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, March 29, 2011


Doug Robertson had just replaced the sextant in its box when there was a massive crash from underneath the boat.
‘Sledgehammer blows of incredible force,’ is how he later described them, ‘… hurling me against the bunk.’
The Robertson family: seeking adventure.
He wrenched up the floorboards of the family’s schooner to see what was wrong. He found himself gazing at a massive hole - punctured by a killer whale - ‘through which water was pouring in with torrential force.’
It was immediately clear that nothing could be done to save the boat. The Lucette, a 43-foot pleasure craft, was sinking fast. The Robertson family were about to find themselves adrift and alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Their survival was entirely in their own hands.
The Roberstons has set sail on their round-the-world voyage in January 1971 - Doug, his wife, Lyn, and their children, Douglas, Neil, Sandy. Also on board was Robin, a 22-year-old graduate who joined the family in Panama for the leg that would take them across the Pacific to New Zealand. 
Killer whale: that sinking feeling
They were 200 miles down wind from the Galapagos Islands when the killer whale attacked. As the Lucette filled with water, Doug managed to release the stricken schooner’s little dinghy - named Ednamair - and salvage some food and supplies. Within minutes, the Lucette had slipped beneath the surface of the Pacific.
And so began an ordeal of survival that was to last fully 38 days. The family faced an enormous challenge: they had precious little food and water and were lost in the middle of the earth’s biggest ocean. Few castaways in history have survived such challenging circumstances.
‘Breakfast consisted of our quarter-ounce biscuit, a piece of onion and a sip of water’, wrote Doug. But even these scant supplies were soon to dry up. The family knew that if they were to have any hope of survival, they would have to live off the ocean.
Breakfast, lunch and supper
A rain shower brought their first supply of water. Soon after, a huge dorado plopped in the bottom of the boat. Doug grabbed his knife and ‘plunged it into the head, just behind the eye.’ They had secured their first meal from the ocean depths.
The family’s ordeal was made worse by the heat of the tropical sun, which beat down on their dinghy. ‘We lay gasping in the torrid heat, sucking at pieces of rubber trying to create saliva to ease the burden of our thirst.’
By the end of the first week, they were all suffering form skin eruptions due to the exposure to salt water. By the end of the second, they were seriously hungry.
‘Turtle!’ yelled one of the boys. They managed to grab it and heave it aboard, plunging a knife into its throat in order to drain the blood. ‘I felt,’ wrote Doug, ‘as if I’d just drunk the elixir of life.’
As time went on, the family grew more confident that they could survive. They made tools, kept themselves reasonably healthy and relied on each other psychologically.
There were great dangers: violent storms flung their dinghy from peak to trough and they faced both extreme heat and terrible cold.
At one point, they found themselves caught in a ferocious tempest. ‘The rain doubled and redoubled until a frenzy of water fell from the sky; above the noise of the storm, I could hear Sandy sobbing and Lyn praying.’
Alive - and rescued - after 38 days
As time went on, the family got increasingly adept at plucking food from the ocean. They managed to kill 13 turtles, using a spear that they fashioned from a paddle, and even dispatched (and ate) a five-foot shark. 
Lyn, who’d trained as a nurse, instigated an undignified (but efficacious) technique to keep them all hydrated with rainwater collected in the boat.

The water was contaminated by turtle blood and offal and would be poisonous if drunk. Aware of this, she insisted her family take enemas using tubes from the rung of a ladder. 

Her reasoning was that if water is taken rectally, the poisons don’t work their way through the digestive system.
On day 38 of their ordeal, Doug gazed towards the horizon and caught sight of something.
‘A ship!’ I said. ‘There’s a ship and it’s coming towards us!.’
It was indeed - the Toka Maru II, a Japanese vessel. Its crew were astonished by the sight of the wild-looking Roberston family adrift in their dinghy and even more amazed when they heard the account of their ordeal.
After four days on board the Toka Maru II, the Robertsons reached Balboa in Panama, where they landed to a welcome fit for heroes.
Theirs was a staggering achievement: surviving 38 days at sea with almost no water or supplies.
Doug would later write an account of the family’s ordeal, Survive the Savage Sea. First published in 1973, it surely ranks as one of the great survival stories of all time.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011


A corpse lies on the mortuary table.
The head and hands are missing and the torso has been badly mutilated. 
To whom does it belong?
Lionel: was his the headless corpse?

