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, October 30, 2012


It was always going to be a close election.
It's easier to kill your political enemies.
Presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson was so concerned by the outcome of the 1800 poll that he hired the organisational genius, Aaron Burr, as his running mate.
It was to lead to one of the dirtiest and most sensational campaigns in history.
Aaron Burr was a force to be reckoned with. He had already served as senator for New York and had also founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company (which became JP Morgan Chase).
More importantly, he had transformed the influential Tammany Hill social club into a slick political machine.
Aaron Burr, organisational genius
This was the machine that Jefferson hoped would elect him and Burr to the highest office.
Their challenger was the incumbent president, John Adams, who might have stood a better chance had it not been for a smear campaign organised by Alexander Hamilton, a member of his own party.
Hamilton was no longer Secretary of the Treasury but he remained a hugely influential figure. He detested John Adams and instead supported running-mate, Charles Pinckney. He did everything possible to wreck Adams’ chances and he also did his best to derail the Jefferson-Burr campaign.
Jefferson: Mr President?
Or Mr Vice President?
Thus began a presidential campaign that was marred by smears, lies and - eventually - murder.
Hamilton’s opening shot was to write a hostile pamphlet about Adams. The pamphlet fell into the hands of Jefferson and Burr who realised it was political dynamite. They immediately published it, with the result that Adams’ campaign was seriously derailed.
After many more political smears, it became clear that Jefferson was set to win the election. But no one had foreseen the voting complications that would follow.
In 1800, the constitutional rules determined that each presidential elector had two votes, to be cast for different men. The one who got the most became president; the one who came second became vice president.
Hamilton: master of dirty tricks
On this occasion, the system led to farce. When the Electoral College voted, Jefferson and his running mate Burr both received 73 votes. It was an unprecedented outcome and it required the House of Representatives to choose between the two men.
Alexander Hamilton once again played a decisive role. He had already dashed the hopes of one political rival. Now, he was determined to stop Aaron Burr, whom he also detested.
For the first 35 ballots, Jefferson and Burr remained tied with equal votes assigned to them. But in the 36th ballot, Hamilton managed to secure the votes of Maryland and Vermont for Jefferson.
After a tortuous and dirty campaign, Jefferson was sworn in as president, with Burr as vice president.
Winner takes all: electoral map, 1800.
But that was by no means the end of the story. When Vice President Burr also ran for the governorship of New York, Hamilton once again organised a smear campaign. He described Burr as ‘a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.’
Burr was outraged and challenged Hamilton to personal combat: they would fight a duel with pistols.
Duelling was outlawed in New York and the punishment for conviction for staging a duel was death. The two rivals therefore men in New Jersey, where the punishment was less severe.
They met a dawn on 11 July, 1804, and Hamilton had the advantage of the sun rising behind his opponent, providing him with a clearly defined silhouette. The pistol he was using had been used in a previous duel that killed his 19-year-old son.
Bang, bang, you're dead. 
There was a tense moment as the two men walked to their respective positions in the woodland. Then, at the agreed moment, each man turned to face his opponent.
Hamilton fired a split second before Burr. His missed his target and the smoke was still drifting from his gun when Burr fired his shot.
The two pistols.
He scored a direct hit: the bullet pierced Hamilton’s abdomen just above his right hip and shattering his liver and spine. In agony, Hamilton was transported to a friend’s house in Manhattan where he died on the following day.
Vice President Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, but escaped being brought to justice by fleeing to South Carolina. Within a very short time he dared to return to Washington in order to finish his term as Vice President. Amazingly, all charges against him were eventually dropped.
They haven't killed each other. Yet. 
His chequered career was not yet over. He would later be tried for treason and eventually fled to England where he attempted to rebuild his fortunes. He then changed his name to Edwards and returned to New York where he died in 1836.
The most enduring legacy of his colourful election to the Vice Presidency was the Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution that ensured that the electoral shambles of 1800 could never be repeated.
His other legacy - not entirely his own doing - was the smears, lies and dirty tricks that continue to dominate US presidential elections. 

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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, October 23, 2012


He was charged with the most horrific crimes: cannibalism, mutilation, sadism, embezzlement and 38 murders.
