Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012


He was crossing Hiroshima on a public tram when he heard the droning sound of an aircraft engine in the skies above.
Twice bombed, twice survived
Tsutomu Yamaguchi thought nothing of it: after all, it was wartime and planes were forever passing over the city.
He was unaware that the engines belonged to the US bomber, Enola Gay, and that it was just seconds away from dropping a 13 kiloton uranium atomic bomb.
Yamaguchi was just stepping off the tram as the plane approached its target at 8.15am on 6 August, 1945. He glanced up at the sky and noticed it pass overheard. He also saw two small parachutes. And then, quite without warning, all hell broke loose.
‘[There was] a great flash in the sky and I was blown over.’
The massive nuclear warhead had exploded less than three kilometres from the spot where he was standing.
A blinding flash of light
The warhead was detonated at 600m: as Yamaguchi swung his gaze upwards he saw a vast mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising high into the sky.
Seconds later, he passed out. The explosion ruptured his eardrums and the flash of light left him temporarily blinded.
The heat of the exploding warhead was such that it left him with serious burns over the left side of the top half of his body. When he eventually regained consciousness, he crawled to a shelter and tried to make sense of what happened. He was fortunate to stumble across his colleagues, who had also survived. All three of them were young engineers with the shipbuilder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and been unlucky enough to be sent to Hiroshima at the very time of the bombing.
Hiroshima after the attack
They spent the night together in an air raid shelter, nursing their burns and wounds. Then, on the following day, they ventured out of their shelter and picked their way through the charred and molten ruins.
Enola Gay's return
They passed piles of burnt and dying bodies as they made their way to the nearest functioning station. They were desperate to catch a train back to their home town of Nagasaki, some 180 miles away.
Nagasaki after the attack
Yamaguchi was in a poor state and went to have his wounds bandaged as soon as he reached Nagasaki. But by 9 August, he felt well enough to struggle into work.
His boss and his co-workers listened with horrified amazement as he described the unbelievable destruction that a single warhead had managed to cause. He told them how the bomb had melted metal and evaporated entire parts of the city. His boss, Sam, simply didn’t believe him.
‘You're an engineer,’ he barked. ‘Calculate it. How could one bomb...destroy a whole city?’
At the exact moment when he said these words - 11.02am - there was a blinding white flash that penetrated to the heart of the room. Yamaguchi’s tender skin was once again pricked with heat and he crashed to the ground. ‘I thought that the mushroom cloud followed me from Hiroshima,’ he said later
The US Airforce had dropped their second nuclear warhead, ‘Fat Man’, named after Winston Churchill. It was much larger than the Hiroshima device - a 25-kiloton plutonium bomb that exploded in the bowl of the valley in which Nagasaki is situated.
A model of the Nagasaki bomb
The destruction was more confined but even more intense than at Hiroshima: some 74,000 were killed and a similar number injured.
Yamaguchi, his wife and his baby son survived and spent much of the following week in an air raid shelter near what was left of their home. Five days later, they heard the news that Emperor Hirohito had announced Japan's surrender.
Yamaguchi’s survival of both nuclear explosions was little short of miraculous. Yet it was later discovered that he was one of 160 people known to have lived through both bombings.
He survived both of these
In 1957, he was finally recognized as a hibakusha or ‘explosion affected person’. But it was not until 2009 that he was recognized as an eniijuu hibakusha or double bomb survivor, the only person in Japan to be officially recognized as such.
Fellow Nagasaki survivors
The effects of the double bombings left its scars, both mental and physical. Yamaguchi lost the hearing in his left ear as a result of the Hiroshima explosion. He also temporarily lost his hair and his daughter would later recall that he was swathed in bandages until she reached the age of 12.
Yamaguchi became an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons until he was well advanced in years, at which point he began to suffer from the long-term effects of the exposure to radiation. His wife developed liver and kidney cancer in 2008 and died soon after. Yamaguchi himself contracted acute leukemia and finally died in 2010 at the age of 93.
His longevity was extraordinary, as he knew all too well. He viewed his long life as a ‘path planted by God’.
‘It was my destiny that I experienced this twice and I am still alive to convey what happened,’ he said towards the end of his life.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Sir Osman: never had a mortgage

His personal fortune was said to be more than double the annual revenue of India and he owned enough pearls to pave Piccadilly from one end to the other. His jewels alone were worth a staggering £400 million.
