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, June 28, 2011


To Victorian eyes it seemed like a benevolent idea.
Take one Fuegian...
Seize a primitive ‘savage’ from the wilds of South America, ship him to England and give him a good Christian education.
Then, take the newly civilised tribesman back to Patagonia in order that he might spread civilisation to the rest of his people.
The story of Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle is well known. The story of Jemmy Button, the boy brought to London on the Beagle’s first voyage, is rather less well publicised.
From savage...

Yet Darwin’s experiences with Jemmy were to have a profound influence on his theory of evolution. And the sight of a wild tribesman wandering the streets of Regency London was to cause delight and horror in equal measure. 
The idea of capturing Jemmy came as the Beagle lay at anchor in the Tierra del Fuego. The ship’s crew were appalled when they first sighted these primitive tribesmen: ‘their hair hanging down on all sides like old thatch and their skins of a reddish brown colour.’ civilised. It's all in the haircut
The Englishmen found them unspeakably wild: they were decked in tattered skins and ate wild whale blubber with undisguised relish.
Robert Fitzroy: it was his idea
When, in January, 1830, some Fuegians stole the Beagle’s whaleboat, Captain Robert Fitzroy decided to take some of them as hostages. 
His first haul yielded three; they were promptly given the names York Minster, Boat Memory and Fuegia Basket.
Soon after, Fitzroy bought a young boy for the price of a mother-of-pearl button. In honour of the transaction, he gave him the name Jemmy Button.
Fitzroy claimed he had seized them in order that they might serve as interpreters. But he also wanted to civilise them by giving them an education in England.
The Beagle arrived back in England in October 1830 and the Fuegians were lodged in Plymouth while Fitzroy looked for someone to ‘instruct them and enlighten their mind.’
Boat Memory died of smallpox within days of landing. The three others were taken to Walthamstow and placed under the care of Mr and Mrs Jenkins, educationalists and evangelical preachers.
Tierra del Fuego: Jemmy's home
They were to teach the Fuegians ‘the plainer truths of Christianity,’ along with gardening and other skills.
Mr Wilson was most impressed with Jemmy Button. ‘By far the most intelligent,’ he wrote. ‘He had no idea of God [and] confessed that he had eaten human flesh.’
By the summer of 1831, the Fuegians were considered sufficiently civilised to be taken to meet King William IV and his wife, Queen Adeleide. The queen offered Fuegia Basket a pretty bonnet to take home with her.
Darwin's ship, the Beagle
Their departure came soon enough. The now ‘civilised’ Jemmy Button, along with his two fellow Fuegians were to be taken back to their homeland on the Beagle’s second voyage. Also on board was the young naturalist, Charles Darwin. 
The Beagle reached South America in December, 1832. Darwin was horrified by the primitive state of the natives ashore; they were so different from the three Fuegians on board.
Darwin: astonished by Jemmy
Comparing the two was, he wrote, ‘without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld.’ 
He added: ‘I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal…’
He was particularly surprised by how Jemmy had been transformed by his time in England. ‘It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here.’
The contrast was to make a lasting impression. When Darwin came to develop his theory of civilisation in his revolutionary Descent of Man, he recalled his time aboard the Beagle with Jemmy Button and his two fellow tribesmen.
He said that their time in England had transformed them; ‘[They] resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties.’
It led Darwin to conclude that civilisation had evolved from a primitive state in much the same manner as complex creatures had evolved from simple beginnings.
Beagle's crew met by Fuegians
Darwin and Fitzroy had high hopes that Jemmy Button would bring the civilised values of England to his own primitive people. Alas, it was not to be. Soon after arriving at his former home, Jemmy shed his European waistcoat and got back into his loincloth.
His Christianity also quickly disappeared. By the 1850s, when a missionary expedition returned to Tierra Del Fuego, the only reminder of his sojourn in England was his remarkable fluency in English.
Although Fitzroy’s ‘civilising’ experiment had failed, the legacy of Jemmy Button’s trip to England was ultimately to endure in Darwin’s revolutionary theories of evolution and the civilisation of mankind. 