Not me: Bokassa was accused of grotesque crimes
The ex-emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel-Bokassa, found himself in the dock in December, 1986, two months after returning from exile.
It was reckoning time: he was to come face-to-face with those he had tortured during his time as absolute dictator of one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Bokassa had seized power in a military coup in 1966, declaring ‘a new era of equality’ for this land-locked country in central Africa. In fact, there was to be equality for one man only - himself. With the help of Libya and France, he embarked on a 13-year orgy of excess.
His trial would not only expose his dreadful crimes; it would also reveal the hypocrisy of the foreign powers that had supported him.
A second Napoleon, or so he thought
The opening session began on 15 December 1986, taking place in the stiflingly hot chambers of the Palais de Justice in Bangui, the capital of Bokassa’s former fiefdom.
The world’s media had turned out in force, eager to report every lurid detail of his grotesque reign as emperor.
Bokassa hired two top French lawyers, aware that he would needed the very finest legal team if he was to escape the death sentence.
The 65-year-old ex-emperor cut a strange figure in court. He wore a smart, double-breasted suit, yet his gout-ridden right foot was clad in an open slipper. He followed the proceedings intently, losing his temper on occasions and interjecting strange comments and apologies.
Meet the family: or some of it
The prosecution witnesses shed much light on a regime of monstrous cruelty. One of his former cooks, Philippe Linguissa, recalled how he’d been called to prepare a special feast for Bokassa. The main course was a human corpse that the emperor kept stored in his walk-in refrigerator.
An impoverished place: Bokassa's fiefdom
Other witnesses described how they had broken into Bokassa's palace shortly after he was ousted from power. They were searching for relatives who’d been missing for years and were appalled to find corpses and human limbs stacked in the palace refrigerators.
One female witness testified that Bokassa had executed her husband, General M'bongo, because he’d refused to allow Bokassa to sleep with his wife.
When Bokassa heard her speaking in court, he displayed sudden contrition. ‘I take moral responsibility in the death of this general,’ he said as he started to beg the woman's forgiveness.
Loving husband to Catherine, one of many wives
One of the most damning testimonies came from a group of 27 youngsters, the only survivors of 180 children who were killed in April 1979 after they threw rocks at Bokassa's passing Rolls Royce.
They had been protesting over being forced to wear expensive school uniforms that they were obliged to purchase from a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.
Several of them revealed that Bokassa visited them on their first night in prison and ordered the prison guards to club the children to death. He then participated in smashing the skulls of five children with his ebony walking stick.
The trial gave a grim insight into the running of Bokassa’s notorious Ngaragba prison where inmates routinely had hands and feet chained to the floor.
Bangui - Bokassa's former capital
Under prison director Joseph Mokoa, prisoners either died of starvation or were strangled. Some were killed with repeated hammering.
Bokassa continually interjected during the trial. He expressed his dismay at being accused of such appalling crimes. He also denied ever personally ordering the torture of any of his subjects. Nor did he admit to keeping corpses in his palace.
As the evidence against him mounted, he tried to shift the blame away from himself and onto various ministers in his former cabinet.
Ngaragba prison: not a pleasant place
When he came to present his defence, he caused incredulity by stating: ‘I’m not a saint. I'm just a man like everyone else.’
As more and more alleged crimes came to the surface, Bokassa grew increasingly angry. At one point, he leaped to his feet and harangued the chief prosecutor.
‘The aggravating thing about all this is that it's all about Bokassa, Bokassa, Bokassa! I have enough crimes leveled against me without you blaming me for all the murders of the last 21 years!’
On 12 June 1987, Bokassa was found guilty of all charges, with the exception of those relating to cannibalism. There was insufficient evidence to convict him of eating his own subjects.
Giscard: supporter of Bokassa
Good friends: Gadaffi
Nor was it ever determined whether or not he served human flesh at a banquet given for French president Giscard d'Estaing.
The court acknowledged the many crimes leveled at Bokassa but found that the evidence was unimpeachable in only 20 cases. The ex-emperor wept silently as Judge Franck sentenced him to death.
But he was destined to escape the death penalty. Instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. In 1989, this sentence was reduced to 20 years and in 1993, as part of a general amnesty, Africa’s most notorious leader was set free.
In 1996, shortly after proclaiming himself the 13th Apostle, the ex-emperor died of a heart attack.
