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, September 27, 2011


A single photograph survives. A thick set black man with broad arms and huge hands.
Isaac: worked hard for Jefferson
He stares at the camera without the trace of a smile. His name is Isaac Jefferson Granger, and he was one of the hundreds of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.
President Jefferson is perhaps best known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He is also known for his vigorous opposition to the international slave trade.
The slave master: President Jefferson.
In recent years, his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a mixed race slave, has received much attention. So, too, have the children that he fathered by her.
Yet Jefferson had an army of other slaves working on his Monticello estate, among whom was Isaac the nail-maker.
Isaac’s story might have been lost to the world, had it not been for a clergyman, Rev. Charles Campbell, who interviewed him in 1847.
Unique manuscript
His memoir sheds a fascinating life on how President Jefferson treated his slaves, as well as a snapshot of daily life at his magnificent Monticello estate.
Isaac was born into slavery in 1775, the third son of a married slave couple, Ursula and George. They also worked at Jefferson’s Monticello estate: George would eventually rise to become overseer of the entire estate, earning himself the nickname King George in the process. His wife (‘Queen Ursula’) was laundress and pastry cook.
When Isaac turned 15 - in the year that Jefferson became president - he accompanied his master to Philadelphia. He travelled on horseback, a rare luxury, and was apparently well treated.
It was in Philadelphia that Jefferson set him to work on an apprenticeship, learning metalworking skills. Slaves were far more useful if they had a craft. ‘He went to learn the tinner’s trade,’ reads Campbell’s account. ‘First week [he] learned to cut out and solder.’ Later, he produced little pepper boxes and graters.
Monticello in 1825: by Jane Braddick
Jefferson was a jovial and warm individual, according to Isaac’s account.
 ‘[The] old master used to talk to me mighty free,’ he recalled, ‘and ask me: ‘How you come on Isaac, larnin de tin business?’
Jefferson was delighted by his hard-working slave: Isaac was his most productive nail-maker. According to Jefferson’s meticulous account books, he could make 507 pounds of nails in 47 days. He earned the highest daily return for his master: the equivalent of eighty-five cents a day - almost all of which went into Jefferson’s substantial pockets.
Slave trade, Africa. Where it all began
Isaac was later made a gatekeeper of Monticello, opening the several sets of gates to Jefferson’s friends and visitors. Among the regulars was Colonel Cary, who Isaac disliked intensely: he described him as the most ‘dry looking man as ever you see in your life.’
Cary was indeed a cruel individual who treated Isaac with contempt. He frequently whipped him on arriving at Monticello. ‘He has given Isaac more whippings than he has fingers and toes,’ wrote Rev Campbell.
Cary would whip him at the entrance gates and then whip him again later in the day. ‘The colonel … [would] look about for him and whip him with his horsewhip.’
Cary would often stay several weeks at Jefferson’s house: during that time, most of the slaves were severely abused by him.
When Jefferson grew infirm, Isaac became his carer and nurse. ‘He was took with a swelling in his legs,’ wrote Isaac. [I] used to bathe ‘em and bandage em…’ He’d then wheel him around in a ham-barrow.
Isaac’s memories of his slave owner were surprisingly fond: Jefferson treated him well and was unusually generous to his slaves. When the Rev Campbell asked Isaac what he thought of Jefferson, he said he was ‘a mighty good master.’
A slave auction
In October 1797, Thomas Jefferson gave Isaac, his wife, Iris, and their sons to his daughter. It is not known how Isaac eventually won his freedom. Nor is anything known about the fate of his wife and two sons. Rev. Campbell only noted that Isaac died ‘a few years after these his recollections were taken down.’
He died a free man - after half a lifetime in slavery - but almost certainly never lived to see the abolition of slavery.
That did not come about until 1865, more than a century after Jefferson had described slavery - with no apparent irony - as ‘an abominable crime’


Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011


It was a blistering afternoon in June, 1903.
Walter Harris: behind bars
Walter Harris, Morocco correspondent for The Times newspaper, had been brought news of a bloody battle taking place near the town of Zinat in northern Morocco. Not wishing to miss out on the action, he climbed onto his horse and headed towards the fighting.
As he approached Zinat, the air was filled with an ominous silence. ‘The whole country was absolutely deserted,’ he wrote. ‘Not a single person, not a head of cattle, was to be seen.’
As Harris rode across the plain, a single volley was fired. Realising he was in imminent danger, he spurred his horse and rode away. But as he entered a deep gully, he saw he had fallen into an ambush. ‘From every side sprung out tribesmen and in a second or two I was a prisoner, surrounded by thirty or forty men.’
Raisuli: welcome to my prison
It did not take long for Harris to discover the identity of his captor. It was the dreaded Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, the most powerful bandit of northern Morocco.
Raisuli ruled his fiefdom with great brutality. His favourite punishment was burning out his captives’ eyes with heated copper coins.
‘By nature he was, and is, cruel,’ wrote Harris, ‘and the profession he had adopted’ - that of bandit - ‘gave him unlimited scope to exhibit his cruelty.’
The Englishman’s life was now in great danger: Raisuli and his bandit tribesmen thought Harris was a supporter of the Moroccan sultan, whose troops had only recently wreaked havoc in their area.
Now, they gathered around him, ‘all anxious to catch a glimpse of the Christian captive.’ They knew that Christian hostages were far more valuable than Muslim ones.
Raisuli always said that capturing Christians was entirely legitimate. His crimes ‘were not crimes,’ he would say, ‘because they were commissioned by Allah.’
Harris was led into a stinking cell and locked inside: it was to be his home for some days to come.
One of Raisuli's hide-outs
The room was very dark and it took time for his eyes to get accustomed to the gloom.
‘The first object that attracted my eyes was a body lying in the middle of the room. It was the corpse of a man … and formed a ghastly spectacle. Stripped of all clothing and shockingly mutilated… the head had been roughly hacked off and the floor all round was swimming in blood.’
Harris had vast experience of Morocco and knew a great deal about Raisuli. He tried to keep calm and assess the situation with a clear head. Yet he became increasingly concerned when he was led to an even more gruesome corpse.
‘A ghastly sight,’ wrote Harris. ‘The summer’s heat had already caused the corpse to discolour and swell. An apple had been stuck in the man’s mouth and both his eyes had been gouged out.’
Sultan's forces: ill-equipped to deal with bandits
He was informed that the same treatment awaited him if he tried to play any tricks.
The British Minister, Sir Arthur Nicolson, learned of Harris’s capture and opened negotiations with Raisuli. The bandit had a number of demands: most important of these was the release of his 56 blood relatives, who were being held (alongside hundreds of other bandits) in the sultan’s prisons in Tangier and Larache.
It was eventually agreed that 12 prisoners would be released in exchange for Harris. But Raisuli kept raising the number, for he knew he was holding a valuable Christian captive.
Raisuli disguised as Sean Connery
Harris now played his cards very cleverly. He persuaded Raisuli to give him the names of all 56 relatives he wanted released. He then sent this list to Tangier and said that Nicolson would be giving it to the sultan’s ministers.
Only now could Harris pull off his most dazzling and audacious coup. ‘You propose to kill me,’ he said to Raisuli. ‘Possibly you will do so, but you have kindly given me a list of all your relations who are in the Moorish prison… This list is now in Tangier. You will have the satisfaction of killing me, but remember this - on fifty-six consecutive days one of your sons or brothers or nephews will be executed - one each morning.’
Sean again: in The Wind and The Lion
Soon afterwards, Harris was released by a furious Raisuli. The Times correspondent delighted in his trick and took great relish in describing it in his memoirs.
‘It was a splendid bluff,’ he wrote, ‘and I felt the greatest delight in using it.’ Not only had he saved his own life, but he had infuriated Raisuli and all his tribesmen.
‘They swore and cursed and threatened,’ he wrote, ‘but to no avail.’
Not for the first time, Harris had got the upper hand.

