Sunday, 2 May 2010

An Alternative History of Finland: Act Four

I always regretted the fact that my mother never taught me Finnish when I was a child. Admittedly I did not live with her for the first part of my childhood but even when I did she showed no inclination to do so, despite my attempts to persuade her to the contrary. I did eventually find a Finnish study book, presumably purchased from Foyle’s bookshop on Tottenham Court Road, back in the days when they imposed a ridiculously arcane policy of insisting customers queued to get an invoice for their books, then made their way elsewhere to queue to pay for them before having to join yet another queue to get back the books they had already paid for. I know the British are renowned for their habit of queuing patiently but this system was patently absurd and was eventually abandoned.

I made some progress using the self-study book but Finnish, at least in terms of its grammar, is to my mind an exceedingly complex language, which I am only now really getting to grips with, thanks to patient and talented teachers. But however hard I try I know I will never be sufficiently fluent in Finnish or able to communicate in it at the level I would like. Fortunately, I don’t need to be fluent in Finnish to discover more about my ancestral homeland. I had long known about Elizabeth Tudor’s Finnish suitor, which formed the first act of my Alternative History. I originally heard mention of it in Elizabeth R, the legendary television series in which Glenda Jackson played the eponymous 16th century monarch. It was said in passing to demonstrate the immense competition amongst European royalty to secure a political alliance with England through a match with the Virgin Queen. This hitherto unknown fact piqued my interest because it deftly and unexpectedly combined my love of British domestic history with a growing interest in my own Scandinavian heritage.

I knew from girlhood that Finland had once been a Duchy of Russia. My own family were trapped in St Petersburg at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, where they had owned a restaurant. Romantic if somewhat embroidered stories had passed down to me about their subsequent flight and I still have a handful of the silver Tsarist coins they took with them. What I had not appreciated until recently was the that in 1713-14, only three years before the start of my playlet, Russia had already wrested a large part of Finland away from Sweden through military conquest. Thus I suddenly understood why Afrosinia is sometimes referred to as being a Finnish serf. The earliest references I can find of her date to around the time of the Russian annexation of part of Finland. Did she harbour a resentment at what had happened to her native country? Perhaps it was sheer pragmatism that led Afrosinia to save her own neck and betray her erstwhile lover upon their return to Russia. She yielded up compromising secrets about him when interrogated by Peter. Given the particularly brutal punishments and executions Tsar Peter was notorious for handing out to all those who thwarted him, she can scarcely be blamed. As part of his series on “The makers of history” Jacob Abbott wrote n 1902 a short essay on the life of the Tsar called “Peter the Great.” In his final analysis of the relationship between Alexis and Afrosinia he wrote:

“When Alexis was first arrested, it was supposed that she, having been the slave and companion of Alexis, was a party with him in his treasonable designs; but in the course of the examinations it appeared very fully that whatever of connection with the affair, or participation in it, she may have had, was involuntary and innocent, and the testimony which she gave was of great service in unravelling the mystery of the whole transaction. In the end, the Tsar expressed his satisfaction with her conduct in strong terms. He gave her a full pardon for the involuntary aid which she had rendered Alexis in carrying out his plans. He ordered every thing which had been taken away from her to be restored, made her presents of handsome jewellery, and said that if she would like to be married he would give her a handsome portion out of the royal treasury. But she promptly declined this proposal. "I have been compelled," she said, "to yield to one man's will by force; henceforth no other shall ever come near my side."
A trip to a local history museum in Finland as a girl acquainted me with the prosaic early role of Nokia as a manufacturer of toilet paper and subsequently the inspiration for the third act of my Alternative History. From such humble beginnings a global brand was launched.  

I came across the subject matter for my fourth and final Act more by chance than anything else. I was fascinated to discover that so many Finns had sought to forge a new live for themselves in the New World. Finns started to emigrate from Finland to America as early as the 17th century. In 1641, only two decades after the Mayflower landed in America, 100 Finns arrived in Delaware from Scandinavia. Later, in the 19th century, when Alaska was under Russian control, Finns represented the largest single contingent of Europeans present and at one point even had a Finnish Governor, Arvid Etholen. My Alternative History focuses on the true stories of some of the quarter of a million Finns, who set sail for new lives in America and Canada from the 1890s to 1916. My story is set at Southampton Docks in 1912 as a customs officer patiently listens to the passengers hoping to embark, as they explain in turn why they are making the journey.

The first man to step forward is the Reverend William Lahtinen, a Protestant vicar travelling back to America with his Minneapolis born wife, Anna, having just paid a visit to her friends and family in Finland. Coincidentally, William was once vicar of the parish church in Viitasaari, where the tombstones of my ancestors can be found in the graveyard there. My mother used to own a pewter charger with an etching of William’s former church engraved upon it.

