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, August 30, 2011


Vrba: hid in a woodpile
The prisoners had been engaged in hard labour for much of the morning. They were working in an area of Auschwitz that lay between the two perimeter fences. It was some distance from the gas chambers, but the stench of death was nevertheless in the air.
In the early afternoon, two of the prisoners - Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler - began surreptitiously monitoring their brutal guards. Both men were nervous, for they were about to do something of the greatest possible danger.
At around 2pm, they noticed that the guards had momentarily turned their backs. Vrba and Wetzler made a sudden dash for a nearby woodpile. It had a hollowed out space in the middle with just enough room to hide two men.
Auschwitz: escape was almost impossible
No sooner were they inside than their comrades - who knew all about their plan to escape from Auschwitz - concealed the hole with wooden planks. Vrba and Wetzler had been prisoners in Auschwitz for almost two years. They had first hand experience of the brutality of life in one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious extermination camps.
Vrba, a Slovakian Jew, had been arrested by the Nazi authorities after trying to flee his homeland. Sent to Auschwitz, his job was to dig up bodies that the camp commanders wanted to incinerate.
'Canada': Auschwitz storehouse
He soon managed to get himself transferred to one of the camp storehouses, known to inmates as Canada. It contained clothing, food and medicine: Vrba began pilfering supplies and, in this way, managed to keep himself healthy.
In January, 1943, he was transferred to nearby Auschwitz II Birkenau. While here, he kept a careful count of the number of prisoners arriving and also noted the belongings of those that had been gassed. In this way, he was able to calculate the number being killed.
By the spring of 1944, he reckoned that 1,750,000 Jews had already been exterminated.
Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz
He noted that most arriving Jews were carrying their possessions with them. This alarmed him, for it implied that they genuinely believed the Nazi fiction that they were going to be resettled.
It suddenly dawned on him that he had to warn Europe’s Jewish population that stories of resettlement were a lie: they were all being transported to death camps.
Vrba teamed up with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler when he came to make his escape bid. The two men knew their absence would be noted at the evening roll call: they also knew that the SS would undertake an intensive search for three days. They therefore decided to remain in the woodpile for more than 72 hours before making a dash for freedom.
Their plan began well. On April 10 - their fourth night in hiding - they made their escape, wearing Dutch clothes and boots they had stolen from the storehouse. They headed directly for the Polish border with Slovakia, some 80 miles to the south.
After a fortnight on the run, they reached the Slovakian town of Cadca, where the two men met the chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Oscar Neumann.
Hungarian Jews: sent to the gas chambers
Neumann encouraged them to write a detailed report of everything they saw. This they duly did: it would become known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report.
It contained a meticulous description of Auschwitz, along with an account of how prisoners were housed and selected for work. It also provided information on the shootings and gassing of inmates.
The report was soon being circulated in Hungary: shortly afterwards, in mid-June, 1944, it reached US intelligence and was made public. Parts of it were broadcast by the BBC World Service.
Horthy: allied with Hitler
The report horrified Allied leaders: they appealed to Miklos Horthy, Regent of Hungary, to stop the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. They said that he and his ministers would be held personally responsible for the killings, which had already claimed the lives of 437,000 Hungarian Jews.
Horthy, trapped in an uneasy alliance with Hitler, had to tread with care. Nevertheless, he ordered the deportations to stop with immediate effect.
The news brought some comfort to Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They’d risked everything in escaping from Auschwitz. If caught, they’d have been executed immediately.
Instead, their bold dash for freedom was to prove instrumental in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest Jews. 

My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is available here, price £11.40. The American edition will be published in October.
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


She drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney.
Marie: the last Eyak on earth
But Marie Smith Jones lived to the ripe old age of 89 and when she died, she left the world a poorer place.
For she had a gift that was possessed by no one else on earth. Marie was the world’s last speaker of Eyak - a language that is now, with her death in 2008, extinct.
Marie grew up in the Eyak ancestral homeland - a 300 mile stretch of remote coastland in the Gulf of Alaska. She spent her early years playing in the muddy sands of the Copper River delta, close to Prince William Sound.
Marie's homeland: Copper River 
The Eyak were a mysterious people whose history is poorly documented. The neighbouring Chugach people called them Ungalarmiut, meaning ‘the people living to your left as you face the ocean.’
In the 18th century, they came under increasing pressure from more powerful tribal groups and were pushed into ever-remoter territory. This, coupled with diseases introduced by American settlers, contributed to their decline.
In 1880, the population of one of their principal villages, Alaganik, was recorded at 117; by 1890 it had declined to 48.
In 1933, when Marie was in her early teens, there were just 38 Eyak-speakers left. Outsiders suddenly realised that their unique language needed to be recorded before it was too late.
Elderly Eyak: no future
North American and European academics began to show up with tape recorders, anxious to catch what they could of this extraordinary language.
It was incredibly rich in adjectives. There was a special word for the silky mud that squished between Marie’s toes when she crossed the Copper River delta. It was c'a.
The splintered driftwood that she found on the shoreline was called 'u'l, but it had a different name if it was not broken.
If someone from another tribe asked Marie what she was called, she would introduce herself by her native name, Udachkuqax a'a'ch, which means ‘a sound that calls people from afar’.
In the early years of the 20th century, the majority of Eyak people were fishermen, like Marie’s father. Eyak vocabulary was rich in words for marine life, with special words for red abalone, black abalone, ribbon weed and tubular kelp, drag nets and different sizes of rope.
Cordova: the Eyak capital: 'Anyone here speak Eyak?'
One word, demexch, meant a treacherous spot in the ice over a body of water: a foolish place to walk, but a good one to squat beside with a fishing spear.
Marie had little interest in the Eyak language when she was young. She married a white man from Oregan, William Smith, moved away and brought up nine children.
She tried to teach them a few Eyak words but they had absolutely no interest in learning a language that so few people spoke. For Marie, Eyak increasingly became a language for talking to herself,
Eyak land: a wild place of rugged beauty
When her older sister died in the 1990s, she suddenly realized that she was the last of a line: she became a vigorous activist, campaigning for Eyak burial grounds, Eyak history and, of course, its unique language.
She realized that the near-death of the spoken language inevitably spelled the death of Eyak culture. When she was a small girl, Marie had been taught stories of a mischievous Creator-Raven, of a magical loon and of tiny men who wielded fish-speaks no bigger than a matchstick.
Now, with her as the sole-surviving Eyak, many of these stories were irrevocably lost.
Marie had scant regard for academics, but there was one who she respected deeply. Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska had formed a passionate interest in Eyak and persuaded Marie to cooperate with him to produce an Eyak grammar and dictionary.
Boa Sr: the last speaker of Bo
Shortly before her death, Marie was asked how she felt about the inevitable extinction of her language. She answered with another question: ‘How would you feel if your baby died?’
According to National Geographic, a language dies every 14 days, which means that by the end of this century almost half of the world’s 7,000 languages will be extinct.
Only last year, the world’s last speaker of Bo - an ancient language from the Andaman Islands that had existed for more than 70,000 years - went to her grave.
And in Mexico, there are only two remaining speakers of Ayapaneco, another ancient tongue.
The two men live just 500 metres from each other.
Unfortunately, they are not on speaking terms.

My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is available here, price £11.40. The American edition will be published in October.
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop

Monday, August 8, 2011


She was forced to squat in front of the jeering mob, a stranger who was far from home.
The crowd stared at her protruding buttocks and oversized vulva before cracking lewd and bawdy jokes.
'Exhibited like a wild beast'
Sarah Baartman had arrived in England a few weeks earlier, in the autumn of 1810, and was already famous as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.
She was displayed (to a fee-paying audience) as a sexual deviant and example of the inferiority of the black race.
Baartman had been brought to England from Cape Town by a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop. He was fascinated by her large backside and genitalia - not uncommon to the Khoisan people to whom she belonged - and immediately saw an opportunity to make money by displaying her in public.
On public display
He coerced her into travelling to London with the promise that she would get very rich.
Sarah Baartman arrived in the capital in 1810, less than three years after the abolition of the Slave Trade. She was taken to fashionable Piccadilly, where - outside Number 225 - she was first exposed to the city’s baying crowds.
According to one contemporary account, she was paraded on a two-foot high stage ‘along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered’.
She was not naked, as her promoters would have liked. But The Times reported that she was ‘dressed in a colour as nearly resembling her skin as possible. The dress is contrived to exhibit the entire frame of her body, and the spectators are even invited to examine the peculiarities of her form.’
'Now exhibiting in London'
The show's promoters knew their business: they billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat. 
The spectacle of an enslaved woman being put on public display courted controversy from the very outset. Among the outraged was a young Jamaican named Robert Wedderburn. He knew all too well the horrors of slavery: his mother had been the slave of a Scottish sugar plantation owner. When she fell pregnant, Wedderburn senior sold her to an aristocrat friend with the proviso that the baby should be free from birth.
Wedderburn: appalled
Robert’s rough upbringing left him with a strong sense of justice. He was appalled by the spectacle of Sarah Baartman being paraded before the crowd. After courting the abolitionist African Association, he petitioned for her release.
In November, 1810, the attorney-general tried to discover whether ‘she was exhibited by her own consent'. Two affidavits were produced which suggested that she had never consented to be brought to England for public display.
The first affidavit revealed that she had been brought to Britain by people who referred to her as their private property. The second described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited.
Georgian London: not the most discerning crowd
Sarah herself was also questioned; she claimed that she had not been coerced and had been promised half the profits of her travelling tour. But her testimony was flawed and was almost certainly made under coercion.
The attorney-general backed the attempt to stop the show, but the court ruled that Sarah had entered into a contract of her own free will. The show went on.
George Cuvier: took a fancy to her
After four years on the road, Sarah was moved to Paris where she was sold to a travelling circus. She was also exhibited at society functions where she proved an instant hit with the guests.
At one ball she was dressed in nothing but a few feathers: Napoleon's surgeon-general, George Cuvier, was fascinated by the sight and began a detailed study of her body.
Elephant man: still to be buried
Sarah eventually turned to alcohol and prostitution and died in 1815, possibly of syphilis. Cuvier managed to acquire her corpse, which he promptly dissected. He then pickled Sarah’s genitals and brain, and put them, and her skeleton, on display.
She remained in the Musee de l’Homme until 1974, when public revulsion caused the pickled body parts to be removed. But it was not until 2002 - after the intervention of Nelson Mandela - that her remains were finally returned to her native South Africa and given a decent burial.
Sarah was neither the first nor last person to be displayed as a human freak. Seventy years later, another human specimen found himself being paraded through the streets of London. His name was Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.
His skeleton has yet to be buried: it is still housed in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital. 

