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 great tea race

Ariel and Taeping at sea during the great Tea Race of 1866. Oil painting by Jack Spurling, 1926.

Captain John Keay, master of the new British clipper ship Ariel, had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had secured the first cargo of tea to come to market at the great Chinese port of Foochow (modern Fuzhou) in 1866—560 tons of first and second pickings, freighted at the high price of £7 a ton: the very finest leaves available. The cargo had been floated out to him in lighters, packed in more than 12,000 hand-made tea chests, and stowed below decks in the record time of just four days.

Now Ariel was weighing anchor. It was 5 p.m. on the evening of May 28, which made her the first tea clipper to sail for London that season. She was a brand new ship: “A perfect beauty,” Keay recalled, “to every nautical man who saw her; in symmetrical grace and proportion of hull, spars, sails, rigging and finish she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her without exception. Very light airs gave her headway, and I could trust her like a thing alive in all evolutions.”

Ariel was indeed the fleetest vessel of her time; flying the astounding total of more than 26,000 square feet of canvas, she could reach speeds of 16 knots, far faster than contemporary steamers. But the advantage that Keay held over the other clippers crowded in the port was minimal, and Ariel was unlucky with her tugs. The paddle steamer Island Queen, hired to take the clipper in tow, lacked the power to carry her across the bar of the Min River against a falling tide. Stranded for the night, Keay and his crack crew were forced to lie at anchor and watch as their rivals completed their own hurried loading and started in pursuit. That evening the rival Fiery Cross came down the river towed by a more powerful tug, edged her way into clear water, and set a course east across the China Sea. Keay was still negotiating the bar next morning when two other clippers, Serica and Taeping, appeared beside him. The Tea Race of 1866—the most exciting in the history of the China trade—was on. Continue reading

China’s socialist emperor

Wang Mang, first and last emperor of China’s Xin Dynasty, went down fighting amid his harem girls as his palace fell in 23 A.D.

October 7, 23 A.D. The imperial Chinese army, 420,000 strong, has been utterly defeated. Nine “Tiger Generals,” sent to lead a corps of 10,000 elite soldiers, have been swept aside as rebel forces close in. The last available troops—convicts  released from the local jails—have fled. Three days ago, rebels breached the defenses of China’s great capital, Chang’an; now, after some bloody fighting, they are scaling the walls of the emperor’s private compound.

Deep within his Endless Palace, Emperor Wang Mang waits for death. For 20 years, ever since he first contemplated the overthrow of the dissolute remnants of the Han Dynasty, the usurper Wang had driven himself to keep to an inhuman schedule, working through the night and sleeping at his desk as he labored to transform China. When the rebellion against him gained strength, however, Wang appeared to give up. He retreated to his palace and summoned magicians with whom he passed his time testing spells; he began to assign strange, mystical titles to his army commanders: “The Colonel Holding a Great Axe to Chop Down Withered Wood” was one.

Such excesses seemed out of character for Wang, a Confucian scholar and renowned ascetic. The numismatist Rob Tye, who has made a study of the emperor’s reign, believes that he succumbed to despair. “Frankly, my own assessment is that he was high on drugs for most of the period,” Tye writes. “Knowing all was lost, he chose to escape reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure.”

When the rebels broke into his palace, Wang was in the imperial harem, surrounded by his three Harmonious Ladies, nine official wives, 27 handpicked “beauties” and their 81 attendants. He had dyed his white hair in order to look calm and youthful. Desperate officials persuaded him to retire with them to a high tower surrounded by water in the center of the capital. There, a thousand loyalists made a last stand before the armies of the revived Han, retreating step by step up twisting stairs until the emperor was cornered on the highest floor. Wang was slain late in the afternoon, his head severed, his body torn to pieces by soldiers seeking mementos, his tongue cut out and eaten by an enemy. Did he wonder, as he died, how it had come to this—how his attempts at reform had inflamed a whole nation? And did it strike him as ironic that the peasants he had tried to help—with a program so seemingly radical that some scholars describe it as socialist, even “communistic”—had been the first to turn against him?
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History heroes: Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch: Historian. French Resistance leader. Hero.

