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 one of several “Black Legends” associated with the continent —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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Closing the pigeon gap

Cher Ami, an American veteran of the First World War, was credited with carrying the message that saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion” during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918–despite losing a leg and an eye to shell splinters in the maelstrom of battle. Decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, he was preserved after death and can still be seen on display in the American Museum of Natural History.

At midnight on November 12, 1870, two French balloons, inflated with highly flammable coal gas and manned by desperate volunteers, took off from a site in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. The balloons rose from a city besieged—the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris isolated, and the city had been hastily encircled by the Prussian Army—and they did so on an unlikely mission. They carried with them several dozen pigeons, gathered from lofts across the city, that were part of a last-ditch attempt to establish two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government in Tours, 130 miles southwest.

Paris had been encircled since mid-September. By early autumn, with the prospects of relief as distant as ever, and the population looking hungrily at the animals in the zoo, the besieged French had scoured the city and located seven balloons, one of which, the Neptune, was patched up sufficiently to make it out of the city over the heads of the astounded Prussians. It landed safely behind French lines with 275 pounds of official messages and mail, and before long there were other flights, and the capital’s balloon manufacturers were working flat out on new airships.

The work was dangerous and the flights no less so—2.5 million letters made it out of Paris during the siege, incalculably raising morale, but six balloons were lost to enemy fire and the ones that survived that gauntlet, historian Alastair Horne observes, “were capable of unpredictable motion in all three dimensions, none of which was controllable.”

The French prepare a balloon for launch during the Siege of Paris, 1870. Pigeons carried out by balloon helped establish two-way communication with the city.

Of the two balloons in the pigeon flight, one, the Daugerre, was shot down by ground fire as it drifted south of Paris in the dawn, but the other, the Niepce, survived by hastily jettisoning ballast and soaring out of range. Its precious pigeon cargo would return to the city bearing messages by the thousand, all photographed using the brand-new technique of microfilming and printed on slivers of collodium, each weighing just a hundredth of an ounce. These letters were limited to a maximum of 20 words and they were carried into Paris at a cost of 5 francs each. In this way, Horne notes, a single pigeon could fly in 40,000 dispatches, equivalent to the contents of a substantial book. The messages were then projected by magic lantern onto a wall, transcribed by clerks, and delivered by regular post.

A total of 302 largely untrained pigeons left Paris in the course of the siege, and 57 returned to the city. The remainder fell prey to Prussian rifles, cold, hunger, or the falcons that the besieging Germans hastily introduced to intercept France’s feathered messengers. Still, the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870, and by 1899, Spain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Romania had established their own pigeon services. The British viewed these developments with some alarm. A call to arms published in the influential journal The Nineteenth Century expressed concern at the development of a worrying divergence in military capability. The Empire, it was suggested, was being rapidly outpaced by foreign military technology.

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On heroic self-sacrifice

G.F. Watts’s memorial to Sarah Smith, one of several dozen Londoners whose extraordinary Victorian-era deaths are commemorated at Postman’s Park.

No nation is short of monuments to its heroes. From the Lincoln Memorial and Nelson’s Column to the infamous gold-plated statue of Turkmenbashi—which until its recent demolition sat atop a 250-foot-high rotisserie in Turkmenistan and rotated throughout the day to face the sun—statesmen and military leaders can generally depend upon their grateful nations to immortalize them in stone.

Rarer by far are commemorations of everyday heroes, ordinary men and women who one day do something extraordinary, risk all and sometimes lose their lives to save the lives of others. A handful of neglected monuments of this sort exist; of these, few are more modest but more moving than a mostly forgotten little row of ceramic tiles erected in a tiny shard of British greenery known as Postman’s Park.

The park—so named because it once stood in the shadow of London’s long-gone General Post Office building—displays a total of 54 such plaques. They recall acts of individual bravery that date from the early 1860s and are grouped under a plain wooden awning in what is rather grandly known as the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Each commemorates the demise of a would-be rescuer who died in the act of saving someone else’s life.

