Category Archives: Military 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.

Reader Challenge: On J.F.C Fuller

Hi everyone, this week I’m doing things a little differently. I think this will be a one off, but the process was fun. A few weeks before this will publish I got a message via the portal from WordPress follower Tom Doberman – Hi Tom. His question, have I thought of picking a date then doing a post based on that date. Short answer yes, I did the Christmas Carol episode last year, on the stories of O Henry – writer of Gift of the Magi, and Lee Shelton, the man behind the Stagger Lee legend.

I’m also planning a Halloween week this year, a post a day for five days all on ghosts, and monsters and other spooky things.

But’, Tom replied, ‘what about a normal day on the calendar?’
I said no, but I could. The next date free was 15th September. According to the ‘today in history’ type sites, what happened on this day that I could spin an odd tale out of?

Hmm… not my usual brand of history really…. OK let’s go with the tanks.

A Very Graceful Machine

As stated – tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme, September 15th 1916. The Western Front had devolved into a messy stalemate with an ever growing death toll, while the opposing trenches stretched out for hundreds of miles. Neither side’s infantry, or cavalry could make any headway on the other. They just sat there in the damp trenches waiting to become cannon fodder. The top brass were eager for any solution to this dilemma, no matter how mad. Putting Da Vinci sketches aside for a moment, the idea of a tank like contraption had been floated before.

In 1855 inventor James Cowen had built a model he named a ‘Locomotive Land Battery’, hoping Britain would develop and use his steampunk contraption in the Crimean War. The top brass passed on Cowen’s invention. In the First World War the ‘landship’ got the green light – Lincolnshire agricultural machinery manufacturers William Foster & Co were awarded the contract. The prototype, nicknamed Little Willy, was described by one officer who is very important to our tale as


…a very graceful machine with beautiful lines. Lozenge- shaped, but with two clumsy looking wheels behind it.


Little Willy came to be known as the Mark I. Landships were re-named tanks.
The first tanks were horrendously unreliable; buggy and constantly breaking down. Many early crews found them death traps – but at their best, they were spectacular. Where soldiers were stuck in the mud, a tank could just roll over trenches, crush razor wire, and shake off machine gun fire like it was nothing. Over the course of the war they developed – the bugs ironed out of the design. The French seemed especially tank mad in these early days, making a lot of tanks, and working out many of those teething pains. The Germans also got into the tank game towards the end of the war, but of course were banned from owning any tanks after, as per the Treaty of Versailles.

For all the French innovation, Britain should have had an unassailable lead in the tank game. It didn’t work out that way. To explain why, we first must meet the man from the ‘lozenge’ quote, Major General John Frederick Charles ‘Boney’ Fuller (1878- 1966).

Now, when discussing J.F.C Fuller you must keep two things in mind. 1. He was a brilliant military strategist, and 2. he was a remarkably unlikeable guy. Perhaps his sense of ‘otherness’ distanced him from other soldiers – he was a short, slightly built guy who preferred staying home reading classic literature over mixing with his peers (if you recall the tale of his contemporary Adrian Carton De Wiart; De Wiart’s downtime was full of sports, drinking and pulling off dangerous stunts) – I don’t think it justifies his argumentativeness, bloody-mindedness, and utter disdain for his fellow officers; so evident in letters, essays and documents left behind by (or concerning) him. By today’s standards, his white supremacist views would be abhorrent to wide swathes of society today, but it was his strong belief in occultism, particularly the Thelemic Mysticism of his close friend Aleister Crowley, that separated him from many of his peers.


Fuller had been trained at Sandhurst, before being assigned to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in the 2nd Boer War. During the war he formed an opinion that wars should be fought with increasingly agile forces, at lightning fast speed, as opposed to slow, steady and methodical formations. After the war he was sent to India – where he fed his passion for occultism – before coming back to the United Kingdom to take on a role at Staff College, Camberley. When World War One broke out, the top brass put him to work coming up with strategies and tactics. Much of the time he rubbed his superiors up the wrong way – in one task they were worried a large number of sheep on rural roads would hamper a quick defence if needed and tasked Fuller to come up with signs. Fuller replied asking what to do with the sheep who were illiterate. When the tank came along however, Fuller began planning tactics in earnest. He came up with a strategy called ‘Plan 1919’.