My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is now available here, price £11.40. The American edition will be published in October.

'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop

Monday, August 1, 2011


It was a showdown that had been months in the planning.
Pellew: no mood for nonsense
In his cabin aboard the Queen Charlotte stood Edward Pellew, a bluff naval commander with an overriding sense of human justice.
On shore, less than a mile away, was his adversary, Omar Bashaw, the ruling Dey of Algiers. He was keeping some 1,600 European and American slaves in the most appalling conditions. Now, in August, 1816, Pellew had come to rescue them.
Can I see your teeth? A 19th century
depiction of Algiers slave market
He began with negotiations, but the Dey was not interested. He had no intention of releasing his slaves. Pellew realised that the only option was war.
But it was a peculiarly dangerous war. Omar Bashaw was a shrewd military tactician who had strengthened the city’s defences and summoned thousands of soldiers to fight in his behalf. He also had 90 ships at his disposal.
Pellew, by contrast, had just 27 vessels and was operating far from home. There was plenty of possibility for things to go wrong.
A thunderous roar: let battle commence
The battle began with a single shot from a land battery. It may have been fired by mistake, but it wrung a devastating response from the furious Pellew. Standing on the deck of his flagship, he raised his hat high in the air, held it still for a second, then flung it to the deck. It was the signal for action. Seconds later, there was a thunderous roar as all the ships of his fleet opened fire.
The Queen Charlotte’s twenty-four pounders blasted their broadside at the city, pumping cannon balls into Algiers’ defences. In the maintop, the twelve pounders also let rip, each gun unleashing 300 musket balls at a time.
White slaves were poked, prodded and then sold
Pellew’s men were putting up an impressive attack, but the Dey’s forces proved a deadly enemy. Snipers and sharpshooters in the mole-head battery kept up a relentless fire while heavy shot from the cannon on shore tore through rigging and sails, disabling the ships.
‘Legs, arms, blood, brains and mangled bodies were strewn about in all directions,’ wrote one lieutenant. ‘You could scarcely keep your feet from the slipperiness of the decks, wet with blood.’
Pellew refused to withdraw, despite the bloodshed. ‘The battle,’ he later wrote, ‘was fairly at issue between a handful of Britons in the noble cause of Christianity and a horde of fanatics.’
By dusk, Pellew’s men had rained down a staggering 50,000 cannon balls on Algiers. The main town batteries had been reduced to rubble, allowing Pellew to turn his attention to the Dey’s massive corsair fleet at anchor in the harbour. He now unleashed firebombs and shells into the vessels with devastating effect. Soon, all the ships were on fire, as was the on-shore arsenal and storehouses, ‘exhibiting a spectacle of awful grandeur and interest no pen can describe.’
Fighting continued until nightfall
The arrival of darkness interrupted the battle, although the light of the fire kept the men awake for much of the night.
When dawn broke, the American consul, who was still on shore, rubbed his eyes in disbelief. The town had been utterly destroyed.
The harbour, too, was a scene of carnage. ‘The most dreadful and shocking sight was the number of dead bodies which were floating on the water.’ More than 2,000 of the Dey’s men had been killed, most of them corsairs.
Pellew was keen to renew the hostilities at first light, but he discovered that he was almost out of ammunition. He was unable to press home his advantage.
But he also discovered that there was no need. The Dey of Algiers made a brief survey of his once glorious capital and realised that he could no longer continue the fight.
Ill-treatment of slaves a thing of the past
He surrendered unconditionally - a humiliating blow to his pride - and bowed to all of Pellew’s demands. These included the release of all his Christian slaves and the abolition - forever - of Christian slavery.
For the slaves themselves, held in captivity for years, it was a moment to be savoured. ‘We rushed from out of the cave,’ wrote one, ‘and dragging our chains, pushed forward through brambles and thickets, regardless of the blood streaming from our faces and bodies. We simply did not feel our wounds any more.’
They ran to the shoreline where they saw the English fleet, battered but still afloat, just a few hundred metres away. They cheered, sang with joy and then - with one exultant cry - shouted, ‘Long live the English admiral.’
Pellew himself was immensely proud of what he had achieved.
‘To have been one of the humble instruments…’ he wrote, ‘in destroying forever the insufferable and horrible system of Christian slavery can never cease to be a source of delight and heartfelt comfort.’ 

The full story of North Africa's one million white slaves is told in my book White Gold, (left) available here

My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War (right) is available here.