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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“This ain’t one body’s story. It’s the story of us all. We got it mouth-to-mouth. You got to listen it and ‘member. ‘Cause what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow. I’m looking behind us now. . . .across the count of time. . . .down the long haul, into history back. I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain! And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time. It were full-on winter. . .and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch. That were Captain Walker.
He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies to the sky! So they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers. . .and what were left of the knowing, they left behind. Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck. . .some had been jumped by Mr. Dead. . . but some had got the luck, and it leads them here. One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth. ” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “
(all)”We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “
Time counts and keeps counting. They gets missing what they had. They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video. And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost. ‘Member this? (Holds a viewfinder toy to Max’s eyes- picture of a city scape)
(all) Tomorrow-morrow Land! ‘Member this? (time lapse picture of a motorway at night) (all) The River of Light! ‘Member this? (picture of an aircraft) (all) Skyraft! ‘Member this? (a pilot) (all) Captain Walker! ‘Member this? (a burlesque dancer) (all) Mrs. Walker!
The Tell of Captain Walker – from Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
I may be the only one who thinks of Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome when I think Cargo Cults, but hey I was 9 when the film was released, and maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw the film. It is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever. This Tale of History and Imagination involves a group who would look strangely familiar to Savannah Nix and her Cargo Cult of Captain Walker.
On 15th February every year a fascinating ritual takes place on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (known for the longest time as the New Hebrides). It is the holiest of holy days on the island. Large groups of ‘Ni Vanuatu’, the people of Vanuatu gather beside a home-made landing strip. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants; the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others are in full military uniform. In the shadow of Mount Yasur – bamboo ‘guns’ in hand – they get into formation and drill before their gods. The sacred hoisting of the flags follows – first the Stars and Stripes, then the US Marine corps insignia, then finally the state flag for the American state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they depart, hopeful this year their messiah returns, bringing on a golden age.
Who is their saviour you may ask? Jesus? Muhammad? Siddhartha Gautama?
Their saviour is an American soldier named John Frum. He first appeared during the second world war. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would be a 1960 documentary by Sir David Attenborough called “The People of Paradise”. Attenborough is on the island and asks one of the locals to describe Frum, the local replies…
“E look like you. E got white face. E tall man. E live long in South America”
The tale of John Frum has fascinated me for years. It is an insight into how a religion can form, the significance of folk heroes, and the need for ‘noble myths’ to bring people together for a greater good. To understand this tale, first we needs must discuss the history of the Ni Vanuatu.
The Melanesian adventurers we now call Ni Vanuatu first came to the islands by boat around 3,300 years ago. Archaeological evidence confirms this approximate timeline. All indications are once arrived they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, and claimed the chain for his employers, Spain. He established a small, short lived colony, who gave up and decided to sail for home. The Spanish forgot the location of Vanuatu, leaving them free to be claimed by the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. Captain James Cook came across the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain the mystery of Eilean Mor was set on. For the better part of the following century they were left to their own devices by these strange, pale visitors, however colonization would wreak havoc on the Ni Vanuatu soon after.
The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century, after Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesians from other island chains to cut down the trees. This led to violent skirmishes between the groups.
In 1862 a practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ also came to the island chain. Blackbirding was a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This sometimes came in the form of conning tribes into signing predatory contracts with horrendously bad terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery by another name, occasionally with a pittance of a wage which would disappear in the cost of the victim’s keep. The first blackbirder to find them was an Irishman named J.C Byrne, who was on the prowl for cheap labour for the plantations of Peru. Unfortunately for Vanuatu, in 1862 a blight had killed off much of their supply of coconuts and there was a famine – a large number of men jumped voluntarily at the work. Once word got out Byrne had so easily conned 253 Ni Vanuatu to work in Peru, many other ships arrived. Between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships arrived, looking for wage slaves for South and Central American plantations. At it’s height several Vanuatuan islands had lost over half their male populations to blackbirding. To this day their population numbers have not fully bounced back.
Soon after, with less locals to defend the islands, white settlers settled on the archipelago. They established their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit.
This was also around the time God arrived. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the gospel. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French, reminded he who the spiky bougainvillea is named after found the archipelago earlier, were now arriving 2 to 1 to every British settler. Rather than come to blows, Britain and France decided to jointly rule the island chain – first by gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s, then a written joint agreement in 1906, then the Anglo-French protocol of 1914 – then finally a formal ratification in 1922. The Ni Vanuatu were suddenly overrun, told what to think, where they can and cannot go. Only marginally less slaves than the men Blackbirded away decades earlier. Did they need another hero? A handsome stranger with an odd accent to descend, deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they did. We will look at this in part two next week. [Edit: for reposting purposes I rewrote this post as a one parter. Simone]
Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning…
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indestinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke – Hazards of Prophecy: The failure of imagination.
“He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it” Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness.
Hey everyone welcome back to part two of the legend of John Frum. In part one I sketched out for colonization encroached upon the lives of the Ni Vanuatu. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science, they would find their own Captain Walker, but the heroic struggle to break the manacles of oppression was all on them. I would also invite you all to re-read the quotes directly above; the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz took over the tribe – fairly accurately portraying the tactics of the likes of Leon Rom – who Kurtz is believed to be based on. No doubt the British and French came with requisite thunder and lightning – though in the Ni Vanuatu’s case, thunder and lightning would also be their salvation.
Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs. He used modern weapons to convinc the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor were mistaken for the ghost of the ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived on his first voyage. On his final voyage, this time on the Resolution, he was thought a god by the people of Hawaii. Unfortunately for Cook, gods, like mortals, can outwear their welcome – and he was stabbed to death and dismembered. My favourite example from history, where an advanced person used technology to seem magical is in 585BC; where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, had calculated an eclipse, and managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the event signified the gods were displeased with the war. When the world went dark, fighting stopped and a truce was signed.
Back to Vanuatu, we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, the USA decided it may need a military presence looking after their Pacific interests. They sent soldiers to Tanna Island, Vanuatu – brandishing technology sufficiently advanced that to the people of Vanuatu, it did seem like magic. Unlike plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their magical wonders, never worked … at least not in a way understood by the people of Tanna as work. When something broke for the plantation owner, it had to be fixed. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared; dropped out of the sky by giant iron birds. The Americans prayed to the magic box with the poles, and long wires. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, spoke back to them in strange voices. Record players seemed magic. Cameras seemed so. Their food was magic, as they never needed to harvest it.
The Ni Vanuatu saw the radio masts as a totem to their gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were the priests. And the cargo, dropped by magical giant birds, was manna from heaven. The Ni Vanuatu began to ask if they were to imitate these rituals, would the gods be so kind to them too?
Around 1940 a legend began to spread of the messianic American soldier. The first recorded ‘sightings’ of John Frum occur. Some of the villagers tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, stating he used to be called Manehivi, before he was blackbirded to South America. Now he had come back with a new look, and name, to save them. Follow me and you will have more cargo than you know what to do with. To others he claims to be a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun; returned to take the island back, and usher in a golden age. To all Frum promises a better, happier future.
In 1941 the villagers of Tanna act. Frum has spoken, telling them to quit the schools and churches. Down tools and walk away from the plantations. Rid themselves of the white man’s money, and go back to their old ways. He was coming to save them – so they did. The missionaries and plantation owners went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent some soldiers in to force the people back to the fields, churches and classrooms. They found them inland; feasting, dancing, and practicing the old rituals as they best remembered them. They refused to leave. The officers did arrest the ringleaders, and exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but this had no effect on the Ni Vanuatu of Tanna. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return; some would pick up some work in the plantations, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers and their ways again.
After World War Two the Americans left. The villagers took over what was left of the base, and rebuilt the runway. Often they would try to flag passing planes down, in the hope one would land – carrying John Frum – laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of a priest called Nakomaha, they formed the ‘Tanna Army’, to march and drill in uniform,- hoping this would bring John Frum home. In the 1970’s, as legal independance beckoned; members of the religion of John Frum worried an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu. They formed a political party to safeguard their interests. In 2011 they had their first female leader of the religion of Frum; a Vietnamese born lady named Thi Tam Goiset. For a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia, though her appointment would end in scandal in 2013.
To this day the people of Tanna believe their messiah, the American soldier John Frum, will return, He has not forgotten them. Every February 15th they march, raise the flag, and wait. Their messiah shall come again.
Originally posted 17th and 24th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Reedited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
Today’s tale is set in a theater in London England, for argument’s sake let’s set the date at some time in 1860. The crowd is enthralled by the magician and storyteller, one Henry Brown, as he shares his tale of survival. Many, however, wish he had never told his tale to all in sundry – more on that later. To Brown, ‘Box’ to his friends – to do so is as much an act of survival as his initial deed. For twenty five years his story, and accompanying magic act would keep a roof over his head. Before we discuss the brief tale of Henry Box Brown, it pays to add a little context.
When looking for a year zero for the slave trade in the colonies which became the USA, the year 1619 is generally quoted. Besides a few Africans held captive by Spain in St Augustine, Florida in the 1560s this seems accurate. In 1619, a Portuguese ship, the San Juan Batista, was headed for Brazil with several hundred Africans, shackled then stashed below decks. These men and women had come from what is now Luanda, Angola.
Portugal was at war with the Angolan Kingdom of Ndongo. It would be easy to get lost in the weeds on this, but Portugal had five decades of peace with Ndongo – even loaning them mercenaries at one point. The construction of a Portuguese fort in Luanda in 1575 soured relations between the two kingdoms. The Portuguese were kicked out, but sought help from the Kingdom of Kongo to help conquer the massive country. From 1579, till the signing of a truce in 1621, some 50,000 citizens of Ndongo were taken into slavery as prisoners of war – then shipped off to Brazil. There they would be worked to death in the plantations. Considerably more than this would be sent post-truce. This was one such shipload.
Back on the San Juan Batista. The ship was intercepted by an aristocratic English freebooter named Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. His ships The White Lion and The Treasurer swiftly took control of the vessel. Not knowing what to do when they found all they had was slaves, they took several of these people, then departed. In August 1619 The White Lion docked in Virginia with 20 Ndongo, who were promptly sold to local farmers. Thus began a disgrace which would see 600,000 Africans imported as chattel – 388,000 directly to American markets with the remainder coming in via the Caribbean. Slaves would have children, adding to the slave pool (Under the ‘partus sequitur ventrem’ principle, literally ‘that which is brought forth follows the belly’). In 1860, as the Union and Confederate states prepared to go to war over slavery, the slaveholding states contained just shy of 4 million slaves – at an estimated resale value of $3.6 Billion, in 1860 money. Born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815, to two slaves, Henry Brown was one such gentleman.
Of all the tales of slavery I could choose, Henry Brown’s is one of the less shocking, in some respects. By his own telling his ‘masters’ were not cruel people – he never suffered beatings, never went without food or drink. He felt a great injustice at being forced to work for a miniscule share in the profit (he was put to work in a tobacco factory, and was paid a pittance), and a great sorrow at not being able to follow his own muse in life. He did have some great joy in his life, however. As a young man he fell in love with another slave – known to history as Nancy. The couple married – an act not recognized officially by either’s owner – and had three children together. In 1848 Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, when something awful happened. Henry and Nancy were never allowed to live together, as they were owned by two neighboring plantations. Nancy’s plantation suddenly decided to sell 350 of their slaves to a farm in North Carolina. Distraught and helpless, Henry could only look on in tears as his wife and children were led away in shackles. They would never meet again.
Sinking into a deep depression for months, the loss of his family would prove the turning point in his life. As depression gave way to anger, Henry Brown committed to escaping at all costs. Through James C.A. Smith – a free black friend, Brown was introduced to Samuel A. Smith (no relation); a white anti-slavery sympathizer. In turn contacting Philadelphia based abolitionist James Miller McKim, the men established a plan to escape to the North, on March 23rd 1849.
On the day of the escape, Henry Brown went to work at the tobacco factory. Brown burned his own hand with sulfuric acid, the wound going down to the bone. He was dismissed to get medical attention. Now free to make his escape, he met with the Smiths, who loaded Brown into a wooden box – three feet long, two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide. With a layer of cloth between him and the rough, wooden sides, and nothing more than a bladder of water and a few biscuits to sustain him in his journey – Brown was nailed in. A small breathing hole was cut, and the words ‘This side up’ were stenciled on the outside. The Smiths then loaded Brown on a train from Richmond to Philadelphia – a 27 hour journey.
The ride inside the crate, packed tighter than he would have been in a coffin, was far from comfortable. There was no single railway line at this time, so Brown had to be carted from wagon to train, from ferry to steamboat, and back again. At several points in the trip the box ended up upside down – Brown later writing of the feeling of his blood pooling in his head while topsy turvy.
“I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head”
Quietly, he suffered through the bumpy, dangerous ride. He could have died if left upside down for too long, but was likely saved by someone riding the boxcars, in need somewhere to sit. Seeing his box on it’s side, the presumed itinerant flipped the box back over and took a pew. Arriving in Philadelphia, Brown’s box was retrieved by James Miller McKim, along with fellow abolitionists William Sill, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson. As they cracked open the top, Brown emerged greeting the men “How do you do gentlemen? I waited patiently on the Lord, and He heard my prayer” before breaking into a psalm.
So… where does this tale get troublesome?
Well, let’s start with Henry… He was a little troublesome. On the question of whether to publicize Henry’s great escape, two divergent groups formed. One faction, led by the foremost former slave of his time, Frederick Douglass, felt they should not tell Henry’s story. To do so would rob others of an avenue to escape the South. Another faction felt another visible former slave in the public eye was too good a PR coup to pass on. Henry was of the latter opinion, not least of all because he revelled in all the attention. As soon as he could, he had a panorama built, so he could publicly re-enact his escape to audiences.
In May 1849, Brown gave a speech to a Boston antislavery convention. Whether this was before or after the Smiths were arrested on 8th May for trying to post another slave – his public speeches would lend weight to the prosecution of the Smiths. It also shut down that avenue for others. Samuel was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison – while freedman James Smith narrowly avoided incarceration. He wrote an autobiography, the first of two in his lifetime. As his tale became well known, the Carolina slaveholder who owned Nancy and his children sent a letter to Brown, offering to sell his family back to him at a reasonable price. Brown turned down the offer – leading to an embarrassed abolitionist movement hurriedly scrambling to bury that chapter of Brown’s life from the public.
And Brown’s later life?
In 1850 congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law approved in an effort to broker peace between slave owning and non slave owning states in the wake of the Mexican – American war. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was much heat over whether new territories won off Mexico should allow slaveholders – the antislavery factions hoped allowing slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves would be an acceptable compromise. Spoiler alert, it did not take the question of slavery in the new states off the table in the long run. Brown, now at risk of being arrested and shipped back to the plantation, packed his life into boxes, and moved to Britain. He married an English woman named Jane Floyd in 1859, and had a daughter together. Tiring of criticism from the abolitionist movement, he moved fully to show business, becoming a magician, mesmerist and occasional actor. He would move to Canada with his family in 1875, continuing to perform till 1889.
On January 1st 1863, three years into the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation – declaring slavery in the Confederate states illegal, thus freeing all the slaves. Of course some slaves did remain indentured to their ‘masters’ till the end of the war. The 13th Amendment of December 18th 1865 was the final nail in the coffin for the slave trade.
Much could be written about the evils of the Atlantic slave trade, and the horrors of such an existence. Perhaps I am acting irresponsibly in simply telling the tale of such a character as Brown when there are nightmare tales of people crammed into barracoons and left to bake in the sun while slave ships meanders towards Luanda. Perhaps of beatings, killings, dehumanization, slave watches armed with bloodhounds and photos of men’s backs covered in deep keloid scarring. Maybe I should have slotted slavery into the wider context of civil rights – or wrote on the Atlantic slave trade as the truly international horror it was (an estimated 15 million slaves were sent to the Americas, 10.5 million surviving the journey)… or pointed out how even little old me, now living in New Zealand, but born in Birkenhead England – profited a little from the slave trade in the late 70s and early 1980s.
My mother used to clean the home of a wealthy octogenarian, who occasionally showed me blueprints of grand buildings designed by her grandfather, built across the River Mersey in Liverpool; buildings built from Triangular trade model money which saw British, and especially Liverpudlian shipping companies make a killing in transporting slaves. Her family fortune came from her grandfather’s work for slave ship owners. Her wages to my mother helped keep a roof over our heads – and eventually helped us pack our lives into wooden crates, bound for New Zealand. I will drop one final piece of trivia however, just to remind us how current slavery really was – Peter Mills, the last former slave in the USA, died in 1972 at the age of 110.
Hey all, I wasn’t planning this topic, but a friend asked me if I knew anything about this sea shanty craze on Tik Tok at present. My friend had seen a news report claiming ‘The Wellerman’ was written by a New Zealander. I knew little beyond the broad strokes. I could say whalers and sealers made up the vast majority of white folk in New Zealand from the early 1790s till some time after most Maori tribes signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. While most early contacts between Europeans and Maori (New Zealand’s first peoples) were peaceful and fruitful – a couple of violent incidents, most notably a massacre aboard the European ship the Boyd in December 1809 – made Europeans wary of attempting to colonize New Zealand in those early days. Whaling would continue in New Zealand until December 1964. I could recall a television interview with the last of the whalers discussing how they sometimes turned the sea around Kaikoura red with whale blood, and in hindsight felt guilty for their actions. It certainly was conceivable the song belonged to the kiwis. We had a long history of whalers. It stands we should also have a history of sea shanties.
Clearing an evening I got out a few old course books from university, and I went surfing the net. I found a few items of interest. In short, yes, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ was likely written in Timaru, New Zealand. It was written between 1860 and 1870, by an anonymous author – believed to have been a young man of around 19. The Billy O’ Tea appears to be a fictitious ship, though there were plenty like it in reality around the lower South Island at the time. Here’s what I found.
I should quickly set the scene on this tale, seeing over 98% of people following Tales are from places other than New Zealand. New Zealand, sometimes called Aotearoa, is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. A little over 5 million people, colloquially ‘kiwis’ live here. Thirteen out of our estimated 600 islands are inhabited, but most people live on the North Island (Te Ika-a- Māui) or South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori migrated here in several waves between 800 and 1000 years ago. Europeans first ‘discovered’ New Zealand in December 1642 – when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman tried to land at an area now called Golden Bay. The Maori, who had surveilled Tasman’s two ships for two days beforehand, attacked the landing boat – killing four Dutch sailors. The Dutch fired upon the Maori, hitting one of the defenders. The reason for the defense is unknown, but one theory states the locals believed the Dutch to be ghosts, there to steal their women and children. Another theory suggests word may have already reached Aotearoa from other island nations about the cruelty of European explorers. Tasman named the site Murderers Bay, and departed.
The next undisputed European visit would put Aotearoa on the map. On 6th October 1769, a 12 year old cabin boy named Nick Young called out to all aboard The Endeavor he had spotted land. The ship’s captain, James Cook, promised a reward of rum and a piece of headland named after them to the first to see land. The Endeavor was officially sent out in the pacific to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti – part of a larger experiment to determine how to measure longitude – and unofficially to look for the mythical ‘Terra Australis’, a massive continent thinkers at the time believed must be on the bottom side of the globe. One presumed Cook paid the cabin boy his rum – the headland he spotted is now called ‘Young Nick’s Head’.
The first whaling ship would arrive in New Zealand in 1791, The William and Ann, captained by Eber Bunker. Several other ships arrived in the early 1800s, congregating around the far north or far south of the country. Kororareka, now known as Russell, was an early settlement of note. Local tribes saw an opportunity to do business with whalers and sealers, and a town emerged in this far north location which would soon become known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ for it’s drinking, lawlessness and prostitution (sex seen as a commodity by some tribes to get their hands on muskets, which they used to wipe out rival tribes – but this is another story).
The image you get of these early towns is one of vice, sex, and rough men (not just whalers and sealers, but soon enough some escaped criminals from Australia). Maori, however they felt about these rough men, often did business with them – and some Maori did join up with whaling crews in much the same way that Australian Aborigines joined Indonesian ships from Makassar. (Makassan ships began visiting Australia by the 1720s, possibly even several decades earlier than that, to collect sea cucumbers and pick up local labour – but that IS DEFINITELY a whole other story).
But…. Back to Sea Shanties?
Yes. This appears to be quite the rabbit hole. A number of sea shanties originated from whaling towns in New Zealand. The first song on record is probably worth the digression. ‘Davy Lowston’ is New Zealand’s first known sea shanty, dating from around 1815. It tells the story of a group of ten sealers left on Open Bay Island, an island on the west coast of the South Island to catch all the seals there and skin them. Telling the men he’d be back soon, captain John Bedar sailed for Australia. The ship sank on it’s journey, leaving the men stranded on the inhospitable rock for four years (from 1810 – 1813). All ten men survived, rescued, of all people by New South Wales Governor Bligh (The same William Bligh cast adrift by the mutineers on the HMS Bounty in 1789). A musical kiwi wrote the following, which basically just puts the above to music.
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal. Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal. My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal. Though my men and I were lost, though our very lives it cost We did seal, we did seal, we did seal
‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten, we set sail, we set sail. ‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten we set sail. We were left we gallant men, Never more to sail again, For to seal, for to seal, for to seal,
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down, were set down We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down T’was on the sixteenth day, of February For to seal, for to seal, for to seal.
Our Captain John Bedar he set sail, he set sail. Our Captain John Bedar he set sail “I’ll return, men, without fail!” But she foundered in a gale, And went down, and went down, and went down.
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur, for the fur. We cured ten thousand skins for the fur. Brackish water, putrid seal, we did all of us fall ill, For to die, for to die, for to die.
Come all you sailor lads who sail the sea, sail the sea, Come all you jolly tars who sail the sea, Though the schooner Governor Bligh took on some who did not die Never seal, never seal, never seal.
The Weller Brothers were an early whaling and trading company, with bases in both Sydney, Australia and what would later become Dunedin, in the South Island. Established by three English brothers, Joseph, George and Edward – they moved across the world, in part, hoping less polluted air in the antipodes would extend Joseph’s life. Joseph had tuberculosis, and would still be the first brother to die. George Weller, then settled in Sydney bought a trading ship in 1826. The brothers were first attracted to New Zealand in 1830, for the flax and kauri (wood) trade in the far North of the North Island. By 1831 they bought The Lucy Ann from the New South Wales government. The ship’s last act for that government was to transport the descendants of the Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island (which was believed too small for them), back to Tahiti.
From what little I could find in a short timeframe it looked like the Weller brothers had colorful lives. Joseph would die young, in his early 30s, while in New Zealand. His body would be transported back to Sydney, Australia for burial. To keep him from going off, he was submerged in a large cask of rum, and presumably arrived in Sydney a little pickled. Edward Weller ran the New Zealand business till 1841. He oversaw the establishment of a whaling village of around 80 huts. The village was close to a Maori village, where Edward would meet his first two wives, both Maori wahine (women). The two villages would eventually merge, and are now known as Otakau. While heavily involved in whaling, Edward built up a trading station handling all manner of goods. One particularly odious trade was the sale of mokomokai – the preserved heads of what was originally defeated Maori warriors – but which increasingly included the heads of unfortunate slaves, as it became apparent a tattooed, preserved head was worth a lot of guns and ammunition.
Edward would be kidnapped and ransomed by Maori in Northland in 1833, but released soon after. Though he had plenty of sailors willing to risk their lives whaling – and it was a risky job where people often died – he insisted on captaining one of their ships. As the market for whale oil temporarily slowed down in the mid 1830s (due to competition, a decrease in whale numbers; and transatlantic politics – whale oil was still needed for oil lamps, baleen, the whale bone used in corsets, remained popular also – but Britain and America began butting heads over taxes on the oil) Edward put his money into land speculation. Many of his land deals would be overturned as criminally bad deals following the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.
Edward relocated back to Sydney – where he would die on 11th March 1893. He refused to leave his house, knowing a flood was coming. To escape drowning, Edward knocked a hole in his roof and sat atop his house till the waters receded. He’d die on his roof, of hypothermia. He’d handed the day to day management of the company’s operations to his sister’s husband, Charles Schultz. Shultz was in charge in the 1860s, when a young man composed a shanty about a ship, the Billy O’ Tea (a Billy, by the way, is a kettle), in an epic battle with a whale – and a man wishing the Wellerman, a supply ship – would soon arrive with sugar, and tea, and rum.
There was one final aspect of the tale of the Wellerman which fascinated me; that we came so very close to losing the song completely. We have folk music compiler Neil Colquhoun to thank for it’s continued existence. Colquhoun was a folk musician, teacher and a great compiler of the songs of New Zealand’s whalers, gold diggers and kauri loggers. He came across the song in 1966, having learned it from an F.R. Woods – a man then in his 80s who had learned ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ from an uncle, who was a sailor. A number of folk artists recorded the song throughout the 1970s, however Colquhoun preserved it. I did a little further digging, thinking it might be interesting to find Mr. Colquhoun and ask him if he’d be interested in doing a short interview with me, however he appears to have passed on in 2013.
I hope you all found my little meander through my back yard a little interesting. I know this hasn’t been usual ‘Tales’ fare. I don’t get to share a lot of history from my homeland, and hell, it is topical. We’ll be back to normal transmission next week…. Though I am saving a Kiwi tale, just on the backburner for now, which features one of my least favorite politicians while he was still a young boy (I’ve been rude and confrontational to this guy some years ago when he was still in power), a famed killer and artist, and a mysterious disappearance… just to forewarn you all.
This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…
“Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I” This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.
The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.
Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.
That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.
The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.
In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.
While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.
Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.
One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.
In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.