Monthly Archives: June 2020

The Wreck of the Batavia. (Part 4 – The Turn of the Screw)

Hi all welcome back. We just left the tale in the wake of the public embarrassment of skipper Ariaen Jacobsz for his drunken pleasure cruise around the bay. This incident would escalate quickly, in a way that no-one expected.

Furious over being chided by Upper-merchant Pelsaert; Jacobsz, with aid by Jeronimus Cornelisz began to plot a mutiny. If the crews of ships like the Batavia were well treated, or even well rewarded for their efforts it may have been a difficult task to sow dischord and cause a rebellion. However this was far from the case. The men onboard the ship would risk their lives on these voyages for very little in pay. They were sent out carrying well upwards of $10 Million, in modern dollar value, in silver. They came back with $100 Million in goods. The voyage was grueling, and the job in general was a death sentence for most. All of the risk was on them, next to none of the profits.
At least the merchants could make questionable side deals, take bribes – even discreetly borrow company funds, lending it out to local farmers at rates of 18% per annum; pocketing the profits – as Pelsaert himself had done in Agra. If Jacobsz and Cornelisz could gather enough disgruntled men together they could seize the ship, then turn pirate for a few years- making everyone rich beyond their wildest dreams. After that a comfy retirement outside the bounds of the VOC would beckon.

A number of attempts to mutiny aboard VOC ships had been made in the past. The vast majority failed for the same reasons – a large ship like an East Indiaman needed a lot of skilled sailors, meaning going outside of your trusted circles, and often speaking to someone you could not trust to keep quiet. Mutineers often misjudged someone completely and found themselves turned in. The sailors and soldiers rarely had ready access to the weapons. Sometimes, the ships travelling in large convoys – The Batavia was in a group of 18 herself – other ships intervened. In 1615 a ship named the Meeuwtje became one of a select few to pull off a successful mutiny. After a failed first attempt they found themselves blown off course by a heavy storm. At first the VOC believed the Meeuwtje had gone to Davy Jones’ locker – but a few years later one of the mutineers was captured, having clandestinely re-entered Holland. The mutineers took control of the ship – looted all of value – then settled in France with their ill gotten gains. The conspirators knew all this only too well. They knew also a failed mutiny meant certain death. Within a few days Jacobsz and Cornelisz had recruited 18 men to the cause, and were quietly sounding out other crew.

This all came to a grinding halt however when Francisco Pelsaert suddenly fell ill, struck down, it would seem with a sudden mystery illness.

For a month the conspirators watched and waited, as Upper-merchant Pelsaert remained on death’s door. If he dies Jacobsz and under-merchant Cornelisz take the ship by proxy. The longer they wait however, if he does pull through, the more likely they won’t have collected the requisite numbers. The mutineers, including boatswain Jan Ezertsz, Allert Janssen – a thug with one murder conviction already, Ryckert Woutersz – another roughneck, and a handful of soldiers including lance corporal ‘Stone Cutter’ Pietersz – all waited. Recruitment and planning put on hold. A month went by and as suddenly as the illness set on, a weak but very much in the land of the living Pelsaert emerged from his cabin. All was lost – unless the conspirators could come up with a plan as audacious as it was just plain odd.

The conspirators agreed they needed an inciting moment – an anonymous crime so egregious Pelsaert would be honour bound to punish everyone on board till the perpetrators owned up. His punitive, malicious action would turn the entire crew against him, fuelling the mutiny. Who or what, they asked would drive him to such unrestrained anger? Conspirators decided they had to target the beautiful, patrician Creesje Jansdochter late at night as she left dinner for her own cabin. The bulk of the crew would be below decks as she left the main cabin. There would be no witnesses to the attack. The conspirators first plan was to slash her cheeks with a knife, though they settled on something less physically disfiguring.

On the evening of 14th May 1629 Lucretia Jansdochter left the company of Upper-merchant Pelsaert, the Bastiaensz’s, and other assorted senior officers. As she strolled through the murky darkness Creesje was forcefully seized by a group of hooded men. Dragged swiftly and violently onto the main deck, she felt her skirts being pulled up and the rough, yet wet and sticky sensation of hands going up and down her legs and face. In an instant her attackers had dispersed – leaving Creesje violated; smeared in a foul concoction of tar and dung.
Not unsurprisingly Pelsaert was furious, and investigated immediately – but when his investigations brought up naught he didn’t escalate as Jacobsz and Cornelisz expected. Unbeknownst to the conspirators, Pelsaert had begun to pick up hints a plot was underway to bring him down. Still weak, and with no idea how big the threat against him was, Pelsaert decided the most sensible plan was to bide his time. In a month they would arrive in the boat’s namesake, the port of Batavia – modern day Jakarta, Indonesia. Once on land he would punish Creesje’s attackers.
Jacobsz, no doubt had similar thoughts. If the ship got to Batavia he, Evertsz and all the others would be arrested, tried for attempted mutiny, then hung from the gallows. The conspirators, had put the ship on course for the rarely sighted continent we now call Australia. As soon as they could see the lucky country the mutineers would spring into action. They would take over the ship, feeding Pelsaert and the other loyalists to the sharks.

So it was the two men maintained a holding pattern. Little did either expect the coming spanner soon to be thrown into the works. They had been guesstimating just how far they had travelled. 1629 was well before marine chronometers could accurately plot longitude. Sailors estimated largely on hunches, something they referred to as ‘dead reckoning’ – if experienced they knew the kind of animal life you would see in different regions. The color of the sea gave them further clues. They would take regular estimates of their speed and extrapolate from there. All knew they were headed towards the mysterious Terra Australis, and should turn due north soon. Jacobsz knew they were a little further south than planned. No-one knew they had travelled 500 miles further than planned.

At 3am, 3rd June 1629, The Batavia ploughed full speed into the Abrolhos. In an instant any sense of a either man’s plan to get out of this mess was cast, violently across the wicked, and expedient coral below.

Five: Puyi steps into the future.

Hi everyone the following is a quick blog on the personal blog page, I know it’s just a short Tale of History and Imagination. Go check it out!

Moonlight Disquisitions

Hi there readers, today’s post is a short one. I had a fancy introduction written, but it gave the game away from the offset. Today I want to share a tale of the last Chinese Emperor, a man known simply as Puyi. Puyi came to power just shy of his third birthday in 1908, and would find himself deposed following a revolution starting in Wuhan just four years later. He would enjoy an occasional, brief reign later in life as a useful idiot – first as a figurehead for the warlord Zhang Xun in 1917 – then the Japanese in the 2nd Sino Japanese war/ World War Two (1934-1945). For most of his life he was kept like a bird in a gilded cage. Kept in luxury in palatial surroundings, but without the freedom to go where he chose.

Puyi had a learned tutor named Reginald Johnston. Johnston would, later…

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The Wreck of The Batavia (part 3 – The Voyage to the Cape)

Hi all welcome back to the second part (third blog) of my podcast on the wreck of the Batavia, this is Tales of History and Imagination. My name is Simone. Before we delve into the voyage itself it bears talking quickly about why the Dutch sent ships 15 thousand miles out to South East Asia, laden with millions of dollars – in today’s money – of silver and jewels.

The short answer is rotten meat. Before we had methods of preserving meat, most butcheries in Europe sold rotten food. You rarely could sell a whole carcass before it started to turn. You could at least make rotting meat taste edible by masking its badness with spices.

For thousands of years, traders in the Spice Islands of South East Asia had traded with Chinese, Persians, and other Asian traders. For much of this time some of those goods would pass from trader to trader down the Silk Route till it arrived at Black Sea ports, or Constantinople, or Egypt where the goods would be sold to Europeans at a huge mark up. The price reflected the two year journey that bag of peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, mace or nutmeg had gone on – through many hands, to get there. This all began to change when, in 1498, Portuguese ships first sailed all the way down the East Coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, and on the riches of the East. There was a lot of risk in the journey, but the rewards made from cutting out the middlemen made it worth the risk. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI presided over the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas – where Portugal agreed to dominate the world to the Eastern side of the Cape Verde Islands, Spain to the West.

Others, such as the Dutch and British would soon look to upset that treaty. Their first challenge however would be to get hold of the sea routes themselves – referred to by the Portuguese as ‘Rutters’. These maps were extremely well guarded, but in 1592 a young sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten- who had found his way to India on his own, managed to finally seize a rutter from a Portuguese sailor. When he returned to Holland he wrote three books on what he knew of the region, between 1595 and 1596. People soon after began planning a commercial voyage to the Spice Islands.

