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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Monday, May 30, 2011


There were five of them - four men and a woman.
Ada Blackjack: liked the cold
They had volunteered for one of the strangest missions in the history of colonisation.
They were to build new lives on icy Wrangel Island to the far north of Siberia. Their goal was to prove that this inhospitable land was in fact habitable.
This 1921 colonial experiment was the brainchild of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. And it was to go hopelessly, disastrously wrong.
Among the five colonisers was a young Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack. Ada’s husband had died - leaving her destitute - and she had a child with chronic tuberculosis.
She decided to join the expedition for a year, lured by the promise of a good salary. She was officially employed as the team’s seamstress.
Wrangel Island: wrap up warm 
Ada, just 25 years of age, was an odd choice to accompany the mission. She knew nothing about hunting or trapping and had never before lived off the land. She didn’t even know how to build an igloo.
The rest of the team were hardened adventurers: three Americans named Lorne Knight, Milton Galle, and Fred Maurer, and a Canadian called Allan Crawford.
When they learned that Ada had agreed to join the expedition, they thought she would be a hindrance. They scoffed that she would never survive the harsh conditions.
Home: all the creature comforts
Yet it was to be Ada, not they, who survived the Arctic winter, having taught herself the skills she needed to endure some of the harshest conditions in the world.
On 16 September 1921, the five would-be colonists were left on barren Wrangel Island, far to the north of Siberia.
The ostensible goal of their mission was to claim the island for Great Britain. But Stefansson also wanted to prove that the frozen north was habitable.
Stefansson: colonial dreamer
He was so convince that the island was well-stocked with wildlife that he left the colonists with enough food for just six months. He promised to send a supply ship in the following summer: in the meantime, the five would have to fend for themselves.
The mission began well. They built a large snow house and then started to hunt. They managed to kill ten polar bears, 30 seals and many geese and ducks: they were confident that they could survive until the ship’s return.
But the promised vessel never arrived and the five faced a long cold autumn with dwindling supplies.
They soon ran short of tea and coffee, flour, beans and sugar. As autumn developed into a ferocious Arctic winter, the wild game disappeared and the five were left extremely hungry. Worse still, Lorne Knight developed a serious illness.
On 28 January, 1923, Crawford, Galle and Maurer decided to traverse the icy Chukchi Sea in order to reach the Siberian mainland: they wanted to alert people to the fact they were in desperate need of help.
Only way out: the Chuchki Sea
The three men were never seen again: they probably froze to death.
Lorne Knight was by now so afflicted with scurvy that he could scarcely move. He was nursed by Ada until April, when he also died.
Ada was now utterly alone in this ice-bound wilderness.
She had never fired the shotgun or rifle that had been left behind. But she soon learned, killing seals, foxes and ducks. She then made stews out of the meat.
She managed to keep a fire going and she read the Bible for comfort. But as another summer slipped by, she grew weaker and weaker. She prepared for her own lingering death.
But just when she had given up hope of ever being rescued, she sighted a vessel. On 23 August, 1923, the Donaldson arrived at Wrangle Island.
The crew were expecting to find the five colonists in rude health. Instead, they stumbled upon a half-starved Ada Blackjack.
When her story reached the outside world, the newspapers labelled her the ‘female Robinson Crusoe’. Her survival, they said, was a miracle.
Ada didn’t like the media circus. She quietly returned to her former life, using the expedition salary to take her son to Seattle in order to cure his tuberculosis.
Ada the celebrity
But she was by now an unwitting celebrity, heralded in books and journals.
‘Her physical stomach wasn't a bit more adapted to seal oil and blubber than theirs [the men’s],’ wrote one. ‘But in Ada's heart there was a fire that isn't easily blown out.
‘If Ada ever takes it into her head that she would like to see what the North Pole looks like, she will wade up and look at the place.’
Ada never made it to the North Pole, but she did return to the Arctic and eventually made it her home.
The freezing climate seems to have suited her, for she finally died at the ripe old age of 85.

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, May 24, 2011


When Samuel   first glimpsed the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima, he was confident the US marines would capture it within hours.
America's secret weapon: the Navajo Indians
   The island was tiny and the Japanese defenders seemed to have fled. As the marines landed, at precisely 8.59am on 19 February, 1945, they were met by an eerie silence.
   In fact, the Japanese were in hiding. Not until many thousands of marines were ashore did they open fire with machine guns, inflicting devastating losses.
   The ensuing battle was to last 35 days and resulted in almost 7,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. That Iwo Jima was captured at all is due, in large part, to Samuel Tso and his team of Navajo Code Talkers.
   These Native American code talkers were the USA’s secret weapon in World War Two. Without them, the US marines’ battle for Japan’s heavily defended Pacific Islands would have proved infinitely more costly.
Iwo Jima: the Japanese were in for a surprise
    Tso and his men performed what seemed like a miracle: relaying battlefield communications in a code so complex that the Japanese were unable to decipher it. This would ultimately lead America to victory in the Pacific field of battle.
   The idea to use the Native American Navajo language for battlefield communications came from Philip Johnston, a missionary’s son. He was one of the few non-Navajos in the world who spoke the language fluently.
   Johnston knew that the military was desperately searching for a coded language that was impossible to decipher. He also knew that other Native American languages had been used, to great effect, in the First World War.
Fighting was fierce on the beaches
   Navajo was considered the perfect choice of language for an undecipherable code: its tortuous syntax and numerous dialects made it unintelligible to anyone who had not been exposed to it for years. 
   In the spring of 1942, the US army decided to test Johnston’s ingenious idea. The first Navajo recruits - 29 of them - created the special code.
   It was of vital importance that they did not make mistakes. Thousands of lives were dependent on them being able to relay communications quickly and accurately.
   There were six Navajo code talkers in Samuel Tso’s team at Iwo Jima. They worked around the clock during the first two days of the battle, sending and receiving 800 messages of vital importance to the battle’s eventual outcome.
   When he and his comrades received a message, it arrived as a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker’s first task was to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent.
Samuel Tso: one of the Navajo heroes
   Often, these bore no obvious relation to battlefield terms, because words like ‘machine gun’ and ‘battleship’ didn’t exist in Navajo. To get around this problem, they used specially designated Navajo words.
   ‘Battleship’ was represented by the Navajo word ‘whale’; ‘fighter plane’ was represented by ‘hummingbird’; ‘submarine’ by ‘iron fish.’
   But the code was infinitely more complex than that: many different Navajo words were used to represent a single letter of the alphabet. For example, the Navajo words wollachee (ant), belasana (apple) and tsenill (axe) could each be used to represent the letter ‘a’. If the person trying to crack the code didn’t know the English equivalent of these words, he was completely lost.
   One way to spell out the word ‘navy’ in Navajo code would be tsah (needle) wollachee (ant) ahkehdiglini (victor) tsahahdzoh (yucca). But that was only one way: ‘navy’ could also be represented by four completely different words.
Iconic image,
but impossible without the Navajos
   ‘It was hard to memorize,’ recalls Samuel Tso. ‘It was in our mind. We’d have to decode it into English and then spell it out in the English alphabet.’ 
   Tso and his team transmitted information on tactics, troop movements and other vital battlefield communications. They were highly skilled and highly accurate. As the US marines fought their way up the heavily defended beaches of Iwo Jima, the code breakers proved their worth.
   Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, said that Tso’s team led the marines to victory: ‘Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.’
   The Japanese, who were amongst the most skilled code breakers in the world, remained baffled by the Navajo language. And they never managed to work out where the US marines were going to strike next.
   The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, later said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps - and thereby claim many lives - they never cracked the code used by the Marines.
   All they heard was an earful of strange gurgling noises that meant nothing whatsoever to them.
   Philip Johnston’s idea had proved truly inspired. And Samuel Tso and his team undertook their task with extraordinary bravery.
   Without their unintelligible Navajo code, tens of thousands more lives would have been lost. 
   And Iwo Jima might never have been won.

UK paperback 
available here for just £.5.30

Newly published US edition
available here 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


He was last seen at the Gate of St Romanos, stabbing wildly at the invading Turks. He had a lance and a sword and was wielding them with deadly effect.
Wanted! Preferably dead - Constantine
The Emperor Constantine XI - last ruler of the Byzantine Empire - was determined to go down fighting as his imperial capital was overrun by the Turkish army in the spring of 1453. 
What happened next is one of the great historical mysteries of all time. Emperor Constantine simply vanished into thin air.
Was he killed? Captured? His mysterious disappearance was to fuel countless myths about ‘the emperor who never died’. They were to end in a bizarre obituary published in The Times in 1988.
The victor of the battle, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, was desperate to have confirmation that the emperor was indeed dead. No sooner had Constantinople been secured than he ordered a hunt for Constantine. He offered a vast sum to anyone who could bring him the corpse.
Just the head will do.
And this is where the stories become confused. According to one account, the emperor’s body was found lying by the city walls. A Turkish janissary named Sarielles hacked off the head with a knife and delivered it to the sultan.
But there is no evidence to substantiate the claim, and the reward that the sultan is said to have given Sarielles - the province of Anatolia - does not ring true.
Other testimonies say that the emperor escaped by boat and would one day return with an avenging army. His intention was to re-enter the city through the Golden Gate - an entrance to the city that was immediately walled up. It remains closed to this day.
He's over there! A fight to the death.
The claim that Constantine and his heirs had survived the battle persisted for years to come. It was not long before there were any number of claimants to the Byzantine throne, all claiming direct blood-links with the imperial family.
These blue-blooded oddballs were welcomed by a Western Christendom that was desperate to keep alive the dream of a Christian empire in the East. Papal pensions, royal grants and wealthy brides were the prizes that awaited anyone with a half-convincing claim to the throne. Unfortunately, most were complete wastrels.
The allure of the imperial bloodline continued for centuries, even though there were no longer any prospects of an empire to go with the title.
One of the more recent (if eccentric) claimants to the throne was Peter Mills of Newport in the Isle of Wight. In the 1980s, he began claiming he was actually Prince Petros Palaeologos.
Winner takes all
He styled himself ‘His Imperial Highness Petros I, Despot and Autokrator of the Romans’. His letters bore the seal of the imperial double-headed eagle. He cut a decidedly eccentric figure in the streets of Newport, with his ‘flowing white hair, sandals but no socks, and some sort of order or military award around his neck.’
When he died in 1988, both The Times and The Telegraph took his claims at face value: they printed obituaries of His Imperial Highness, Petros I Palaeologos. They believe that he was the true heir to the imperial throne.
Petros’s claim was ridiculed by many - not least his own son. Yet it’s conceivable that he had a drop or two of imperial blood in his veins.
Sword still in hand
His grandmother was a Colenutt and was perhaps descended from John Palaeologos, himself a descendant of the emperor. Centuries earlier, John had married into the Colenutt family. The children of this union settled in the Isle of Wight in the reign of King Henry VIII.
Whether or not Petros had a genuine claim to the imperial title will probably never be known. Nor, indeed, will the facts surrounding Emperor Constantine’s death.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from the mystery surrounding the emperor’s disappearance. When figures of global importance are killed, it’s always good to have proof that they’re dead. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror knew the value of a corpse: it’s why he was so desperate to find the emperor’s body.
President Obama might yet rue the decision not to publish the photographs of the dead Osama Bin Laden.