The identity of the cadaver - found in the sea near Chichester in the summer of 1957 - was to prove a mystery to police. It remains one of the great mysteries of the Cold War.
The story begins on April 19, 1956, when a man named Lionel Crabb dived into Portsmouth harbour on a highly secretive mission.
Crabb was an agent working for MI6 and the apparent target of his mission was a Soviet cruiser at anchor in the harbour. The cruiser - Ordzhonikidze - had brought Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev on a diplomatic visit to Britain.
The ship’s presence in British waters presented military intelligence with a unique opportunity to study the capability of Soviet weaponry.
MI6 was particularly interested in discovering more about the newly designed propeller that had been installed on the cruiser.
But was that the real reason why they sent Crabb into the chill waters of Porstmouth harbour?
The only certainty is that Crabb - who had many years of experience as a diver - was never seen alive again. He was declared missing - presumed dead - after his dive.
It was not long before questions began to be asked about Crabb’s mysterious disappearance.
Khrushchev: happy to be in England
The British establishment worked frantically behind the scenes, doing everything it could to cover up the espionage mission. On April 29 - 10 days after the dive - the Admiralty announced that Crabb had inexplicably vanished while taking part in secret trials of underwater weaponry. 
But this was hotly disputed by the Soviets, who released a statement to the effect that the Ordzhonikidze’s crew had spotted a diver close to the cruiser on April 19. This diver was believed to be Crabb.
With precious little accurate information to hand, British newspapers began to speculate. They reported rumours that Khrushchev’s crew had captured Crabb and taken him to the Soviet Union for interrogation.
The prime minister, Anthony Eden, fuelled speculation by publicly announcing that it was not in the public interest to disclose any information about the disappearance of Lionel Crabb.
And there the story might have ended, were it not for the fact that on 9 June, 1957 - more than a year later - a body was found floating in the waters of Chichester Harbour.  Identification was never going to be easy for the corpse was missing its head and hands. Was it that of Lionel Crabb?
Crabb's ex-wife was unable to identify the body, and nor was his girlfriend Pat Rose. But there was a third person on hand for purposes of identification.
Ordzhonikidze - what nice propellors
Sydney Knowles was a close friend of Crabb and also his sometime diving partner. He was now asked to identify the corpse.
It was in a terrible state of decomposition, for much of the torso had been eaten away. But the lower half was reasonably well preserved and Knowles immediately looked for the tell-tale scar just below Crabb’s left knee.
It was not there.
Yet Knowles - even though he was certain that this was not the corpse of his old friend - told the police that it was. He would later admit to the Mail on Sunday that he had been ordered by MI5 to positively identify it as Crabb’s body
Why? In order - he said - to cover up MI5’s murder of Lionel Crabb.
Crabb, it was rumored, had been intending to defect to the USSR. His diving mission had been set up by MI5 with the express purpose of killing him in order to silence him.
Cold War: it'll be over by Christmas! 
To this end, he had been accompanied by a second diver who murdered Crabb underwater in order to save the Secret Service from any embarrassing revelations.
But even this version of events has been hotly disputed. In a 2007 BBC interview, a Soviet frogman named Eduard Koltsov claimed that Crabb had been spotted attempting to place a mine on the hull of the Ordzhonikidze in order to blow it up. 
Koltsov told the BBC that he had personally slit Crabb’s throat. He even had the dagger to prove it.
So who is telling the truth? Alas, we’ll have to wait a little longer. The mysterious disappearance of Lionel Crabb will eventually be solved, for all the relevant documents are in still in existence.
But they are not scheduled for release into the public domain until 2057.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011


It had been a long and busy day for Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval.
Now, at 5.15pm, on 11 May, 1812, he returned to the House of Commons in order to attend an enquiry into political procedure.
He stepped into the lobby of the Commons, looking around for familiar faces. But the person he noticed was neither familiar nor friendly.
Bang, bang, you're dead.
His name was John Bellingham - a merchant - and he harboured a deep grievance against the Prime Minister.
Bellingham stepped forwards, pulled out a gun, and shot Percival through the heart at point blank range. The prime minister reeled from the force of the shot, then collapsed to the floor in a pool of blood. 'Murder' he was heard to gasp. 'Oh my God.'
Bystanders rushed forwards and picked him up off the floor. They carried him into an adjoining room, where he was laid on a table with his head and feet propped up with chairs.
It was too late to save him.
One of the men felt for his pulse: it was beating faintly. There was still hope and a surgeon was urgently summoned. But by the time the surgeon had arrived it was too late. Spencer Perceval was dead - the only British prime minister to be assassinated. 