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, June 21, 2011


No one noticed anything untoward for more than a month.
Bare: feminine hips
Jean Baré, a 26 year old valet, had signed up to take part in one of the greatest voyages of exploration - Louis de Bougainville’s 1766 circumnavigation of the globe.
Jean was to work as assistant to Philippe Commerson, the expedition’s naturalist. It was a role to which he was well suited, for Jean was himself an expert botanist.
Commerson: needed his valet at all times
After four weeks at sea, some of the crew aboard the Etoile began to spread gossip and rumours about Jean and Philippe. Why, they wanted to know, did Jean always sleep in Philippe Commerson’s cabin? And why was he quite so attached to his master?
Jean confronted the rumours head on. He told Francois Vivez, the Etoile’s surgeon, that he slept in the same cabin on account of Commerson’s sea-sickness. He wanted ‘to be within reach to assist him.’
This explanation was plausible, for Commerson had indeed suffered from terrible sea-sickness and it was only natural for his valet to be by his side. But there were sufficient concerns for the rumours to be taken to Louis de Bougainville aboard the expedition flagship, La Boudeuse. According to one account, Louis de Bougainville didn’t want to know. ‘[He] pretended to be unaware’ of the crews’ prattling.
Arrival at Tahiti spelled doom for Bare
The gossip was soon to take a more dramatic turn. In the third week of March, 1767, the two ships came in sight of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean. They ships dropped anchor at the island of Otaheite - which Bougainville called Cythera - and the crew prepared to go ashore. Among the landing party was Commerson and his valet, Jean Baré.
‘Baré followed him [Commerson] in all his botanizing, and carried weapons, food, plant notebooks with a courage and a strength which had earned for him … the title of his beast of burden,’ wrote Bougainville.
The other crew followed the two men onto the beach, eager to explore this paradise island.
Tahitians knew a woman when they saw one
Suddenly - and unexpectedly - there was absolute commotion. The local islanders rushed to the beach and surrounded Baré and started touching him and shouting that he was a woman in disguise. For reasons that remain obscure, they seemed to have some sort of sixth sense in questions of sexuality. Now, they were intent on raping Baré.
Bougainville’s officers feared trouble and rescued him, but the event reawakened their earlier suspicions.
‘Everything indicated in him a feminine man,’ wrote Francois Vivez, ‘small of stature, short and plump, wide-hipped… a prominent chest, a small round head, a freckled complexion, a gentle and clear voice, a marked dexterity and a gentleness of movement that could only belong to that gender...’
Vivez asserted that Baré was indeed a woman in disguise, albeit one who was ‘fairly ugly and unattractive.’
Bougainville: kindly soul
This was a serious accusation, for a royal ordinance made it strictly illegal for women to sail aboard expedition ships. Transgression of this law carried severe punishment. 
Baré had to think fast. He told Bougainville and his fellow officers that he was not a woman, ‘but in fact belonged to the one from which the Mighty Overlord selects the guardians of his seraglio’ - in other words, he was a eunuch.
Bougainville was not to be fooled: he demanded proof of Baré’s sex. It was to prove his unmasking: Baré, with tears in his feminine eyes, admitted that he was actually a girl, and that she had misled her master by appearing before him in men’s clothing in order to disguise her sex.
While the various accounts of Baré’s ensuing trials aboard ship do not entirely tally, one thing is certain: she was now in severe danger of sexual molestation at the hands of the crew.
‘She had to seek an asylum in the ordinary quarters in a hammock under the quarterdeck with the other servants.’ Vivez says that she always carried ‘two loaded pistols … by way of precaution.’
She escaped punishment from Bougainville, perhaps because she and Commerson had found, and named, the spectacular flower Bougainvillea.
On her return to France, she found herself celebrated as the first woman ever to circumnavigate the globe.
‘I admire her determination all the more,’ wrote Bougainville, ‘because she has always behaved with the most scrupulous correctness.’
La Boudeuse; Bougainville's ship
When summoned to court and asked to explain why he did not punish Baré, Bougainville begged the court to ‘forgive her for this infraction of the ordinances.’ 
He added that ‘her example will hardly be contagious.’
Jeanne Baré would live to a ripe old age and earn considerable fame for her circumnavigation.
Regarded as ‘an extraordinary woman’, she was eventually given a substantial royal pension of 200 livres in celebration of her achievement. 