My new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, is now available: click here for more information.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

King of Gangland: The Greatest Criminal in History

It was the most spectacular public occasion of the year.
Wild: honest as the day is long
On 24 May, 1725, Jonathan Wild, Britain’s most notorious criminal was to be executed. Many thousands were expected to attend.
So great were the numbers that the event was ticketed. Ominously, many of those making their way to Tyburn - the execution site - were carrying rocks and stones.
There was good reason for the anger of the crowds: for more than 15 years, Jonathan Wild and his gang of thieves had terrorized London’s streets, mugging, robbing and stealing anything they could lay their hands on.
But it was not this that had made Wild so hated. Rather, it was the discovery that he had duped everyone into believing he had been on the side of the law - a self-appointed policeman working hard to apprehend criminals.
Wild busy hunting thieves
It was a brilliant con-trick and it worked for years. By the mid-1720s, Wild had amassed a fortune from his duplicity.
His method was as ingenious as it was simple. He ran a large gang of thieves who stole on his behalf. He would take the stolen goods and wait for the theft to be announced in the local news-sheets.
Georgian London: make mine a large gin
He would then announce that his ‘thief takers’ had recovered he stolen items and they were returned to their rightful owners on payment of a large reward. 
Wild was quick to point out that he was not selling stolen goods - which was illegal - but merely returning them to their owners.
He soon had a virtual monopoly on organised crime. He was celebrated in news-sheets and ballads, not as a common criminal but as an honest thief-taker.
Wild did much to promote this view of himself. Whenever his employed thieves became troublesome, he simply sold them to the gallows. This enabled him to further increase his fortune.
Wild's execution ticket
By 1718, Wild was calling himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’. He claimed he had sent 60 thieves to the gallows.
Parliament certainly believed him to be honest. He was even given an office in the Old Bailey.
In 1720, the Privy Council consulted Wild on methods of controlling crime. Wild's recommendation was, unsurprisingly, that the rewards be raised for those who caught thieves. His advice was followed: the reward went from 40 to 140 pounds in a single year.
It's staggering that no one realised Wild was a sham. Nor did they realise that he had a complete control on the capital’s crime.
In the end, it was a fellow criminal who brought about his downfall.
When Wild’s men arrested the infamous housebreaker, Jack Sheppard, they found they'd overstepped the mark. Sheppard knew all about Wild’s racket and - condemned to death - had nothing to lose by blowing the whistle. When the thieves of London realised that his career was over, they, too turned against him.
The public were outraged at having been duped for so long. Wild was arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. 
Wild was terrified when he learned he'd been condemned to death. On the morning of his execution, he tried to take his own life by drinking laudanum. But it merely made him vomit and fall into a coma.
Eternal celebrity: who said crime doesn't pay?
When he recovered consciousness, he was taken to the gallows at Tyburn. Immense crowds gathered to jeer him and watch him be hanged. Someone threw a rock at his head, causing a large gash. Soon, others also began hurling rocks and stones until blood was streaming down his face. 
‘There was nothing but hollowing and huzzas,
as if it had been upon a triumph,’ wrote Daniel Defoe, who was among the crowd.
He died calmly, probably because he was so drugged, and was buried next to his third wife. But his corpse was soon exhumed in order that surgical experiments could be conducted on it.
His skeleton was eventually sold to the Royal College of Surgeons and later put on display at the Royal College’s Hunterian Museum.
It remains there to this day as a warning that crime can pay - but not forever.

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