At eight on the evening of June 16, 1944—not long before dusk on the tenth day after the Allied invasion of France–the Gestapo dragged 28 French resistance fighters from the cells where they had been incarcerated, tortured and interrogated at Montluc prison, Lyon. Handcuffed in pairs, the men were thrust onto an open truck and driven to an empty field outside a little village known as Saint-Didier-de-Formans. Along the way, a German officer bragged to them that the war would still be won, and that London was about to be destroyed by V1 flying bombs.

London would, of course, survive, and the war would not be won by Nazi Germany, but that was scant consolation to the resistance men as they were taken four by four into the field for execution. The accounts of two men among the prisoners who miraculously survived being shot in the back at close range allow us to know something of their final moments. There were no pleas for mercy. Some of the men shouted out last words as they were led into the field—”Adieu ma femme!” one of them called—but most remarkable was the brief scene that played out between the oldest and the youngest of the prisoners.

The younger man was really a boy, 16 years old and terrified of what was about to happen. The older was small, balding but distinguished-looking, and, at 58, he wore round glasses and the haggard look of a prisoner who had survived repeated torture. As the execution party cocked its guns, the boy groaned, “This is going to hurt.” “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” the older man assured him. He reached out to enclose the child’s hands in his own and held them, shouting “Vive la France!” as the first volley of machine-gun fire rang out.
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The last of the Cornish packmen

Elis the pedlar, a Welsh packman working the villages around Llanfair in about 1885. John Thomas Collection, National Library of Wales

Before the coming of the railways, and the buses, and the motor car, when it was not uncommon for isolated farms to be a day’s walk from the nearest shops, the closest many people got to a department store was when a wandering peddler came to call.

Wheeled transport was still expensive then, and most rural roads remained unmade, so the great majority of these traveling salesmen carried their goods on their backs. Their packs usually weighed about a hundredweight (100 pounds, or about 50 kilos—not much less than their owners), and they concealed a treasure trove of bits and pieces, everything from household goods to horsehair wigs, all neatly arranged in drawers.  Since the customers were practically all female, the best-sellers were almost always beauty products; readers of Anne of Green Gables may recall that she procured the dye that colored her hair green from just such a peddler.

Over the years, these fixtures of the rural scene went by many names; they were buffers, or duffers, or packmen, or dustyfoots. Some were crooks, but a surprisingly high proportion of them were honest tradesmen, more or less, for it was not possible to built a profitable round without providing customers with a reasonable service. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it has been estimated, an honest packman on the roads of England might earn more than a pound a week, a pretty decent income at that time. More

“Kipper und wipper”: rogue traders, rogue princes, rogue nuns and the German financial meltdown of 1621-23

A German mint hard at work producing debased coinage designed to be palmed off on the nearest neighbouring state, c.1620

The great German hyperinflation of 1923 is passing out of living memory now, but that doesn’t mean that it has been forgotten. Indeed, you don’t have to go too far to hear it cited as a terrible example of what can happen when a government lets the economy spin out of control, and the episode still remains a minor feature of the British history curriculum, studied – briefly – by 15 and 16 year olds taking their GCSE. In consequence, a surprisingly large number of Brits can recall at least some of the details of that period. They may remember, for instance, that at its peak German inflation hit 325,000,000 percent, while the exchange rate plummeted from 9 marks to 4.2 billion marks to the dollar. They may recall that it became cheaper to decorate a room with high-denomination banknotes than with wallpaper; or that when thieves robbed a worker who had used a wheelbarrow to cart off the billions of reichsmarks that were his week’s wages, it was reported that they stole the wheelbarrow but left the useless wads of cash piled on the kerb. Others have had one or other of the famous photos taken in this period burned into their memories, such as one that shows a German housewife firing her boiler with an imposing pile of worthless notes [below left].

It’s easy, in these circumstances, to suppose that 1923 was a uniquely strange and terrible episode, but the truth is that it was not. Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])   Nor was 1923 even the first time that Germany had experienced an uncontrollable rise in prices. It had also happened long before, back in the early years of the 17th century. And that hyperinflation (which is generally known by its evocative German name, the kipper- und wipperzeit) was a whole lot stranger and more colourful than what happened in 1923. More