The first fleet was a disaster, though more owing to the crew than anything else. The upper merchant on one of the four ships tried to kill the captain of another ship and was shackled for most of the voyage. The man he tried to kill, Cornelis de Houtman quite possibly deserved the attempt on his life. Upon first contact with the locals he became so enraged at the price of the spices that he ordered a volley of cannon fire into the town. Later he got several of his men cut to shreds in Java, then mistook a friendly welcome in Madura as an act of defiance – again firing on a town and killing the welcoming party. They still managed to make a good profit. Soon there were so many Dutch conglomerates sending ships out though that the competition began to drive up the price of spices. In 1602 the various groups colluded to form one authority, the VOC – and the rest is history. After voyages making up to 1000% profits on return, the Dutch economy boomed. They began to dominate the region. So what can we tell of the characters on the Batavia? How was their voyage up to the point they struck Houtman’s Abrolhos? Let’s find out. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 12: The Wreck of the Batavia, Part 2, the Voyage..

(Theme music)

Hi all today we’ll look at the voyage, but first I should introduce some of our cast- beginning with Francesco Pelsaert.

The upper merchant, Francesco Pelsaert, was born circa 1595 into a Catholic family in Antwerp, Belgium. He had kept his Catholicism under wraps as the VOC only hired protestants. The company had sent him, aged 20, out to Surat, then Agra, India for nine years – where he showed a great talent for languages. He was well liked by the company, for having established trade for indigo dye with the Mughal Empire. He was, however, looked down on for his womanizing. Sleeping with servant girls would have been one thing, but Pelsaert carried on a number of affairs with married women. One affair in particular could have caused a major international incident, when a tryst with the wife of a powerful Mughal nobleman went disastrously wrong.

One night, at his lodgings the noblewoman drank from what she thought was a bottle of Spanish wine. It turned out to be a bottle of Oil of cloves. Today it is still used in tiny doses in a few countries to manage toothache (if anyone has seen the film Marathon Man, this is what the dentist Szell (Laurence Olivier) uses to numb the pain on Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) before drilling another hole into his teeth in the torture scene.) It is highly poisonous, and is today a major cause of child poisonings in the land where everything is poisonous, Australia. The noblewoman died immediately. Pelsaert, fearing the fallout, buried her in the garden – leaving the poor husband and her family to wonder what had happened to her. Pelsaert’s commission in Agra would come to an end, not because of the poisoning, but because they felt he had not done enough to win favor in the Mughal court. This cleared the way for his role on the Batavia.

Pelsaert had first met the skipper of the Batavia, on his was back to Europe, as Ariaen Jacobsz just happened to be the captain of the ship bringing him home. The two men quickly grew to hate one another. As far as I can gather that hatred arose out of Pelsaert’s dislike for Jacobsz’s heavy drinking, an inebriated Jacobsz telling Pelsaert what he thought of what Pelsaert thought of him, and the fallout from the incident which saw Jacobsz being publicly told off by a senior VOC official. You could imagine neither would have been overjoyed to find they were to share a cabin even if it was the biggest cabin by far, let alone that they would have to spend several months at sea together.

In October 1628 the ship loaded up it’s cargo, and crew – all up 340 souls – and prepared to sail. Afore the mast, packed in tightly were the sailors – mostly of the criminal under class of Dutch society. On the deck below them a squadron of soldiers, mostly of German extraction, though including a few Scots and one British mercenary. Mid ships you found the group referred to as idlers, as, all going well they would have very little to do on the voyage. Folk such as carpenters, doctors and the like. Out back, where the cabin space was bigger, and where the ship was less apt to rock about, were the officers, and any important travelers. I concentrate on this group a little more as this is where the authors who have written on the Batavia have concentrated most. Suffice to say one soldier in particular does play a huge role in this tale – but we go with what we’ve got – much as I’d like to get into the primary sources and find out a little more about the soldier, Wiebbe Hayes.
As aforementioned Pelsaert and Jacobsz were sharing the largest cabin at the very back of the boat – with it’s ample space, room for a large dining table and latticed windows. The two were neighbors with a few people we need to mention though.

First there was the under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, then two cabins of important travelers. The first traveler was a Calvinist minister named Gijsbert Bastiaensz, his wife and seven children. Bastiaensz, like Cornelisz, had run his own business – in has case a flour mill, which had gone broke because his found itself a horse powered mill in a land of shiny new windmills. The cost of keeping a horse gradually made the mill uncompetitive, till Bastiaensz eventually had to close up and move on.

The other VIP was a woman named Lucretia Jansdochter – ‘Creesje’ to her friends. Creesje was a woman of around 28 years of age – stunningly beautiful by the accounts of all the authors (diminutive as it may be to relate the ladies looks, without some mention of the blokes – it is nice at least to have some physical description of someone on this voyage. It has been impossible to find even a portrait of anyone in this tale). Creesje was the wife of a merchant based in Burma at the time, and having lost all three of their children – some suggest to a pandemic of some description – she had decided to sell up and join her husband. She had no family to speak of in Holland as her parents had died young. Creesje had a servant with her named Zwaantie Hendricx, the two were temperamentally like night and day and disliked one another.

The voyage began on 29th October 1628, and immediately ran into problems. While still off the Dutch coast they were hit by a heavy storm and ran aground on the Walcheren sandbanks – a hazard which claimed around 1 in 5 VOC ships. With much effort Ariaen Jacobsz managed to free the Batavia and they continued, a little flustered but with next to no damage. From there they sailed for the Bay of Biscay, then out to the Atlantic Ocean.

The first leg of their journey would be cold, wet and the sea would be choppy as winter set in. Sea sickness would be rife among the less experienced on the boat. Cleanliness would also go out the window as water on board was for drinking only, and one learned how scarce the amenities were – there were four latrines for 340 people, two of which were reserved for the officers. The Batavia finally reached the North African coast, where calmer currents known as the Horse Latitudes made for calmer sailing – though this also meant a slower pace for a while. On the upside the Batavia would be regularly greeted by dolphins along this stretch, on the downside the days ambled slowly, one after another. Days would revolve around meal times – though the sailors would often break the monotony with singing, amateur theatre productions, gambling, prize fighting and – if the skipper allowed it, a game they called the ‘execution game’ which I gather was something like chicken, but with the loser being tarred.

There would be a lot of just sitting around and talking about whatever came to mind, which would give Jeronimus Cornelisz an opportunity to share his heretical views for the first time with the crew. This went surprisingly well for Jeronimus – he was extremely eloquent when he spoke and was said to have a hypnotic effect on his audience. Many of the men began to look up to him, and he became good friends with the Skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz. One cannot know for sure what the two men discussed, the authors generally believe the great riches to be made in the East, and how attracted the married Jacobsz was to Creesje were both regular topics of conversation.

The Batavia made an unauthorized stop at Sierra Leone, at the time a country rife with malaria and yellow fever, and from there they sailed on to a current known as the ‘wagenspoor’ or cart track. The wagenspoor would fast track them down to the Cape of Good Hope and their next stop – Cape town. The stop was probably to restock their water supplies, which all the same would get infected with algae and worms. They also picked up a 15 year old deserter from a previous ship named Abraham Gerritsz.

To sum up life on the Wagenspoor, three things are important to know. One, it was unbearably hot – so most nights everyone had to sleep up top in the open air. Bad cases of sunburn occupied the doctor’s time at this point. The decks warped in the heat. Two, scurvy kicked in. The Batavia would have started the voyage with some fresh fruit and vegetables, but their supply was gone by this point. In 1628 no-one knew for certain what caused scurvy – some suspected it had a connection to not eating enough greens, but opinion was divided. The more prevalent theory was scurvy was caused by the foul air below decks. Sailors would get bad gum infections, some would progress to having gangrene and septicemia then would die a painful death as their organs failed. The Batavia lost ten men to scurvy. Third, Ariaen Jacobsz made a pass for Creesje Jansdochter, who politely turned him down. In what seemed a combination of an effort to embarrass Creesje for daring to spurn his advances, and a case of if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with – to quote Stephen Stills – Jacobsz began a very public affair with Zwaantie Hendricx, Creesje’s maid.

On 14th April 1629 the Batavia arrived at the Cape.

Upon arrival upper merchant Francesco Pelsaert went about the task of topping up food supplies with the local Hottentots – who were well used to trading oxen and sheep for iron tools and copper bracelets. Though the terms of the trade was usually excellent in the eyes of both parties it would be hard, time consuming work owing to the massive language distance between any European language and the Khoekhoe language – heavily accented with click sounds – that the Hottentots spoke.

Meanwhile, Ariaen Jacobsz, Zwaantie Hendricx and Jacobus Cornelisz, without prior permission, commandeered a boat and took to exploring the bay. The three went from ship to ship to catch up with other skippers, and have a drink here and there – until the group were rolling drunk. At some point in the night Jacobsz became agitated and got involved in a fist fight aboard another ship. When the three returned to the Batavia looking the worse for wear, the news of the fight preceded them. Knowing not to admonish the three would lead to widespread insurrection among the crew, Francesco Pelsaert took Jacobsz aside the next morning and gave him a dressing down for his behavior. Soon word spread throughout the crew of his telling off. Jacobsz was furious – although there was nothing he could do about it. He felt thoroughly humiliated by Pelsaert admonishing him so. They set sail for the final leg of the journey 22nd April.

So it was one night, the lecherous, fist fighting skipper and his friend the charismatic heretic found themselves on the quarterdeck in private conversation. I quote the following from Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard. I don’t know how closely this captures the actual conversation – but it certainly captures the mood. Quote.

‘By God’ muttered the old sailor, glancing at the other vessels in the fleet, ‘if those ships were not lying there, I would treat that miserly dog so that he could not come out of his cabin for fourteen days. And I would quickly make myself master of the ship.’….
The two men stood in silence for a while, and the skipper’s words hung in the autumn air as Cornelisz considered them. At length the under-merchant spoke.
‘And how would you manage that?’ he asked.

We’ll be right back after this break
(break music)

The Wreck of the Batavia (part 2 – The Heretic)

Hi all welcome back, this is part 2 of a six part series. Part one can be found here.

By way of a little background, Jeronimus Cornelisz was born sometime around 1598 in the remote Northern Dutch province of Friesland. Friesland would have been quite the culture shock to Dutch visitors at the time. It was an arduous trek through bogs and marshes to even get there, and once you arrived you were greeted by a province stuck in the past – largely rural, and lacking in much of the conveniences that came from the vast wealth generated by VOC trade in the east. Many Frisians considered themselves Frisian – not Dutch. Many even viewed the Dutch as invaders who had stolen swathes of land from the former Frisian kingdom centuries earlier. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the Frisians but have always believed the Frankish king Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, not the Dutch, put an end to their self rule in 734 AD – however I’m far from an expert on their history. Many Frisians, whether rightly or wrongly, absolutely hated the Dutch and saw them as oppressors. Friesland was also the kind of place where enclaves of radicalism -particularly religious radicals – held out.

A photo taken of modern Friesland, where the swamps give way to forest.

Jeronimus would have been educated. Everyone in Holland had at the least a primary school education – at a protestant school. Prior to declaring their self determination, the Dutch were ruled over by the Spanish wing of the Hapsburg family. Halfway through the 16th century they engaged in a 8 decade long war of independence against the Spanish. In the process they cast off Hapsburg Catholicism for the shiny new Protestantism, doing the rounds of Europe at the time. Schools were used to embed the new religion. Being of an upper middle class background – Jeronimus’ father Cornelis was an apothecary too – Jeronimus went on to higher schooling. He would have been introduced to humanist thought at college – and from there went on to a five year apprenticeship which would have culminated with his ‘masterpiece’. This would have involved the preparation of some potion or other requiring several difficult stages, which showed his mastery of his studies.

A quick sidebar on medicine, and pharmaceutical science in the early 17th century. Medicine was a long way away from it’s current state, and was largely based on balancing your four humours – an idea which was codified by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the late 5th century BC – then further extended by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century AD. If you felt unwell doctors believed you either had too little or too much blood, phlegm, yellow bile or black bile in your system. You would be sent to an apothecary to make a potion featuring dozens of ingredients alleged to re-balance these humours. These ingredients could be any number of roots, herbs, animal parts or even human flesh. In this era mummy flesh direct from Egypt – or failing that, the flesh of an executed criminal – was a cure-all.
Having completed his masterpiece, Jeronimus married, moved to an exclusive part of the Dutch city of Haarlem, and opened his own shop. To the recently qualified apothecary the world was their oyster. An apothecary could become extremely wealthy in the 17th century, some amassing greater fortunes over a lifetime’s work than some of the nobility, and certainly many merchants.

So what went wrong?

First he and his wife, formerly Belijtgen Van der Knas, had an extremely ill fated pregnancy. At some time in November 1627 Belijtgen had given birth to a baby boy. From late in the pregnancy she had been very unwell, to the point that by her eighth month, certain she would die – the couple called in a solicitor to draw up a will. Both mother and baby survived the birth, though Belijtgen worsened afterwards. The couple had hired a midwife named Cathalijntgen van Wijmen, who appeared to have been going through a paranoid schizophrenic episode around the birth – hearing voices in her head, and sleeping with an axe beside her bed for protection from some inner torment. Her incompetence however was the main concern – having left part of the placenta in Belijtgen’s womb – which caused a horrible infection. With a deadly fever, fighting for her own life, and completely unable to provide milk for the baby – Jeronimus hired a woman named Heyltgen Jansdr, to provide milk for his son. Again Jeronimus chose poorly. Had he asked around he would have realized Heyltgen was known in the neighborhood for having picked up a mysterious illness some years back after cheating on her husband. Soon the baby became unwell and died. The cause of death, syphilis.

As horrifying, and heartbreaking as this must have been for the couple – it would have been an incredibly painful and bloody death for the child. Death by syphilis for a baby generally involved being covered head to toe in sores, and heavy bleeding from the orifices. The death also had a massive impact on his burgeoning business. In spite of Heyltgen’s reputation, Jeronimus and Belijtgen would have come under suspicion as the parties who had passed syphilis to the child. Many patients, not wanting to buy medicine from the potentially syphilitic, would have gone elsewhere. Add to this, throughout much of the 1620s the Dutch were generally a little cash strapped – war had reignited with Spain, costing both countries dearly – Jeronimus was suddenly struggling to make ends meet.

To compound matters he had borrowed a lot of money from a money lender called Loth Vogel – perhaps to start the business. When repayments slowed, Vogel began pursuing the debt aggressively. While Vogel began legal proceedings against Jeronimus, Jeronimus initiated legal proceedings against his wet nurse, Heyltgen Jansdr. As he collected evidence against the wet nurse, of allegations of her illness, and an affair with a syphilitic widower nicknamed ‘Velvet trousers’ Heyltgen herself gathered a posse who loudly and threateningly picketed the shop – telling all in sundry that Belijtgen’s hair had fallen out from syphilis, and yelling abuse up at the couple. This further hampered their efforts to pay off Loth Vogel. On 25th September, by court order Loth Vogel repossessed all of Jeronimus’ worldly goods in lieu of payment.

This was hardly the couple’s only problem at the time. The other involved religion.

The first thing we can say for certain was Jeronimus was brought up an Anabaptist. The Anabaptist church was an offshoot of Protestantism, which had become particularly popular with the working class of Europe. Most Anabaptists in Jeronimus’ time were quiet folk; fiscally responsible, conservatively dressed, hard workers and not the types to share their religious views. However they were generally disliked by the Dutch, occasionally even persecuted. Many people of his time would remember the Anabaptists of just a few decades earlier.

The Amish and Mennonites are modern, peaceful, decendants of earlier Anabaptist groups.

In the early days of Anabaptism, a handful of factions took radical actions recognizable in groups like ISIS today – forming militias and violently attempting to seize cities across Europe. These acts of terrorism were often on a small scale, as when 40 Anabaptists attempted a coup in Amsterdam, 10th May 1535. They killed the mayor and several other bystanders but were soon put down. The most famous, and particularly bloodthirsty example of this was the 1534 Műnster Rebellion – where a group of Anabaptists first led by a local fanatic named Jan Matthys, then the more charismatic Jan of Leiden, took over the city either forcing non believers out or baptizing them. The society within their walls became extremist, polyamorous, a little communist, mostly heavily repressed by the leaders– and very eschatological, believing end times were coming. The siege carried on until 1535, ending in their defeat amid the mass slaughter of the rebels. Much of the reasoning behind this, and other acts of terrorism was they were eschatologically minded, a kind of millenarianism. They believed the end of the world was nigh; they would be the minority saved who would ascend to heaven, but that this was dependent on someone bringing on end times. This was their job. In the wake of this event Catholic and Protestant powers alike began repressing Anabaptists. Some groups redoubled their peaceful ways, like the Mennonites and Amish.

Initially the remaining radicals coalesced under the leadership of a man named Jan Van Batenburg, who turned to robbing travelers on the Dutch border with the Holy Roman Empire. The group would continue to do so after Batenburg’s capture and execution in 1538, at least until 1580. At that point they dispersed, mostly to Friesland. Jeronimus’ parents were Anabaptists – and suspected to have been Batenbergers. He was never baptized. Had he been Protestant he would have been baptized as a child, had he belonged to the Mennonites he would, typically, have been baptized around the age of 18. Most Anabaptists do take baptism as an adult, so it is thought he lost his faith somewhere along the line, or possibly was a hardline Batenberger. He certainly had similar views to them in regards communal property, and the righteousness of killing those different from yourself.

Another influence on Jeronimus was a friend named Johannes van der Beeck, known to many as the Dutch painter Torrentius. Torrentius was an altogether different kind of heretic, having gleaned a number of radical ideas while frequenting a fencing club in Amsterdam, run by a radical thinker named Giraldo Thibault. Thibault’s fencing club was a known hotbed of radical thinking, but largely left alone due to the high number of young adult sons of extremely wealthy citizens who fenced there. How Jeronimus came to know Torrentius is not known. At one point they lived a few hundred yards apart, and Torrentius would have likely picked up art supplies at Jeronimus’ shop, such as white lead, or gold leaf. However they became friends, Jeronimus would become something of a disciple of Torrentius.

So what did Torrentius teach Jeronimus Cornelisz, and how did this lead to Jeronimus’ exit from Haarlem? Starting with the painter’s beliefs.

I guess you could say firstly Torrentius was a known bon vivant. Having become a successful artist he had taken to a life of excess. He wore fancy clothes considered above his station in life. He spent a lot of time, and money carousing in the local taverns – at times with his entourage spending the equivalent of a year and a half worth of wages for an average painter, in a single sitting. He spent a lot of money in the brothels of Haarlem. Torrentius was married, to a well thought of young woman, but when their marriage broke down he refused to pay anything towards his wife’s upkeep – and spent some time in jail because of this. His regular paintings of scenes from pagan mythology, and nudes raised some eyebrows. It was however his loud, drunken conversations which marked him as a possibly dangerous man in Haarlem.

He was known to regularly toast the devil while drinking. He also cultivated a legend that his extraordinary paintings were created by black magic. Torrentius, allegedly, laid out paint and a blank canvas on the floor, then some unseen supernatural force would paint for him. Rumours spread Torrentius often took solitary walks through the forest, talking with the devil. Ghosts allegedly could be heard in his artist’s studio. Some claimed he performed blood sacrifices with hens bought from the market.

The truth of the matter was far simpler. Torrentius appears to have been a gnostic. He had said to people he did not believe in either heaven or hell, the bible was a “book of fools and jesters” and that religion was a tool used by the ruling class to keep the others in check. All the same he did believe in a greater, divine power, and that everyone on earth had some of that power embedded in them. The power was suppressed by original sin, but could be tapped into if you knew how. Jeronimus had picked up Torrentius’ epicurean taste in hard living, and skepticism of the bible – he did however hold a few dangerous views all his own.

Jeronimus believed every action he made in life was the result of God’s will – once stating to friends “All I do, God gave the same into my heart”. This meant that he could live a completely guilt-free life, regardless of what he did. Wherever he picked this idea up, technically he would be considered an Antinominalist, it was a dangerous idea for a psychopath particularly to have. If you were perfect, in a state of grace – already one of the elect – anything you do is divine, no matter how evil. Sabotage a ship full of people? Kill or incite others to murder? You are only furthering God’s plan. This will be important later. Now we have ascertained Jeronimus Cornelisz would have been considered a heretic, let’s take a quick sidebar and discuss how a conspiracy theory would cause further troubles for our antagonist.

In 1625 the artist Torrentius was arrested, initially on suspicion of being a Rosicrucian.

The Rosicrucians, or Order of the Rosy Cross appear to have been more an idea of what a movement could be, which in turn grew legs, than a bona fide movement in its own right. Manifestos from the group began to appear across Europe, first in the German town of Kassel in 1614, then rapidly elsewhere. The alleged group behind them claimed to be a secret society of German mystics who had collected esoteric learnings from a distant past; powerful truths which they believed were the key to great power and greater understanding of the universe – much of which had been suppressed or forgotten through the ages.

The order was, apparently, established in the fifteenth century by a man called Christian Rosenkreuz. Rosenkreuz had travelled throughout the middle east, bringing back ancient wisdom and supernatural powers. When he returned to Germany he established a group with seven other adepts, whose task was to travel throughout Europe and spread this secret knowledge. Like the comic character The Phantom, each of these 8 brethren were tasked to find a replacement as they grew older, basically to step into their shoes. According to the legend Rosenkreuz died in 1484 aged 106, and was buried in a secret location. His tomb would be left for 120 years, then re-opened, signaling the dawning of a new Golden age. Then the Rosicrucians would spread their learnings far and wide throughout society as a whole – ushering in the Golden age. The legend spread, as memes often do, appealing to many a Walter Mitty type and occultist alike. Both types hoped they would be invited to join this exclusive group. You don’t need to imagine too hard how much this concerned local rulers across Europe, many of whom recalled the real world problems from the Anabaptists.

In 1624 the Dutch Republic began chasing the Rosicrucians, claiming they uncovered a secret plot between French and Dutch Rosicrucians to overthrow both countries. A judicial body was established to locate the heretics and bring them to justice. As they investigated two rumors kept coming up. One, Haarlem was ground zero for the order; and two a Thorentius was a leader in the group. It did not take long for them to hear tales of Torrentius’ toasts to the devil, supernatural boasts and antisocial behaviors. Torrentius would be brought in and interrogated five times between August and December 1625. He admitted to joking about having magical powers, and loved saying outrageous things, he held to the assertion he was not a dangerous heretic.

Feeling they were getting nowhere, the justices applied for permission to torture Torrentius. The torture began on Christmas eve 1627. He was hauled into the air by ropes, weights tied to his feet to stretch him. He was put on the rack and stretched further, until his joints all popped out of their sockets. He was beaten up, had his jaw broken, and shot at, but Torrentius kept to his story. The town torturer and executor Master Gerrit could not get a confession out of him.

In January 1628 Torrentius, still unable to walk or stand, was brought before the courts and tried, extra ordinaris – a method which denied him a defense or right of appeal – on 31 charges of heresy. Though the prosecutor wanted him burnt at the stake, he would ultimately find himself sentenced to 20 years in prison. Though the trial failed to confirm his membership of the Order of the Rosy Cross, it did prove his many other heretical acts. The prosecution lit a fire under the authorities however to find any and all heretics in Haarlem, to rid themselves of them.

So it transpired that Jeronimus Cornelisz, his reputation, family and business in tatters – in serious danger of spending his remaining years in jail on account of an urban legend – suddenly realized he needed to get out of town in a hurry. We don’t know the specifics of what followed. We know on 5th September 1628, the burgomasters of Haarlem ordered Torrentius’ circle of followers to sell up and leave the city within weeks or face dire consequences. We know Jeronimus closed his shop and gave all of his possessions to Loth Vogel, abandoned his wife, and by October was on his way to Amsterdam, where he would join the crew of The Batavia. The likelihood is the two were connected.

Before Rock and Roll – A Playlist (part two)

Hi all, sorry for the delay. For part one, which includes the Spotify playlist itself, Click Here

Hi all, let’s put that playlist to bed. Apologies for missing the Thursday timeline two weeks running – if the worst thing to happen to me from COVID is having to suddenly find a new home I’ll consider myself lucky… but that said, I’ve been waylaid a little this week by having to look for a new home – ad all te joys which come with that.

The playlist itself can be found here

Oh, and anyone who has enjoyed this rock and roll bonus series, I will do some more at some time. I feel there is a story to tell, of which I have only scratched the surface in these short tales

Birmingham Bounce (1950) by Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles. I am not just including this track as I think Sidney Gunter had the best stage name ever – which he arguably did – but because it was somewhat ahead of it’s time, pointing towards elements of rockabilly. Some writers will tell you the record was important because it was the first Western Swing song to sing about rocking out on the dance floor – I don’t know nearly enough to challenge, or confirm this. Others will point to how Gunter’s sound was making steps towards rockabilly. To my ears I’m hearing something like this – the musical timbre seems very much of the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the same time there is that prominent boogie woogie piano, and a noticeable back beat. Maybe it was more on it’s way to the Northern band rock and roll of Bill Haley?

Birmingham Bounce would not chart for Hardrock Gunter. Decca Records offered to buy the masters, and take the song to the world. Gunter’s songwriting partner did not want to sell his portion of the royalties, as he had promised the money to his church when it hit the big time. A disappointed Decca called in Red Foley to cut his own copycat single, which – as they had done to many a small label R&B record – killed Gunter’s version dead in the water.

Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee–O-Dee (1949) by Stick McGhee and his Buddies. Yet another song put forward as ‘the first rock and roll song’. I have included it to the playlist for a number of reasons. 1. It is a great little 8 bar blues track with rock and roll sensibilities. 2. It was an early hit for Atlantic Records, the then tiny label which would go on to have some of the biggest records of the 1950s and 60s. They may have been the house Ruth Brown built, but ‘Spo-dee-o-dee’ had great crossover appeal – going to #1 on the R&B charts and #26 on the pop charts. 3. The song foreshadowed the gibberish lyrics of many early rock and roll hits (Little Richards ‘Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’ of Tutti Frutti. The Chords ‘Day dong da ding-dong, A-lang-da-lang-da-lang, Ah, whoa, whoa, bip, Ah bi-ba-do-da-dip, whoa’ of Sh-Boom. Nappy Brown’s ‘So li li li la li li li la li li li la don’t be angry’ of Don’t Be Angry). He was hardly the first – but still. Of course wine spo-dee-o-dee was a real thing – it is when you mix wine, or sherry with bourbon. 4. How about I just really like the song, and wanted to share it with you all?

The Fat Man (1950) by Fats Domino. Champion Jack Dupree’s Junkers Blues (1942) probably should be the song I’m sharing here, as it lit a fire under a bunch of New Orleans piano professors, who stole the melody for rock and roll (or rock adjacent) songs. Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and Fats Domino’s The Fat Man all bear the mark of the song – but of course junkers blues was still very much a blues song. The Fat Man launched one of the all time great rock and roll innovators. It has always seemed to me New Orleans rock and roll, with its melting pot of influences, seems so sizzle a little more. The rolling, barrel house piano, the tricillo rhythm which pervades it. Again I share as I really like this song.

Have Mercy Baby (1952) by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. The Dominoes were a R&B vocal group put together by a Julliard trained pianist and arranger named Billy Ward. Though Ward himself got top billing in the band, and the lion’s share of the money, the voices of a couple of really great singers propelled the group to fame. In their first single, Sixty Minute Man (1950) bass singer Bill Brown was in the lead. With Have Mercy Baby it was very much lead tenor Clyde McPhatter’s song. The song is a landmark because it was one of the first songs to capture an exuberant gospel vocal performance within an R&B format. Earlier vocal groups like The Orioles had caught something of the mournful side of Gospel singing with tracks like it’s Too Soon to Know back in 1947. In both acts, in very different ways, their lead vocalists were doing something pop singers didn’t. Most pop singers were stylists who would recite a song – not sans emotion- but if they were actors you might admire their craft, well aware of their craft on display. Rock singers in the mold of Clyde McPhatter lived, ate and breathed the song. They inhabited it and the song inhabited them. If they were actors they would be a Robert De Niro – a method actor being that role.

McPhatter would tire of getting paid a stipend, while making Ward rich, and would head off to form the first version of The Drifters, before becoming a soloist in his own right. He was the first person inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – even if he had, sadly, drunk himself to death before the honour could be conveyed to him. All multiple inductees are said to have joined the Clyde McPhatter Club.

It’s Too Soon to Know (1947) by The Orioles. In 1941 a vocal group called The Ink Spots sparked a revolution in the world of vocal music. Having seized upon an opportunity (the preeminent vocal group before them, a ‘coffee pot group’* called The Mills Brothers became trapped overseas for the duration of World War Two) they revolutionized vocal harmony singing. Though formulaic, they set the standard for much of the 1940s. The acoustic intro. The plaintive ‘Irish tenor’ vocal sings a verse. The bass singer copies that verse, only lower. The tenor revisits the hook, taking the song home. Throughout the 1940s a group of ‘bird groups’ so named as they mostly took their names from birds. Some followed the high – low vocal. Others, like The Ravens, put the bass singer front and centre. The Orioles put their lead tenor out front, and were a kind of missing link between The Ink Spots and the Doo Wop bands which followed.

*coffee pot groups used to imitate big band instruments using their voices, often through coffee pots and kazoos, to back the lead vocalist. The coffee pot would be passed through the bar for tips at the end of the show.

Speaking of Doo Wop. I’ve previously mentioned The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’, which should have been the first rock and roll record to go to number one on the pop charts, but for a white copycat record. Gee (1953) by The Crows had no such problem – though it was a slow burner, released almost a year before Sh-Boom, then finally seeing chart success just after The Chords had. It gets a little pitchy at the end of the track, but does share a number of similarities to Sh-Boom. Perhaps of note, The Crows eschew the honking sax solo for a guitar solo – likely played by Tiny Grimes, a jazz player and session ace whose ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ (1947) is yet another contender for first rock and roll song. Grimes also gifted the world Screaming Jay Hawkins – Hawkins having got his first big break singing for Tiny.

Teardrops From My Eyes (1950) by Ruth Brown. Atlantic records were a small label, making interesting ‘race records’ – and then there was Ruth Brown. Atlantic records, musical powerhouse it is to this day, is the House that Ruth Built. Teardrops from my Eyes was a huge, runaway hit for Ruth – hitting #1 on the R&B charts and staying there for 11 weeks. The song set Brown up as the reigning queen of R&B, and as an influence for future female rock and roll singers.

It’s All Right Baby (1938) by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I have already written the first music blog on this song here. I just figured it would be nice to end this where I started.

Two: Ozymandias.

Hi everyone I’m stretching out a little and trying my hand on a personal blog. Short opinion pieces on things which grab my attention, some of which (I am a notorious insomniac) keep me up at night.
I intend to make it more an op ed than I would my history blogs, and if not your cup of tea I can respect that. If it is your cup of tea, however please check the page out. – Simone

Moonlight Disquisitions

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

P.B Shelley – Ozymandias.

What is keeping me awake at the moment you may ask? America has quite a history of putting bronze racists on bronze horses, and brazen traitors on plinths. Most of them were put up in…

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The Wreck of The Batavia (part 1 – The Wreck)

Today’s tale begins in all but uncharted territory somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, at around 3am, 3rd June 1629. Aboard the Dutch East Indies new flagship – the Batavia – two men are having a furious disagreement. Launched 211 days earlier in the icy waters of Northern Europe; sailing southwards around the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, then out towards the Spice Islands the Batavia had endured an epic voyage. Having withstood extremes of heat and cold, rough seas, and most recently terrible storms, the weather was just becoming temperate, the seas calm. One gets the sense life aboard the Batavia must have been hell. Historian Mike Dash, my primary source for this tale, states just how inhospitable ships of this era were. He states any fresh food they had was long gone by now, the water onboard had become a breeding ground for worms, and below decks would smell of a horrendous aroma of stale breath, unwashed bodies and urine. Knowing they were a month from their destination of Java, modern day Indonesia, had to be massively of comfort to all on board.

But, back to our two men. The ship’s lookout, Hans Bosschieter insisted he had seen white water in the distance – a sure sign they were at risk of running aground if they didn’t alter course. The other man was the skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz – a well thought of middle aged sailor, who had distinguished himself in several prior voyages east. Brilliant as he was, he was also a difficult and scary guy – quick to temper, and once he had made up his mind he would not be swayed. He was also quite lecherous towards female passengers, but more on that later. Jacobsz was convinced they were safe, as yesterday morning they were still 600 miles from known land. In his opinion that thin white line in the distance was nothing more than moonlight reflecting off the waves – so on they rolled.

Taken from a Swedish vessel…. but it sets the mood.

The Batavia would roll on for a few moments more, suddenly – violently – brought to a bone crushing halt. With a deafening thud, the bottom of the ship collided with a coral reef, just 15 feet below the surface. A second and a half later the bow of the ship struck the reef proper. Lurching forward and to port; Jacobsz, Bosscheiter and the others who made up the midnight watch were tossed across the deck like rag dolls. Below decks the 270 crew and passengers were in for a rude awakening, as overhead compartments rained down their contents on them. They made their way up to the deck to find the Batavia stuck tight on the reef; bow all smashed up, perched over, with all the weight on the front of the boat – the back half now raised out of the water. They were shipwrecked, in the dark, and so far off the charts they had no idea where they even were. Little did they know just how awful things would get for them soon however. Welcome everyone to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 11, The Wreck of the Batavia.

(Theme music)

Hi all just saying up front, this one is going to run over three podcast episodes, running to half a dozen blog posts. There is quite a bit of background needs to go into this tale to really make sense of it. In the first (podcast) episode I want to set the scene, and introduce the main characters. In Episode two we’ll look at the voyage, then in the third what happened to the survivors on the Houtman Abrolhos chain. I will also say up front that this is probably the most bloodthirsty tale I have told yet, either on the podcast or on the blog. I feel I need to mention this as I know I have some readers on the blog do follow for the quirkier character pieces, while some like the horrible history content. Believe me there is no offense taken if the Batavia is not your cup of tea.

That said I do need to cover off a few things before we start getting into background information, and pick up from before the theme music.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, everyone on board would have been absolutely shocked and horrified. In the first instance all hands were on deck, tossing anything with any significant weight overboard, to try to stop the ship from snapping in half. Measurements of depth were taken from all around the Batavia to try and work out if they could manipulate her backwards off the reef. They hoped dangling their two heaviest anchors off the elevated stern of the ship might tip them back into the sea, and allow them to sail away. The water however was just as shallow all around them, no more than 16 feet deep. If at low tide they might have a chance later in the day. It turned out they had crashed, and plumbed the depths, close to high tide.

Their next concern was to try to stop the ship springing a leak. The sea was rough, and bouncing the Batavia up and down onto the reef with great force. Their mainmast was acting as a force multiplier. 180 feet long, made of one massive piece of Scandinavian pine – the mainmast ran through the middle of the boat through four levels, and settled atop the ship’s keel. Every time the ship hit the reef, the mast acted like a jackhammer on concrete. The decision was made to chop the mainmast down from the upper deck. Using an axe they chopped through the mast, which came down with a heavy thud, not into the water but straight onto the deck. No one was killed but they now had a tangle of ropes, damaged decking and sails to work around.

As the sun rose the crew could finally take a proper look at their predicament. They were on the southern end of a crescent shaped coral atoll. The only habitable land was at the other end, around six miles north. As rough as the sea was it did look possible they could lower one of the two boats onboard the ship and explore the reef. At around 7am Ariaen Jacobsz took a crew of men out on the yawl and explored their surroundings.

On exploration he discovered several of the northernmost islands shouldn’t disappear below the waves on high tide, giving a reasonable chance of saving the crew and passengers yet. Jacobsz first had to convince the ship’s upper merchant – and true head of the expedition – that this should be their first move. The upper merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, was a Belgian citizen with plenty of company experience, having worked for Dutch East India company in Agra, India – but little sailing experience. Less still of commanding a ship. While Jacobsz worried first and foremost about getting everyone to safety, Pelsaert insisted they first save the cargo, chests full of precious jewels and silver carried to trade for local goods. Common sense won out, Pelsaert was convinced by the reality he’d be murdered by the crew if he so much as moved a chest before everyone was safe. Thus they began the arduous process of moving the survivors through the choppy waters, to a flat, inhospitable lump of coral lacking cover, vegetation or water. A dozen crew tried to swim across, but were all pulled under and drowned by the currents.

Just as the first boatload left for the island, the Batavia finally sprang a leak, one which would prove too large to caulk up. By the end of the day 180 shivering souls were split across two coral islands; 150 pints of worm infested water, and 12 barrels of stale bread between them – and of course one casket of treasure – at Pelsaert’s insistence. Pelsaert had intended to go back for the rest, but weather worsened and a dozen chests of silver had to be left on the deck unguarded.

That evening the remaining crew still on the ship began to rebel. A gunner named Allert Janssen raided the officers’ liquor cabinet. Others soon joined, and – all having barely touched a drop for eight months – became violently drunk. A cadet named Lenert van Os broke open the chests of silver and threw handful after handful of silver coins overboard to spite the officers. Another sailor named Cornelis Janssen helped himself to rows and rows of knives and stalked the decks with his gleaming weapons on display. Another, Ryckert Woutersz, rifled through upper merchant Pelsaert’s belongings. The next morning several more survivors escaped to the island, leaving around 70 rebelling sailors still on the Batavia. Knowing he was risking his life going back for the silver, Pelsaert shouted orders to the men on ship to make a raft and make their own way to the island, and left them to it.

After a second night on the islands, Pelsaert and Jacobsz put their heads together and discussed scenarios. They were probably on an uncharted, but very occasionally sighted atoll known as Houtman’s Abrolhos, 2,000 miles south of Indonesia. They were miles from the west coast of Australia, but we are decades before anyone would add the lucky country to a map. Thirteen years earlier the adventurer Frederik de Houtman had almost wrecked on the Abrolhos. His story is one which bears telling sometime – but suffice to say for now, the guy was jailed by the Sultan of Aceh on Sumatra for two years. In that time he learned to speak Malay and Malagasy, gleaned much of their customs, and made several astrological observations then unknown to the Northern hemisphere. He didn’t pin down the exact location of the Abrolhos, but he brought a lot of other useful information back to the VOC. The two men made a prolonged search for water, to no avail. They then gathered a crew of 40, which included their best sailors, and began equipping their longboat for the 2,000 mile journey north.

Four days after washing up they set sail for Indonesia.

Meanwhile on board the Batavia several dozen desperate men remained. They honestly had to be desperate to set sail in the first place. The stakeholders of the VOC made a killing from Eastern trade, but the crew saw very little of that wealth. Furthermore, once you had signed up, the average life span of a VOC sailor was just three years. Sailors were often plucked from the criminal classes, or people who, for one reason or another, needed to abandon their former lives. All but one of the men still onboard were lowly ranked sailors, but the one officer which remained – the under merchant, second in charge to Pelsaert was a desperate man for his own reasons. A former apothecary lately out of Haarlem- Jeronimus Cornelisz paced alone with his dark thoughts. Though more typical of the class who sent men out to die on the other side of the world to make themselves wealthy, Cornelisz’ life had suddenly been thrown into turmoil. His business gone, he was possibly also a fugitive from the law back in Holland. I will discuss Jeronimus and his downfall next week, in episode two – The Heretic.

Before Rock and Roll – a playlist (part 1).

Hi all welcome back for the fifth installment of my early rock and roll, Thursday series- I know it’s a little late, I’ve suddenly had to look for a new home, and as such lost a few evenings to flat hunting. Sorry everyone. This week I’m just going to drop a playlist of songs – all preceding Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Most pre-date or are roughly contemporaneous with Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88. I am not trying to answer which was the first rock and roll song – there isn’t one first rock and roll song, just a handful of songs which sound increasingly like something DJ Alan Freed retroactively named rock and roll. I’m just capping off something I was doing, daily – one song at a time – on my personal Facebook page to distract myself during the COVID lockdown. let’s just jump into it.

Edit: Oh, as I started writing this it became apparent the text would need to be in two parts, I’ll publish the 2nd next Thursday.

First up Tomorrow Night (1948) by Lonnie Johnson makes my list, first because I think it is a beautiful song. Second, it was a country blues song written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley writers who normally catered for the likes of Bing Crosby. It topped the R&B charts and made it as far as #19 on the pop charts. Several rock and rollers would do their own covers of the song, including Elvis Presley, last week’s star LaVern Baker, Episode 1’s star Big Joe Turner…. And in 1992 Bob Dylan. Johnson delivers both vocally in his plaintive, almost country-esque vocal, and exquisite guitar work, while a piano and bass pad the track out – way in the background. Johnson had been a recording artist since the early 1920s, and counted among his early fans Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson.

Strange Things Happening Every Day (1945) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sam Price Trio on the other hand is an old African American spiritual, rocked up. When listening to Sister Rosetta on an electric guitar, backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra circa 1944 there’s no doubt she helped build rock and roll. Check out This Train, or Rock Me, or Rock Daniel and you soon get the idea. In Strange things she is on a dobro, and a little bit more laid back – but I believe it still counts as proto rock – just check out that guitar solo. Tharpe was a guitar virtuoso, Gospel singer who made a name for herself playing at the Cotton Club in 1938. She was on the bill at the Spirituals to Swing concert mentioned in the first rock and roll episode. As a heavily religious Pentecostal church member, a bisexual woman who lived most of her life with her partner Marie Knight, and a true originator of ‘the devil’s music’ there is so much to unpack with Sister Rosetta – more than a paragraph could do justice to.

I don’t know near enough about Hillbilly Boogie – I’m going to tackle two of them at once. Growing up I was told rock and roll was born when R&B met country. This is not exactly correct, country had little to do with rock and roll. Western Swing (typified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, none of his songs in this list) and Hillbilly Boogie had much more to do with rock and roll. True country music had no drums, none of that walking bass line we associate with rock and roll. It was far more genteel. Guitar Boogie (1945) by Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, and Hot Rod Race (1950) by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys, are two examples of the Hillbilly Boogie that would influence the rockabilly players especially. Smith’s instrumental went to #25 in the pop charts… though this would happen on a later 1948 re-release which came about because James Petrillo’s 1948 musicians’ strike, which had record labels looking through their catalogues for anything in lieu of new material. Hot Rod Race makes the list for it’s subject matter, which influenced Chuck Berry’s writing on his first single Maybelline. Maybelline, incidentally also had Wills’ Ida Red all over it, the verses sound very similar.

Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Rock and roll owed much to the big Swing Orchestras of the pre war era. Their demise was one major stream for rock and roll.

A musicians strike from 1942 to 1944 (led by James Petrillo, see the ‘Nature Boy’ entry) , combined with the effects of World War Two on music – namely fuel scarcity made transporting big bands around untenable; band members being drafted to fight (not to mention maybe half their audiences)… as well as a sudden scarcity of shellac to make the records with – Shellac is a byproduct from a beetle found only in Vietnam and parts of India – led to the disintegration of the big band, in favor of smaller units who often played heavier to make up for their smaller size.
Louis Jordan was well ahead of the pack. A featured vocalist and saxophonist for one of the greatest big bands ever – Chick Webb’s orchestra – Jordan had tried and failed to execute a coup de tat on Mr Webb. Webb, the drummer and band leader fired Jordan in 1939. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jordan formed a smaller group unlike anything else at the time. Much of his music has a rock and roll leaning to it, even if a lot of it relies heavily on a swing beat rather than the backbeat. When you listen to his ‘Caldonia’ you can’t help but think of singers like Little Richard. As tempting as it is to claim rock and roll was all about guitars so many of the early groups were driven by the horns and a boogie woogie piano – following the formula set down by Louis Jordan.

One Mint Julep (1951) by The Clovers. I don’t know anywhere near enough about this group, but I love this song. Vocal R&B groups play a big role in early rock and roll, especially in what came to be known as doo wop. The first vocal groups sounded like the Ink Spots, and the various ‘bird groups’ they inspired (the Ravens, The Orioles, The Wrens…). Generally they were of a certain mold – a high tenor, a bass singer who often parroted the tenors first verse but in a much lower voice, a couple of others singing oohs and ahhs behind them. The Clovers wanted to be the Ink Spots, but Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegan had bigger plans for them – a newer, less maudlin sound based on Billy Ward and the Dominoes. There is an urban legend The Clovers rebelled against Ertegan’s demands for more of that newfangled vocal music by wasting his studio time recording an a-Capella parody of the jazz standard ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ called ‘Rotten C**ks**kers Ball’ – which a disappointed Ertegan buried. The song surfaced in the 80s – although it turns out it was the kind of thing often made for music industry insiders ears only… limited run Christmas gifts.

This song however is a good example of a vocal group moving towards a rock and roll sound, sax solo and all…. And an early drinking song.

Rock the Joint (1949) by Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians is the kind of song most of us probably think of when looking for a first rock and roll song. It’s got that walking bassline we all know. It’s got a backbeat. There is the honking saxophone first popularized by Illinois Jacquet in the early 1940s. It has a big gang vocal chanting ‘we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock this joint” – Alan Freed may have coined it rock and roll, but there were a slew of songs, well before his time, to sing of rocking (Tiny Grimes’ Rock the House, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock three examples). This is the song that convinced former Indiana state yodeling champion and then country singer Bill Haley he needed to try this new thing the kids were doing. To my ear several tracks from around 1948-49 are undeniably rock and roll – but where I think 70s rock critics fixed on Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 is that rock music to them was only something you played on guitar. I disagree.

Good Rockin’ Tonight (1947) by Wynonie Harris. One of the songs put forwards when arguing for a first rock and roll song. Wynonie Harris was a blues shouter who had come to prominence in 1944, after he joined Lucky Millinder’s orchestra – one of the swing era big bands who were managing to stay relevant in a more jump blues and boogie inflected 1940s. Millinder’s band had a decent sized hit in 1944 with ‘Who put the whiskey in the well?’ – a jump blues piece with a boogie bassline and strong backbeat, which still ends up sounding a million miles away from rock and roll to my ears. Feeling aggrieved band leader Millinder (who did not play an instrument himself) got the credit for the disc, Harris struck out on his own. Wynonie Harris, mercurial as he was, has always seemed a bit of an ass to me. On the upside you’d hear he was electrifying on stage, gyrating his hips a decade before anyone had heard of Elvis. On the downside, the man owned two Cadillacs, employing two chauffers. At the end of the night he would decide which driver would take him home – and which driver had been sitting outside all night for naught. Yeah I’m sure both got paid, but I can’t be the only one who feels this was a little capricious – especially if one particular chauffer was the perpetual bridesmaid?

In 1947 a fan of Harris, and decent vocalist in his own right named Roy Brown brought Harris a song called Good Rockin’ Tonight. Though it was exactly the kind of song Harris did, he passed – till he heard Brown’s own version on the jukeboxes. When trying to sell the song to another jump blues singer called Cecil Gant, Gant passed too but immediately called his record company head (at 2.30 in the morning) to say ‘hey, you have to listen to this’. Brown was soon in the studio himself, laying down a version of the song. Harris quickly knocked together a cover, adding the ‘O when the saints’ intro, a couple of ‘’hoy, hoy, hoy”s at the end – and, most importantly, a back beat. The back beat is exactly why some say his version, not Roy Brown’s, is the first true rock and roll song.

Ok, I’ll do write ups for the second half next week. Spotify playlist below.

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 3)

Hi all this is the third part of this tale, for part one click here, part two here.

At this point in the tale we need to introduce Wyoming lawman Joe LeFors. Tough as nails, and determined to solve the Nickell case by any means necessary, LeFors was not above bending the rules for a result. From the outset Tom Horn was the prime suspect – though others could have been considered. Many locals hated Kels Nickell, and other beef barons could, and still did, employ range detectives to take out ‘squeaky wheels’ like Nickell. LeFors quickly determined Willie was not mistaken for Kels. It had been suggested that Willie was wearing Kels’ coat – but he wasn’t. A scene examination showed someone had stalked Willie that morning, getting close enough to realize he wasn’t Kels. The killer also took his time leaving, and stood over Willie’s body, opening his shirt to observe his handiwork. The ambush, the long shot, the coolness in which the kill was carried out had Tom Horn written all over it. To add to the evidence pile, Horn had drunkenly bragged to a patron in a saloon that he was the assassin.

Horn was brought in on 4th August for questioning. He claimed he was hundreds of miles away on the day the murder happened. After the Nickell family offered a $500 reward to find Willie’s killer, Horn hit the road – entering several out of town roping contests. In September, Horn was drunkenly telling tales in a bar when he got into a fight with a boxer. The boxer, Jim Corbett, was one of the best pugilists of his generation – and made easy work pummeling Horn. Corbett would later go down in history as the only man to beat the great John L. Sullivan, and for a time would wear the world heavyweight belt.

Former World Heavyweight boxing champ James J. Corbett.

In January 1902 Joe LeFors had another chance at catching Horn out. What he did however would muddy the waters, doing something underhanded even in his own time. LeFors sent a letter to Coble’s ranch offering short term employment to Horn for help on a job, offering a salary of $125 a month. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Horn agreed to meet with LeFors – completely oblivious of the trap he was about to walk in to. To celebrate the opportunity, Tom Horn went out and got very drunk – so drunk in fact that he showed up at his meeting the next day still three sheets to the wind.

Picture if you will, two men in a quiet room. One a dedicated, and somewhat obsessive police officer, the other a habitual liar, especially when drunk. The drunker of the two has come to get himself a job, and would be willing to say anything to secure the role. Add to this scene two people sitting in an adjoining room – one imagines each with a glass, one end to their ear, the other to the wall – listening intently. One is a court stenographer, the other an impartial witness.

Lefors soon turned the conversation to the murder of Willie Nickell, needing to know if he is the right kind of guy to work as a range detective, and make those long shots. Had he been the gunman who shot Willie down? Horn answered in the affirmative. He had taken the shot cleanly at a distance of 300 yards. Horn boasted it was “the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done”. And like that Tom Horn was arrested and charged with the murder of Willie Nickell.

By the time the case came to trial Tom Horn had a highly capable team of lawyers, two of whom would later become judges, one of whom, John W. Lacey, would be chief justice for Wyoming. The team had been paid for, no expense spared, by John Coble. However good they were, and however shaky the evidence should have been – the main evidence against him was a confession, and Horn was a compulsive liar after all – the defense team had quite an uphill battle. The politics of the day had changed in favour of the homesteaders, many of whom had been affected by th barons’ thugs in one way or another, and were determined the beef barons would no longer get away with murder.

Tom Horn himself was a nightmare defendant. As the trial unfolded he often got into arguments with the prosecutor, letting his alibi slip in the process. He refused to heed his defense team’s advice, undermining his own defense to the point where it no longer mattered to anyone how flimsy the evidence was – or for that matter that he had been entrapped into giving said flimsy evidence. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to hang on November 20th 1903. Joe Lefors would write a book on the trial – hoping to be the Vincent Bugliosi of his own era I suppose. Tom Horn’s own book would be the bigger seller by far, in spite of it barely discussing the Nickell killing.

Just prior to Horn’s execution he managed to overpower a deputy and flee custody. Somehow grabbing a pistol, he fled on foot down the street, pursued by an angry mob. Symbolically he, the wild west gunslinger, had grabbed a modern Luger and understood it about as well as he understood the Wyoming of the early twentieth century. He stood in the street trying in vain to fire the pistol, unaware of how to release the safety. He was caught and dragged back to prison by the mob.

In the years since his execution, Horn’s case has faced much scrutiny. Modern historians have, while not exonerating Horn as a multiple murderer for his other acts, questioned the flimsiness of the evidence of the Nickell case.

In 1993 an unofficial retrial was held in a Cheyanne courtroom, using modern methods. Although few jurors believed Horn was innocent, they all agreed there was nowhere near enough evidence to convict. In 1980 Steve McQueen would star in a William Ward directed film titled Tom Horn, based largely on Horn’s own autobiography. The film would portray Horn as a reformed bad man who had fallen for local school teacher Glendolene Kimmel. In real life Horn did have a passing relationship with Ms Kimmel, who was unquestionably head over heels in love with him. He seemed rather disinterested by comparison. In any case in recent decades we have come to question his guilt in the Nickell murder.

Personally I don’t believe he was a reformed bad man, there is simply no evidence of it. I agree with the 1993 jury, he probably committed the murder, and certainly was responsible for dozens of other assassinations. The English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, in what has come to be known as Blackstone’s Ratio

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Coming from New Zealand we have our share of innocent people later exonerated, from Arthur Allan Thomas to David Bain, to the late Peter Ellis, who had he not passed surely would have been cleared of the 1991 Christchurch crèche child abuse case – it bore a striking resemblance to the Satanic panic of the 1980s, for the non New Zealand readers. While I admit for that reason Blackstone’s ratio seems sound to me, I can’t feel at all sorry for the grown up Horn if wrongly hanged. Now the boy of about the same age as young Willie Nickell, the lonely outsider who fled an abusive upbringing from a loveless family – Yeah, that Tom Horn I do feel a little sorry for.

On the right to breathe…

Hi readers, I really feel the need to write a little something off script, right up front on the blog today. Yesterday I sat at the table and wrote, and wrote and wrote. First I began sketching out the final blog in this short rock and roll series (I will probably do a few more of these, just as everyday tales, just in the mix). I had something in mind where I wanted to talk about Sam Phillips and the roster of mostly white Rockabilly acts he produced – and to touch on some of his views on race and music, and how ridiculously condescending they look now – but I think his heart was in the right place. Well, I think the thuggish murder of an African American man by a white police officer – and eruption of righteous anger across America gives a pretty good indication as to why that is a terrible idea. I dread to think of the emails stating “WTF Simone, are you trying to tell a fairy tale of faux progressive race relations while our country is burning?”. Ditto any tales of the white rock and roll impresario, civil rights activist, and all round good guy the reverend Johnny Otis. Definitely not a good time to be telling stories of how the dustbowl played in to the rise of Oakies, Arkies and various other displaced folk creating the Hillbilly Boogie which blared out of many a roadhouse in the pre rock and roll era.

I also penned, and binned a piece discussing just why Edouard de Laboulaye proposed the construction of the Statue of Liberty – spoiler alert, he was an abolitionist who was proud the USA had finally outlawed slavery. He probably believed the USA would adopt something like ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. This piece quickly escalated, America you let Mr Laboulaye down horribly. I walked through many, many, many examples of this – from the 1892 lynching of Tom Moss, a black grocer in Memphis who dared to open a store when a white man was also a grocer; to Robert Charles – a black man minding his own business in a mostly white suburb of New Orleans, which escalated into a desperate gun fight against a white mob. To the ‘red summer’ spate of lynchings across the USA in 1919, which cost over 250 black lives because black men dared to step up in formerly white job and keep the economy going during World War One; and racists everywhere saw that as theft. On to the 1919 Haynes report, which noted the lynchings of over 3,000 black Americans between 1889 and 1918, and that local authorities were often compliant, even occasionally involved in these actions. On I went, discussing the early years of the ‘great migration’ where well to do black residents were bullied out of nice, middle class homes, while the police stood by. When one recent arrival to Detroit, the doctor Ossian Sweet, received constant threats and intimidation police did nothing. When Dr Sweet fired in self defence on a violent mob encircling his Garland Street home, they were very quick to act then – charging the poor man with murder.

I went further, discussing murdered voting organizers like the Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith – to young boys and men who dared speak to white girls like Emmett Till, or Willie Edwards Jr- Edwards, by the way was mistaken by four Clansmen for another black guy who was dating a white girl in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1957. I talked of the assassination Medgar Evars, the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four young girls- Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – who were little older than my niece ….. and on, and on, and on. Paragraphs of horror after horror. USA there are too many atrocities, too much blood on your hands, too many black lives lost, and families left grieving.

Look, dear reader; if you are an American reader of mine I presume you are not some racist with a hankering for lynchings – you’re probably a caring, intelligent progressive who is appalled by the murder of George Floyd. Hell, some of you may be caring, intelligent conservatives, equally horrified by the murder? Any invective by me is like a teacher yelling at the kids in front because the kid at the back is behaving like an asshole. Just know that I, like most decent people the world over, am horrified at the actions of Derek Chauvin, yet again infuriated with the tweets from the orange fascist ruining your nation, fully in support of the protestors (though worried as hell for you with all that tear gas, rubber bullets, and a killer pandemic out there).

Mostly, I am at a loss as to how I, halfway across the world, can do any little thing to show my support. The writer and activist Eldridge Cleaver once stated if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Who doesn’t feel that just a little right now?

Back to the rock and roll series, this Thursday I’ll put together a Spotify playlist covering a load of songs that predate what we traditionally consider rock and roll, with a brief explanation on why I think they important landmarks.