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, November 21, 2011


A small group of well-wishers had gathered to greet their newly-elected president.
'Honey, I forgot to duck': Reagan's memorable words
Ronald Reagan, just 69 days into his presidency, was warmly applauded as he left the Washington Hilton.
He turned to wave at the cheering crowds and then gave an additional wave to the press corps. It was Monday, 30 March, 1981, and it was to prove a fateful day for Mr President.
No one noticed that one member of the crowd was not cheering. No one was aware that one young man - John Hinckley, Jnr - had a loaded revolver in his pocket.
A wave to the gathered crowd
As Reagan made his way to the waiting limousine, he passed right in front of Hinckley, the would-be assassin.
Hinckley had long dreamed of killing an American president. Just five months earlier, he had hoped to kill Jimmy Carter. But the attempt had failed when he was arrested at Nashville Airport and charged with illegally possessing a gun.
Anything to impress Jodie Foster
There was a deeply disturbing side to Hinckley’s character - one that was all-too familiar to actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had become obsessed with Foster after her graphic portrayal of a 12-year-old prostitute in the film Taxi Driver. He had been stalking her ever since.
He was equally obsessed with Travis Bickle, the film’s principal character, who had attempted to assassinate a would-be presidential hopeful.
Now, Hinckley decided to emulate Bickle and shoot Reagan.
His motive was neither political and nor was it an act of hatred. He was so obsessed with Foster that he wanted to do something truly spectacular - something that he hoped would impress her and cause her to admire him.
Now, as Reagan passed the cheering crowd, Hinckley seized the moment. He whipped out his Rohm .22 revolver and fired six shots in rapid succession.
Chaos as shots are fired
The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head: he collapsed to the ground.
The second lodged itself in the neck of police officer Thomas Delahanty as he spun round to protect the president.
The third shot missed everyone: it shattered the window of a nearby building.
The fourth bullet struck Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the stomach.
The fifth hit the limousine window, while the sixth bullet also hit the car, then ricocheted off the metal and struck Reagan under his left arm.
The president was clearly hurt, but in the moment of panic and confusion no one realised how serious were his injuries.
Even Reagan himself was not aware he’d been shot; he thought he’d broken a rib when Special Agent Jerry Parr pushed him into the limousine.
The bodyguards are hit
As Hinckley was wrestled to the ground, Reagan’s motorcade sped off towards the White House. ‘Rawhide [Reagan’s codename] is OK,’ said Parr. But when Reagan started to cough up frothy pink blood, it was clear that all was not well.
The limousine now swung round and headed instead for George Washington University Hospital.
Reagan managed to get out of the limousine unaided and struggle into the hospital, but then his knees suddenly gave way and he had trouble breathing.
He was rushed to the emergency room where his suit was cut off. FBI agents quickly removed his wallet that contained the Gold Codes - the nuclear launch codes.
The road to recovery
Reagan’s blood pressure had fallen to 60 (it should have been 140) and he was in deep shock. It suddenly dawned on hospital staff that he was unlikely to survive.
Foster: stalked
The president retained his customary humour, even though he was in serious pain. ‘I hope you’re all Republicans,’ he joked to the operating staff. When his wife, Nancy, arrived a few minutes later, he uttered the memorable line: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’.
The operation to save Reagan lasted three hours. The surgeons removed the bullet from Reagan’s lung, unaware that it was still explosive and could have gone off there and then.
Reagan made a rapid recovery, despite losing some five pints of blood. He left hospital after 13 days and was given a heroic welcome back to the White House. He was the only serving US president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.
James Brady was not so fortunate. Hit in the head with a bullet, he has been paralysed and in a wheelchair ever since. He has devoted all his energies to lobbying for stricter handgun control.
As for Hinckley, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
He remains under institutionalised psychiatric care to this day.

