Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011


In January, 1726, a British ship, the Compton, made a brief stop at the uninhabited island of Ascension, in the South Atlantic.

A few of the crew clambered ashore and were startled by what they found on the beach - a tent, a kettle and a handwritten diary.

When they began reading the diary, they were deeply shocked. It recounted the final days of a Dutch mariner who had been cast away on the island seven months earlier. Within its pages was an extraordinary story of madness and human loneliness.

Tom Hanks did better than Leendert Hasenbosch
The castaway was a trader named Leendert Hasenbosch, who was returning to The Hague after a long spell in the East Indies.

At some point on the voyage home - the precise details remain obscure - he harboured a desperate yearning for sexual contact. With no women on board, he turned to one of the mariners - possibly a cabin boy.

And thus begun a terrible chapter of events that was to cost him his life. Sodomy was a grievous sin in 18th century Holland and Leendert found himself in big trouble. The ship’s captain could, by law, have had him executed: instead, he chose to cast him ashore on the next island they encountered.

It happened to be Ascension, one of the loneliest places in the world.

Leendert was left a few provisions and a little barrel of water: if he was to survive, he would need to display extreme resourcefulness and mental courage.

His first goal was to search for food and water. But he was beset with profound loneliness from the very outset. ‘I walked very melancholy along the strand,’ he wrote on the first day ashore, ‘praying to God Almighty to help me off this desolate island.’
Ascension: a lonely place to be cast away

He managed to kill three boobies, which he skinned and salted. He also managed to kill a turtle. But water continued to elude him. ‘I sat me down very disconsolate with thirst,’ he wrote on day five.

After two weeks on the island, his tinderbox tipped over and set fire to his belongings. He was by now in extreme need of water; his remaining supply was ‘so thick [with parasites] as obliged me to strain it through a handkerchief.’

By mid-June - after five weeks alone - Leendert’s mind started to wander alarmingly. ‘In the night, I was surprised by a noise round my tent of cursing and swearing, and the most blasphemous conversations that I ever heard.’

He felt a profound guilt for his crime and heard devils clamouring all around him, calling him a sodomite. ‘I hope this my punishment in this world may suffice for my most heinous crime of making use of my fellow creature to satisfy my lust,’ he wrote.

Bosch's devils. Leendert was constantly afflicted
Slowly but surely, Leendert slid inexorably into madness. He had visions of crucifixes in the trees and constantly heard voices of vicious little devils remonstrating with him.

Still unable to find water, he began drinking turtle blood. Then, when he finally managed to urinate, he drank his urine, mixed with tea and more turtle blood. It was all boiled into an unappealing broth.

It was an unhealthy diet for a sick man and Leendert grew physically weaker and weaker, recording his steady decline in his daily diary. By September, he was shaking so forcefully that he could hardly write. ‘I am so much decayed,’ he wrote, ‘that I am a perfect skeleton.’

Two weeks later, he knew the end was near. ‘Drank my own urine and eat raw flesh,’ he wrote.

At some point in the days that followed - stricken with thirst and too weak to move - he finally died.

He might have survived, if only he had clung to his sanity. Ascension Island had water, plenty of food and a temperate climate.

But - as recent psychological studies have shown - the will to survive is one of the most important factors in who lives and who dies when placed in extreme conditions.

In poor Leendert’s case, those guilt-provoked visions were to cost him his sanity and ultimately his life.

For information about my new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War - and other information - please visit my website:

Leendert’s story was unearthed and researched by the Dutch historian Michiel Koolbergen. He died before he could publish his findings: the full story was eventually published by Alex Ritsema in his book A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island in 1725. It is also recounted in Charles Neider’s Great Shipwrecks and Castaways.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


An 11 year old German boy is sitting in the classroom, waiting for his teacher to arrive.
The lesson is religious education and the children are to be taught about the creation of the world.
Except that this is to be no ordinary lesson, for these are not ordinary times. The Third Reich has brought many changes to daily life, and none more so than to the national curriculum. Every lesson - and every schoolbook - has been made to conform with Nazi ideology.

Enthusiastic Nazi children salute Hitler

Religious Education:

The young boy in the classroom was Frithjof Rodi - one of the family members that I interviewed for my book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went To War.
Young Frithjof listened intently as the teacher began to explain the biblical version of events. Except that on this occasion, there was to be a new twist to a very old story.
The teacher said that God was very tired after making Adam and Eve. But He still had a little lump of clay left over. He tried to make a third figure but it was extremely ugly and so He threw it violently into the corner. This made its nose crooked and its legs all bandy.
The swastika was ever present

Frithjof, along with the other children, listened to the teacher wide-eyed, never having heard this version of the creation.
The teacher then told them how this crippled and misshapen creature slowly came alive and started creeping towards God. God was appalled and said to it: ‘Go to hell, you Jew!’
Once the teacher had finished with his story, he made all the children write it out in their neatest handwriting. The children knew it was wrong - they even spoke about it afterwards - yet they still took pride in writing it neatly into their exercise books.


Wolfram, too, remembers the new ideology beginning to take hold in the classroom. One afternoon, there was a visit to his school by a German √©migr√© newly arrived from the Volga. Like so many ethnic Germans, the man’s family had lived there for more than two centuries. Now, in the wake of Stalin’s persecution, they were flooding back to Germany.
The man brought pictures of starving and malnourished children, and told Wolfram that the Russians were deliberately denying them food. There were endless images of corpses – entire cartloads of them – and he recounted narrowing stories of cannibalism. The photographs were so vivid that Wolfram had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
The Nazis wanted children to grow up with an intrinsic fear of Communism, but exhibiting these gruesome photographs to the pupils at the school infuriated Wolfram’s parents.


Science, too, was permeated by Nazi ideology - especially biology.
In the class of Hannelore Schottgen, a contemporary of Wolfram, race became the principal subject, focusing on the hierarchy of races.
At the very top was the Aryan race: Nordic, tall, blond with blue eyes, a noble character, hard-working and the brightest part of the German population.
Children were subjected to virulent racism

Next down the scale were the Slavs, along with Latin and Mediterranean types.
All other peoples of the world – especially those who were black or Jewish – were considered completely degenerate.
At playtimes, Hannelore and her friends would talk excitedly about how close they were to the proper race, although they were sorely disappointed when they worked out that hardly anyone turned out to be pure Nordic. The tall ones were dark, the blonde ones were little and the sole fair-haired girl who was tall had a crooked nose.
Hannelore felt uncomfortable in these biology lessons, largely because the teacher herself was uncomfortable, teaching the new curriculum without any enthusiasm while doing her best to keep a distance from it.
She and her friends, aware that she did not agree with what she was having to teach, decided not to ask any difficult questions because they liked her.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


23 February, 1945

It was shortly after 7.30pm when the first warning was sounded.
More than 370 British planes were heading towards Pforzheim, a provincial town in South West Germany. They’d already crossed the Rhine and they were flying very low. The town’s inhabitants had less than five minutes to run for shelter.
One teenage girl, Hannelore Schottgen, was cycling across town when the sirens sounded. She was stopped by an air-raid warden who ordered her into the nearest shelter.

'Big groups of enemy planes...'
‘Big groups of enemy places are coming nearer our area.’
And then - seconds later - it began. Thump. Thump. Overheard, hundreds of Lancaster bombers began dropping their bombs. The aim was not just to destroy the town below (it was wrongly suspected of being a centre for precision bomb-making); it was also to create a firestorm that would engulf the historic centre of town.
‘All we could hear was bomb after bomb,’ recalls Hannelore. ‘Screaming and screeching and noises of things breaking down. The whole house seemed to be moving. A bit of ceiling fell in. Was the house going to collapse on top of us? Was it going to bury us alive?’
   On the ground above, Pforzheim was a sheet of flame. More than 90 per cent of buildings in the town centre were already ablaze. In the eye of the firestorm, the temperature approached a staggering 1,600 degrees centigrade - so hot that metal girders were turned to liquid.
Pforzheim: believed to be a centre for weapon production

For Hannelore and the other girls, it was a terrifying experience. ‘The walls were moving and chunks of plaster kept falling into the room. Dust and smoke. We put wet cloths over our mouths and noses.’
There was now a real danger that the building above them would collapse, crushing them all to death. In desperation, the warden began tapping the wall, hoping to smash his way through to an adjoining cellar. As he did so, smoke began pouring into the cellars, suffocating the girls.
Eventually, the warden gave up. ‘The only thing we can now do is pray,’ he said.
But as the heat and smoke became insufferable, the warden made one more attempt to smash a hole through the cellar wall. This time, a stone gave way. And then a second. And finally the hole was big enough for the girls to squeeze through.
No sooner had they reached the relative safety of the adjoining cellar than the one they had just vacated slumped in on itself, bringing down tons of rubble.
The old town was obliterated
Many of the 17,000 Pforzheimers who were killed that night were already dead. Pulverised by bombs, crushed by collapsing buildings or starved of oxygen, their end was terrible but mercifully swift.
The warden looking after Hannelore and the others was acutely aware of the dangers of toxic gas. He smashed open a door that led to the street and ordered the girls out. Hannelore followed him outside, but the others were too scared and stayed behind.
‘Massive flames everywhere - a sea of fire, like a hot tempest. Walls completely red hot and enormous pieces of rubble that were also red hot.’
The streets were blocked with burning masonry and people were running in desperation through the burning streets, looking for a way to escape.
It took just 20 minutes to destroy the town

Some ran towards Hannelore: You can’t get through here,’ they said. ‘It’s too hot.’ She and the warden turned back, only to be met by more refugees. ‘There’s no way out. Just heat, heat.’
The warden now took a decision that was to save both their lives. He told Hannelore to cover her hands and face with her coat and make a charge through the burning street towards the river. It was their last hope of survival.
‘Keep going,’ he shouted as they ran through the flames. ‘Step by step.’
At long last they reached the river and slumped to the bank where they were shielded from the worst of the heat. Hannelore lay on her front, placed her nose just above the water and focused on getting oxygen into her lungs.
She had made it. She was alive.
She could only pray her parents were alive as well.


The above story is adapted from Chapter Fourteen of my new book: Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. Available now from amazon The original account was published by Hannelore Schottgen herself in Wie dunkler Samt um mein Herz published by Wartberg Verlag: all material reproduced with Frau Schottgen’s kind permission. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Their meeting began with a misunderstanding.

Anne Bonny, mistress of pirate John Rackham, had taken a shine to one of the crew members aboard his ship. After weeks of admiring the man from a distance, she began chatting to him and telling him how handsome he was.

At which point the young man - alarmed by Anne’s advances - was forced to admit that he was not a man at all, but a fellow woman - and a pirate woman at that. Her name was Mary Read, and she had joined John Rackham’s vessel in the hope of making her fortune from plunder.

Anne Bonny: took a shine to Mary
Rackham was not yet aware of Mary’s secret. He had noticed his lover making advances to one of his crew and was furious. ‘He told Anne Bonny he would cut her new lover’s throat.’

In order to save Mary’s life, ‘she let him into the secret also.’

Mary Read had lived as a man for some years before turning to piracy. After a rough upbringing in England, she’d headed to Flanders, joined a foot regiment and fought with considerable bravery. Anne, too, had experienced a difficult childhood: she’d been turned out of her home and forced to make her own way in the world before joining Rackham’s vessel.

Now, the two women became true pirates of the Caribbean, attacking and capturing ships sailing from the West Indies to England, laden with precious commodities.

Mary was the most violent of the two: when her onboard lover was challenged to a duel by a jealous crew member, she tricked the man into going ashore two hours too early, ‘where she fought him at sword and pistol and killed him upon the spot.’

One day, as they were cruising the Caribbean, Rackham’s pirate vessel chanced upon a ship belonging to John Haman. He was a notorious privateer who had pillaged a fortune from Spanish ships.

Mary: not to be messed with
Now, Mary and Anne decided to pillage Haman in turn. Anne crept aboard and discovered every detail about the vessel and its piratical crew. Having discovered that Haman was never on board at night - and there was only a skeleton crew - the two women resolved to attack at midnight.

‘As soon as they got on board, Anne Bonny, having a drawn sword in one hand and a pistol in the other… went straight to the cabin.’ She woke the guards ‘and swore that if they pretended to resist, or make a noise, she would blow out their brains.’

They then untied the ship and put to sea, allowing the guards to make their escape in a rowing boat.
Success followed success and soon Rackham and his two pirate companions had a veritable fortune on board. But they eventually got their come-uppance when they were trapped - and caught - by the authorities. The three of them were taken for trial at Port Royal.
Rackham: hanged like a dog.

Mary proved remarkably sanguine when threatened with hanging. She told the judge ‘she thought it no great hardship for, were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate.’

Anne, too, displayed no remorse. On the day of Rackham’s execution, she went to visit her former lover and told him that ‘if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog.’   

Rackham was hanged, but the two women pirates managed to cheat the gallows. Mary was found to be pregnant ‘and her execution was respited.’ But she died in prison of a violent fever that followed her trial.

Anne, too, was pregnant and thereby escaped execution. Her fate remains uncertain, although she certainly had descendents who later claimed she managed to gain her early release from jail. She then sailed to South Carolina where she gave birth to Rackham’s second child.

Piracy, it seems, can pay. But only if you’re a woman.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read principally from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, by Captain Charles Johnson (probably Daniel Defoe)