He was survived by his 17 wives and 50 children. 
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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, October 16, 2012


He was short, skinny and underage - hardly suitable material for a soldier in the Second World War.
Short and skinny - but ruthless
The American army certainly didn’t think much of Audie Murphy when he tried to enroll in December 1941. They rejected him on the grounds of his youth - he was just 17 - and his slight frame.
Murphy tried to enlist again in the following year. Again, he was rejected - by the Marines, the Army Paratroopers and the Navy. After further  persistence, Murphy was finally enrolled in the United States Army and sent for training in Texas.
The army soon realized they had made a mistake in accepting him. During one training session he was so exhausted that he fainted. His company commander considered him unsuitable for combat and attempted to have him moved to an army cookery school.
A lot of medals
All who had mocked Murphy would soon be forced to eat their words. He was to prove one of the most efficient and ruthless killing machines of the Second World War, serving in Morocco, Italy, Southern France and Alsace. He inspired his men as much as he terrified the Germans, displaying no fear even when caught in sustained machinegun fire.
The first inkling of his bravery came in September 1943, when he and his men faced a German attack. The enemy soon wished they'd chosen a different target: all were either killed or captured and Murphy was promoted to a sergeant for his role in the bloody skirmish.
To Hell and Back: the movie, with Audie
He next fought at the Volturo River and at the Anzio Beachhead. He was steadily honing his skills as a fearless genius in small unit action, leading men into situations of great danger against an overwhelmingly superior force.
After taking part in Operation Dragoon in Southern France, he and his men were transferred to Alsace, where fighting between the Allies and crack Germans soldiers was fierce and intense.
Soon after arriving, Murphy's best friend was killed by a German soldier hiding in a machine gun nest. Murphy was infuriated and single-handedly wiped out the entire German crew hiding in the nest.
He then used the captured German machine gun to destroy the nearby enemy positions. His conduct was so brave - and foolhardy - that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Fame: back in America
During seven weeks of intense fighting, Murphy's division suffered 4,500 casualties. Murphy himself received two silver stars for further heroic actions and was elevated to platoon leader.
By January, 1945, he had been promoted to company commander and his troops were hiding in the words near Holtzwihr, a place of vital strategic significance for the Allied advance.
On 26 January, his men went into action against the enemy. It was bitterly cold (14 °F or −10 °C) with two feet of snow on the ground.
The men fought with courage but were decimated in a ferocious firefight and reduced to an effective strength of 19 out of 128.
Murphy realized the remnants of his company couldn’t hold out any longer and ordered them to retreat into the forest. He would meanwhile remain in position in order to direct American artillery fire coming from the rear.
Fighting conditions were like this
‘I loved that artillery’, Murphy later recalled. ‘I could see Kraut soldiers disappear in clouds of smoke and snow, hear them scream and shout, yet they came on and on as though nothing would stop them.’
The Germans had by now advanced to within fifty yards of Murphy’s hiding place. When battalion headquarters inquired as to the enemy position, Murphy replied: ‘If you just hold the phone a minute, I'll let you talk to one of the bastards.’
He continued to spray the advancing troops with bullets until his carbine ran out of ammunition. He was preparing to fall back when he noticed a machine gun on the turret of a nearby tank destroyer.
Recently found in the woods: items from the battle
Murphy knew the gun gave him a real chance to stop the Germans. He clambered aboard and began firing, managing to cut down an entire squad of German infantry who had crawled into a nearby ditch.
At one point he noticed a group of Germans discussing tactics. ‘I pressed the trigger and slowly traversed the barrel - the bodies slumped in a stack position,’ he said.
Murphy only stopped fighting his when telephone line to headquarters was cut by enemy artillery. He was also badly wounded in the leg.
More woodland discoveries
Despite the pain, he would continue to lead his men for the next two days until the area around the Holtzwihr and the Colmar Canal was cleared of Germans. It was an exceptional feat of war.
On June 2, 1945, he was presented with the Medal of Honor, America’s highest honour. It was the peak of his military career - a career that ended with 32 additional medals, ribbons, citations and badges.
Life cut short.
Murphy would later become a Hollywood star, acting in the film of his own experiences, To Hell and Back.
His life was tragically cut short when he died in a plane crash in 1971. He was just 46.
