindship we celebrate the authors of the great boys adventure books, especially those of the sea like Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s birthday it is today, born Nov 13th 1850.

In the year of his birth the French launched Napoléon, the first purpose built steam powered battleship.  It was also the period when the extreme clippers were built.  This was at the peak of sailship design, when the sailing ships gave up cargo space for speed.  The beautiful, sleek and lighting fast greyhounds of the sea were born.

In the burgeoning era of steam the day of the huge East-Indiaman was over.  Steam ships could fill giant holds with cargo and plod their way over the ocean regardless of wind speed and direction.  The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 changed the world of shipping.  The final clippers were built around the time of Stevensons death at the young age of 44, in 1894.

Stevenson grew up the son of a lighthouse designer, so the sea was never far away.  The pinacle of the Clipper Era was the Great Tea Race of 1866, when Stevenson was 16 years old, a highly impressionable time in life.  In that year three ships left China on the same tide and arrived in London on the same tide 99 days and 14,000 miles later.  Taeping won the race by 28 minutes from Ariel by virtue of the depth of her dock entrance on the rising tide.  Serica finished 1 hour and 15 minutes behind Ariel.  The next two ships came in 28 hours later (Fiery Cross) and another day later Taitsing arrived.  To this day the walls of our houses are decorated by these fantastical ships.

Here is a poem by Stevenson in the spirit of a sea shanty, and in the spirit of those songs the name of the poem is the first line.

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
glory of youth glowed in his soul;
where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
mountains of rain and sun,
all that was good, all that was fair,
all that was me is gone.

……………………………………………Robert Louis Stevenson

If you win you lose.

Image result for anwar sadat

Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty that was signed by Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel in 1979.  The peace was made possible by the Egyptian gains in the Yom Kippur War which began on October 6th 1973.  The real-politik of that “victory” is a crucial lesson on a path to peace.

Egypt was humiliated by Israel in the 6 day war of 1967.  Their air force was wiped out by the Israelis and they lost the Sinai all the way back to the Suez canal.

A weak power which has just lost a war cannot negotiate a peace.  Whatever is negotiated will be seen as a surrender by both sides.  In order to negotiate a peace nations require a parity of gain or loss.  They need a stalemate of sorts.

In 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when many Israeli soldiers were given holiday leave, the Egyptians and Syrians caught the IDF napping.  It was during Ramadan, the muslim holy month, and the Israelis thought they were safe.  The military build up by the Arabic forces was observed by the Israeli military intelligence, but Egyptian disinformation was excellent.  They sent streams of misleading communications about missing spare parts, malfunctioning equipment and lack of training on new weapons.  They also dismissed their Russian military advisors in the months leading up to the war.

Then, in the summer of 1973 the Egyptians mounted huge military exercises along the Suez canal and the Israelis were forced to mobilise defence forces, at great expense, to shadow the Egyptian movements.  As the exercises went on, month after month, the natural inclination for the Israelis was to downgrade the alert levels.  By the time Yom Kippur arrived many of the soldiers were overdue some leave.

The Arabs made good early gains, the Egyptians especially, retaking large parts of the Sinai.  The inevitable Israeli response was swift and furious.  Within 3 days the fronts were stabilised.

This is when things get really interesting.  Israel was able to throw the Syrians back to the pre-attack lines on the Golan Plateau.  The Syrian attack was a failure and the battle lines remain in contention to this day.

In the Sinai the Israelis were unable to dislodge the Egyptians and a stalemate ensued.  The Israelis had to hold up their hands and admit they had been caught off guard.  The Egyptians were able to sell the conflict as a victory to the Egyptian people.

This perception of a victory allowed Anwar Sadat to underscore his position to the people of Egypt as a strongman.  As a victorious General he could go to the negotiation table and forge a peace with Israel.  Without some form of victory in the Yom Kippur war he could never have agreed the peace treaty with Israel.  The Egyptian hawks would have portrayed any deal as a surrender.

The peace between Egypt and Israel holds to this day.  Although it has its skeptics, those who describe it as a “Cold Peace” akin to a Cold War, the fact is that it has stabilised the region.

What I find interesting is that the Israelis had to give up on victory to secure an enduring peace.  Sometimes when you win you lose, because your victory weakens your opponent, who must then fight on.  The result is decades of conflict.

On the other hand, as in this case, by losing a bit you win the bigger game.  Accept a defeat, give strength to your opponent, and they can sue for peace that will endure.

Anwar Sadat began the Yom Kippur war on this day in 1973.  On this day in 1981 he was assassinated by an islamic fundamentalist group of his own military officers during the annual victory parade celebrating the crossing of the Suez Canal.  Sometimes if you win you lose.

Image result for anwar sadat body