Fuller believed the way to stop an army was to win the battle in a single, decisive attack on it’s command. If you took a large contingent of tanks, and drove them straight through enemy lines – directly for the high command who were safely ensconced an hour from the front – the front lines would not realize what was happening till it was too late. They would also be powerless to stop you. When you smashed the command, the army would turn into little more than a rabble and soon surrender.

Fuller never had the chance to test his plan. The war came to an end in November 1918, by other means. In peacetime he became an advocate for the widespread adoption of the tank by the military. He met opposition, on the face of it from generals who wanted to return to using cavalry. In 1919 he wrote an essay advocating for tank warfare, reminding everyone of the great advances made – but of a need to keep developing. Fuller wrote

Race horses don’t pull up at the winning post”.

His essay won him a gold medal from the think tank The Royal United Services Institute. His superiors were furious at his subordination. Fuller continued to be a thorn in the side of top brass until 1926. In 1926 he was offered a promotion, and command over a new infantry force, which would include tanks – but also included foot soldiers. Fuller wanted no part of the foot soldiers, and resigned. In the following years Fuller would become involved in fascist groups, including Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists; but far more concerning, the Nazi party. General Heinz Guderian was a particularly big fan of Fuller, and invited him to see the rollout of the Panzer tank in 1935.


Why did Britain not take up the tank?

… at least not till much later (it is true that as war broke out the top brass ordered 1,000% more hay for their horses, even insisting their few tank commanders also keep a horse in reserve.) This would change, at a huge cost to them.

Fuller’s unlikeability probably played a small role, but it appears the biggest reasons revolved around the British armed forces not being set up for tanks. First, who owns them? If they are put in with cavalry they are a bad cultural fit and sow discord among cavalry officers, concerned the tanks are there to take their jobs. As a result they will do their best to undermine them. If a separate division, then they become competitors with every other division of the army, for attention and resources, running the risk of being deliberately stifled by top brass looking out for their pet projects. Does the British army even have the organizational architecture to develop tank divisions, people (Fuller aside) with the skill sets to build the division, and to know what to do with it? Think of recent examples in business – Xerox built the first personal computer in their Palo Alto ‘PARC’ facility in 1970, but were not set up to do anything with the invention. Sony built a digital music player before the iPod, but did not have the organizational architecture to capitalize either.

No doubt some generals were struck with the ‘innovators dilemma’ if you’re in at the ground floor, you also get to see all the flaws, all of the bugs. These blind you to the future potential of the tank – baggage other nations are not burdened with. No doubt some generals just felt mechanized warfare ‘ungentlemanly’ and wanted no part in it.

Of course one power had none of that baggage. Nazi Germany more or less rebuilt their military from scratch, free of such limitations. General Guderian turned to Fuller’s writings, and put his plan 1919 to use, first in the invasion of Poland, then much of Western Europe. Dunkirk was quite a wake up call. Of course they gave it a different name – the Blitzkrieg.

OK, back to normal transmission next week – Simone.

Tipu’s Tiger

Local legend in the Kingdom of Mysore tells the following tale.

One day, a young prince named Tipu went out hunting in the jungle with a friend – sometimes portrayed as a French mercenary in the service of the prince’s father – the fearsome Hyder Ali. While tracking a local deer or antelope the two men were surprised by a giant tiger leaping out at them from the undergrowth.
As stealthily as they had been while stalking their prey; the tiger had been even quieter, more stealthy, more cunning. The beast seized Tipu’s companion by the throat, crushing his windpipe and severing his jugular in one fell swoop. Before Prince Tipu could react, the big cat spun around on him, knocking his gun from his hand. Tipu drew his sword, but the tiger leapt, striking him full force in the chest; sending the sword flying.

Pinned to the canopy, the Prince and the tiger wrestled on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally successfully grasped his sword, Prince Tipu – bloodied and beaten – mustered the strength to stab the tiger. The Prince stabbed and slashed, cut and thrust till the tiger lay dead.

This, at least, is the tale explaining why Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, from 1782 – became known as ‘The Tiger of Mysore’. Tipu would adopt the tiger in his art and architecture, military uniforms (striped), even his signature.

The Kingdom of Mysore was an empire in the South of India, established at the end of the 14th Century by the Wadiyar dynasty. By the middle of the 18th century, power had passed to Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali – an Indian born soldier of possibly Iraqi or Arabian descent. Through military and political prowess Hyder Ali ascended to the throne in 1761. Father and son ruled in extremely turbulent times.



