I’ve written several times before about metadata and its importance to history and the ways it can enable images to be properly used, or misused. In ‘Henry Carter and the Divisive Moment’ I quoted David Riecks, who said:
“Most documentary images will have little cultural value if we don’t know at least a few of the basic Who, What, Why, When, Where and How’s of the image in front of us.”
And that’s proved to be the case with a few images I have in my possession, which belonged to (and were perhaps taken by) my grandfather’s brother who had gone to sea, ending up in Australia, via Polynesia. As the story was told to me by my dad, he had at one point been “the King of Tonga’s english teacher” some time in the mid 1800′s, but how accurate that is I’m not entirely sure. He did go to Polynesia, that much is certain, the proof was in the dusty store room in our old house which held a variety of Polynesian & Australian items: small dugout canoes, shells, boomerangs, opals and a few little gold nuggets which I happily played with when I was a few years old.
I still have all those treasures, having carefully stored and tended them for several decades, but recently I’ve inherited a pile of papers and photographs from my mum which she had in a large chest, and have been going through them. Amongst them are a lot of old images that obviously belonged to my dad, inherited from his father. There is a particular set of prints, all similar in size and shape, stored in an envelope, amongst them a picture of my relative in the same style. I can remember looking at these photographs in my childhood, another fascination amongst the many ‘treasures’ that filled our house.
This particular set of images are all of Samoa, and show much of what was mentioned and made famous by author Robert Louis Stevenson (a Scot, and world-famous author, who traveled to, and finally died in, Samoa).
It may be that the images were a set that visitors to the Pacific could buy, or it may be the case that my relative actually took them, or at least some of them. But the one that always intrigued me as a small boy was of a figure hanging by the neck from a rope slung over a palm tree. I’d look at it with a mixture of fascination and revulsion, and simply wonder at what had transpired. But nobody seemed to know.
But today we have the internet, and Google. And crucially, unlike many other images from this period ALL these images have ‘metadata’…..well sort of. Someone, presumably my relative, has handwritten details on the back of all the prints, and this lynching image carries the message:
“First and only case of lynching in Samoa. Corcoran lynched after being found guilty of wilful murder”.
So I googled the details ‘lynching’ ‘corcoran’ ‘samoa’ and found this, from The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. Monday 15th July 1878):
The necessity for the new tribunal was speedily shown. It may be remembered that in November last a man named CHARLES CORCORAN, who had been committed by the United States consul at Apia to stand his trial in America on a charge of murder, was forcibly taken from the consul’s custody by a number of foreign residents on the island, and “lynched” with- out delay. One of the ringleaders in this brutal outrage was on Englishman named HUNT; he was arrested, and on February 23, or less than three weeks after the High Commissioner’s Court was constituted, he was tried at Apia before the judicial commissioner and two assessors on the double charge of murder and conspiracy to commit that crime. He was acquitted on the capital charge, but found guilty of the minor offence, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Against this decision he appealed, generally contesting the propriety of the conviction. The case was elaborately argued before the Chief Justice of Fiji in May last, and evoked an extremely able and lucid judgment from his Honour, which will be of value to the profession not only from its being the first authoritative decision given in support of the new court, but from the light it throws upon the jurisdiction and powers of the tribunal.
I’d originally thought that this was a lynching of an islander, so was surprised to discover this was not the case.
I did some more searching and came up with a clipping from the Thames Star Volume VII, Issue 2778, 9 January 1878, Page 2.
So it appears the man’s name may not have been Corcoran, but Cochran (and easy to understand the confusion).
What I can’t find is any reference to photographs of this hanging, the newspapers did not have any illustrations, and various searches have not turned up anything, Maybe someone out there knows if any exist other than the one I have?
But the Samoa Times account seems to suggest the event was conducted in a civilized manner, concluding with the comment:
“Everything from the commencement of the meeting till the burial was conducted with the utmost order.”
The Canterbury (N.Z.) published ‘The Press’ carried an altogether more condemnatory article:
“The scenes that disgrace Samoa have gone far beyond Fiji in its very worst days, and appear to have reached the climax in a party of British subjects taking an American citizen out of the custody of the American consul and hanging him on the spot.”
There’s a story here.
I’ve got some images, and I have some details, but I don’t have a full picture. I’ve contacted a few folks in Samoa to see if I can establish any more about these images and who might have taken them. Was my relative the photographer? I don’t know. But what I do know is that history is better served if the accurate details of our present are maintained within our images. Those few simple handwritten words on the back of the print have linked this photograph to a place and time, and a significant event in history. Maybe I’ll be able to shed some more light on who may have taken the image by following their trail.
This only underlines for me the importance of metadata: it is the thread that weaves together the story of our digital lives, and if we allow it to be unpicked, the fabric of recollection of our collective pasts simply unravels and is lost. I think we owe the future much, much more than that.