My new book Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is now available here for just  £11.40.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


He was small, plump-cheeked and going bald - a lawyer who had long defended the underdogs of society.
Hans Litten: completely forgotten
Now, in May 1931, Hans Litten was taking on the most formidable foe in his entire career.
In the dock before him stood Adolf Hitler, who was accused of waging a systematic and brutal warfare against the enemies of Nazism. Litten was determined to prove Hitler guilty.
Hitler: scared of Litten
The Eden Dance Palace trial was to prove one of the most dramatic legal showdowns in history. Yet it is these days almost completely forgotten.
Hans Litten, born of Jewish parents, was appalled by the brutality and lawlessness of Hitler and his supporters. Now, he was given an opportunity to silence Hitler once and for all.
In the previous November, a SA Rollkommando - a small paramilitary unit - had launched a savage attack on a night club frequented by Communists. Three people were killed and 20 badly injured in an attack that had clearly been planned in advance.
Litten detested the Third Reich
The police investigation made little headway, so infuriating Litten that he took it upon himself to investigate.
He centred his case on four of the injured, convinced that he could secure a conviction for manslaughter against their attackers. If guilty, they would spend years behind bars.
But Litten hoped to achieve far more than this. He wanted to prove that the Nazis were deliberately and systematically using terror tactics to destroy the Weimar Republic. If he could prove this, then he knew that the Nazi’s days would be numbered.
Hitler had already appeared in court in the previous September. He was called as a witness in a case against two army officers who were members of the Nazi party. (At the time, it was forbidden for army officers to be party members.)
Under oath, Hitler had said that his party operated in accordance with the law. He described its paramilitary wing as an organization of ‘intellectual enlightenment’.
SA: Hitler's thugs. Litten almost convicted them - and Hitler
Litten was not impressed: now, he got his chance to challenge Hitler in person. He summoned him to the witness stand on May 8, 1931.
He began by arguing that that SA unit Storm 33 - which had attacked the Eden Dance Palace - was a paramilitary unit. Furthermore, he said that the attack had been undertaken with Hitler’s full support.
Hitler greatly feared being confronted in court by Hans Litten, with good reason. Litten had a brilliant intellect and a near photographic memory. He spoke many languages - including English, Italian and even Sanskrit. He was to use all his intellectual resources in his attempt to destroy Hitler’s credibility in court.
Litten repeatedly asked Hitler about the role of the rollkommando unit.
Accused and in the dock: Herr Hitler
Hitler responded by denying any knowledge of its existence.
Litten then asked why - if Hitler preached non-violence - did he allow Goebbels to use the slogan, ‘one must pound the adversary to a pulp?’
Hitler, clearly rattled, said that Goebbels was merely using a metaphor. What he had meant to say, claimed Hitler, was that the Nazis needed to ‘dispatch and destroy opposing organizations’
Litten chipped away at Hitler, constantly referring to the fact that Goebbel’s violent and anti-semitic propaganda was endorsed by the Nazi party.
He cited Goebbel’s revolutionary journal, The Commitment to Illegality as an example of a party-sanctioned publication.
Hitler realised that Litten was steadily getting the upper hand. He produced scores of examples of Nazi sponsored violence.
Unable to control his anger, Hitler suddenly shot to his feet and started screaming at Litten.
‘How dare you say, Herr Attorney, that is an invitation to illegality? That is a statement without proof!’
Dachau gates: a one-way journey
Just when it seemed as if Litten had the upper hand - and Hitler’s reputation was in tatters - there was a most unexpected and unwelcome development. The judge suddenly halted Litten’s questioning and brought the trial to a dramatic close. He said that Litten’s interrogation was not relevant to the attack on the Eden Dance Palace. At the last minute, Hitler was saved the ignominy of being found guilty of sponsoring violence.
In less than two years, Hitler would be chancellor of Germany. Yet he would never forget the humiliation he received at the hands of Litten. He turned bright red at the very mention of Litten’s name and once shouted at Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia: ‘Anyone who advocates for Litten goes in the concentration camp, even you.’
Litten’s glittering legal career did not last long after the Eden Dance Palace trial. He had one more attempt at prosecuting the Nazis, in January, 1932, but this was no more successful than the last.
Litten: a true hero
He must surely have known that the writing was on the wall. On the night of the Reichstag Fire, less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, Litten was arrested and incarcerated in Spandau Prison.
For the next five years he was brutally beaten, interrogated and tortured. In the summer of 1937 he was send to Dachau Concentration Camp and realised that the end was near.
On 5, 1938, in the middle of the night, he took his own life.
Hitler was to be haunted for many years by the memory of Litten’s cross-examination.
Long after his death in Dachau, he forbade anyone from ever mentioning Litten’s name in his presence.

