The blood eagle

Vikings as portrayed in a 19th-century source: fearsome warriors and sea raiders.

Ninth-century Scandinavia has had a good press in recent years. As late as the 1950s, when Kirk Douglas filmed his notorious clunker The Vikings—a movie that featured lashings of fire and pillage, not to mention Tony Curtis clad in an ahistorical and buttocks-skimming leather jerkin—most popular histories still cast the Denmark and Norway of the Dark Ages as nations overflowing with bloodthirsty warriors who were much given to horned helmets and drunken ax-throwing contests. If they weren’t worshiping the pagan gods of Asgard, these Vikings were sailing their longships up rivers to sack monasteries while ravishing virgins and working themselves into berserker rages.

Since the early 1960s, though—we can date the beginning of the change to the publication of Peter Sawyer’s influential The Age of the Vikings (1962)—rehabilitation has been almost complete. Today, historians are likely to stress that the Vikings were traders and settlers, not rapists and killers. The Scandinavians’ achievements have been lauded—they sailed all the way to America and produced the Lewis Chessmen—and nowadays some scholars go so far as to portray them as agents of economic stimulus, occasional victims of their more numerous enemies, or even (as a recent campaign organized by the University of Cambridge suggested) men who “preferred male grooming to pillaging,” carrying around ear spoons to remove surplus wax. To quote the archaeologist Francis Pryor, they “integrated into community life” and “joined the property-owning classes” in the countries they invaded.

Much of this is, of course, necessary revisionism. The Vikings did build a civilization, did farm and could work metal. But, as the medievalist Jonathan Jarrett notes, the historical evidence also shows that they took thousands of slaves and deserved their reputation as much-feared warriors and mercenaries. They could be greedy and implacable foes, and over the centuries reduced several strong and wealthy kingdoms (not least Anglo-Saxon England) to the point of collapse. Much of the time, moreover, the same men who were doing the farming and the metalworking were also responsible for the raping and looting—it was a matter of economic imperative that Vikings who planted crops in the poor soil of Norway, Orkney or northern Scotland in the spring went raiding in the summer before returning home at harvest-time. Finally, as Jarrett points out, being a well-groomed but brutal soldier is scarcely a contradiction in terms. One of the Viking fighters killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 gloried in the nickname of Olaf the Flashy, and “the era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent.”
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The secret plot to rescue Napoleon by submarine

Tom Johnson, the famous smuggler, adventurer, and inventor of submarines, sketched in 1834 for the publication of Scenes and Stories by a Clergyman in Debt.

Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.

But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.

The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day. In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was imprisoned on the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, at Waterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him. Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
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“My little soldier”

The funeral of James Idle in the village of Hullavington, on August 29, 1914.

Picture the British countryside and the chances are that you are picturing the unmatched beauty of the Cotswolds, in England’s green heart, west of London. Picture the Cotswolds, and you have in your mind’s eye a place like Hullavington: a handful of cottages, some thatched, but all clustered around a village green, a duck pond and a church. The latter will most likely be ancient, 600 or 700 years old, and its graveyard will be filled with generation after generation of villagers, the same family names carved on tombstones that echo down the centuries even as they weather into slabs of rock.

Visit the church at Hullavington, though, and your eye will soon be drawn to one century-old grave, placed against a bank of ivy and remarkable not merely for its pristine whiteness, but also for the identity of the young man buried there. James Idle, who died a couple of miles away late in August 1914, was a soldier who had no family or friends in the village; indeed, in all likelihood he’d never even been there when he was killed guarding a railway in the very first month of the First World War. But Idle’s funeral—held a few days later in the presence of a handful of men from his regiment and a gaggle of respectful villagers—inspired a remarkable response in one girl who witnessed it. Marjorie Dolman was only 9 years old when she watched the soldier being carried to his grave; she is probably among the village girls pictured in the contemporary postcard shown above. Yet something about the funeral touched her so deeply that, from then until almost the end of her life (and she died aged 99), she made it her unbidden duty to lay fresh flowers daily on Private Idle’s grave.
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The crucifixion of Prince Klaas: Antigua’s disputed slave rebellion of 1736

Prince Klaas, leader of the supposed slave rebellion on Antigua, on the wheel.

Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.

“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.
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Fishmonger’s Hall: how William Crockford beggared the British aristocracy

William Crockford—identified here as “Crockford the Shark”—sketched by the great British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson in about 1825. Rowlandson, himself an inveterate gambler who blew his way through a $10.5 million family fortune, knew the former fishmonger before he opened the club that would make his name.

The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.

Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.

The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of  the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
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The worst job there has ever been

A tosher at work c. 1850 ,sieving raw sewage in one of the dank, dangerous and uncharted sewers beneath the streets of London. From Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
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Run out of town on an ass: how Queen Victoria (allegedly) struck Bolivia off the map

A Bolivian donkey of the 1850s. From Herndon and Gibbon, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (1854).

To be one of Queen Victoria’s ambassadors in the middle of the 19th century, when British power was at its height, was to be something close to a king—in parts of the world, close to a god. Backed by the full might of the Royal Navy, which ruled unchallenged over the Seven Seas, solitary Englishmen thousands of miles from home could lay down their version of the law to entire nations, and do so with the cool self-confidence that came from knowing that, with a word, they could set in motion perhaps the mightiest war machine that the world had ever seen. (“Tell these ugly bastards,” Captain William Packenham once instructed his quaking interpreter, having stalked, unarmed, into the midst of a village seething with Turkish brigands, “that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits.”)

Men of this caliber did not expect to be be treated lightly, much less ordered to pay their respects to a pair of naked buttocks belonging to the president of Bolivia’s new mistress. Yet that—according to a tradition that has persisted since at least the early 1870s, and is widely known in South America as the “Black Legend”—was the uncomfortable experience of a British plenipotentiary who encountered the Bolivian caudillo Mariano Melgarejo in 1867. Accounts of the event go on to relate that when the diplomat indignantly refused, he was seized, stripped naked, trussed with ropes and thrust onto a donkey, facing backward. Thus afforded a clear view of the animal’s posterior, Britain’s outraged ambassador was paraded three times around the main square of the capital before being expelled from the country.
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