When asked after the war why he had single-handedly taken on a company of German infantry, he replied simply: ‘They were killing my friends.’
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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, October 9, 2012


The bonfires were lit shortly after nightfall on 31 January, 1921.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know
To the Chinese garrison in Urga, the capital of Mongolia, it was the first sign that something was seriously wrong. 
For days, they had been expecting an attack from a small band of mercenaries. Now, seeing the ring of fires around Urga, they realised that a huge army was camped outside the city walls.
The leader of this army was one of the most monstrous commanders of the twentieth century - a sadistic psychopath with an alarmingly megalomaniac streak.
His name was Baron Roman Nikolaus Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg and he saw himself as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Not only did he wanted to rebuild a mighty empire in Central Asia, he also intended to destroy Lenin’s Bolsheviks and restore a tsar to the throne of Russia.
His hero: Genghis Khan
Over the previous 12 months, the ‘Mad Baron’ had roved through Central Asia with his freelance mercenaries, attacking towns and villages with impunity.
In the chaos that followed the Bolshevik revolution, these outposts of the old tsarist empire were at the mercy of anyone who could raise an army of troops. The Mad Baron - whose eccentricities included a conversion to mystical Buddhism - now saw his chance to capture Mongolia's capital.
On campaign in Mongolia
Baron von Ungern-Sternberg had been born into a 1000-year old dynasty of Baltic noblemen who claimed descent from Attila the Hun. He fought with distinction in the First World War, winning a score of medals for valour. But he also began to display an alarmingly psychopathic streak, perhaps as the result of a serious sabre wound he received to his head.
‘His broad forehead bore a terrible sword cut which pulsed with red veins,’ wrote one who served with him.
At the war’s end, he began to recruit a freelance army in order to fight his two enemies - Bolsheviks and Jews. His soldiers were either White Russians deserters or Mongolian troops displaced by the occupying Chinese.
Mongolians in Urga, circa 1921
One who watched the baron oversee a batch of new recruits was shocked by his ruthlessness. ‘All men with physical defects were shot until only the able-bodied remained. He killed all Jews… hundreds of innocent people had been liquidated by the time the inspection was closed.’
Many of his recruits were homeless and destitute: they joined the Mad Baron in the hope of booty and plunder. In this they were not disappointed: as Baron von Ungern-Sternberg moved through Mongolia, he sacked a string of towns. Anyone who resisted was sadistically punished. Enemies were whipped to death, strangled, roasted alive and tied behind cars.
By January 1921, his terrifying army had conquered much of Mongolia and reached the capital, Urga.
Bodyguards of the Bogd Khan
The baron had fewer than 2,000 men and faced a far more numerous enemy. It was in order to trick the defenders into thinking that he had a huge army that he had lit the bonfires. He hoped to intimidate them before assaulting their citadel.
The attack began with an assault on city gates with hand grenades. Once these were destroyed, the baron’s men stormed the Chinese garrison and fought with machine guns, rifles and bayonets. Some even used meat cleavers. The soldiers then went on the rampage, slaughtering Jews and raping the women.
On campaign in Central Asia
‘Mad with revenge and hatred, the conquerors began plundering the city,’ wrote one. ‘Drunken horsemen galloped through the streets, shooting and killing at their fancy…’
After months of hunger and restlessness, these freelance soldiers unleashed violence and lust on everyone they could find. One poor boy, suspected of being ‘Red’ was roasted alive.
After three days, the baron ordered the violence to stop. Only Jews continued to be targeted, because ‘in my opinion, the Jews are not protected by any law.’
A mad glint in the eye: the baron in his tent
Some three weeks after the city’s capture, the Bogd Kahn, the hereditary ruler of Mongolia, was restored to his throne. It was part of the baron’s policy to restore monarchies to the lands he conquered. In return, he was rewarded with a string of honorary titles.
Military success soon went to the baron’s head. He now proclaimed himself Emperor of all Russia and set off northwards towards Soviet territory in order to attack Lenin’s Bolsheviks. After initial success, he suffered several serious reverses at the hands of the Red Army.
His magic seemed to have deserted him and as his rag-bag army retreated towards Chinese Turkestan, a group of them turned against him.
The Red Army: the enemy.