From the middle of the 18th Century, the Indian Mughal Empire began to lose much of their power, and the British East India Company – originally in India just as merchants – began vying with France to fill the power vacuum. The following series of conflicts became known as The Carnatic Wars. The British corporation, led by the sociopathic Robert Clive, won the war, taking over tax collecting rights for swathes of India and kicking British colonialism into a higher gear. This also set the scene for a conflict between the East India Company and The Kingdom of Mysore.

This tale is not about the Anglo-Mysore wars – well it is only tangentially so. The East India Company fought four wars against the Kingdom, from 1767 to 1799. These wars were bloody, and anything but one sided. While it is easy to imagine the British having the upper hand technologically, Tipu’s kingdom came to the battle with Mysorean rockets, quite possibly the first true rockets used in war. Towards the end of the war there was also a very real concern Mysore would ally with Napoleon. They only didn’t due to Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of the Nile of 1798 forcing him out of the region. The first war almost went Mysore’s way, the second was fought out to a very costly status quo antebellum – a draw. The third went against Tipu, costing him close to half his empire.


The fourth Anglo- Mysore war would cost The Tiger of Mysore his life. This brings us to the topic of this Tale.


On 4th May 1799 the fortress of Seringapatam fell. The Tiger of Mysore was killed in the battle. Looting was rife in the city. While going through a music room the British found a remarkable device. To quote from a note compiled for EIC Governor General, Marquis Wellesley

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.


Known widely as Tipu’s Tiger, the automaton depicts a near life-sized white man being mauled by a large tiger. From pipes within the device you can trigger sounds like a man screaming, and a tiger roaring. There is also a keyboard, which you can use to play the automaton as a pipe organ. It is believed Tipu’s Tiger was built some time around 1795. The British have long been convinced it depicts the 1792 mauling of EIC General Sir Hector Munro’s son by a Bengal tiger. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the region to comment, though I do have to wonder if the British have it right? One day, legend tells us, a young prince and his European companion went hunting in the jungle after all.

The Wreck of the Batavia (Part Seven: Wiebbe Hayes)

Hi all welcome to the final chapter of the Batavia saga. Apologies to the readership for the delay in finishing this tale… I had to move out of a house I’d lived in and rented for a little over a decade (the Coronavirus pandemic gave the owners time to rethink priorities, one decision was to cash in their chips on their rental property… Fair enough, I wish them well). I hope you all enjoyed the two unused tales and the re-writes I posted in the interim.

Of course a resurgence of COVID cases in Auckland, New Zealand made the move a real joy – as I waited on tenterhooks in the days up to the move to see if we were even allowed to move in the lockdown level. We were. I’m writing from my new home/office

Over several weeks we followed the wreck of the Batavia. We discussed how and why motley troupes of young Dutch citizens sailed around the world for spices and other Asian goods. We followed the heretic Jeronimus Cornelisz gradual takeover of Beacon Island, and the spate of murders that followed. We also looked at the perilous journey of Francisco Pelsaert, Ariaen Jacobsz and the crew on the lifeboat as they explored hundreds of miles of unforgiving cliffs, devoid of life – before finally finding water; then sailing for Indonesia. You can pick up the tale at parts one, two, three, four five or six on the links.

Once more we must rewind several weeks, to the High Land, and the party of explorers Cornelisz left there to die. It is time we introduced Wiebbe Hayes to the tale.

Hayes statue in Geraldton, Western Australia.

We know little about Wiebbe Hayes. He is presumed a lifelong soldier, though at this stage in life he was still a private in rank. Friesian by birth. Middle aged at the time of the wreck. Despite his rank he was clearly a man who could lead a group. He was also resourceful, with a knack for surviving in extreme environs like the Abrolhos. While stuck on the Abrolhos, others – including officers of much higher rank – turned to Hayes for leadership. Cornelisz likely saw those qualities in him, which was why he sent him without supplies to find water on an island both his own men and Pelsaert believed had none.