One of the most renowned former sons of Viitasaari was the 18th century scholar Henrik Gabriel Porthan. He achieved fame in later life as “the father of Finnish history” thanks to his championing of Finnish history, poetry and mythology.

The next set of passengers is a mother, Maria Panula and her sons: Ernesti Arvid Panula, 16, Jaakko Arnold Panula, 14, Urho Abraham Panula 2 and baby Eino Viljami Panula. The family were travelling abroad to rejoin her husband Juha in Pittsburg, where he had found work.

Kristiina Sofia Laitinen a 37 year old housekeeper is next in line to be interviewed. It is her first trip to America where she hopes to better herself. When asked if she is married she proudly replies that she is single.

Mrs Helena Wilhelmina Rosblom is next in the queue along with her son Viktor and her 2 year old daughter Salli. Unfortunately her other son, Eino, has chosen to stay behind in Finland as he has had a premonition that the voyage will end in tragedy with the sinking of the ship. At this points the customs officer bursts into laughter at the absurdity of the idea. How can the ship possibly sink when it is the Titanic?

All the details regarding the personal histories of the individuals at Southampton, other than the Customs officer are based on fact. My playlet ends with the information that none of the afore-mentioned passengers  survived the doomed voyage across the Atlantic.

When I wrote my original playlet DNA had seemed to suggest that the remains of baby Eino Panula were those found in the tomb, erected by public subscription to mark the grave of a hitherto unknown child victim of the disaster. More recent analysis has indicated that the remains are those of a 19 month old English child called Sidney Leslie Goodwin.  I always had a fearful affinity with the Titanic as a child myself and used to imagine that somehow I had been one of those on board when it sank. When I used to relate the story of the tomb of the unknown child in the past, I would announce the DNA findings linking the remains to a Finnish native and then add with a flourish that we were related.
Statistically speaking we probably were, given the relatively small size of the Finnish population, both then and now. When someone from an Indian call centre rang me up a few years back, at the end of the conversation they asked if I was related to the Finnish Formula One racing driver: Kimi Räikkönen. Other than sharing a vaguely similar sounding surname the answer was probably no. However, it would not exactly be a lie to agree that he was my cousin. I refrained from adding that if he were a cousin he was a very distant cousin.
“Please tell Mr Räikkönen that we are all great fans of his and hope he wins the championship.”
I promised that the very next time I saw Kimi I would pass on their messages of support. Oddly enough Kimi and I never did meet up but it didn't stop him from winning the world championship that year.

Southamptonin Tullissa vuonna 1912  

Tullivirkamies Karl Riikonen: Passi, kiitos.Mikä sinun nimesi on?
William: Minä olen William Lahtinen.
Tullivirkamies: Kenen kanssa olet?
Wiliam: Minä olen vaimoni Annan kanssa.  
Tullivirkamies: Mitä teet työksesi?
William: Minä olen kirkkoherra.
Tullivirkamies: Mistä sinä olet kotoisin?
William: Minä olen Viitasaariasta kotoisin. Minun vaimo syntyi Minneapolissa.  Mutta, hänen perheensä on suomalainen. Me olimme Suomessa ainoastaan käymässä vierainassa hänen perheensä luona.

Tullivirkamies: Hyvää päivää.
Maria: Hei. Minä olen Maria Panula. Saanko esitellä minun pojat: Ernesti Arvid Panula, 16, Jaakko Arnold Panula, 14, Urho Abraham Panula 2, ja minun vauvani: Eino Viljami Panula. Meillä on yhteinen passi. Menemme Pennyslvaniaan asumaan koska minun aviomies, Juha Panula, on työssä terästehtäässä

Kristiina: Saisinko toisen tullilomakkeen?
Tullivirkamies: Olkaa hyvä.
Kristiina: Paljon kiitoksia. Minä olen Kristiina Sofia Laitinen. Tässä on passini.  Minä olen 37. Olen palvelijatar.
Tullivirkamies: Oletko koskaan käynyt Amerikassa?
Kristiina: Tämä on ensimmäinen vierailuni.
Tullivirkamies: Oletko naimisissa?
Kristiina: En. Minä olen naimaton. 

Rouva Rosblom: Minä olen Helena Wilhelmina Rosblom.  Tämä on Viktor. Minun toinen poika, Eino, vielä on Raumalla. Minä jätin pojan tuomatta mukana. Hän sanoi: te kuolette hukkumalla.
Tullivirkamies laulaa: Teidän laiva ei voi keikahtaa kumoon. Se on Titanic! Hyvää matkaa!
Nämä matkustajat hukkuivat.

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