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The mysterious Mr. Zedzed, the wickedest man in the world

basil zaharoff

Zaharoff promenade.jpg

Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, better known as Sir Basil Zaharoff: arsonist, bigamist and pimp, arms dealer, honorary knight of the British Empire, confidant of kings, and all-round international man of mystery.

Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so evil a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World. Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Men of the Constantinople Fire Brigade, an Ottoman army unit well-known in the 19th century for its corruption. In the 1860s Zaharoff was employed there as an arsonist, setting fires that could be extinguished for profit.

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

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The Monster of Glamis

Glamis Castle in the 18th century, shortly before its “mystery” began.

“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glams”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

Sir Walter Scott, the popular 19th-century novelist, was the first man to tell of the ‘secret’ of Glamis.

Glamis Castle is mentioned by Shakespeare—Macbeth, that most cursed of characters, was Thane of Glamis—and in 1034 the Scottish King Malcolm II died there, perhaps murdered. But the present castle was constructed only in the 15th century, around a central tower whose walls are, in places, 16 feet thick. Glamis has been the family seat of the Strathmore Earls since then, but by the late 18th century it lay largely empty, its owners preferring to live somewhere less drafty, less isolated and less melancholy.

In their absence, Glamis was left in the care of a factor, or estate manager, and it was to this factor that a young Walter Scott applied in 1790 to spend a night in one of its rooms. Scott became the first of several writers to note the castle’s oppressive atmosphere. “I must own,” he wrote in an account published in 1830, “as I heard door after door shut, after my conductor had retired, I began to consider myself as too far from the living and somewhat too near to the dead.” What was more, the great novelist added, Glamis was said to hide a secret room—a useful addition to any residence in 15th-century Scotland, where violence was seldom far away. Its location was known only to the Earl, his factor and his heir.

In one sense, however, the most interesting thing about Scott’s account is what it doesn’t say. The novelist wrote nothing to suggest that the castle’s hidden chamber had an occupant. Yet, within half a century of his visit, it had begun to be rumored that the room concealed an unknown captive—a prisoner who had been held there all his life.

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The most terrible tunnel

Labourers working at the face of the Thames Tunnel were protected by Marc Brunel’s newly-invented “Shield”; behind them, other gangs hurried to roof the tunnel before the river could burst in. Nineteenth century lithograph.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the port of London was the busiest in the world. Cargoes that had traveled thousands of miles, and survived all the hazards of the sea, piled up on the wharves of Rotherhithe—only for their owners to discover that the slowest, most frustrating portion of their journey often lay ahead of them. Consignments intended for the southern (and most heavily populated) parts of Britain had to be heaved onto creaking ox carts and hauled through the docklands and across London Bridge, which had been built in the 12th century and was as cramped and impractical as its early date implied. By 1820, it had become the center of the world’s largest traffic jam.

It was a situation intolerable to a city with London’s pride, and it was clear that if private enterprise could build another crossing closer to the docks, there would be a tidy profit to be made in tolls. Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the deepwater dock known as the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead.

This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight. No engineers had ever tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky one. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deep strata of water-bearing sand and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site. Continue reading

The Christmas Truce

Riflemen Andrew and Grigg (center)—British troops from London—during the Christmas Truce with Saxons of the 104th and 106th Regiments of the Imperial German Army.

Even at the distance of a century, no war seems more terrible than World War I. In the four years between 1914 and 1918, it killed or wounded more than 25 million people–peculiarly horribly, and (in popular opinion, at least) for less apparent purpose than did any other war before or since. Yet there were still odd moments of joy and hope in the trenches of Flanders and France, and one of the most remarkable came during the first Christmas of the war, a few brief hours during which men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games and comradeship.

Their truce–the famous Christmas Truce–was unofficial and illicit. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
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