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, June 7, 2011


In the late spring of 1925, an eccentric British explorer named Colonel Percy Fawcett set off into the steaming jungle of central Brazil.
'Fawcett: into the unknown
His goal was the mysterious Lost City of Z, an ancient civilisation that he believed to be hidden in the depths of the rainforest, hundreds of miles from anywhere.
His journey was to take him through the treacherous Matto Grosso, a vast tract of wilderness that had never been penetrated by any European explorer. It was a highly dangerous undertaking, for the jungle was known to be home to hostile and ferocious indigenous tribesmen.
Colonel Fawcett was prepared to take the risk. He was convinced that at the far side of this virgin land he would find the gilded ruins of Z, one of the great Brazilian cities of antiquity.
The Lost City of Z, as it might have been
‘I expect the ruins to be monolithic in character, more ancient than the oldest Egyptian discoveries…’ he wrote in a letter. ‘The central place I call Z - our main objective - is in a valley surmounted by lofty mountains. The valley is about ten miles wide…’ 
Fawcett had learned about Z from an ancient map known as Manuscript 512; it purported to show the whereabouts of the city. The map had been drawn by a Portuguese adventurer named Joao da Silva Guimaraes who claimed to have visited the city in 1753.
The Brazilian jungle: the world's toughest terrain
   Fawcett knew that the jungle expedition would test him to the limits of his endurance. It would depend for its success ‘on the selection of a limited personnel, able, if need be, to do without transport under extremely trying conditions.’
   To this end, there was to be very limited back-up support. The principal team was to consist of himself, his son Jack and another young Englishman called Raleigh Rimell. The lads were both in their early twenties. In addition, there were two Brazilian labourers, eight mules, two horses and a couple of dogs.
   On 20 April, 1925, this small team set off into the jungle. Five weeks later, on reaching the last (and very remote) outpost of civilisation, Fawcett managed to telegraph a final message to his wife. He informed her that he was leaving behind his Brazilian labourers and the animals: henceforth, he and the two boys were on their own.
It was the last that was ever heard of Fawcett and his two companions. They vanished without trace, swallowed up by the immensity of the jungle.
Percy Fawcett, I presume: the disputed bones
What had happened to them? Had they been killed by Indians? Were they living amongst cannibals? Had they indeed found the Lost City of Z?
More than 100 people have subsequently died trying to discover the fate of Colonel Percy Fawcett.
In 1927, the American explorer George Miller Dyott penetrated the jungle and claimed to have evidence that Fawcett had been killed by Aloique Indians.
More than two decades later, the Brazilian adventurer Orlando Villas Boas pushed deep into the rainforest and spoke with the Kalapalo Indians. They told Boas that they had killed Fawcett and the two youths because they had arrived in their tribal lands without gifts.
In 1951, Boas made a new and dramatic claim: he said he had been given possession of Fawcett’s bones.
Initial analysis suggested they did indeed belong to Fawcett, but it later transpired that the analysis was faulty. His story - and that of George Dyott - fell apart.
Kalapalo Indians: did they kill him?
In 1998, the British explorer Benedict Allen managed to interview an elder of the Kalapalo Indians for the BBC: the elder vehemently denied that his tribe had any part in the strange disappearance of Colonel Fawcett. His fate remained a mystery.
Most recently, the New Yorker journalist David Grann also managed to interview the Kalapalo tribe. He was told that Fawcett and his group had indeed passed through their village en route to the Lost City of Z.
The Kalapalo tribesmen had observed smoke from their camp-fire for five days after the explorers had left their village. But on the sixth day, the smoke disappeared and was never seen again.
There are numerous theories and stories as to what happened to the three intrepid adventurers. The most colourful comes from a German explorer who ventured deep into the jungle in 1932.
He reached a tiny settlement far from civilisation and got into conversation with a village elder.
‘You, my blood brother, ask me of Colonel Fawcett… I now show you something, but you must swear on white man's God to keep silent the name of me and my tribe..."
‘I solemnly promised.
"Look!" said the chief. He drew forth from the sack a small and horribly shrunken head.
‘I started back in horror and nausea. The features were those of Colonel Fawcett!
Whatever the truth of Colonel Fawcett’s mysterious fate, he will be given a new lease of life if the projected Hollywood movie gets the green light later this year.

My new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is now published: click here for more information. The American edition will be out in the fall.