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 

Monday, November 14, 2011


It was a hijacking with a difference.
There were no political demands. There were no negotiations over hostages.
The moment the hijack was thwarted
The hijackers had a far more sinister plan for Air France Flight 8969 - one that was to provide a blueprint for the al Qaeda attacks of 11 September, 2001. It was thwarted only after a siege of quite extraordinary drama.
The story began on Christmas Eve, 1994. Four men in Algerian police uniforms boarded the Air France flight as it sat on the tarmac in Algiers.
They said they needed to check the passengers’ passports but their nervous behaviour - and the fact they were armed - raised the suspicions of one of the flight attendants.
Hijackers belonged to Armed Islamic Group (seen here)
Algerian troops based at the airport also grew suspicious: they had not expected the plane to be searched. They began surrounding the plane, at which point the four ‘police’ revealed that they were terrorists. The plane had been hijacked.
The first thing they did was to make all the women on board cover their heads. They then broadcast a chilling message over the intercom: ‘Allah has selected us as his soldiers. We are here to wage war in his name.’
The airport control tower tried to negotiate, but the terrorists were very different from those involved in previous hijacks. They said - ominously - that they intended to fly the plane to Paris.
The plane on the ground: destination, Eiffel Tower
The Algerian authorities refused to remove the landing stairs, thereby preventing the plane from taking off. The hijackers decided to force the issue. They singled out one of the passengers - an Algerian police officer - and shot him in the head.
‘Don’t kill me. I have a wife and child,’ were his last words.
The leader of the hijackers, Abdul Yahia, was ruthless and fanatical. No less fanatical was his sidekick, named Lofti. He was given the nickname ‘Madman’ by the unfortunate hijacked passengers. Another hijacker was known as ‘the Killer’, since it was he who undertook the shootings.
First, the hijack. Then, the movie: The Assault
He soon led away his second victim, a commercial attaché from the Vietnamese Embassy in Algiers named Bui Giang To. He was also shot in the head
The night time hours were extremely tense, although there were no more shootings. In the morning - on Christmas Day - the French Interior Minister learned some terrible news from a mole in the Algiers Islamic Group who had planned the hijack.
‘The terrorists’ true aim was to crash the plane in Paris,’ he said. In fact, they intended to crash it into the Eiffel Tower, thereby destroying one of the great symbols of France.
Hijackers' goal
When the plane was once again refused clearance for take off, a third passenger was shot. The French government now pleaded with its Algerian counterpart to allow the plane to get airborne, but with only enough fuel to reach Marseilles.
On 26 December, the plane finally took off, touching down in Marseilles at 3.30am. The hijackers demanded 27 tonnes of fuel, far more than the 9 tonnes needed to reach Paris. The inevitable conclusion was that the plane was to be turned into a deadly fireball.
By now, a crack French military unit was on standby, waiting to storm the aircraft. The moment for action came at 5pm, when Yahia was about to order the death of another passenger.
The crack forces rapidly moved the air-stairs towards the airplane. They then forced the doors and entered the plane, firing all the time. The hijackers returned fire and bullets were soon flying through the cabin. Grenades were also detonated, filling the plane with dense smoke.
Deadly 9/11 attacks
The fire-fight was described by one flight attendant as ‘an apocalypse.’ But it was an effective apocalypse. Within 20 minutes, all four hijackers were dead and the 166 passengers and crew were escorted to safety. They were shocked, stunned and exhausted from their ordeal, but at least they were still alive.
The hijackers never reached Paris and their ultimate goal of the Eiffel Tower. But they provided the blueprint for a very similar, and far more deadly hijacking on 11 September, 2001.
On that occasion, nearly 3,000 innocent people tragically lost their lives. 

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, November 8, 2011


He arrived at the island as a shipwrecked mariner.
Dodo: best cooked slowly over a low heat
He was half-crazed by dehydration and hunger, having endured nine days adrift in a longboat drinking only his own urine.
Now, as he stepped ashore on a small islet off the east coast of Mauritius, Volkert Evertszoon rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
The islet was home to an extraordinary flightless bird that waddled along the beach in the most undignified fashion and could be easily caught by grabbing its feet.
Volkert and his fellow survivors from the crippled vessel, Arnhem, could scarcely believe their luck. Here, on the shores of Ile d’Ambre, was enough food to keep them alive for months.
Ile d'Ambre: dodo's last home
What neither he nor his shipmates realised was that they would go down in history as the last eyewitnesses of the hapless dodo, a bird that would very soon be extinct. Indeed, it is more than likely that their feasting on the Ile d’Ambre’s dodos, in February, 1662, led to the bird’s tragic demise.
Dutch ships: sailors preferred dodo meat to salt pork
‘They were larger than geese but not able to fly,’ wrote Volkert. ‘Instead of wings they had small flaps, but they could run very fast. One of us would chase them so that they ran towards the other party who then grabbed them; when we had one tightly held by the leg it would cry out, then the others would come to its aid and could be caught as well.’
Volkert and his men were fortunate to find dodos on the islet. Ever since this peculiar bird had first been sighted in Mauritius in the 1590s, it had been ruthlessly hunted down for food.
It did not make for a tasty feast: the dodo was often known as the ‘loathsome bird’ on account of its disgusting taste. But it was extremely easy to catch, and the sailors who hunted them were so hungry that anything was better to the putrid salt-pork they had on board ship.
One ship’s commander even declared them to taste palatable if cooked for a long time. ‘Their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour,’ wrote Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, ‘and easily masticated.’
Culinary delights were far from the minds of Volkert Evertszoon and his men when they stepped ashore on the Ile d’Ambre.
Perhaps the last dodo
painted from life, in 1638
They were delighted to find so many dodos, a bird that had become a rarity ever since Dutch settlers had introduced pigs to the Mauritius. Pigs were the dodo’s most voracious predator: the probable reason why the bird had survived on Ile d’Ambre, but nowhere else in Mauritius, is that it was one of the only remaining islets that didn’t have any pigs.
Volkert was amazed that the birds were so tame. ‘[They] were not shy at all,’ he wrote, ‘because they very likely were not used to see men pursuing them, and which [be]came us exceedingly well… having neither barrel nor ammunition to shoot them.’
A Mughal dodo: perhaps
the most accurate depiction
The birds seemed no less intrigued by these shipwrecked mariners. ‘[They] … stared at us and remained quiet where they stand, not knowing whether they had wings to fly away or legs to run off, and suffering us to approach them as close as we pleased.’
Here was a feast indeed: Volkert and his men drove the dodos together into one place ‘in such a manner that we could catch them with our hands.’
No sooner had they caught one that all the others ‘on a sudden came running as fast as they could to its assistance, and by which they were caught and made prisoners also.
Volkert and his men lived comfortably for the three months they stayed on the islet before being rescued by the English ship, Truro.
In his account, Volkert does not record whether he and his men killed all the dodos on the islet.
Volkert's book: a feast
for dodo lovers
It is quite likely that they did: although the Dutch hunter, Isaac Lamotius, recorded seeing dodos in 1688, it’s unclear if he is referring to the same bird. By the time he was writing, the flightless Red Rail was known by the same Dutch name: dodaers.
Unless and until new evidence emerges, the most plausible explanation for the dodo’s demise is that Volkert and his men ate it into extinction.