The Mad Baron was shot several times but managed to escape death. Bleeding heavily, he rode off into the night and was eventually captured by a Red Army patrol.
He was taken in chains to Siberia where he was tried by a people’s court. His fate was never in doubt: Lenin himself wanted him executed. After bragging about his 1000-year-old dynasty, and attempting to justify his actions, the Baron von Ungern-Sternberg was found guilty of countless crimes and shot by firing squad. It was the cleanest death in his long reign of terror.

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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, October 2, 2012


It was a gloriously sunny August afternoon and the Bay of Naples was filled with pleasure-craft.
Escaping Vesuvius: danger for asthmatics
From his couch on the terrace of his villa, Pliny the Elder could just make out the distant peak of Mount Vesuvius. He gazed at it lazily, only half aware that something was not quite right. A large cloud of dust and steam could be seen pouring from its peak. The dust was shooting upwards and outwards and was threatening to obscure the sun.
Pliny struggle up from his couch - he was overweight and had just eaten a generous lunch - in order to look at the volcano more closely.
‘The cloud was rising from a mountain…’ wrote his young nephew who was with him on that day in AD 79. ‘I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long trunk from which spread some branches.’
Pliny: large and asthmatic
He would later recall Pliny’s curiosity at the shape of the cloud. ‘The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.’
This was easily arranged. Pliny the Elder was commander of the Roman fleet at nearby Misenum and he was able to put to sea almost immediately. As his quadrireme was being prepared, he received a desperate message from one of his friends, a lady named Rectina.
Her country villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius and she was close enough to feel the earth beneath her growling and gurgling. She knew that the volcano was about to blow its top.
Vesuvius: a wall of fire
Pliny realized that if Rectina was trapped, then so were thousands of others. The Vesuvius shoreline was popular with the wealthy Roman elite who had built luxurious villas in the shadow of the volcano. For all of them, the only escape was by boat.
As Pliny set out across the bay, the dangers intensified. ‘Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire.’
The fit and healthy stood the best chance of survival
The volcanic eruption grew increasingly menacing and it was soon belching ash, rock and highly toxic chemicals. The air was soon so choked with ash that it became hard to breath, especially for Pliny who suffered from asthma.
A violent wind drove the vessel in to the bay of Stabiae and it was not long before Pliny was stepping ashore. He was greeted by an old friend named Pomponianus and the two men started discussing how best to deal with the growing crisis. 
Pliny realized that everyone in Stabiae faced serious danger. The wind that had helped him into the bay was now preventing anyone from leaving.
As the sky grew darker, the rumbling of the volcano increased in intensity. ‘Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night.’
Pliny remained calm in the face of crisis. He was weary after the sea journey and his belly was empty. His first priority was to eat.
On the mountain, a highly sinister chain of events was unfolding. The volcano had started to self-destruct, sending a lethal tide of toxic gas and molten rock down the slopes.
Preserved as ash: the ones who didn't make it.
Soon, rivers of burning lava and mud were cascading downwards, destroying everything that lay in their path. There was no hope of escape for those who’d remained in their homes. They were gassed to death and then buried under a blanket of lava.
When Pliny glanced outside, he was horrified to see that the street was already half filled with ash. He realized that he and Pomponianus had only two choices: to remain in the building and risk being buried alive, or to flee and take their chances with the falling rocks.
But fleeing presented him with a problem. His large belly and asthmatic condition meant that he was slow on his feet.
As the building shook violently, they chose the latter option, tying pillows to their heads and making for the shore. But Pliny soon found himself struggling to make headway and gasping at the noxious air.
‘He drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came an smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him.’
Bay of Naples: as it is today
With the help of two slaves, he once again struggle to his feet. But then his knees gave way and he collapsed, wheezing and spluttering as he slowly suffocated.
 ‘As I understand it,’ wrote his nephew, ‘his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down.’ Within a few minutes, Pliny was dead.
The fate of Pomponianus remains a mystery. He was probably among the 16,000 citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum who were buried alive.
Many died of thermal shock; others suffered a more agonizing death, roasted alive by the burning lava.
Pliny was one of the few whose corpses was recovered from the disaster. ‘His body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on,’ wrote his nephew. ‘He looked more asleep than dead.’
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