Author Archives: Simone Toni Whitlow

About Simone Toni Whitlow

Simone has a few different hats on her hat rack: History writer, Project Manager, Teacher, Skip Tracer, Musician... and occasionally collector of random stories, trivia and pop culture.

Moving the Update Page.

Hey all I’m just doing some admin – setting up a category page made up of all blog posts with ‘Updates’ ticked. I’m then deleting the Updates page I built in January….
Hence the email full of old podcast/blog news.
Sorry for the email tonight. The next real blog post is set for next week. – Simone.

P.S. The cover picture is just the fourth or fifth random image which came up when I typed ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni moves heavy things’…. should the next You Choose be a narrative source for Indiana Jones, like Belzoni vs a source for Sherlock Holmes… say, Joseph Bell… or Walter Scherer (providing I can find sources on Scherer?)

Let me know in the comments?

Hi everyone, as Tales is picking up a number of followers who just come directly to the site every week – more than our total number of social media followers – and certain social media sites (I’m looking at you Facebook) are terrible at sharing updates to everyone anyway …. this page will be for updates for all things Tales of History and Imagination.

Blog posts drop 10am every Tuesday (New Zealand time) on 10 week cycles with a 3 week interlude.
Podcast episodes drop fortnightly, 6pm Wednesday (New Zealand time), currently planned for a 10 fortnight cycle with 4 weeks’ downtime.


1st May. And the Winner of 2nd June’s You Choose Blog/Podcast is….

Lord Lucan!

4th April. Lucan v Boggs… other things.

Hey everyone, just a quick update.
First, go check out the Lucan v Boggs post of a couple of days’ back. I’m hoping to officially launch the Patreon some time this year, and one of the perks of helping me make ‘Tales’ will be getting to choose a topic (based on a certain theme). Until I have patrons though I’m opening this to all readers and listeners.

The first You Choose topic will be 2nd June, on a figure who vanished without a trace. Your choices – Lord Lucan, the murderous British peer who vanished after attempting to kill his wife, Veronica – and killing his childrens’ nanny Sandra Rivett… or Hale Boggs, the American Speaker of the House, who disappeared flying over Alaska.
Go to the link above and vote. Check out the dodgy YouTube video I made while there.

Second, I’m taking a little time off to get the next few episodes, and blog posts ready to go. The next episode will be on Mithradates, enemy of Rome, ‘poison king’ of Pontus, projected date 21st April. I’m still sussing out a couple of topics for the next ten week run but expect a renegade mobster, a tale from old Hollywood, an obscure tale of men battling a ‘dragon’, an occultist with the party house from hell, a warrior queen, and the story of one of postwar history’s stranger pranks in the mix.

Third, sorry – I ditched on this last season an episode early. I had the script ready to go and podcast episode recorded for the tale of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. It seemed insensitive of me to be posting a story of a warlord who killed thousands of Chinese soldiers a few days after the murders in Atlanta…. not that I make a hero out of a monster like Ungern …. If there is a right time to do the Tale at some point I’ll release it. In the meantime, let me point you towards ‘The Bloody White Baron’ by James Palmer – my primary source. I’ll add in the Jstor articles I read on Ungern later.

21st February. Best laid plans….

Hey all just a quick note from me tonight – well it’s tonight – around 11pm – where I’m typing from. 

The week has been a little odd over here – and I’m not talking about New Zealand’s brief re-entry into COVID lockdown. Truthfully, however I’m feeling at any given time during this pandemic, it feels petty and indulgent to be writing anything COVID related… at least while much of the world is so heavily hit by it. 

I’ve been writing largely week to week on the blog in 2021. I used most of my time off over Christmas making a road map for 2021, rather than stockpiling blog posts. This is not the whole story – I had three podcast-able Tales pencilled in where, on doing all the research.

1.On one tale I knew my version would pale in comparison to the source material. To boot I don’t think my perspective on the tale was significantly different to that of the main author, nor could I come at it from a different angle. 

2. On another tale, a true crime piece I picked up on maybe a decade ago – it had everything I could ever hope for ….. except I’d somehow forgotten how unbelievable – and not safe for work – the murder weapon was. Well…

3 doesn’t feel right at the moment. It might do down the line a little. 

But hey, the time was not totally wasted right? I’ve got a plan. I’ve left a little wriggle room with a revamped ‘Gevaudan’ and the John Frum piece… I threw a spanner in the works – While finishing the Henry ‘Box’ Brown piece it struck me I’d mentioned the war between Portugal and the Kingdom of Ndongo – and given Women’s History Month follows – is it not a crazy idea to shelf the subject I had in mind for that, to do a piece on Queen Nzinga of Ndongo instead? We’ve already done some background in the other piece. Nzinga is super interesting. I never normally get to write about Africa, so there’s that too.. 

This caused a butterfly effect. I now had three weeks of blog posts in a row on royals – wildly different royals from different times, but still… and then a blog and podcast episode set for the same day about a mad baron. I’d now have to shelf this coming week’s topic for someone less aristocratic… 

Yeah, I know, dumb stuff only important to myself – but building an online cabinet of curiosities I can’t have groups of similar things together… it won’t look right if things aren’t all jumbled up… 

Well, anyway everything was still on track till I ended up in the A&E one day last week with excruciating stomach pains. The cause is currently anyone’s guess – front runner is a bout of food poisoning a month before that has left my gut very sensitive. This cost me a few nights, as I was too sore to be leaning forwards to write. I lost another day, this week, when my old tablet died. I’ve replaced it, but spent a night getting the new machine set up. 

I’ll have a new post ready for Tuesday, though it’ll be short and sweet this coming week – well, OK short and a little gruesome. Check back in on Tuesday for some new material.

4th February: Yeah…. that thing Barrett Strong said…

Hey all just a quick update about a few things happening behind the scenes.

In coming days I’ll be launching a Patreon for the blog and podcast. I’m currently looking for a quiet day to do a little research on something I want to offer on the higher tier. The plan at present is to start by offering

▪︎an extra Tale each month (in both blog and podcast formats),
▪︎possibly e-books?
▪︎and voting rights (between two or three choices) for one Tale a month – starting from
the next block in April, as I have all tales locked in for the rest of this block, or semester… or whatever a ten week sprint of Tales is called.

As I’ve no doubt it’s going to take a little time to build up patrons, even at my super low prices of $1 a month for the basic tier, $5 for the VIPs, I’m planning to make voting open for all readers and listeners – at least till it isn’t anymore. Keep an eye out for the Survey Monkey polls from around mid April.

Staying on the topic of Patron programmes – first stretch targets will be to help cover the costs of research materials, the rental on the WordPress and Podbean sites, and probably annual e-subscriptions to a couple of resources that keep coming up more in a month than the number of free articles I get from them. If I can get membership up to an amount which allows me less time at a day job I’m not exactly crazy for, I’ll use that time to create some more giveaways – but more on that IF we can reach those targets.

Meantime, folks please show me a little love by sharing a blog or podcast episode which resonated with you with just one person – someone you know will dig it too… which is good for all right? I grow the channel. You may get someone to discuss the channel with … well besides yours truly anyway – Simone.

19th January: The Beast Returns.

Hi all, I’ve written a little bit on my plans for the rebooted podcast on the social media channels. Here’s a quick rundown….. and an explanation why that damn cryptid is back again before Halloween.

The Podcast:
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but my original plan for Tales was primarily to make a podcast, and to have a blog on a separate website, with all the podcast scripts in the feed. Thankfully I had a couple of unexpected expenses crop up, which delayed my purchase of a Blue Yeti mic and a reconditioned laptop just long enough to write and publish a couple of dozen blog posts.

This is important, as it set Tales as a blog primarily, with an attached podcast. I think my writing was serviceable on the blog when I started… the first attempts at podcasting not so much so. They were word salads, my narration not great. By and large I was picking subjects which were episodic and meandering.

I also had a degree of imposter syndrome about podcasting which I didn’t feel about blogging.

As a result, I think I had a few listenable episodes towards the end of the first run – but I never promoted the show to anyone. I was happy to refocus on the blog at the end of season one.

A couple of things happened in 2020. First, my workplace announced they weren’t giving payrises that year – but they would make a series of online courses prepared for the management available to all of us. In one of those courses I think I heard the concept of ‘growth mindsets’ at exactly the right time; deciding I didn’t have the bag of tools needed right this moment for a good podcast – but I could obtain all those skills with a little effort. The second thing was Spotify signing Joe Rogan’s podcast to a contract then advertising they now had podcasts (they always did have them).
My little show went from around 50 downloads to 450 in days, as a result, I guess of people searching their podcast listings. This was the prompt I needed to try my hand at podcasting again.

FYI none of the original run are still up. I’ve started with a clean slate that I’m much happier with. Just like writing, the channel is a work in progress but I think I’ve relaunched something quite listenable.

Why the Beast?
In short the revamped season one will be a collection of existing blog posts. I’m hoping to make episode 9 the sole new Tale (the blog and podcast episodes to be released the same week). Subsequent seasons are likely to contain more synchronized episodes.
Beast of Gevaudan is one of the more clicked on blog episodes, but when I recorded the script it really needed more than a few minor tweaks… so I completely rewrote it. This is why our Halloween staple is back this week.

Next week I’ll have something new; a quirky little tale from recent history.



Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen.

Today’s tale starts with a meeting at Greenwich palace, a now demolished royal residence – the date, September 1593. The ‘fairy Queen’ of England, Elizabeth I, awaits the arrival of a rival monarch. The two queens have been at loggerheads since 1574; since Elizabeth laid claim to the other’s land. One wonders just what was going through Elizabeth’s mind, in anticipation of this meeting. It’s easy to write these two off as an odd couple, one cultured and erudite, the other a swashbuckling adventurer – a warlord from beyond the pale. But it is also very wrong to do so. Were you to judge these two ladies by their professions, they weren’t at all dissimilar. To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson – quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

Elizabeth, of course, was very much the law lord. She didn’t need to engage in piracy and war herself. Earlier, rougher ancestors had been the warlord – thuggishly climbing the crooked ladder. From child of warlords, to law-lord, Elizabeth I had no need to murder, and plunder personally – but through her edicts, a lot of blood was on her hands. Our protagonist? Well, the daughter of a warlord, she too had taken on her father’s mantle. From a wild, feudal land which required her lordship to be an enforcer at times – she had far less time for banquets, pleasantries and dressing in posh frocks while someone painted your face with Venetian ceruse. She was lord, enforcer, protector and occasionally, conqueror.

And, of course, it would turn out they had considerably more in common besides. But more on that later.

On this day Queen Elizabeth I was to meet with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught.

Grace O’Malley, aka Grainne Mhaille, was born around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – or ‘John and Margaret’. Eoghan was the lord of Umhaill, in Connaught – now County Cork – Ireland. As lord he gave protection to his locals, for which he taxed them; and earned as a privateer and occasional merchant. Much of the family’s wealth came from being men of violence.
In the West of Ireland, they were well beyond the pale – the Dublin region‘s outer border – controlled by England. In his lifetime though, Eoghan saw Elizabeth’s father – Henry VIII – take more and more Irish land – till he had enough land to crown himself King of Ireland in 1542. Grace grew up a witness to the aggressive imperialism of the English – and a few changes of monarch. Henry VIII died in 1547. His crown passed, first to his 9 year old son Edward VI, who died in 1553. From there it passed to Lady Jane Grey, a grasping cousin once removed, for nine days, before she was arrested and locked up in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. When she died of ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, the crown of both nations passed to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I


Grace’s rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. As he was the bastard son, the title was destined to pass to Grace. No doubt this suited Donal just fine. Far from a man of violence, Donal was a well liked musician who loved nothing more than a sing-along in a local tavern. Grace, on the other hand, lived for adventure. From childhood she wanted nothing more than to be a pirate like her father. Legend has it young Grace once plead to join the crew on a mercantile trip to Spain, only to be told her long hair would get caught in the ropes by Eoghan’s bemused sailors. She cut her hair off, embarrassing her father, but leaving no excuses. As it turned out, she was a natural. and from then on would regularly sail with her father, learning the art of piracy from a master.

Aged 16 Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain. They had their first child together within a year. Compare and contrast to Elizabeth: she may have found love- for one she was probably lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing factions at the court, it was politically difficult, if not outright dangerous for Elizabeth to ever marry – at least without sparking an insurrection. Grace’s marriage was, of course, political – it was intended to be a consolidation of two feudal regions as the old chieftains passed.

Grace had two sons and a daughter with Donal, and retired from swashbuckling for a while. Her life was soon thrown into chaos – however – when Donal was killed fighting the neighboring Joyce clan over a disputed castle. A distraught Grace took revenge on the Joyces, invading the castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib, and ousting the clan. In spite of Grace‘s children, or immense talent as a military leader, Donal’s titles and land were taken from her, and passed to a male cousin of Donal’s. She returned to her family with a small militia in tow, and set up a base on nearby Clare Island. Grace O’Malley returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’.



Grace’s following years were busy, and profitable. She grew her army to 200 fighters, who she put to work fighting both neighboring chieftains, and raiding towns along Scotland’s coast. She transported ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland when allied chieftains needed extra muscle in their blood feuds. Grace O’Malley was also involved in the resistance movement who were fighting further English encroachment on Irish lands. One story which makes it’s way to us – In 1565, a ship ran aground on nearby Achill Head, in a particularly wicked storm. Though the texts I read didn’t state if Grace was acting as a wrecker – having caused the wreck by leaving a horse near the rocks with a lantern around it’s neck (to fool the sailors into thinking they had entered a safe harbour) – or showed up as an opportunist – Grace was soon at the scene, looking to salvage whatever she could.
She found one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but didn’t have him long. Hugh was murdered by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took her bloody revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. Twice unlucky in love, she was at least lucky in piracy – now controlling a choke point, from which she could control all passing ships – she was soon both extremely well known; and extremely wealthy.

Another tale tells how Grace chased one rival chieftain to a small island containing just a church, and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church, Grace besieged him, threatening to stay there till he starved to death if need be. The chief dug a tunnel to safety.

In another tale, Grace was returning from a raid one night – when she moored up for a breather at the town of Howth, near Dublin. Running low on provisions and in need of water, she called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth. Finding the castle gates locked, and sent packing by the porter with the message the Earl is dining and not to be disturbed – Grace left, dejected. On her way back to her ship, she come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. Days later, the distraught Earl arrived in Connaught- willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace returned the child, not for money, but a promise the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors. When he dined he was to always keep a chair free, for any passing travellers. His descendants continue this tradition to this day.

In 1566 she remarried, to the chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – (he owned an ironworks, not for the other thing) – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued to plunder and freeboot. They soon divorced, but did have a child together – known as Toby of the Ships, as he was born while Grace was at sea. The legend states a day after giving birth, their ship was boarded by Barbary pirates. These picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by an angry, half naked lady with a musket. It was bad enough they had the audacity to attack her ship at all, but interrupt her while she was breastfeeding? The interlopers fled for their lives.

1576

Grace O’Malley’s life, and the lives of the other chieftains, took a turn for the worse in 1576. While Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542, this was largely a nominal act. At the time, he was far too busy bringing Wales, newly acquired, to heel. Henry planned to turn his attentions to Scotland next, but a costly war with France broke out in 1544. Henry put his local ambitions on the back burner, then he died. Elizabeth I allowed English expansion, into Ireland – but only made it a necessity in the wake of a threatening letter from the pope in 1570. The letter, Pope Pius V’s ‘bull Regnans in Excelsis’ excommunicated the queen, and urged her peoples to overthrow her – a Protestant – for a God-fearing Catholic. The ’Bull’ was, essentially, a call to whack the queen.

Elizabeth I started to worry a Catholic nation like Spain could capture Ireland, use the country as a base of operations, then invade England. The court discussed this as early as 1565, as war raged between Spain, and the then breakaway state of the Netherlands. Many English mercenaries were involved in the ’80 years war’. For this alone, England was on the radar of the mighty Spanish empire. Not having the cash to mount an invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth allowed takeover by mass immigration. Many arrivals were just the kind of tough guys you want to repel a Spanish Invasion, but this also meant Ireland was also overrun by a whole new class of heavies, happy to run amok and seize whatever land they wanted. In 1569 England sent military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to Connaught. The chieftains opposed his arrival – imported thugs were one thing, an occupying force allegedly there to bring troublemakers in line seemed the bigger threat by far. Fitton had a counterpart in Munster, Sir John Perot. The governors made plans to carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many chieftains resisted. The MacWilliam of Mayo (the chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam died in 1570, and much of Connaught was lost. In 1576, the chieftains all but defeated, English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting. Pledge allegiance to the crown. Pay tax to the queen. Abide by English laws. Return the Gallowglasses to Scotland. Establish an Irish contingent of soldiers, just in case Spain attacks. If the chieftains did all this, they could keep their titles, and some of your land would be returned. Anyone who kept fighting would be erased.
Grace met with Henry Sidney In 1577, and pledged her allegiance to Elizabeth. She also spent some time speaking with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. I couldn’t say what she thought of the poet, but Philip thought Grace a remarkable figure.

Almost immediately afterward, Grace broke the law, launching a raid on the Earl of Desmond, a rival chief who sold out early to the English. This raid went badly, and Grace was consequently jailed for 18 months. In 1581 both she and Richard Bourke officially pledged fealty to Elizabeth in a ceremony, and were rewarded with British titles. This may have been the end of our tale, but for the 1584 arrival of a new, and particularly sadistic governor. Sir Richard Bingham – yes the ancestor of both June’s You Choose contestant John Bingham, Lord Lucan – and the officer responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Bingham was determined to eradicate all opposition whatsoever. He saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.



Bingham first stripped Grace of her title. Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace, technically, a widow. English law stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, and executing two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage for treason. He then kidnapped her beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships. Bingham Finally had Grace arrested and charged with treason. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham allowed.

Seizing the opportunity, Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and sailed for London. She no longer had an army to fight Bingham – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. They were of a similar age. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us back to that meeting at Greenwich palace, September 1593. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we know Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- so the two queens spoke at length in Latin. We know Grace arrived dressed up to the nines in a gown worthy of a queen, She caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, and a knife was found on her ‘for her protection’. Elizabeth’s court Was horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace.

We know she convinced Elizabeth she was a loyal subject who was being terrorized by Bingham. He murdered her family, robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She convincingly argued Bingham was stopping the pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to reinstate Grace’s lands and title – and release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595. This time Elizabeth removed Bingham from his post. This was far from a happily ever after for Connaught – Bingham eventually regained his title. Things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish. Grace O’Malley, However – a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword lived to the ripe old age – for those times – of 72, and died of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

The Bagradas Dragon

Hey all I’m starting this tale with a personal anecdote … cause why not start a tale with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was crazy for anything historical in nature, but especially mad for Forteana. It should be no surprise that when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, it was immediately my favourite show. I have an odd memory of watching Mysterious World one Sunday morning – sprawled out on a large cushion in front of the TV. The week’s episode was all about strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more.

A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was giving an interview. In 1959 Van Lierde was flying helicopters in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo, when he sighted a massive snake convoluting itself through the jungle. Estimating it’s length at close to 50 feet, a shocked Van Lierde turned the whirlybird round. He buzzed the giant several times, a passenger snapping photos of the monster; before it reared up ten feet into the air, in an attempt to strike them. Van Lierde estimated it’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.

“I wonder if anyone went looking for this snake” I say to my father, also watching. “Teddy Roosevelt put a cash prize up for anyone who could bring in a 50 foot snake…”

My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone killed it. The snake must have lived a long life to have become so large. It wasn’t bothering anyone. Any animal like that needs to be protected. Given my dad grew up around a forest, and regularly hunted as a kid, this surprised me. It seems wise commentary, both then and now. 

 Now, on to the topic at hand. Today’s tale is set on the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia – the year 256 BC. Our protagonists, a legion of Roman soldiers. 

At this time Rome was in the midst of a war with Carthage. Anyone who read Hannibal in Bithynia will know something of the Punic wars. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC. They were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well the Phoenicians anyway) had bases on the island from the 9th century BC, and were the big kids on the block at the time. Over the decades the Doric Greeks built up a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian city states remained small and disparate. Around 485 BC Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island, which led to the Ionian cities calling on Carthage for protection. Carthage obliged, and a series of wars raged till 306 BC, when the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; besieging Carthage itself. This was enough to make Carthage consider a peace treaty, though ultimately Agathocles lost the war.

One of the strategic cities in these wars was Messana, modern day Messina – a port city near the border with Italy. It passed back and forth a few times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries called the Mamertines to help him – but when Agathocles died, many of them stayed on as free agents – and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning to piracy to pay the bills. 

Syracuse called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, for help with the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome to back them. By the end of the Pyrrhic wars – which saw Rome briefly allied with Carthage – Rome had annexed Messana. The Romans made overtures to their former foe Syracuse about joining together to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in our tale proper.

The momentum of the war in Rome’s favour, they sent 15,000 men to North Africa, under the command of the consul Marcus Atillus Regulus. They hoped to deal a knock out blow to Carthage itself, as Syracuse had attempted in 306BC. Their plans were crushed when the Carthaginian army, commanded by a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus, dealt the Romans a rare thrashing. Only 2,000 Romans survived the Carthaginian onslaught. Now all that has been said, let’s talk about dragons. 

In 256 BC, Regulus army landed on a peninsula now called Cape Bon.  From there they would make their was through wild terrain, and a few unfriendly villages – to avoid a suicidal head on assault on the capital. They pushed on to the Bagradas river, and set up camp. Several men were sent to get water, one soon back in a mad panic… a monster had crushed or eaten the others. A party of armed men were sent to investigate. They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’ – more on that phrase in a second – which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s jaws or smashing them with a crack of its long tail. The classical sources all agree the beast had no legs, though one describes it as having a torso, and propelling itself on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine. 

The giant animal stood it’s ground as more and more men arrived – continuing to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless, their spears bouncing off it’s scales. Regulus finally arrived, a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower that looked something like a giant crossbow, predating more well known artillery like the trebuchet. A large stone was hurled at the beast, paralysing it. Once immobilised, the army moved in and stabbed the beast to death. 

The stench of the dead creature was soon so overpowering Regulus had to relocate their base. He did send some men back the following day however to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where it was marvelled over till it disappeared a century later. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman poet Sirius Italicus wrote an epic poem on the Punic wars, which makes mention of the battle with the serpens – a word which can denote either a snake or a dragon – with the more specific ‘Drakon’ – and the legend of a Roman army who battled a dragon coalesced. 

While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. Though I wondered if they came across a gigantic crocodile – a couple of sources were adamant Roman soldiers of this era knew exactly what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons have been known to grow in excess of 25 feet, African rock pythons as long as 20 feet have been spotted in the wild by people considered reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from a monster – say 60 feet long – so as to leave 120 feet of skin behind. There are, however, a number of reports from other classical sources claiming encounters with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago bear witness to snakes which could grow close to the size of the Bagradas dragon. 

a model of a titanoboa

Add to this, if the dragon was a largely water borne snake, in theory some of the limits set on terra firma by gravity on a body go out of the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in their catchment. 

I am extremely sceptical of the tale of the Bagradas Dragon, but a giant snake is plausible. It almost makes one shudder to think of the monsters potentially out there – unctuously coiling its powerful frame around some unfortunate prey…. and I guess I wish that monster well? 

Mithridates – The Poison King of Pontus.

Today we join our tale right at it’s conclusion – the year 63 BC. The setting, the kingdom of Pontus – a once powerful Black Sea empire – now a region of Eastern Turkey. Mithridates VI Eupator paces the floor – if you’ll pardon my self plagiarism – like a caged Barbary Lion. Like Hannibal, Mithridates spent decades at war with Rome. Roman imperialism was the great evil of his time – an evil which must be stopped, whatever the cost. Now admittedly, nothing regarding Mithridates is ever cut and dried. The renowned freedom fighter was also a genocidal despot. A paranoid megalomaniac, raised to believe a series of comets and other omens marked him out as a messiah. Saviour of the East. King of Kings. 

Legitimately tracing his lineage back to both Alexander the Great and Persian King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, he worshipped these men. He wanted nothing more than to emulate their conquests. 

Mithridates grew up reading of all manner of legendary figures – and not just mythical tales of Amazonians, the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus’ punishment for bringing fire to Earth – all of which allegedly happened in his back yard. He idolised real figures; like Antiochus III of Syria; Attalus, the poison king of Pergamon; Aristonicus, the rebel leader of the ‘citizens of the sun’, who  carried out a years long guerrilla war with Rome. He recalled Jugurtha, the Berber King of Numidia – who fought Rome, but was defeated and paraded in chains before thousands of jeering Romans.

Unquestionably he knew of Hannibal – who proved Rome could be beaten – but ultimately ended up in a room much like this – pacing, contemplating a poison vial – as he too, now was.  

Mithridates was no Hannibal. For one he brought this on himself. The Roman, Pompey the Great marched into Asia to finish him – but judging him, if not dead then a spent force – left to conquer the Levant. He was free and clear so long as he kept out of Rome’s way. His own people, in the city of Pantikapaion, were the ones surrounding him. Baying for his blood. They refused to send more loved ones off to die in his wars. The latest plan – to cross the Italian alps like Hannibal – was the final straw. By day’s end, his son Pharnaces would be king. 

Accompanied by his two youngest daughters, and bodyguard, Mithridates gave a sip of fast acting poison to each of the girls, then took the rest himself – and then….. Well we’ll come back to that.  

Mithridates was born 135 BC, in Sinope, a wealthy port city on the edge of the Black Sea. Legend has it his birth coincided with a particularly bright comet passing through the sky – something many augurers read as an omen the child would be a great conquerer. He received the kind of classical education reserved for the wealthy – and showed a talent for botany and languages. He was also a gifted athlete – with a love of high risk pursuits.

In his teens his father, Mithridates V, died suddenly at a state banquet. Many suspected his mother, Laodice, of poisoning the king. The newly crowned Mithridates VI worried he’d meet the same fate as his father, so he ran away into the forests. Accompanied by an entourage, he travelled the length of his kingdom, meeting all the chieftains, the movers and shakers in the land.  Many nights they slept under the stars, and hunted for their meals. They played the tourist, going to sites where Alexander, or Xenophon, or mythic heroes like Hercules did legendary things. Learning the lay of the land, and of the myriad cultures of the polyglot kingdom – he was off on the original ‘grand tour’. 

At this time he became increasingly fixated on poisons and toxins – Pontus was full of things that could kill you – beyond his mother, and the obvious – like snakes and scorpions, even the ducks and honey in parts of his land were toxic enough to put you in a coma. Fearful of dying as his father had, he began a years long quest to develop an antidote to protect him from all poisons. 

At around 23 years of age, he returned to Sinope. In his absence, Laodice made an alliance with Rome, and was living a rather sumptuous lifestyle while the people struggled under heavy Roman taxation. In this time Rome had alliances – or flat out conquered several states in the near east making them the overlords of what was then considered Asia.  The Romans heavily taxed many of these places, and with bureaucrats and soldiers, came thousands of merchants looking for profit in the east. They were an insular lot, who thought themselves superior to the locals. They brought industrial levels of slavery with them – many of the slaves former citizens of the very places these Romans settled in. Mithridates, who notoriously hated the Romans, caught the zeitgeist and swept back into power. In what started as a bloodless revolution, he took the reigns and rescinded all agreements with Rome. He dealt with his father’s alleged murderers, got rid of Roman taxes – and the people rejoiced. On the home front he married his sister – something far more acceptable those days – and had a couple of kids together. They would fall out later, after his wife, also called Laodice, tried to kill him. Mithridates ordered her execution.

In 88 BC, Mithridates masterminded an incident which altered the course of his life – and had the follow through played out differently – would have changed world history to this day in ways we can only imagine. To this day it stands as one of history’s worst terrorist attacks. For months, Mithridates plotted with dozens of near eastern leaders to attack all Romans and other Italians in the region. The attack would occur simultaneously in dozens of cities – by thousands of locals. All Italians would be massacred. How he communicated with dozens of leaders is a mystery – suggestions include envoys with the orders tattooed on the backs of their heads, hidden under hair till they arrived – and instructions written on pigs’ bladders – carefully stuck to the insides of vases. More remarkably, of the thousands involved – no-one spilled the beans to Rome.  

The Temple of Artemis

On an unspecified date in May 88 BC, thousands of people from all walks of life took up arms and turned on Rome. In Pergamon – Rome’s capital in Asia – Roman settlers fled to the Temple of Asclepius. In many cities, they fled to temples, believing the mobs would fear the wrath of the Gods. Mobs burst into the temples that day – in Pergamon executing all, up close and personal, with bows and arrows. In Ephesus, Romans took refuge in the Temple of Artemis. A similar scene played out, this time they were cut down with swords, knives, and sundry other weapons. In Adramyttion, they were forced into the sea and drowned. In Caunus, the large slave population gathered the Romans around the statue of their god Vesta, then methodically slaughtered then – starting with children, then moving to the women – then finally the men. 

In Tralles, a mercantile town, local leaders didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They hired a Paphlagonian mercenary named Theophilus, and his gang to do the hit. They rode in to town looking something like a biker gang,  herded the Romans into a temple, then painted the walls with their blood. And on it went. Genocidal acts in dozens of towns and cities, aided by local hatred for Rome. Somewhere in the order of 80,000 Romans were murdered that day. 

Initially, things looked great for Mithridates. The massacre sparked an economic depression in Italy. Rome, already fighting the ‘social war’ with several Italian states, broke into a civil war proper – as the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla made a play for dictator. The path was clear for Mithridates to take over all of Asia Minor. From there he would expel Rome from Greece. His army swept through the Turkish kingdoms of Bithynia, Phrygia, Ionia, Mysia, Lycia, Cappadocia… Many Greek city states welcomed him as a liberator, and flocked his side to help. Athens threw off the Roman yoke of oppression, led by the philosopher Athenion. Rome couldn’t retaliate – they already had too much going on. For a while Mithridates looked unstoppable. This all soon changed.    

Rhodes was the first stumbling block. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s passing, the island nation became a respected military and trading power. In 305 BC they proved their toughness after Macedonia laid siege to the island. Rhodes hung in there as the Macedonians hit them with massive siege engines, 180 foot long battering rams.. you name it. Macedonia finally gave up, abandoning weapons and siege engines. Rhodes sold the abandoned gear for scrap, making enough to construct the Statue of Liberty sized Colossus of Rhodes with the proceeds. 

When Mithridates besieged Rhodes in 88 BC, the colossus was long gone – it fell into the sea after an earthquake in the 260s BC. Rhodes’ tenacity, however, remained in spades.

 Mithridates landed in the first wave – tasked with taking out the smaller towns and setting up a base. The people of Rhodes were all safely behind the capital’s defensive walls. The towns outside the walls razed, the fields cleared. With no home base, and only the supplies brought with them, they hunkered down and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Very few of them would make it to Rhodes. First, his navy were caught in a violent storm, and several ships were lost. Next, Rhodes sent out their Admiral, Damogorus with a small but experienced fleet of much quicker biremes. They sunk several more Pontic vessels before departing. 

Next Mithridates army ruined their assault on the city. The plan was a group sent into the hills to look for the navy would light a signal fire from a hilltop, when it was time to attack. Rhodes caught wind of this and lit a fire of their own. An ill-prepared army charged early, and were mown down. Then there was the Sambuca. A Sambuca is a large ramp, usually sailed up to defensive walls on the front of a ship, then lowered onto the wall. Soldiers then run up the ramp at the enemy. Mithridates Sambuca was an unwieldy contraption with catapults at it’s base, and so big it needed two ships to carry it. It collapsed under it’s own weight, taking the ships with it. Unceremoniously defeated, Mithridates turned tail and sailed for Pontus. 

A Sambuca

This incident set the tone for much of the Mithridatic Wars. While he commanded much larger armies – leadership was poor. They trapped themselves in indefensible places. They fought like 4th century BC Greek hoplites while 1st century BC wars were best fought like Roman legions. Rome, in the meantime, regained their footing under Sulla, who funded an expedition by raiding, first Roman – then Greek temples. Greece fell to Sulla in 86 BC, following the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. A peace treaty was verbally agreed to in 85 BC, the treaty of Dardanos – Mithridates handed all his conquests back to Rome, or their original Roman puppet rulers. He gave up much of his navy to Rome, and incurred a massive fine. A second Mithridatic war soon followed. Lucius Licinius Murena, tasked with re-establishing Rome’s Asian territories started a war with Pontus in 83 BC. Mithridates was far better prepared, and this war ended inconclusively after Sulla ordered Murena out of Asia. 

Mithridates had learned a lot from the first war – but he also made a powerful ally in his new son in law – Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia. 

We’ll come to the third, and final war in a moment. Let’s talk about peace and the home front. In peace time the court of Mithridates was abundant in all things. Leading the festivities the King of Kings himself. On any given night there was a great feast. The entertainment could be anything from Greek plays, to sporting events to the hottest bands in the empire. Drinking and eating contests were frequent – ancient sources tell us no-one could out eat or out drink Mithridates. The king was in the midst of the merriment – often surrounded by his harem of beautiful women from across his kingdom. There was often a point in the evening when the feast took a darker turn. 

Some unlucky prisoner would be brought forth, and forced to drink poison. All would look on as the human guinea pig died. Mithridates would then perform his party trick. A servant would pour him a glass of the same poison – and he would gleefully imbibe. Legend has it his years of paranoia he’d meet the same end as his father bore fruit. Over years of trial and error, having poisoned a great many criminals and prisoners of war – the Kings of kings – the Poison King, had developed an antidote to most poisons. Every day the king took a vial of his ‘mithridatium’ to fend off the poisoners. Though the recipe is now lost, some people believe the Romans did get their hands on it – and several Emperors took it daily. Theriac, a Greek supposed panacea which remained popular till the 19th century may well have been mithradatium. If there is anything most people know about Mithridates it is mithridatium – the British poet A.E. Housman writing in his epic poem, A Shropshire Lad.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Now, back to the Mithridatic wars. I couldn’t hope to cover this all in detail in the confines of a 20 minute episode – but here’s the main points. One thread that runs through Mithridates wars is his belief he should be the overlord of the neighbouring kingdom of Bithynia. Mithridates was once an ally of their King Nicomedes III. They fell out. After the first Mithridatic war, Bithynia was handed back to Rome’s puppet king Nicomedes IV – who died in 74 BC – leaving Bithynia to the Romans. Rome was tied up with an uprising in Spain, led by the rogue general Quintus Sertorius. This was all Mithridates needed to march an army into Bithynia, and reclaim the land. To add to the chaos, a Thracian slave called Spartacus led an uprising in Italy itself at around the same time. As often the case, the war played well for Mithridates, till Rome could afford to give him all their attention – then it turned ugly very quickly.

Several other nations, including his allies in Armenia, were drawn into this conflict. When the war began, Mithridates was in command of an army of 300,000 soldiers. The Roman generals were far too good for his army, however – and he would conclude with a band of a few thousand guerrilla fighters – engaged in hit and run surprise attacks on Rome. Tigranes’ empire would be brought to heel by Rome, for their part in the war. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. The Roman general Lucillus had control of Pontus, then lost control in 67 BC following the Battle of Zela. Rome responded by sending in Pompey the Great – fresh from victories against Sertorius in Spain, unfairly claiming victory over Spartacus, and cleaning up the growing piracy problem in the Mediterranean. Pompey proved too much for Mithridates and soon all the poison king had was a small band of fighters (including his new partner, a real life ‘Amazonian’, a Scythian warrior named Hypsicratea) … and a tiny kingdom of the Bosphorus – in modern day Crimea.In 66 BC Pompey pursued Mithridates to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Not expecting a man now in his late 60s to be capable of crossing the Caucasus, Pompey had a handful of ships cruising the edge of the Black Sea for the group. He then took his army to the Levant, to conquer new lands. 

But survive he did. He crossed through the Scythian Keyhole, and marched into Pantikapaion. Unlike Hannibal, he could have lived the rest of his life in peace – but in 63 BC Mithridates started to plot another invasion. This time he’d assemble another army of tens of thousands of local sons, with a few Scythian and Sarmatian daughters – they would march till they reached the River Danube – then follow it down to the Italian Alps. He planned, once again, to emulate the great Hannibal. Little did he know the people would riot, and he’d be copying Hannibal in a completely different way. 

To bring our tale full circle. Mithridates is in the tower. His daughters have passed on. Mithridates, on the other hand, paces the room – in the hope an increased heart rate will speed up the poison. He paces the room, sweaty, clammy, a little woozy – but it appears impervious to whatever toxin is racing through his system – be it arsenic, hellebore, hemlock, belladonna or the toxic ducks which swam in the Black Sea. Out of options, Mithridates turned to his bodyguard, Bituitus – and begged to be put to the sword. He knew his end would be many times worse if the angry mob got a hold of him. Within days, his body would be shipped to Pompey, just to let Rome know they won.  

Sometimes a Tale concludes, and I’ve got some bit of insight, some moral. I’m not sure I really do here. Don’t mess with Imperial Rome? It goes without saying, though I think a lot of ‘barbarian’ peoples were morally right to resist – though through lack of firepower – or expertise, things were always going to end badly for them. If I had a full hour to tell this story, then maybe it’s all about omens, and not taking them too seriously (check out the ‘prelude’ I wrote to this tale a few weeks ago for an example). Maybe this is a tale of obsession, and knowing your stop loss point? Mithridates obsessive drive to be like his mightier ancestors, combined with an obsessive hatred of Rome led him to genocide, and a series of wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives. He lost everyone he loved. Obsession destroyed a great empire – only not the one he expected it to. Likewise his obsession to not die as his father did, ultimately, worked only too well.  

Mithridates – A Prelude.

The following snippet is set 73 BC, the setting Otryae – a town in Phrygia – modern day Turkey. Two armies with long standing resentments face off against one another. One, the Roman army of the consul Lucillus – protege of the recently deceased dictator Sulla. The other, Mithridates ragtag coalition of steppe barbarians and assorted Asian nationalities. For decades, particularly since 88 BC (following an incident which will loom large in the upcoming blog and podcast episode) Rome and Pontus have been locked in a particularly bloody war for control of the near east. Hundreds of thousands would perish. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say had this played out differently, EVERYTHING would be different.

But I don’t want to get too deep into that tale right now. We’ll do that 21st April. I do, however, want to share one small incident.

It is 73 BC, and Mithridates in on the move. He’s organised a grand army of 300,000, and is off to conquer the world. Lucillus is at the head of an army of just 32,000, mostly obstinate, mutinous remnants from previous legions abandoned in Anatolia. Lucillus army has accidentally stumbled across this massive force, and is understandably unnerved by them. Mithridates responds by sending out several thousand men, commanded by one M. Varius – a Roman turncoat lent to him by Quintus Sertorius. (Sertorius a fellow turncoat, who, at this time is also at war with Rome, in modern day Spain.)

Lucillus orders his men into formation and prepares for battle. The two sides face off, eyeballing one another across a field. Any second now all hell will break loose in Otryae..

Suddenly, from high above, a meteorite bursts across the sky, and strikes just where the two armies were set to skirmish. There is a massive flash of light. And a deafening boom. And both sides are pelted with rocks and other shrapnel from the sizeable crater left in it’s wake.

The opposing armies peer into the hole in the ground – a hole considerably larger than the four foot wide object which just hit the earth. One could imagine the discomfort as both sides simultaneously work through what this omen may mean to them – while looking for a clue on their opponent’s take on the incident. Ultimately, Lucillus and Varius decided they weren’t risking the Gods wrath that day.

Both armies departed, wondering just what the hell happened.

I honestly don’t know how I’m going to cram everything into a 20 minute podcast episode on Mithridates, but it is a tale of omens, particularly from above- and blind trust in oracles proclaiming a new king of kings from the east… and a whole bunch of other things. There are many tales like that of the meteorite of Otryae which will likely be left out.

Resuming 21st April I want to share the tale of Mithridates, of a rogue mobster, a ‘crime of the century, a battle with a river monster, revisit a warrior queen, introduce an occultist who makes super-weapons, talk a little about the 19th century pastime of ‘playing the ghost’, discuss a largely forgotten prankster, and present a Maori prophet… before I take another 4 week break. I’m hoping in the interim, however, to have a couple of podcast episodes recorded (of previous blog posts) to fill the gap.
And, of course, there is You Decide # 1 – Lord Lucan v Hale Boggs.

I’ll be back soon. – Simone.

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.     

Murder in Hartlepool…

Content warning, the following tale discusses xenophobic folk songs and pamphlets. 

Today’s tale is set in Hartlepool – a seaside town in County Durham in the North East of England.. The date? … please, dear reader have mercy on me this week – I lost two writing days to a bout of food poisoning, then my old tablet died on me – I’ve dumped my proposed Tale this week for something I know well enough to pull together quickly – and unfortunately details are a little sketchy.

The date, has never been stipulated other than to say ‘The Napoleonic Wars’ – so any time between 1803 and 1815, most likely (taking into account the carnage at Trafalgar)  1803 – 1805.

A lone French ship – never named in the sources – has been scattered the length of the beach. Tempest tossed the night before in the merciless North Sea, it has been smashed against the rocks till split in two. Locals gather to see who has run afoul of the weather, what is onboard, and if there are any survivors. One could picture a nightmarish scene. Amid the piles of flotsam and jetsam are dozens of corpses, all sailors ultimately under the command of ‘Little Boney’, the dreaded Napoleon Bonaparte. The assembled rescuers, onlookers and pillagers knew this didn’t bode well for them. Were they a target for the French? Some way down the beach, a survivor crouched low on all fours, observing the scene. Short and excessively hairy, he appeared clad in a child’s uniform. Babbling in a language unknown to the assembled, the small man yelped at the locals, flashed a mouth full of canine teeth, then attempted to scarper. With considerable effort, the short man was eventually pinned by a couple of strong men, then escorted away. 

The locals had no idea what to do next, and had a million questions for the strange man. Was the ship a vanguard for a larger, expeditionary force still on it’s way? Were they there to land a French spy? Why them? Hartlepool was yet to become the industrial centre it would soon become. 

With a growing population just down the road at West Hartlepool – and a spa industry which brought in many tourists every year, a stranger could easily blend in – something which no doubt made the locals very jittery now. 

An impromptu kangaroo court put question after question to the survivor – only to get answers back in an unintelligible gibberish. They were at war with France. The man was in a French uniform, seemingly having come from a French warship wrecked on the beach. When they asked him if he were a spy, he never denied it. This strange, hairy man seemed dangerous – incredibly agile, and considerably stronger than he looked. This was enough for the locals to condemn the man to death by hanging.  A gibbet was constructed in the town square. The Frenchman was hung by the neck till pronounced dead. 

Some time later it was discovered the hairy man was not a man after all, but a monkey – probably a ship’s mascot. The people of West Hartlepool, who considered the people of Old Hartlepool little smarter than the average chimp, mocked them mercilessly for the hanging. They might have regretted this as urban sprawl led to a conjoining of West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool into one greater Hartlepool. They were all ‘monkey hangers’ now, by British estimation. What does one do with such an embarrassing appellation? Lean into it. 

In Hartlepool, where a statue to the poor, unfortunate monkey stands memorial to his unwarranted execution – many wear the name ‘Monkey Hanger’ with pride. Their soccer team, Hartlepool United are nicknamed the monkey hangers. Their mascot ‘H’Angus the Monkey’. In 2002, Stuart Drummond successfully one upped Screaming Lord Sutch and Count Binface by actually getting himself elected mayor. Campaigning in a H’Angus the monkey suit, Drummond ran on a simple promise of free bananas for all school children. 

Later writers suggested there was something more diabolical at play in this hanging – children were often ‘powder monkeys’ aboard ships. Their job, to ferry gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the cannons. Did these locals mete out summary justice to some poor prisoner of war, then concoct this monkey tale to avoid a hanging themselves? –  

Did this change the complexion of the legend for the locals? Well…. their soccer team are still the monkey hangers. Mayor Drummond presided over Hartlepool for three terms. 

But did any of this actually happen?

Almost certainly not. 

From 1803 to 1815 over 38,000 ships wrecked along the coast of the United Kingdom. Just fourteen of those were in, or around Hartlepool. It is a matter of public record that all 14 ships were English. No monkeys were hanged on any of them.So where did the Tale come from?

Enter Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan (1830 – 1865). Corvan, born in Liverpool, moved with his family to Newcastle upon Tyne aged four. At the age of only seven his father died, leaving Ned the man of the house. He was sent to work for sail makers, but having no aptitude for the work was let go. After this he took on any work he could find for Billy Purvis’ Victoria Theatre – a travelling music hall troupe, based in Newcastle – but regularly touring the North of England. Corvan soon went from gopher, to child star. The boy could not only sing, he could make up songs on the fly about whatever town they were playing in… In 1855 he wrote ‘The fisherman hung the monkey O!’, while in Hartlepool.

In former times, mid war and strife
The French invasion threatened life
And all was armed to the knife
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

The fisherman with courage high
Seized the monkey for a spy
Hang him says yen, says another he’ll die
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

Dooram a dooram a dooram a da
Dooram a dooram a da

They tried every means to make him speak
They tortured the monkey till loud he did squeak
Says one that’s French, says another that’s Greek
For the fishermen then got drunkey O!

He’s hair all over some chaps did cry
He’s up to something cute and sly
With a cod’s head then they closed an eye
Afore they hung the monkey O!

Corvan’s song had precursors, which may have been sources for The Fisherman hung the monkey O! In 1825, an anonymous pamphlet, The Monkey Barber, was doing the rounds. It told a tale of an unfortunate Irish farm labourer come to Glasgow, Scotland to harvest crops. Having stopped at a barber’s shop, he found a hairy little barber waiting for customers, so he asked for a shave. I think you can guess the rest of this xenophobic tale, but if not, things don’t end well for the poor Irishman. There was allegedly another song in 1825, The Baboon – toasting a baboon who recently visited the UK with a party of Cossack soldiers. I couldn’t find anything specific about the song, other than several secondary sources mention it’s existence. 

Then there was a tale, allegedly from Boddam, Aberdeenshire – Scotland. the date, some time in 1772. A ship washes up on the rocks, killing all on board. Local pillagers arrive to find a sole survivor – a pet monkey. Believing a shipwreck with no survivors fair pickings, the men murder the monkey – then continue to strip the wreck of anything of value. There is as much evidence for this case as there is for anyone in Hartlepool ever having executed a monkey.