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, November 1, 2011


He reigned for 21 years - a monarch with absolute power over one of the most powerful countries on earth.
Norton: absolute monarch
Emperor Joshua Norton I declared himself supreme ruler of the United States in 1859: his avowed intention was to restore stability and integrity to a country he felt was falling into ruin.
Emperor Norton might easily have been dismissed as a harmless eccentric, were it not for the fact that he soon had a large number of supporters.
Aided by the newspapers of San Francisco, his decrees soon became known to vast numbers of people.
His reign began on 17 September, 1859, when he issued a proclamation to the Californian papers which read: ‘I declare and proclaim myself emperor of these United States.’
Imperial transport
He called for a public meeting of representatives of all the different states in America, signing his declaration: Norton I, Emperor of the United States. (He soon added Protector of Mexico to his title.)
His proclamation was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the people of California, who loved his bluntly worded decrees. Norton conferred upon himself the autocratic powers of an absolute monarch and, in the second week of October, 1859, formally abolished the House of Congress.
King of America
‘Open violation of the laws are constantly occurring,’ he declared, ‘caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects… the citizen has not that protection of person and property [to] which he is entitled.’
The following year, Emperor Norton called upon the army to forcibly depose the elected members of Congress, in order that he might consolidate his tenuous grip on power.
Both the army and congress ignored Norton, but the general public did not. They found him endearingly eccentric and loved his quirky and colourful decrees - all of which were widely published in American newspapers.
In 1862, he ordered the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to ordain his emperor. (They ignored him). In 1869, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties, Shortly afterwards, he issued a decree forbidding religious warfare.
Norton issued his own currency
Emperor Norton soon became a familiar figure to the citizens living in his imperial capital of San Francisco. He wore a navy military uniform with golden epaulets and a spectacular beaver-skin hat bedecked with rosettes and peacock feathers. Cane in hand, he’d patrol the streets of his capital, inspecting the state of public buildings.
Emperor Norton was, in reality, a penniless bankrupt, but he nevertheless regularly dined in San Francisco’s finest restaurants. In return for free food, he’d reward them with an imperial seal: ‘By appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.’
An imperial decree
Restaurants were desperate to get such seals, as they provided a significant boost to trade. The emperor also had the best seat reserved for him at the opening night of every show in his capital.
He had his occasional brush with the law, but he always got the upper hand. When, in 1867, he was arrested by the police in order to be committed to a mental asylum, there was a public outcry. It led to his immediate release and an apology from the police. Norton, ever magnanimous, granted an imperial pardon to the officers who arrested him.
By the 1870s, Norton was issuing his own currency: the banknotes became widely accepted in San Francisco. He was also granted recognition of sorts from the US government: the 1870 census lists his occupation as ‘emperor’.

His reign was to last another decade before coming to a dramatic end: in January 1880, he collapsed in the street and died shortly afterwards.
The San Francisco Chronicle announced the tragic news to the world. Under a banner headline, ‘Le Roi est Mort’, it said: ‘In the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.’
His grave is these days in Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California, recognisable by its large inscribed stone bearing the words: ‘Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector.'

NOW AVAILABLE AS EBOOKS (as well as in paperback): 

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War
Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922  in UK. (Not yet available in USA)
Samurai William: The Adventurer who Unlocked Japan. in UK, in USA
Coming Soon in UK and USA: Big Chief Elizabeth (27 Oct),Nathaniel's Nutmeg and White Gold, early 2012. 
And one for the children... Call Me Gorgeous, available at in paperback: and in the USA in hardback: