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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Murder in the Potala

The Potala Palace, Lhasa: home to nine successive Dalai Lamas, a number of them suspiciously short-lived.

The Potala Palace, Lhasa: home to nine successive Dalai Lamas, a number of them suspiciously short-lived.

Few buildings inspire awe in quite the way that the Potala Palace does. Set high on the great Tibetan plateau, against the looming backdrop of the Himalayas, the vast structure rises 400 feet from a mountain in the middle of Lhasa, taking the uppermost apartments on its thirteenth floor to 12,500 feet above sea level. The palace is at once architecturally striking and historically significant. Until the Chinese occupation of 1951, it was also the winter home of the 14th Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of a long line of religious leaders dating back to the late fourteenth century.

For Buddhists, the Potala is a holy spot, but even for visitors to the Tibetan capital it is hardly the sort of place one would expect to find steeped in intrigue and corruption. Yet during the first half of the 19th century, the palace was the scene of a grim battle for political supremacy fought between monks, Tibetan nobles and Chinese governors. Most historians of the country, and many Tibetans, believe that the most prominent victims of this struggle were four successive Dalai Lamas, the ninth through the twelfth, all of whom died in unusual circumstances, and not one of whom lived past the age of 21.
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The Blues versus the Greens: how circus factions nearly brought down the Byzantine Empire

“Bread and circuses,” the poet Juvenal wrote scathingly. “That’s all the common people want.” Food and entertainment. Or to put it another way, basic sustenance and bloodshed, because the most popular entertainments offered by the circuses of Rome were the gladiators and chariot racing, the latter often as deadly as the former. As many as 12 four-horse teams raced one another seven times around the confines of the greatest arenas—the Circus Maximus in Rome was 2,000 feet long, but its track was not more than 150 feet wide—and rules were few, collisions all but inevitable, and hideous injuries to the charioteers extremely commonplace. Ancient inscriptions frequently record the deaths of famous racers in their early 20s, crushed against the stone spina that ran down the center of the race track or dragged behind their horses after their chariots were smashed.

Charioteers, who generally started out as slaves, took these risks because there were fortunes to be won. Successful racers who survived could grow enormously wealthy—another Roman poet, Martial, grumbled in the first century A.D. that it was possible to make as much as 15 bags of gold for winning a single race. Diocles, the most successful charioteer of them all, earned an estimated 36 million sesterces in the course of his glittering career, a sum sufficient to feed the whole city of Rome for a year. Spectators, too, wagered and won substantial sums, enough for the races to be plagued by all manner of dirty tricks; there is evidence that the fans sometimes hurled nail-studded curse tablets onto the track in an attempt to disable their rivals.

In the days of the Roman republic, the races featured four color-themed teams, the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues, each of which attracted fanatical support. By the sixth century A.D., after the western half of the empire fell, only two of these survived—the Greens had incorporated the Reds, and the Whites had been absorbed into the Blues. But the two remaining teams were wildly popular in the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople, and their supporters were as passionate as ever—so much so that they were frequently responsible for bloody riots.
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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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Nice things to say about Attila the Hun

An 1894 engraving of Attila from Horne’s Great Men and Famous Women, adapted from an antique medal. In depicting Attila with horns and goatish physiognomy, the engraver stressed the diabolical aspects of his character.

He called himself flagellum Dei, the scourge of God, and even today, 1,500 years after his blood-drenched death, his name remains a byword for brutality. Ancient artists placed great stress on his inhumanity, depicting him with goatish beard and devil’s horns. Then as now, he seemed the epitome of an Asian steppe nomad: ugly, squat and fearsome, lethal with a bow, interested chiefly in looting and in rape.

His real name was Attila, King of the Huns, and even today the mention of it jangles some atavistic panic bell deep within civilized hearts. For Edward Gibbon—no great admirer of the Roman Empire that the Huns ravaged repeatedly between 434 and 453 A.D.—Attila was a “savage destroyer” of whom it was said that “the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.” For the Roman historian Jordanes, he was “a man born into the world to shake the nations.” As recently as a century ago, when the British wanted to emphasize how barbarous and how un-English their opponents in the First World War had grown—how very far they had fallen short in their sense of honor, justice and fair play—they called the Germans “Huns.” 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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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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On hidden history

5 writersThe best stories from history lie beyond the margins of textbooks, says the historian. He tells us about five extraordinary tales from the past, from visions of the Virgin Mary to the golden age of the American con artist.

Here’s the text of a long interview that I gave to the brilliant The Browser site about ‘hidden history’ – what it is, what bits of it are most worth reading, and why we should care. I’m pretty happy with how it came out, and if you like the sort of stories featured in this blog and are looking for some recommendations for further reading, it’s not a bad place to start.

Will you start by telling me what you mean by “hidden history”?

For me, it’s the history that exists beyond the margins and the textbooks and what we normally consider to be history: George Washington, Henry VIII, Hitler. I have the capacity to be interested in pretty much all history, because it’s all about us being human. But I’m most interested in stuff no one else is interested in – I really like knowing things that other people have missed out on. All the books I’ve recommended are about periods and episodes in history that are little known but which I find peculiarly fascinating. I think that’s because they are all, ultimately, about the extremes of human experience. We can learn a lot about ourselves as human beings by seeing how we react in instances where we are confronted by extremes – whether they are economic, as in my book Tulipomania [about the 17th century tulip market in Holland], or life-threatening, as in Batavia’s Graveyard [about a Dutch East India company ship that was shipwrecked in 1629].

And all these books you’ve chosen, as well as your own, are very much about the individuals and their stories?

Yes, I’m interested in the ordinary people of history. One of the things I try to do when I write is to dignify them by showing a bit of interest in their lives and what happened to them, rather than treating them as if they’re another disposable number, which is how, quite often, they were treated in life. All these books I’ve chosen have a similar sort of approach. For example, Joseph Mitchell is renowned for taking seriously people who were very much at the margins of New York society. Continue reading

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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William Shakespeare: gangster

The “Chandos Portrait” of Shakespeare–dating to c.1600 and one of only two that may have been painted from life–is thought to be the work of the playwright’s “intimate friend” John Taylor of the Painter-Stainers’ Company (though it may not show Shakespeare at all). Its be-earringed playwright, pictured without the usual ruff, seems to show an altogether tougher character than the figure that appears in more familiar likenesses.

You wouldn’t think it by looking at the long line of Shakespeare biographies on the library shelves, but everything we know for sure about the life of the world’s most revered playwright would fit comfortably onto a few pages.

Yes, we know that a man named Will Shakespeare was born in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. We know that someone of pretty much the same name married and had children there (the baptismal register says Shaxpere, the marriage bond Shagspere), that he went to London, was an actor. We know that some of the most wonderful plays ever written were published under this man’s name–though we also know so little about his education, experiences and influences that an entire literary industry exists to prove that Shaxpere-Shagspere did not write, could not have written, them. We know that our Shakespeare gave evidence in a single obscure court case, signed a couple of documents, went home to Stratford, made a will and died in 1616.

And that’s just about it.

In one sense, this is not especially surprising. We know as much about Shakespeare as we know about most of his contemporaries–Ben Jonson, for instance, remains such a cipher that we can’t be sure where he was born, to whom, or even exactly when. “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time,” says David Thomas of Britain’s National Archives. “It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.” Continue reading