Sir Osman Ali Khan, autocratic ruler of the princely state of Hyderabad, was once the richest man in the world and also a contender for one of the richest people in history.
He was worth more than £2 billion in 1940 and had an array of sumptuous palaces filled with rare and wonderful treasures - Oriental carpets, priceless manuscripts and rare gemstones. He shared his wealth with his seven wives, 42 concubines and vast numbers of children and dependents.
One of his many Rolls Royces
Every statistic about Sir Osman is eye-watering. He ruled a state that was just a fraction smaller than the UK and held absolute power over the lives of 16 million people.
He had dozens of Rolls Royces and owned the rare Jacob diamond, valued today at £100 million. He was also a fanatical ally of the British during the Raj and donated all the fighter planes that made up the RAF’s 110 Squadron in the First World War.
The British responded by giving him the titles ‘His Exalted Highness’ and ‘Faithful Ally of the British Government’.
Jacob diamond: plenty more like this
Sir Osman succeeded his father as ruler of Hyderabad on the latter’s death in 1911. Already fabulously wealthy, he expanded still further the family coffers by increasing the mining industry of his princely dominion in South-East India. The mines were a rich source of diamonds and other precious stones. The famous Koh-i-Noor diamond came from Hyderabad.
Durbah Hall, Chowmahalla
Often benevolent - and always erratic - Sir Osman spent the family fortune on education, railways and electrification. But there was plenty of spare cash for him to indulge his passion for racehorses, rare cars and regal uniforms.
By 1941, Sir Osman had founded his own bank, the Hyderabad State Bank: his fiefdom became the only state on the sub-continent that issued its own currency, quite different from that of the rest of India.
The money was spent on a lavish beautification programme that included public buildings, a high court, hospitals and the Osmania University. But Sir Osman’s real passion remained his palaces, which were scattered across his realm. The biggest were staffed by many thousands of servants, retainers and bodyguards, all jostling for position alongside scheming eunuchs and jealous concubines.
Chowmahalla drawing room
Sir Osman’s favourite palace was said to be the Falaknuma, built on a hilltop above Hyderabad with a panoramic view across the city. Known as ‘Mirror of the Sky, it was constructed out of imported Italian marble in the classical style.
There was also the Chowmahalla Palace, another rambling edifice that was started in 1750 and took another 120 years to complete. It became famous for its pillared Durbah Hall, a vast marble salon lit by vast chandeliers made of Belgian crystal. There were also huge drawing rooms, courtyards and an elegant clock-tower.
Some of Sir Osman's retainers
Sir Osman seemed to have everything - a fortune, palaces and a peaceful dominion that managed to escape integration into the new Indian state.
But everything was soon to turn sour. After months of failed negotiations with India, Sir Osman’s fiefdom was invaded in 1948. After five days of fighting, he reluctantly agreed to join the Union; his autocratic rule was replaced by India’s parliamentary democracy.
A quarter of a century later, Sir Osman’s titles were abolished and he was subjected to crippling taxes.
His death in February, 1967, was always going to result in a complex battle over inheritance: there were hundreds of would-be claimants to his land and property. 
Time: 'the richest man in the world'
His grandson, Mukarram Jah, was his official successor, but he rapidly found himself in deep financial trouble. He inherited not only huge debts, but also an enormous number of servants, retainers and hangers-on. These included nearly 15,000 palace staff and dependants, along with 42 concubines and their numerous offspring.
The family’s oldest and most prestigious palace, the Chowmahalla, still had 6,000 employees; 38 of them were employed solely to dust the chandeliers.
Thus began a complex and highly rancorous legal battle over Sir Osman’s fortune, which had shrunk to a mere £1 billion at the time of his death. Mukarram Jah himself eventually tired of the ongoing wrangling and left India altogether. He divorced his first wife, the Turkish-born Princess Esra and emigrated to Australia, where he became a sheep farmer.
And there the story ended - at least for more than 20 years. But in 2001, Princess Esra returned to India in a bid to sort out her grandfather-in-law’s complex will. With the help of a gifted lawyer, the competing claims over the inheritance were finally resolved.
The beautiful Chowmahalla Palace was eventually reopened as a museum and the Falaknuma became a luxury palace hotel. The many descendents of Sir Osman are now free to come back here and reflect on the former glories of their once-noble family.
But these days, they have to pay like everyone else.
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


It started with an advert in the Bristol Times and Mirror.
'Dearly fond of children' - Amelia Dyer
‘Wanted,’ it read, ‘respectable woman to take young child.’