In the lobby of the Commons there was pandemonium. But the murderer, Bellingham, made no attempt to escape or even to resist arrest. Instead, he calmly explained how he had been wrongly imprisoned in Russia and had long been petitioning for compensation from the British government. But his pleas had been constantly rejected.
Killed at point blank range
On 18 April, he visited the Foreign Office in yet another attempt to recover his money. He chatted with a civil servant who, with a weary sigh, advised him to do whatever he thought right to get compensation.
Infuriated by the attitude of the government, Bellingham went straight to a well-known London gunsmith, W Beckwith, in Skinner Street, and bought two half-inch caliber pistols. He then visited his tailor and asked him to sew a secret pocket into his coat.
He now began to plan his assassination in earnest. It was to take place on 11 May, and he decided to shoot the Prime Minister at point blank range in the House of Commons.
On the day of the crime, he visited an exhibition before making his way to Parliament. He then hung around in the lobby until the Prime Minister appeared, without security, shortly after 5pm.
Bellingham: not a happy man
Bellingham shot him directly through the heart and then sat down calmly and awaited his inevitable arrest.
He was tried three days later at the Old Bailey. His defense, based on extremely dubious legal reasoning, was that he’d been wronged and was therefore entitled to kill the representative of his ‘oppressors’.
He gave a formal statement to the court, saying: ‘Recollect, gentlemen… that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval's pleasure that justice should not be granted.’
He put forth a lengthy argument along these lines, prompting the court to question whether or not he was insane. But this was thrown out by the judge, Sir James Mansfield, who found him guilty.
His sentence was as follows: ‘That you be taken … to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomized.’
The hanging was carried out in public on Monday, 18 May. According to eyewitnesses, there was widespread sympathy for Bellingham. One French observer said the crowd was openly saying that he had rendered an important service to the country.
A public subscription was raised for Bellingham’s widow and children and large numbers of people donated money. ‘Their fortune was ten times greater than they could ever have expected in any other circumstances.’
The widow of Spencer Perceval was rather less fortunate. She discovered that her husband had left her and her 12 children just £106 in the bank.
Parliament had to step in to save them from abject penury.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Man AND Woman: The Truly Peculiar World of Chevalier d’Eon

It made for a peculiar scene.
Six or seven men - the precise number is unknown - were standing around a fully clothed corpse. The same question was on everyone mind: was the dead body lying on the table a man or a woman.
d'Eon: woman or man?
The sex of the illustrious cadaver was one of the great riddles of the 18th century. The corpse was that of a French aristocrat known as Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d'Eon de Beaumont - a flamboyant spy, dragoon guard and member of the French nobility.
But was d’Eon a man or a woman? Half of his/her life had been spent as a man and half as a women. 
The rumours surrounding the chevalier’s sex had begun in the early 1770’s when young men of quality began speculating about whether this seeming woman was actually a cross-dressing man.
D’Eon, who was living in London, encouraged the rumours from the start: indeed, he/she seemed to relish the attention. He/she refused to comment and consistently refused to allow a physician to examine him/her. 

Horace Walpole met d'Eon in 1786 and found him/her loud, noisy, and vulgar - ‘her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carry a chair than a fan.’
According to James Boswell, ‘she appeared to me a man in woman's clothes.’
d'Eon: man or woman?
Comments like these only serve to fuel the speculation: it was not long before London gamblers had bet more than £200,000 on the issue.
A spy was sent to the French king in order to discover the truth about the chevalier’s sex. He returned from Versailles with news that d’Eon was definitely a woman. When English gamblers sued each other in court over the issue, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield declared that English law believed d’Eon to be a woman.
The chevalier him/herself now decided to reveal titbits about his/her private parts: ‘I was born with a caul,’ he/she wrote, ‘and my sex was hidden in nubibus.’ What this meant was that the testicles - if there were any - had not descended.
But d’Eon was being deliberately mysterious. Later in the book, his/her father is quoted as saying to his wife: ‘The doctor hopes that nature [the baby’s sex] will soon be developed and that it will be a good boy by the grace of God, or a good girl by the virtue of the Blessed Virgin.’
This, claimed d’Eon, was why he/she had been christened with both male and female names: Charles and Geneviève
The known facts only served to confuse matters further. The chevalier (in the guise of a man) had worked for a secret network of male spies called the Le Secret du Roi.
d'Eon: an old man?
He/she had been sent to Russia and - after slipping into women’s clothing - had negotiated with the Empress Elizabeth. He/she had even become maid of honour to the empress.
After returning to France, the chevalier had changed back into man’s clothing and served as a dragoon guard, fighting in the latter stages of the Seven Years War.
D’Eon claimed that he had been a man all along, ‘and later became a girl against my wishes.’ If so, he showed himself remarkably comfortable in women’s clothes and was so convincing as a female that the most women who met him/her in London were convinced.
Indeed D’Eon now claimed to be a woman and demanded to be recognized as such by the French government.
King Louis XVI agreed, so long as d’Eon wore women’s clothes from this point on. He/she happily agreed.
In the latter stages of d’Eon life, he/she lived in London as an old spinster, living with a widow, Mrs Cole. When d’Eon finally died, Mrs Cole was convinced that her lodger was a woman.
d'Eon: old woman? Or just confused
And then came the autopsy undertaken by surgeon Thomas Copeland. Slowly - carefully - he stripped the chevalier’s body, removing the dress, the stockings and the woman’s underwear.
And as the pantyhose was finally removed, there was a gasp from the crowd around the table.
‘I hereby certify that I have inspected and dissected the body of the Chevalier d’Eon,’ wrote Surgeon Copeland with a flourish, ‘and have found the male organs in every respect perfectly formed.’
Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d'Eon de Beaumont had been a fully fledged man all along - although perhaps a little confused. 