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, September 5, 2011


He had planned the moment with great care.
Booth: the assassin
John Wilkes Booth, a well-known American actor, was crouched in a hiding place in the auditorium of Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
Nearby, in the presidential box, sat Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was greatly enjoying the play Our American Cousin, which was playing to a packed house. It was 14 April, 1865.
Lincoln: the victim
Booth had worked out exactly how he would kill Lincoln. He would wait for actor Harry Hawk to deliver the famous line about the manners of good society, which always raised a good laugh. Then, as the audience guffawed, he would shoot the president in the head at point blank range.
The laughter, he thought, would cover the noise of the gunshot.
Ford's: the crime scene
Booth’s assassination was no random killing. It was a carefully planned murder intended to have huge political ramifications. The American Civil war was nearing and end and Confederate forces were close to defeat. Booth hoped the killing of President Lincoln would bring to a sudden halt the triumph of the Union armies.
He persuaded two fellow plotters to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Steward on the same night. It was intended to be a mortal blow to the government.
As Booth crouched close to the presidential box, he had some unexpected good fortune. Lincoln’s bodyguard, an unreliable individual named John Parker, slipped away to a nearby tavern. The president was suddenly extremely vulnerable.
Bang: the fatal shot
Booth knew the script of Our American Cousin by heart: the famous line was fast approaching. He crept into the box and, as the audience laughed, pumped a bullet into the president’s head. As Lincoln slumped forward, his wife, Mary, screamed.
The presidential couple were not alone in the box: also present were their friends Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.
Rathbone now leaped from his seat and grabbed Booth, but the assassin slammed his dagger into Rathbone’s arm. Booth then vaulted over the rail and down onto the stage screaming ‘Sic temper tyrannis’ - ‘Thus always to tyrants’ Rathbone and his fiancée were meanwhile shouting: ‘Stop that man!’ Only now did the audience realise that this unexpected drama was not part of the play.
Leale: a doctor in the house
Several men gave chase, but they failed to catch Booth. He leaped onto his getaway horse and headed towards the Navy Yard Bridge. His ultimate destination was the Potomac River that separated the warring sides in the Civil War. If he could cross this, he would be safe.
A doctor in the theatre audience, Charles Leale, meanwhile rushed to attend to Lincoln. The president’s pulse had faded and Leale was convinced he was near death.
A second doctor, Charles Taft, entered the box and the two men cut away Lincoln’s clothes. They tried to treat him but it made little difference. ‘His wound is mortal,’ said Leale. ‘It is impossible for him to recover'
Wanted! Preferably alive
They nevertheless carried Lincoln across the street and into William Peterson’s boarding house. A third doctor also examined Lincoln: all three knew that nothing could be done. The president remained alive but unconscious for much of the night. Then, at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, he breathed his last. He was 56 years old.
Booth had meanwhile made his escape. He left Washington and rode into Maryland. Here, the ankle he’d fractured in the theatre was treated by a doctor. He then continued towards the Potomac River, which he crossed in the third week of April.
He was hiding in a barn in Virginia, thinking himself safe, when he was expectedly surrounded by Union soldiers. He refused to surrender, causing his assailants to set fire to the barn. As the building burned, one of the troops, Boston Corbett, sighted him and shot him in the neck. Two hours later, Booth was dead.
The assassination of Lincoln led to a massive investigation. Booth had been aided by fellow plotters; these were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed.
John Surratt: survived
Although Lincoln was dead, the attempt on the Vice President’s life had failed and the Secretary of State was stabbed but not killed.
Only one of the alleged plotters escaped with his life. John Surratt fled to Europe where he served in the Papal Infantry force. He was eventually tracked down and extradited, but so much time had passed that the statute of limitations had expired.
All charges were dropped and he eventually died, a free man, in the spring of 1916, the last survivor in the most infamous assassination in history. 

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