Carbon Black is an Englishman well known for not at all acting like one. Nellie Bly
In 1909 French industrialist, banker and humanitarian Albert Kahn travelled to Japan on business and returned with many photographs of the journey. Having already used his unique peace garden as an example of diverse but unified life he turned his mind to the power of photography. His journey and the sights he captured on film prompted him to begin a new project collecting a photographic record of the entire Earth. He sent photographers to every continent to record images of the planet using the first colour photography, autochrome plates, and early cinematographic equipment. Between 1909 and 1931 they collected 72,000 colour photographs and 183,000 meters of film. These form a unique historical record of 50 countries, known as “The Archives of the Planet”. This endeavour and the resulting beautiful photographs and film were the subject of a BBC documentary series entitled Edwardians in Colour.
The archive is still in storage in Paris. Kahn died a ruined man and is now best remembered for the gardens he left behind rather than the dusty old photographs that are for the most part still locked away in his often overlooked museum. Meanwhile the exact art of capturing colour images using the same technique as Kahn’s photographers has been lost. There are, however, some beautiful examples of the results on Flickr.
In 1909 Kahn travelled from France to New York City via ship. The majority of passengers below decks were hoping to escape persecution and find new lives in America, but held on to centuries old beliefs and carried their superstitions with them. It’s on this journey that the story get a little curious.
Worried about the dangers that new life in America may bring and distressed by dime novel stories and rumours of the most rank kind, something was accidentally set loose aboard the ship. Originally brought about as protector whatever was released proved difficult to control. 16 people died before the ship came to dock in New York City.
By that time Albert Kahn had learned two things; the world was not as easy to collate as he had believed and evil does indeed exist. The only man he’d seen stand up to it was a British traveller with an unlikely name: Carbon Black.
In fact not only did Black face off against what the terrified crew were calling a golem, he scraped what was left of it off his boot, after a confrontation that left the rest of the ship’s contingent afloat in life boats, preferring the unknown dark water than the thing that Black happily met armed with only a single pistol.
The effect on Kahn was catastrophic. He’d been about to embark on a plan to enlighten the world around him, to once and for all show his fellow man that the far flung countries of the world held nothing for Europe to be wary of. He had in mind a grand exhibition that would reveal (and in colour no less) that we were all brothers under the same sky.
And yet before traversing a single ocean he’s been set upon by what he described in his diary as “a pure creature of darkness”. If one existed then there must be more. Suddenly his plan to send photographers out into the world seemed naive and worse still would obviously backfire as soon as his new technology caught one of these “beasts of the fantastic” in its stare.
It took him a week locked in a hotel room to fall over the solution. The Englishman who had so easily put down one menace had revealed himself to be some kind of mercenary. Kahn would hire him as trouble shooter for the many expeditions. As soon as the photographers ran into “something unnatural” then Black would be dispatched to dispose of it. And Kahn would document the destruction for future generations. A dark archive would be created that he would hide away until the world was enlightened enough not to be scared of such things…
And in the meantime his archive of light would speed on that happy day.
Extremely fictionalized events of Kahn and Black’s first encounter can be read in the now sadly very out of print ‘Carbon Black and the Unshaped Form’ (1944). Rumours and stories of Black’s exploits grew in a select circle of adventurers and academics, but the very real threat of a second world war soon dispelled what many deemed to be pure fantasy. By the time pulp authors such as Lester Dent were turning to these rumours for fodder for their own stories, Kahn was dead and Black was missing.
How a man born in a place so civilised could go on to live through so many fantastic encounters all over the globe only to be lost somewhere off the coast of Antarctica is a story that has yet to be told.
Over the last year I’ve been digging a little at a time through the history of Kahn and Black. Now after being in touch with the incredibly helpful people at the Kahn Museum in Paris I believe we may finally answer the plea scrawled in faded black ink by a ship’s telegraph operator. The message of unknown origin is now believed to be the very last words of Carbon Black:
Note: This is obviously part of a much larger story, but also a little part of something far more important than the story of a man who may or may not have shot a Jiang Shi in the face. More to follow on all of this. But for now many thanks to the Moblog experts for helping me out with some coordinates for this post. Don’t forget to geolocate this entry.