Tag Archives: history


Digger (1863) by Jean-François Millet. Print held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA. Public domain.

I was away most of last week and didn’t keep on top of the news from my other country, Belgium, so when I noticed that The Conversation had published a story about a farmer in Belgium who had moved a stone and thereby accidentally annexed France, I clicked on it. It sounded like une histoire belge (‘a Belgian story’, a joke made by the French at the expense of French-speaking Belgians, which is, by the way, most often also enjoyed by Belgians). Incidentally, the Dutch similarly produce belgenmoppen (‘jokes about Belgians’) at the expense of the Dutch-speaking Belgians.

While I understand that this little story was only used as an ‘in’ on the subject of the ‘fragility’ of borders, unfortunately, it’s a typical example of lazy reporting and/or writing. This kind of writing makes people distrust anything they read in the media. Factual accuracy matters, even in the margin of a story — otherwise, the main message of the story risks getting tainted or lost.

Let’s begin with the title. If anything, only a tiny bit of France was taken. The title of every other article in English that I found by doing a quick Google search accurately says that the border was moved, or that Belgium was made bigger, or that France was made smaller. Secondly, one person can’t annex a country. The title smacks of clickbait. That’ll teach me.

Anyway, I like maps and history, so I read on. Next, the article states that the farmer’s act has caused an ‘international ruckus’. The word ‘ruckus’ implies commotion or even violence, whereas it’s clear from both the linked BBC story as well as other reports that the act has only caused smiles all round so far — people call it une histoire belge.

Further down, another statement — that the stone was carved with a date and compass points. I frowned. A date and a name of a country or a province makes sense, but compass points? I checked some of the images in different reports. Although I can’t be sure that these images actually show the stone that has been moved because the reports don’t actually tell me so, in most reports, I see the same image of a stone showing ‘1819’ and an ‘N’. I suspect that the author has interpreted ‘N’ to stand for north. A quick search would have revealed that the other side of these border stones shows ‘F’ for France, and that ‘N’ here stands for Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden (or, United Kingdom of the Netherlands), which at the time included Belgium — because the country only came into being in 1830.

Finally, — and not only The Conversation but most other media outlets fail their readership in this — before repeating ‘facts’ reported by someone else, surely some fact-checking should be done? The only thing that is clear to date is that a particular border stone has been moved, making France a bit smaller. The reporting of this story, both internationally and locally, smacks of a game of Chinese whispers. As far as I can tell, it has not been confirmed that a farmer moved the border stone, let alone that they did so because they were sick of having to drive around it on their tractor, or even that they were male …

close-up of young trees and big rocks

Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1860/1865) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Painting held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA. Public domain.


Japanese print showing illustrations of everyday objects and people, labelled in Japanese and EnglishThese woodcut prints by Kamekichi Tsunajima were published at a time when Japanese interest in all things Western had surged. In 1853, after over two centuries of almost total isolation, Japan had finally opened up to foreign trade again.

I doubt these prints were useful tools for learning English — they were probably just curiosities. Some illustrations are hard to interpret, but luckily they are labelled in Japanese and English!

Japanese print showing illustrations of everyday objects and people, labelled in Japanese and English

A fashionable melange of English words (1887) by Kamekichi Tsunajima. These prints are part of the Chadbourne collection of Japanese prints, held in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, USA. Public domain.

I imagine there may have been a rush at the time to make the most of the new hype and ‘get things published first’, as there often is in contemporary publishing. This would explain why there seems to have been no time to hire a native speaker to proofread the English words. As a result, quite a few typographical and spelling errors were left uncorrected.

My new favourite word is ‘kottle’.


With an uncharacteristically violent motion, she threw the painting in the wake of the ship. It dipped and rode the air as it fell. Then it smacked into the sea, tearing on impact. It quickly drifted away, face down. When she turned, Sir John was standing behind her, black streaks across his forehead as the wind blew his long greased hairs into writhing question marks.

Another punctuation metaphor — this time in a quote from Wanting, also by Richard Flanagan. The she in the quote above is Lady Jane Franklin, on her way back to England after six years in Tasmania with her husband, Sir John Franklin, who had served as lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837 to 1843.

painting of young Aboriginal girl in a long red dress

Mathinna (1842) by Thomas Bock. Painting held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, Australia. Public domain.

Mathinna was the daughter of Towtrer, the chief of the Port Davey tribe, and his wife Wongerneep. The Franklins adopted her sometime after they visited Flinders Island, where the remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people had been resettled by George Augustus Robinson. Mathinna’s naked feet were a source of considerable exasperation to Lady Franklin, who insisted on her wearing shoes. The striking portrait by Thomas Bock that inspired Flanagan shows Mathinna with bare feet, but her feet were only to be hidden again, behind a wooden frame.

When the Franklins returned to England in 1843, they left Mathinna behind. Unfortunately, not much is known about her life. After the Franklins left, she spent some time in an orphanage in Hobart, was then sent back to the Flinders Island settlement, from where she was moved to the Oyster Cove settlement on the mainland of Tasmania with the other remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Unsurprisingly, her story doesn’t end well.

Listen to Richard Flanagan talk about Mathinna.