Thriller in Manila

Thriller in Manila: Did the outcome of one of the most famous battles in American naval history turn on an envelope hidden in the folds of a naturalist’s freshly laundered shirt?

William Doherty has been much on my mind. I’ve been revisiting my Tring Museum research to try and fit Charles Hartert’s story finally into my book, a baggy tome about my great uncle’s war held together by chalk and wishful thinking as much as anything else. I was fascinated by the stories of the people who called my home “home” in that strange place: just beyond living memory – and the lines which connected them across countries and oceans. Lines like the zig zag trenches they left in the hills and the older lines tracking along the scarp or wrapped protectively around the Chiltern hill tops.

Chestnut-backed thrush (Geokichla dohertyi, Hartert, 1896)
Chestnut-backed thrush (Geokichla dohertyi, Hartert, 1896) Waddesdon, 26 March 2017.

Doherty, one of the widest travelled natural history collectors of his time, didn’t call Tring home but he felt the pull of it. It was a fixed point on his horizon, like his parental home in Cincinnati. Ernst Hartert considered him a kindred spirit and they had been friends since meeting in Perak on the Malay Peninsula in 1888. In Doherty, two years older than Hartert who was twenty-nine when they met, Hartert saw not just a fellow scientist but a linguist and avid reader who was interested in every detail of the countries he visited. The two collected together and Doherty was bereft when his new friend returned to Germany. From this point on their paths would take different directions. Hartert married and settled in England where he became Walter Rothschild’s first curator. The precarious work of a field collector (apart from summer holidays) was behind him. Doherty remained in the field. He was a freelance collector but had a special loyalty to Walter Rothschild and his old friend Ernst Hartert and was in frequent communication with both. For Hartert, the arrival of a son in 1893 was a further anchor. His Wanderjharan – travelling years – now really were behind him. Doherty referred to the son as Hartertius junior and to Hartert’s father as Hartertius sagax. Testament to the way the scientists shared an imaginative space with their subjects and to Doherty’s affection for his friend’s domesticity. To Doherty the idea of settling down was something of a pipe dream (maybe Trinidad, he told Hartert) but he couldn’t imagine himself married. The Hartert family were a point of stability in his restless wandering.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up William Leach’s book Butterfly People. Published in 2013 it is a group biography of American butterfly collectors and scientists and a cultural history of the butterfly to Americans caught between beauty and utility in what would turn out to have been, because of subsequent ecological and cultural changes (utility won), the golden age of American butterfly collecting.

Oddly enough, my chapter was entitled “Bird Men”. I knew that Doherty had only reluctantly been persuaded by Walter Rothschild and Ernst Hartert to add birds to his collecting activities. In my defence, there is probably a book being written even now on “Snail People” with a chapter or two on William Doherty. He was many things to many people. He resists the cyanide jar and the easy label.

I was first inspired to look closer at Doherty when I saw that his signature in Harterts’ visitors’ book, which I looked at in Tring Museum (a photocopy), was accompanied with a quote from Tennyson’s poem “Break, Break, Break”:

“And I would that my pen could utter the thoughts that arise in me.”

I wondered if it was a premonition? Did Doherty, signing the vistors’ book at Belleview on 11 February 1900, look out at the wintry Chiltern hills and see his own shadow move behind the clouds? Doherty would die of dysentery in the railway hospital at Nairobi two years later at the age of 44. Hartert tried to persuade his friend not to go, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

It quickly became apparent that Doherty’s story could actually shed light on Hartert. Their friendship would not only reveal the human side of the systematic scientist, but it could also shed light on Hartert’s pre-history. After all, Doherty was making his precarious living doing the same job that Hartert did before taking up his post as curator at Tring. They were by Hartert’s own account, kindred spirits, but even more than this, Doherty’s tragic early death provided a kind of strange pre-echo of the death of the Harterts’ son on 28 October 1916. Correspondence at the natural History Museum reveals Hartert to be a sensitive, considerate and humane friend who can’t do enough to help the newly bereaved parents. A pastoral role that would be conspicuously unavailable from certain quarters at the Harterts’ own time of dire need.

I’m not sure that enough material survives to write a book length biography of William Doherty. I’d love to read one but I suspect that too much has gone including his notebooks – “Black Marias” he called them. The biggest tragedy is that he didn’t live to write his own. I was really pleased to read in Leach’s book that my literary radar was vindicated – Doherty often had two books on the go and his favourite writer was Robert Louis Stevenson. He sometimes found the characters he met in books more real than the people he met on his travels. Which is not a bad start point for a creative writer – in any discipline. Hartert wasn’t alone in thinking that Doherty could have written a classic in the mold of The Malay Archipelago.

But William Leach didn’t mention Doherty’s contribution to one of the most famous naval battles in American history. Perhaps there wasn’t room for it – or he didn’t believe it. It is definitely more Robert Louis Stevenson than Alfred Russel Wallace. Now perhaps we can add another title to his collection: lepidopterist, ornithologist, entomologist, “spy”.

He had meant to set out for Africa the year before but had put his plans on hold whilst he recovered from the effects of flu and typhoid hitting a constitution already “a good deal undermined by the hardships of 1896-8.” He spent much of the two and a half year collecting trip to New Guinea incapacitated by tropical fever. On top of that, he told Hartert, he had a funny time in Manila on the journey home. He doesn’t appear to have been more forthcoming: perhaps he thought Hartert wouldn’t be impressed. Hartert at any rate didn’t mention it when he wrote his friend’s obituary. Doherty was in Manila at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war of 1898 in which Spain were defeated and the Philippine Archipelago became the first US imperial possession. Doherty described his adventure to the New York Times* on his return to the States.

He had packed off the last of his specimens and was awaiting the mail steamer to take take him the 628 miles to Hong Kong. The Philippines were in a state of insurrection against their colonial masters but the city was full of soldiers and well defended. As far as Will was concerned it was just a normal journey home, or it would have been had it not been that two months earlier and several thousand miles away a US battle ship had been sunk by, it was supposed, a Spanish mine and the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, had cabled the commander of the American squadron anchored at Hong Kong to attack the Philippines in the event of war breaking out with Spain.

By the middle of April, 1898, Manila was a hive of military activity in preparation for the expected battle. Coastal defences were being urgently reinforced and there was talk of mining the harbour. The whole city was alive with rumour. One rumour had the whole of Europe forming a coalition against the US. Another had the US asking the Pope to save them from destruction by Spain. I imagine Doherty’s final journey across the city in a taxi, his suitcase next to him on the spare seat. He glances at it anxiously as the carromata rattles through the Intra Muros, the old walled city, built by the Spanish in the sixteenth century to defend the city from pirates. Do some vegetables fall off a cart just ahead of them, which has a broken wheel, in front of a whitewashed church? The film reel at the back of my eyes seems to see it and not mind that it’s a cliche. The tropical lightning over the bay is real.

He had only been in Manila long enough to enjoy a few square meals and send his clothes to the laundry. But he was already restless. The thought that he might spend much more time in the city would be tough in normal circumstances: in a country at war with his own it would be … best not to think about it too closely. Stepping into the customs shed, he suddenly felt sick. He tried to imagine himself relaxing on board the Hong Kong steamer. A good dinner, a newspaper. He was glad he had sent home his notebooks – his Black Marias. Not that they were incriminating. They were just field notes, written in shorthand and legible, his mother said, only to himself. But that could have been a problem in wartime. Illegible notes can get you killed.

The Black Marias weren’t the problem. The problem was the envelope which Doherty had that morning hidden in the folds of a shirt and carefully replaced in it’s laundry bag to make it look unopened before placing it carefully in the middle of the suitcase the contents of which were now being inspected minutely by the Spanish official like a haruspex looking for subtle abnormalities in a chicken liver. Neither man knew what the suitcase contained. Although one of them at least could make an educated guess especially given that he was under strict instructions to deliver the envelope personally to Commodore Dewey, the commander of the US Asiatic Squadron, on board his flagship Olympia, currently anchored at Hong Kong and making every appearance of a navy about to go into battle.

The word at the bar of the Hong Kong club was that the mission was doomed. “A fine set of fellows,” was the reaction of a British regiment who entertained the American officers during their stay: “but unhappily we shall never see them again.” Commodore Dewey, a sixty year old civil war veteran, who had served at the capture of New Orleans, was more sanguine. According to his information, the Spanish coastal defences probably consisted of 17 serviceable pieces of artillery of which only 6 were modern. They might within range give his ships “a very unpleasant quarter of an hour.” The Spanish squadron (one historian later would call it “a grab-bag collection of mostly obsolete vessels,”) might be a problem if they split up and engaged in a protracted game of cat and mouse. And though the crews on Spanish ships were undoubtedly well-trained, morale was thought to be low. As for the mines, well, the bay was too shallow, wasn’t it?

Just after midnight on 1 May 1898 Dewey’s squadron of 9 vessels sailed into Manila Bay guns manned and lights dark. A little over twelve hours later a white flag was raised over the fort guarding the city’s waterfront where a naturalist of international reputation had recently had a funny five minutes. By the time the guns fell silent at about half-past twelve the entire Spanish fleet was sunk or sinking with nearly four hundred Spanish casualties: 161 dead and 210 wounded in lifeboats or clinging to debris from the burning ships. Commodore Dewey had entirely destroyed the Spanish fleet without the loss of a single American life.

And what of the mysterious letter that our naturalist handed personally to Commodore Dewey? In the account Doherty gave to the New York Times he said he was told by a naval officer that the letter contained plans of the harbour fortifications and charts of Manila Bay. Yet Doherty’s name is absent form the history books. I think I can see why. I don’t doubt his testimony: although we probably can’t corroborate it now. Reading George Dewey’s own account of the preparations for war it appears that Doherty’s letter was only one of many communications which past between the US consul at Manila and Commodore Dewey in the immediate run up to the war. The information “while naturally not technical was highly valuable” and included details of new guns mounted at the entrance to Manila Bay, and numbers of Spanish naval ships in the harbour. However, a lot of the information passed from the consulate was of little consequence. Dewey records that the consul routinely included reports of the wildest rumours from the streets of the city and sometimes appeared bewildered by his own reports. Moreover even the useful communications were, it would later transpire, of limited intelligence benefit. They had entirely underestimated the depth of the defences, miscounted the number of Spanish war ships and worse still, not provided any reliable information on the capacity of the shore batteries around the bay.

Did the outcome of one of the most famous battles in American naval history turn on an envelope hidden in the folds of a naturalist’s freshly laundered shirt? Probably not. And yet I can’t help thinking that the consul may well have seen in Doherty an especially safe pair of hands, that the material he was entrusted with may well have been more valuable than the welter of communications among which it disappeared down the silent grooves of nineteenth century history.

Another explanation for his absence from the military history books: in the nineteen-sixties, in the 4th Sphere, and increasingly unhappy with US foreign policy in South East Asia, Doherty travelled back in time to Manila, threw the envelope into the bay and caught an earlier boat.

I was struck by the commodore’s account of the strange calm that followed the battle. As crowds gathered at the water front the Olympia’s band struck up “La Paloma” and “while the sea-breeze wafted the strains to their ears the poor colonel of artillery who had commanded the battery, feeling himself dishonoured by his disgraceful failure, shot himself through the head.” “La Paloma” is one of the most recorded songs in the history of music. If you go to any streaming service you can access hundreds of versions almost any one of which could make an otherwise perfectly sane body put a bullet through his head even without losing a naval battle to the Americans.

I can’t really imagine Doherty on a mail boat relaxing with a cigar. He is resolutely airborne, noting the wind speed and the direction of the waves and interrogating the shadows and colours of the surface of the water for clues to the topography of the sea bed. His important message is not hidden in the folds of a freshly laundered shirt but tied by waxed silken thread to the strongest feather of his tail.

Walter named one of Doherty’s African finds as a lasting memorial to the collector. It was, appropriately, a bird: the bird in turn became immortalized on a postage stamp. I imagine the stamps attached to letters going up and down the African railways – a million stories hidden in the fold of gummed wings. And in the red and black markings of “Doherty’s bush shrike” I see Hartert’s editorial underlinings as he sits late in his study at Bellevue selecting the text to include in the obituary of his friend.

And Hartert behaves in exemplary fashion: taking on all the necessary responsibilities on behalf of Doherty’s elderly parents: making enquiries of Doherty’s new friends on the railway for information about his last weeks and liaising with the British East African authorities over the winding up of his estate. His concern for his friend’s parents shows great sympathy and imagination – both of which qualities will be sadly lacking from most quarters at Hartert’s own time of dire need. In 1932 Hartert will mourn his friend again when Walter’s bird collection is sold to the American Museum of Natural History. Hartert cried when he heard the news in Berlin. But Doherty was going home. In an orderly migration. A postcard from another world.

*TOOK MANILA PLANS TO DEWEY. New York Times (1857-1922); May 18, 1898; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006) pg. 2


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