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011


There are very few surviving accounts written by the nearly one million European slaves who were held
captive in North Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are even fewer written by women. But there exists one extraordinary account - long forgotten - by a Dutch girl named Maria ter Meetelen.

It was blustery July day in 1731 and the Dutch merchant vessel was making swift progress towards Holland. Maria ter Meetelen, one of the passengers, was gazing towards the horizon when she noticed a ship sailing towards them at full tilt.
To her horror, she realised that it was a pirate vessel and the men sailing her were Barbary corsairs.
Maria’s life was about to change forever. The ship she was travelling on was captured, Maria herself was seized and she found herself taken as a slave to Morocco.
'I just want to inspect your teeth'
A 19th century Orientalist picture
She was escorted to the sultan, Moulay Abdullah, soon after landing. She was told that if he took a liking to her, then she’d spend the rest of her days in the harem.
‘I found myself in front of the sultan,’ she wrote, ‘in his room, where he was lying with fifty of his women, each more beautiful than the last… [they were] dressed like goddesses and extraordinarily stunning. Each had an instrument and they were playing and singing.’
The women of the harem were segregated into a strict hierarchy: four of the sultan’s principal wives were seated opposite him; ‘they shone with gold and silver and fine pearls.’ They also wore precious crowns of gold that were adorned with precious stones; each of their fingers was decked with golden rings.
Another teeth inspection.
Artist Gerome's idea of slave market
Maria’s gaze switched from the women of the harem to the sultan himself. He was the very picture of decadence. ‘He had his head resting on the knees of one of his wives, his feet on the knees of another; a third was behind him and the fourth in front, and they were caressing him.’
When the sultan saw Maria approach, he ordered the woman to stop playing their music: ‘he told me to come nearer, sit down and play the zither.’
The sultan liked Maria a great deal: so much, indeed, that he wanted her to ‘turn Turk’ and join his harem. Maria refused and was promptly led away by one of his wives.
‘This wife,’ wrote Maria, ‘had one sole occupation, which was to prepare young virgins for the sultan, because he required a virgin each Friday.’
Maria was warned that if she did not obey the sultan’s wishes, then she would have her skin torn off and suffer even more brutal tortures before being burned.
For week after week she refused to convert to Islam until eventually the sultan tired of her. She was eventually allowed to marry the spokesperson of the sultan’s Dutch slaves - a man named Pieter Janszoon - and lived a reasonably comfortable life, supplying the Christian slaves with alcohol.
She left a vivid description of the conditions in which these European slaves were forced to work.
‘There were obliged to work extremely hard, in blistering sunshine, digging, working the quarries, and receiving in recompense a tiny roll of bread, and sometimes nothing at all.’
Their only drink (until she started supplying them with alcohol) was stinking water. This caused so many illnesses that after a few months only nine slaves were still able to work.
A Turkish depiction of the bathhouse
In 1743, after twelve years in captivity, Maria was finally freed under the terms of a ransom agreement negotiated by the Dutch state. She returned briefly to Holland, before setting sail for South Africa where she probably died, for she disappears from the records.
It is difficult to know how much Maria embellished her manuscript account for an audience that enjoyed colourful tales from the exotic Orient. Yet Sultan Moulay Abdullah is known to have been one of Morocco’s most flamboyant and outlandish rulers and he certainly had an enormous harem.
It is quite probable that Maria described only what she saw - and that the 19th century obsession with harems, eunuchs and all things Oriental was born out of true stories such as the one written by Maria ter Meetelen.

Maria ter Meetelen is mentioned briefly in my book, White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves.

A French translation of Maria’s account is called: L’Annotation Ponctuelle by Maria ter Meetelen, published by the Institut des Hautes-Etudes Marocaines in 1956.

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