The advert had been placed by Evelina Marmon, a 25 year old barmaid who, in January 1896, had given birth to an illegitimate baby named Doris.
Penniless - and abandoned by the man who made her pregnant - Evelina had no option but to find a foster parent.
As she scanned the newspaper in which she had placed her advert, her eye chanced upon another advertisement on the same page.
‘Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10.’
The newspaper advert
Foster couples were not unusual in Victorian Britain. Unwanted pregnancies and grinding poverty had led to a veritable foster industry, with thousands of illegitimate children each year being discreetly farmed out to charitable families.
The mother of the unwanted child would pay a fee - either a one-off payment or a monthly advance - and thereby free herself of the stigma of having had a child out of wedlock.
Evelina, a vivacious blond bar-girl, felt that she’d struck lucky when she read the advert. She immediately wrote to the lady who’d placed the advert - a Mrs Harding from Oxford Road in Reading - and asked for more information.
A reply was immediately forthcoming. ‘I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring up and call my own,’ wrote Mrs Harding.
Victorian England: grinding poverty, by Gustav Dore
She provided a little more information about her love of children. ‘We are plain, homely people, in fairly good circumstances,’ she wrote. ‘Myself and my husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother's love.’
Evelina was thrilled by what she read: it was an answer to all her prayers. There was only one thing that caused her to hesitate. Mrs Harding said she couldn’t accept a weekly fee for caring for baby Doris; rather, she wanted a one-off payment of £10.
Ominously, she said that Evelina would never again have to trouble herself about the illegitimate child.
As for any young mother, the idea of being separated forever from her newborn baby was extremely painful for Evelina. But she was in such desperate straights that she agreed to Mrs Harding’s terms. A week later, Mrs Harding arrived in Cheltenham to pick up baby Doris.
And this was the point at which Evelina got her first unwelcome surprise. She was expecting Mrs Harding to be youthful and maternal. Instead, she turned out to be a rough and elderly woman with a haggard face. But she was somewhat reassured when Mrs Harding carefully picked up baby Doris and wrapped her in a shawl.
The police were forever finding dead babies
A few days after the tearful parting, Evelina wrote to Mrs Harding for news. She was told that all was well.
It was the last time she ever heard of her baby. All her subsequent letters went unanswered.
Only later would she learn the terrible story of what had happened - a story that would cause shock and revulsion across Victorian Britain.
Mrs Harding was not who she claimed to be. Her real name was Amelia Dyer and she was a murderess. Indeed she was quite possibly the most prolific murderess of all time.
Under the pretence of being a foster mother, she would take in illegitimate babies (for a substantial fee) and then kill them.
...and another one
Amelia Dyer did not take baby Doris home to Reading, as promised. Instead, she went directly to Mayo Road in Willesden where her daughter lived. In the room upstairs, she took some white edging tape from a box and wound it tightly around baby Doris’s neck, slowly strangling the child. She then pawned Doris’s baby clothes, earning herself a few more shillings, and wrapped the corpse in a cloth.
On the following morning, she took delivery of another child, a 13-month-old boy called Harry Simmons. He, too, was strangled.
The next evening, Amelia put both corpses into a carpet bag and threw it into a lonely spot by the weir at Caversham Lock on the Thames.  But unbeknown to her, the grisly package did not sink.
Nor did Amelia know that she was already under police surveillance. Just days before killing baby Doris, the police had recovered a water-soaked parcel in the Thames near Reading.
Caversham Lock: the dumping ground
On opening it, they found the remains of a baby. Crucially, there was also the remains of an old label on the parcel. After a clever piece of detective work, police were put on the trail of Amelia Dyer.
Highly suspicious of Dyer’s supposed fostering, the police now dragged a short stretch of river. They pulled out three baby corpses, followed by the bag containing the remains of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons.
Dyer: the last picture
In the third week of May, Amelia Dyer was put on trial for murder. She pleaded guilty to one of the killings - baby Doris - and claimed insanity as her defence.
This was swiftly rejected. The jury took just four-and-a-half minutes to find her guilty and Amelia was hanged two weeks later. To the surprise of many, her daughter escaped prosecution.
The police never discovered how many other babies Amelia had killed, but the vast collection baby clothes and letters found at her house suggested that she murdered many more.
Indeed, some believed her to have killed more than 400 babies, making her the most prolific murderess in history.
UK paperback

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit