Monthly Archives: March 2021

You Decide – Lucan v Boggs

Hey all – from the next season of Tales of History and Imagination (both the blog and podcast) I’m bringing in a semi- regular ‘You Decide’ episode where you – the reader, or listener – get to choose the subject of the Tale.

I’ll be completing, then advertising the Patreon – and when the Patreon reaches a tipping point these will become ‘Patreon Decides’. Until then everyone gets a vote.

The first You Decide will be released 2nd June 2021. The theme, mysterious disappearances. The two choices

Lord Lucan – a British peer who disappeared 7th November 1974 – having attempted to kill his estranged wife… and succeeded in killing the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Rumours persist to this day as to the whereabouts of the murderous peer.

or

Hale Boggs – The House majority leader, and representative for Louisiana’s 2nd district who mysteriously vanished with Alaskan congressman Nick Begich – while aboard a small plane. Did someone want the men dead, and how much bother would they go to, to ensure Boggs and Begich never made it back alive?

Voting starts now (below), and will run till midday May 1st. Please check out the YouTube video I made for the vote also. – Lucan v Boggs, who do YOU choose?

Shen’s Magnificent Journey.

Hi all, this programme differs from the show which was advertised. I spent the better part of three weeks, on and off, on the advertised show – an epic Western transposed to Central Asia in the 1920s. I researched, wrote, recorded a podcast episode – then went back to the script and rewrote to match exactly what I recorded for the blog. I was generally pretty happy. Then a mass shooting happened in Atlanta – which suddenly opened my eyes to the Sinophobic – generally Asia-phobic – spate of violence going on in the USA right now….

My concern with the piece – a glimpse into the life of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg – a sociopathic warlord who became de facto ruler of Mongolia for a time in 1921 – is that he and his army were responsible for the mass slaughter of Chinese soldiers and civilians. 

While I reserve the right to post on some horrible history

I also reserve the right to pull the plug on something if I think 

  • It may upset people, especially if communities of those people are under attack by cretins looking for a whipping boy for the pandemic we are currently living through
  • There is a chance some fascist goon might get off on something I wrote and share it on a fascist goon message board, to emphasise a point I never made, nor agree with.. Laugh not, ‘Willie the Wimp’ went viral in the wake of George Floyd’s funeral. I had to set the post to private for weeks. 

Anyway, see ya later Ungern… we may come back to you some day.

In my minds eye I can picture Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung aboard that Portuguese vessel in 1682. The young man was headed off on the adventure of a lifetime. The 25 year old Chinese Mandarin, and convert to Christianity had been chosen largely for his fluency in Latin, but I’ve no doubt from what little I’ve read – that he was also the kind of personable young man everyone just took an instant liking to. I imagine him pacing the deck, his mind racing, his stomach a flutter- for today he sets sail for the ends of the earth. Sure China sent envoys to the edge of the Roman empire in Augustus’ time. Zheng He supposedly went everywhere, may have even ‘discovered’ the Americas decades before Columbus. Michael, however would be the first Chinese citizen to travel to Europe. He wasn’t just representing himself, but all Chinese – their culture, their long held beliefs – to many powerful people. Yes, I’m projecting here – putting myself in his shoes – but I don’t see how he couldn’t have been both excited and nervous as hell. 

However he felt, he set sail from Macau for Europe, in the company of the Flemish Jesuit Father Philippe Couplet. Two other men were to set sail with them, one – a poet and painter named Wu Li was deemed too old, at 50 to make the journey, and left behind in Macau. As an aside Wu would outlive Shen and Couplet by close to three decades. The other will be named somewhere, but no article writer I could find, found him interesting enough to name him. Their ship was wrecked near Batavia (now Jakarta) Indonesia. The unnamed man caught a boat back to China, while Shen and Couplet waited several months for another boat to take them to Europe. 

The men, I suppose you could say, were on a mission for God. Their ultimate destination was Rome – where Father Couplet hoped to convince Pope Innocent XI to rescind the order giving Portugal a monopoly on converting any foreigners unfortunate enough to be ‘discovered’ by a Christian explorer. Secondarily he hoped, in presenting a smart, well presented convert like Shen, he might gain approval to start giving Catholic masses in Chinese (currently they were limited to preaching in Latin – making for a very small net). He hoped Innocent would see Shen, Wu and the mystery third man as ideal candidates for the priesthood. They were unsuccessful in their mission. They would meet in 1685, and Innocent agreed to let the two men tour Europe for the next eight years, but beyond that I have no information about their meeting.  

What interests me about Shen’s tale is the other people he met. 

The two men arrived in the Netherlands in February 1683. From there they found themselves in the company of Louis XIV of France, at the palace of Versailles. The king spoke with Shen, who taught him how to use chopsticks. The Sun King found Shen an honourable enough man that he ordered all the fountains in the gardens of Versailles turned on – something normally only done when other royals came to visit.  Louis agreed to send a mission of scientists to China, and had an engraving made of Shen. Shen then sailed for Britain in 1687, where he met King James II, who commissioned a painting of him by Sir Godfrey Kneller – Kneller’s painting, which remains in the Royal collection is the reason most people seem to blog about Shen. While in London Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung met with Thomas Hyde, the Orientalist and chief librarian at the Bodleian library. Shen went through all the Chinese books in their collection, if I’m reading the sources correctly explaining what each book was about – and even which way up they were. Shen made samples of Chinese script, and explained the Chinese calendar to Hyde, the latter giving future Sinologists, historians and scientists a common timeline to work from. 

Shen would leave Britain just prior to James II’s removal for William and Mary. He would take holy orders in 1690, and set sail for China soon after. Unfortunately he died of a fever off the coast of Mozambique, September 2nd 1691.      

Why am I sharing this Tale today? There is a poem by William Carlos Williams – The Red Wheelbarrow – 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Setting aside it’s Oriental influence (though not a haiku, it feels very haiku-ish) I can’t help but tackle this tale the same way as the poem. Like Williams’ poem, the sources give us a simple picture of a moment in time. It is up to us to view it, and find significance in it. With the Red Wheelbarrow I could count the ways the barrow earns its keep, from labour saving device to shelter from the storm for the poor chickens, caught out in the rain. With Shen I could picture his joy in ‘discovering’ Europe, and it’s peoples. The many sights and sounds, the food and drink. Though China were in so many ways the ‘developed world’ at this stage, and Europe the back blocks – one could imagine the great joys of sightseeing. The pleasures of breaking bread with welcoming strangers. Perhaps a sense of elation at being seen as novel, fascinating and kind of exotic by an audience – not out to ‘other’ you – and genuinely riveted by the tales of your culture. 

Everything I read about Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, the first person from China to visit Europe, is he was met with kindness wherever he went. 

Am I giving a sneaky sermon today? A parable on mutual respect and being a good host… a timely reminder in the midst of this horrible, miserable time to not be a reactionary dickhead and scapegoat immigrants who bear as little responsibility for this pandemic as you do? Maybe. In this case we should all be the Sun King. Be magnanimous. Be welcoming. Don’t assault strangers cause we’re all going through an unpleasant year – and we all beat the virus when we all work together. 

I’ll be back in four weeks, with new Tales – both in blog and podcast form.  

The Tales Which Never Were ….

Hey all, this episode’s going to be a little different – the setting, a modern duplex in Auckland, New Zealand. Our subject, a rather worn out looking writer. Our protagonist has had a rough couple of weeks – First, the excruciating stomach pains which sent her to hospital. A battery of tests showed all the things the pain wasn’t. The pain went away. Our subject’s health concerns were not yet done, however. “Oh, on that other thing we were concerned about” the doctor asked, mysteriously omitting ‘the other thing’ – “those pills are still on offer”. “Yes” the writer replied “Let’s give them a go. Can’t hurt right?”. 

Six days later my blood pressure shot up to 170/110. It took four days for the pills to fully leave my system, and my blood pressure to return to normal.

This all led to a situation where I either had to dump this week’s blog post, or postpone the following week’s combined blog/podcast episode …. or I could go off script and share a couple of Tales I have intended to write, but have shelved for different reasons.   

This week, two Tales which never were … till they suddenly were after all. 

Little Julian.

I picture this tale opening with a couple of probation officers banging on rock and roll impresario Johnny Otis’ door, presumably at some ungodly hour. Otis is a fascinating man, though not the subject of this tale. It’s probably pertinent to state he started as a drummer in a swing orchestra, and became a club owner, talent scout, radio DJ, band leader and record producer extraordinaire. Throughout the 1950s most of Los Angeles best music had some connection back to Mr Otis. He was also a part owner in a chicken farm with a man who died fighting alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba, and lost two fingers in an accident while making chicken coops. Otis would later lend his voice, and pen to the civil rights movement, and front a church which was pro- multiculturalism, pro-LGBTQI+, and generally welcoming to all. 

Otis was also the son of Greek immigrants, who never felt accepted as ‘white’, but did feel great kinship with the African American community. He once stated “Genetically I’m pure Greek. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community” Most people just presumed he was a light-skinned black man. Though not directly related to our protagonist, this is kind of interesting… considering. 

So, back to the door knockers. Otis opens the door. The officers demand to know where they can find Ron Gregory. ‘Who?’ Asks Otis. ‘This guy’ an officer answers, thrusting forward a photograph of a young Chicano man singing and dancing among the crowd, on a crowded dance floor. 

“That’s Lil Julian Herrera!” Otis replied, perplexed. 

Little Julian Herrera was one of the first Chicano rock and roll stars to come out of East LA. Fronting his band, the Tigers, the young doo wop star was already making a name for himself, when discovered by Otis in 1956. In 1957 his ballad ‘Lonely, Lonely Nights’ seemed set to make Herrera rock and roll’s first Chicano superstar (this was just before Richie Valens broke through), when he was charged with rape. In the course of his trial, a number of skeletons – far less shocking things I must say than the rape of a young woman – came flying out of the closet.

His real name was Ronald Gregory. At the age of 11, or 13 (depending on the storyteller) Ronald, a Jewish kid of Hungarian extraction, ran away from his parents and hitch hiked from Massachusetts to Los Angeles. Somehow, he ended up getting taken in by the Herrera family of Boyle Heights, East LA. He appears to have found kinship with the Herreras, and Mexican American culture – and was reborn as Julian. 

Having served his time in prison, Julian was back on the mic by the early 60s – but things were never the same again. He cut several records, which bombed. Played a handful of shows, to increasingly smaller crowds. In 1963, he called on a friend – a sax player named Bernie Garcia – to say he was in some kind of trouble, and needed to get out of town in a hurry. He had some shows booked across the border in Tijuana Mexico. Did Bernie want to come with him? Bernie didn’t. 

This was the last anyone ever saw or heard of Little Julian Herrera. 

As much as I want to write more about Little Julian Herrera, there is precious little written about him. We know he was a runaway – but I’ve never seen a hint of anyone ever looking into the Gregory family. Were they good or terrible parents? What was the incident that spurred Ronald to hit the road? Did they look for their son? Did they reach out to him in prison?

Likewise I couldn’t find anything on the Herreras – much less why Julian stopped in Boyle Heights in the first place. The neighbourhood was a mix of Mexican, Japanese and Jewish Americans – Julian was Jewish. Was he en route to see his grandparents, an aunt and/or uncle? Did he know anyone in the Chicano community? 

One thing mentioned, those who knew Julian mentioned he never worked (he was 19 and a long time out of school at the time of the rape) and no-one really knew what he did in the daytime. Again this begs questions of just what he was doing with his days? Was he involved in organised crime? Was he already working up a third secret identity?

Did anyone have a motive to kill him? If no-one else one could imagine the family of the 17 year old girl he raped in Griffith Park had ample reason. There are apparently stories he was murdered in Elysian Park, or that he worked for many years in a gas station in National City, California under an assumed name … but no-one seems to have made any real headway so far. 

The Halifax Gibbet. 

Ok, let me break this one down. I had a plan for a short tale stylistically akin to Hannibal in Bithynia. The setting for this one, a clearing 500 yards from the border in the town of Halifax. The date, some time in the 1600s. A young man, caught stealing horse shoes from the blacksmith, has spent three days on display for all in the town stocks. This is only the beginning of punishment. This evening he will meet the fate first meted out to one John of Dalton in 1286. The tale would cut back and forth between the young man’s feelings of apprehension, the incidents in his life which brought him here. Musings on the prosperity, and inequality in this town – and the way in which this led to the aristocracy of the region to hold on to cruel, archaic laws – albeit enforced by a remarkable machine. 

The piece would intersperse with hints at the machine. Ultimately it would take up to 100 victims, 56 recorded cases from 1538 till Oliver Cromwell, of all people, put a stop to it. I would muse on there being nothing new completely without precursor. Edinburgh had it’s Maiden. Conrad, the young, attractive king of Swabia was rumoured to have met with a precursor in Italy. Chinese and Persian lore suggests something altogether earlier still. I would avoid dropping the famous device, or the man it is named after, which just gives away the game. 

I might drop another hint or two “Just imagine”, our young protagonist thought… “Imagine being Mary, Queen of Scots. They say their first attempt failed, and they had to go again… Isn’t one attempt barbaric enough?” At least this will be quick. But will it be painless? What if I find myself staring up into space, longing for the things I’ve lost?

Finally the young man is led, more accurately dragged, kicking and screaming to the machine. Up onto the stone base, then pinioned in place under two upright beams – four feet distant, 15 feet tall. At the top, a large axe head fitted to a heavy wooden block. The block held in suspension high above him by a length of rope threaded through a pulley. Guillotine, meet your ancestor, the Halifax Gibbet.

The Halifax Gibbet was a very real punishment faced by those living on the manor of Wakefield – of which Halifax was a part. An arcane law left over from the Anglo-Saxons, known as Infangthereof, gave the lord of the manor the right to try and execute anyone caught stealing more than 13 1/2p worth of goods. Most lords ceded this right over time. Most lords hung thieves. 

We don’t know how the Halifax Gibbet came about. We know John of Dalton was it’s first victim. We know the names of 51 other victims, and how many were proto- guillotined from 1538 till Cromwell put a stop to the practice in 1650. 

A replica stands today, bearing silent witness to someone’s cruelty, and ingenuity. 

Why was this tale abandoned? 

In short I see myself as a storyteller with a couple of History degrees. My Tales are historical, true as best we can tell, and usually told with a view of exploring some wider context … but if anyone asks me what I do – I’m a storyteller. History involves so much more around differing perspectives, historiography, much more work in amongst the primary sources than I usually do. I’m normally ok using a literary device, like the anonymous thief, so long as I’m clear he IS a device to get the story moving. 

But the day I sat down to write on the Gibbet I’d just finished a Smithsonian article by historian Mike Dash on how everyone now thinks Gavrillo Princip came across and murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by chance, as he stopped at a deli for a sandwich. For one, he’d be lucky to find a sandwich in Sarajevo in 1914 (people there ate other things entirely). For another it suggests chance, where it seems Princip was posted there deliberately – believing the motorcade could still travel that way. 

The sandwich idea came from a documentary, Days That Shook the World. The documentarians possibly got the idea, in turn, via a Brazilian novel about a 12 fingered secret agent who meets with Princip just prior to the assassination. This article gave me a little food for thought about such literary devices as the Gibbeted thief.

Touch wood, I’ll have next week’s Blog and Podcast simulcasting for you all… if not on Wednesday, then by week’s end – Simone. 

Women’s History Month: Njinga of Ndongo.

Today’s tale is set in the African kingdom of Ndongo, modern day Angola – we touched upon this kingdom a few weeks back in the Tale of Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Today we’re taking a closer look at that strand. The year, 1622. Joao de Sousa, the Portuguese governor of Luanda prepares to meet with princess Njinga Mbandi, sister of king Ngola Mbandi, ruler of Ndongo. Their mission, to broker a peace after decades of on-again, off-again conflict.

Though allied with the neighbouring kingdom of Kongo from the late 1490s, Portugal’s first contact in Ndongo was in 1510. Initial contact was sporadic, but increasing demand for slaves to work Portugal’s Brazilian plantations – primarily – led to an increased presence in the region. In 1575, Paulo Dias de Novais – grandson of the explorer Bartolomeu Dias – set up a township on the Ndongo island of Luanda. Accompanied by 100 settler families, 400 soldiers, and a handful of Jesuit priests – Novais’ mission was to set up an enclave, exploit the silver mines of the native town of Cambambe, and to gain control of lands south of the Kwanza river. The jesuits were to convert as many locals as they could to Catholicism – having largely done so in Kongo decades earlier. Of course they were also there to look for slaving opportunities. 

The township at Luanda was tolerated by Ndongo till 1579, when a member of Novais’ party met with the Ngola (king) of Ndongo to spill the beans on an alleged plot to take over their whole country. Understandably, the Ngola responded by expelling the Portuguese from Luanda. Novais would call on their Kongolese allies to back them in a war with Ndongo – and so it was a multi-generational war would rage in the nation. 

During the wars tens of thousands of captives, warrior and civilian alike, were shackled, stored in cages called barracoons, then shipped off to the new world – to be worked to death on a plantation. The adversaries fought to a stalemate in 1599,  but hostilities ramped up again in 1610, when Philip II of Portugal discovered Ndongo had large reserves of copper. Copper could be alloyed to make bronze cannons to one’s heart’s content – cannons which would prove very useful in their colonial pursuits. Forced into exile by a combined Portuguese/Imbangala force (the Imbangala were a rival tribe, newly arrived in the region who were happy to act as extra muscle for Portugal) – Ngola Mbandi called on his sister Njinga to broker a peace treaty. 

There’s a tale, I’m paraphrasing the following but the sources all depict something to this effect. Njinga arrives for negotiations in full indigenous attire – breaking with the practice of attending diplomatic meetings in western attire. Led to the meeting room she found de Sousa reclined in his chair – with a mat laid out on the floor for herself. Unperturbed, but knowing the importance of meeting eye to eye, she called for one of her ladies in waiting. The servant got down on her hands and knees – providing a seat for the princess. After some discussion – in Portuguese (Njinga spoke several languages), the governor and the princess concluded. 

“What about your chair?” Asked de Sousa, gesturing to the lady in waiting. 
“Keep her, I have many chairs in my home”

While I have no idea if the poor servant was left with these slave traders after all, I think the anecdote highlights the princesses shrewdness and tenacity. She was unwilling to be anything less than an equal of the governor. It’s also an insight she had a ruthless streak not dissimilar to the Portuguese. 

De Sousa, allegedly, saw Njinga as an impressive figure, and the two parties came to a peace agreement which saw Portugal agree to leave Ndongo, and recognise their nationhood. The cost? A trade agreement with Portugal, and the royals – Njinga included – would convert to Catholicism. The princess also took on the name Dona Anna de Sousa after her baptism – a name she would use in official correspondence from this point on. Life seemed to be returning to normal.

But then, in 1626, Portugal suddenly discarded the treaty. They resumed hostilities – pushing the Ndongo out of their lands. At this stage Ngola Mbandi had passed, in 1624 – the crown passing to Njinga. The Ndongo were slowly driven further inland. In 1631 they took refuge in the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. 

Njinga was well acquainted with these neighbours. She was in exile there when Ngola Mbandi called on her to broker a peace with Portugal. When their father, the previous Ngola died, Mbandi had Njinga’s only child murdered, and Njinga sterilised before ordering her out. Both siblings were front runners for king – but neither had an outright claim to the throne as they were born to the king’s slave wives. Again in exile, Njinga was declared ruler of Matamba.

Imbangala warriors.

While away, the Portuguese put a puppet ruler on the throne of Ndongo, Ngola a Hari – soon baptized as Felipe de Sousa. In an effort to turn the people against Njinga, they spread sexist propaganda against the queen, stating a woman cannot be king. To counter Njinga symbolically ’became a man’, from what I can gather by taking on the title king – and ‘doing manly things’. 

If by ‘manly things’ the sources mean Njinga led zir (am switching to Spivak pronouns, when in doubt) army into battle on numerous occasions – this was nothing new. Njinga, formerly a warrior queen, was very much the warrior king too. Despite fighting an enemy whose numbers increased year to year, with a large technological advantage, Njinga’s Matamba stood their ground against Portugal. Then in 1641, the landscape changed over night, yet again.

The Dutch arrived in 1641, making quick work of defeating Portuguese forces at Luanda – setting up base on the island. As soon as news arrived in Matamba, Njinga sent a diplomatic envoy to the Dutch. With a new ally, the king of Matamba was soon winning major battles, like the 1644 battle of Ngoleme- and would besiege the new Portuguese capital, Masangano, in 1647. Portugal called on reinforcements from Brazil to save them. In the wake of the failed siege, Njinga retreated to Matamba – but then the guerrilla war against Portugal began. The Portuguese couldn’t take a walk outside without risk of a sneak attack against them. Matamba, alone again after 1648, would bolster their numbers by making alliances with other kingdoms – and by offering a safe haven to any and all escaped slaves in need of a new homeland. This gained the king a compliment of loyal troops in the battle. 

Finally, Portugal gave up. On 24th November 1657 they withdrew all claims to Ndongo. This doesn’t mean they gave up entirely on getting revenge on King Njinga, backing a number of assassination attempts against the monarch. 

Njinga Mbandi, Ngola of the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba would die in 1666, at an estimated age of around 80. The monarch would spend zir final years settling escaped slaves to the kingdoms. Njinga built on Matamba’s location as the ‘gateway to Central Africa’ to build a wealthy, mercantile nation. Legend has it ze also kept a harem of 50 – 60 men who would fight for the right to sleep with the monarch. In the morning, the unlucky concubine would be put to death. Needless to say Njinga was a highly troublesome character – but also an absolutely fascinating one.