Unfortunately for Cornelisz, Hayes and his team found a couple of deep wells which were covered by slabs of limestone within a few days. They also found abundant fish off the coast of the High Land, and Tammars – a kind of wallaby they referred to as ‘cats’. Hayes may have wondered what Cornelisz was up to when his signal fires, lit to announce their discovery, went unheeded. He certainly knew trouble was brewing days later, when eight men escaped the massacre at Seal Island in the second week of July. Over the coming weeks the number of refugees on the High Land swelled, as dozens took their chances, a few at a time, at paddling over on home-made rafts. As an invasion from Cornelisz looked inevitable Wiebbe Hayes had 50 survivors on his island at his disposal; all aware of the prior massacres, and ready to fight to the death if need be.
Hayes turned the attentions of his camp to fabricating weapons and defenses with whatever flotsam and jetsam there was available. He knew Cornelisz and his mutineers would arrive armed with swords, pikes, home-made morning-stars and a couple of guns. Though he had a slight advantage in numbers, they needed to match like with like as best they could. They turned long planks into pikes – tipped with sixteen inch long nails salvaged from the wreckage. Morning stars were cobbled together. They came up with a catapult or slingshot, which the men christened a ‘gun’, which could hurl large chunks of coral at the mutineers. Hayes built lookout posts allowing advanced warning when Cornelisz’ men landed on the mudflats; and a small fort.

War is often a continuation of diplomacy through other means, it should not surprise anyone that Jeronimus Cornelisz’ first move was a diplomatic one.

In the final week of July, Cornelisz sent a young cadet named Daniel Cornelissen to the High Land. In his possession, a letter warning Hayes that the sailors on his island were plotting against him. He proposed Hayes capture the sailors and hand them over to him. Not surprisingly, Hayes saw the letter as an attempt to divide and conquer, and took Cornelissen captive. A few days later two dozen mutineers, led by Daniel Zevanck, landed, intending to take the island by force. Zevanck and his men landed on the mudflats and strode through the mud, only to find Hayes defenders ready and waiting for him on the other side. The specifics of the first battle went unrecorded, though we know neither side suffered casualties this time, and Zevanck’s men were forced to retreat.

On 5th August, Zevanck, backed by Cornelisz’ whole force, took another shot at taking the island. Again there was a skirmish, followed by a retreat by the mutineers. For close to a month nothing further happened. Cornelisz’ men were in no fit state to take on the better fed, well prepared defenders. Wiebbe Hayes kept his holding pattern, having no plans to attack Cornelisz’ camp. As each day passed however, pressure built up on the mutineers to take out the High Land. A number of mutineers began complaining about their need to ration food, while the defenders ate so well. Some also thought it likely a rescue ship was on it’s way, and if the ship reached the High Land first, then all was lost. Not fancying direct conflict with the defenders, Jeronimus Cornelisz came up with yet another plan. He would travel to the High Land himself, and make a peace offer – bearing much needed clothes, wine and blankets for the defenders. When they let their guard down a few days’ later, he would order the mutineers to cut them down. In the meantime, others in his party were told to try to bribe members of Hayes’ defenders to join them.

On 1st September, Cornelisz sent the preacher Gijsbert Bastiaensz over with an offer to meet and discuss peace the following day. The meeting was agreed to by Hayes.
Jeronimus Cornelisz arrived at the High Land on 2nd September. Although he landed with just a small party of trusted lieutenants, Cornelisz had the remaining mutineers placed on an embankment several metres offshore. Landing with David Zevanck, Coenraat van Huyssen, Gysbert van Welderen, Wouter Loos and Cornelis Pietersz, the mutineers were greeted by a similarly sized group of defenders. Goods were exchanged, wine passed around. Cornelisz did his best to convince Hayes they meant the defenders no harm. The uneasy truce suddenly broke however, when one of the mutineers offered a defender 6,000 guilders a man to turn on Hayes. On this suggestion Hayes’ defenders seized the delegation, except for Loos – who managed to break free and run towards the mutineers on the embankment. Knowing in a few minutes they would be inundated by mutineers, and need all hands free to fight back, Hayes gave the order to kill all captives but Cornelisz. They were run through with the pikes, and left to bleed out on the beach.

The sight of their leaders being run through with sixteen inch long spikes was enough to bring the mutineers – some mass murderers well used to blood and gore– to a dead stop. The mutineers fled back to Beacon Island. The defenders took the cloth, wine, and the heretic Jeronimus Cornelisz back to their camp. Thrown into a limestone pit, Cornelisz was put to work plucking the carcasses of sea birds.

Meanwhile, on Beacon Island, the 32 remaining mutineers elected Wouter Loos their new leader, and began to plot a revenge attack. They would attempt to take the High Land again on 17th September, and this time they would bring the guns.

Now it is worth mentioning that guns in those days were muskets; capable of firing a shot a minute, muzzle loading, with a maximum effective range of around 100 yards. All the same, when the mutineers landed around 9am on the 17th with two muskets, the ball was finally in their court. Over the next two hours Loos’ musketeers fired at the defenders from a distance. The defenders took cover behind their fortifications. Neither side attempted to charge the other. This tactic worked best for Loos, whose musketeers hit four defenders, killing one and badly wounding three others. If they could keep up their war of attrition the day would be theirs – Either sooner or later they would pick off all the defenders, or the defenders would get desperate enough to charge them. Loos believed in open combat the mutineers superior weapons would give him the advantage. All they had to do was keep their nerve…

Just then Pelsaert arrived, Deus Ex Machina, on the Sardam.


The sudden arrival of the upper merchant over the horizon suddenly changed everyone’s game plan. The mutineers left the battlefield for Beacon Island in disarray. The knew they stood a chance of taking the defenders out, then surprising the rescuers with a little space between the actions – but to fight on both fronts only led to death. Wouter Loos gave up, however Stone Cutter Pietersz rallied a number of mutineers behind him, and loaded into a boat with a plan to sail to the Sardam and take her over. The defenders could be dealt with later. Wiebbe Hayes decided the best plan was to lead a party across the High Land with their best raft and head for the Sardam to warn them. The rescue ship would be operating on a skeleton crew to allow for as much booty and survivors as possible, but if warned they would have superior weapons to the mutineers. At this stage the Sardam was docked off the northernmost tip of the High Land, Pelsaert having come ashore on a lifeboat. He was unaware of the two parties racing towards him with very different purposes.

Finally Pelsaert was greeted by a boatload of survivors

Welcome, but go back on board immediately, for there is a party of scoundrels on the islands near the wreck, with two sloops, who have the intention to seize the jacht”.

Hayes arrived first, only just. Pelsaert had barely enough time to get back on the Sardam and order crew to point their guns at the mutineers – who had just arrived armed and ready for a fight. After an intense stand-off, the mutineers threw their swords into the sea and surrendered.

In the wake of the surrender Pelsaert learned of the original plot between Cornelisz and Ariaen Jacobsz to take the Batavia, and of the massacres of 120 men, women and children on the islands. The following day several crew of the Sardam, alongside a group of defenders landed on Beacon Island to capture the half dozen mutineers not yet in custody. Though much effort was made to salvage the treasure on the Batavia, several treasure chests got left behind.

So, what happened to the survivors?

In the days following their surrender, a council was convened on the island chain to try the mutineers. Under water torture the mutineers admitted to their crimes. Cornelisz did his best to claim he was simply a follower of Ariaen Jacobsz and David Zevanck, until other mutineers were brought in to point the finger at him. He would not be broken till 28th September. Most of the other mutineers confessed freely, to avoid being tortured. On the 28th Cornelisz was sentenced to have both his hands chopped off, then to be hung from a gallows erected on Seal Island. Jan Hendricxsz, Lenert van Os, Allert Janssen and Mattys Beer would all lose a hand before hanging. Jan Pelgrom, Andries Jonas and Rutger Fredricx would be allowed to be hanged – their hands still intact. All would forfeit all their worldly possessions to the VOC. Without trap doors their deaths would all be prolonged, painful affairs.


… well almost. Jan Pelgrom begged to be spared – to be marooned in Australia; at this time uncharted, very largely unexplored by Europeans. Completely without European settlers. Wouter Loos would also be marooned in Australia. Almost 160 years before the British, at James Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks urging, began dropping of criminals in Botany Bay, Pelgrom and Loos were the lucky country’s first convicts, and first European settlers. They were dropped off on a beach which showed signs of Aboriginal settlement, but no-one knows what became of the two men.

A further nine mutineers would be taken back to Java to face punishment. Nineteen others, who had perhaps signed up with the mutineers for fear of death if they didn’t were free to go, on the provision no further evidence arose against them. In all 14 mutineers would be imprisoned in the dungeons under Castle Batavia. Five of them would be hanged. Others were flogged and exiled into the Indonesian wilderness. Stone Cutter Pietersz was broken on the wheel – tied to a giant cart wheel, then to have his arms and legs so crushed that his limbs could be tied around the curve of the wheel itself. The wheel would then be hoisted upwards, and Pietersz left to bleed out.
The skipper Ariaen Jacobsz would be held in prison and questioned till 1631. He was never officially charged, never gave in to torture. After this he just disappears from public records.

Wiebbe Hayes was promoted to sergeant while on the Abrolhos, and given a large salary bump. He would go on to become a national hero, as word of the massacre made it back to Europe… but of the man himself? He disappears from the history books soon after. On arrival at the town of Batavia he would be promoted to the officer class. From there no records of Hayes exist. The defenders were all rewarded also by pay increases, and a cash bonus.

Four mutineers from the original plot before the wreck were, unbeknownst to Pelsaert, on the longboat which sailed back to Java. They would be exposed in the investigation on the Abrolhos, but managed to escape justice on the return of the Sardam, having already sailed for other ports.

Pelsaert, before he could face a tribunal for his carelessness, would be censured when caught having an affair with a married woman in Java. He would be sent to Sumatra on other business, but be dead of a mystery virus by mid September 1630. His illegal trades while in India would be uncovered on his death, and his fortune would be seized from his family by the VOC.

The preacher Gijsbert Bastiaensz would face close scrutiny over his alleged innocence in the mutiny by the VOC. He would eventually be cleared, would remarry, and move out to the Banda Islands – the nutmeg capital of the world – where he would preach for less than two years. By 1633 he would be dead by dysentery. His only surviving daughter Judick would marry twice, and be widowed two times by 1634. The VOC, feeling sorry for her struggles, gave her a substantial cash payout which got her back to Holland.

Finally Creesje Jans, the famed beauty who had travelled out to join her husband, arrived in Java to find her husband had died some time before July 1629. It is not known what became of him, but he had been sent to the Burmese port of Arakan a few years earlier to buy slaves for the VOC. She would re-marry to a soldier – something seen as beneath her station in life – and stay on in Indonesia till 1641, when she moved back to Holland. Independently wealthy, she appears to have lived a comfortable and uneventful life after this. She is believed to have lived till 1681, into her late 70s, making her the last survivor of the wreck of the Batavia.

The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Hannibal in Bithynia

Today’s tale is set in the Asiatic town of Libyssa, in Bithynia – on the periphery of what is now Turkey. The date, some time around 182 BCE. Hannibal Barca, perhaps one of the all time great generals in world history is pacing the room like a caged Barbary Lion. His life, from the age of nine had lead to this point – ever since his father made him take an oath he would “Never be a friend of Rome.” At the time Rome was a republic with it’s greatest days ahead of it. The tough, militaristic state had yet to really flex – to show what they were capable of. Carthage, was already a superpower, but one on the decline. The two powers had come to blows over the Carthaginian island of Sicily, now part of modern Italy. For 23 years the two superpowers butted heads. They fought on land and sea – and finally the young lion, the Roman republic, got the better of Carthage.

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had been present at the Peace of Lutatius; where Carthage was ordered out of Sicily for good, to be peaceful to Syracuse and her allies, to pay 56 tons of silver over 20 years as reparations, and to hand over their weapons. A leading general in the war against Rome, Hamilcar agreed to all terms bar one – he and his men refused to disarm under any circumstances. Peace had been a relative term for Carthage, As soon as the first Punic war ended, Hamilcar was sent out to quash several rebellions from their own people. The unsightliness of it left him with a lifelong hatred of the Romans – which he passed on to his young son.


Pacing in that Bithynian compound, one wonders; did Hannibal cast his mind back to his youth. As a young general, he marched an army of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and of course 38 elephants over the Alps, hitting the Romans where they never saw an attack coming. To cross the alps with an army, and war elephants was madness, utterly suicidal – yet he did it. On the other side, Hannibal’s army wreaked havoc. Though half his army died on the Alps crossing, his remaining force made short work of the Roman’s, time and time again. Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene. Nothing stood in the way of him sacking Rome itself – other than the fact he left his siege engines in the Pyrenees; and the oligarchs back home refused him the financial backing to build new ones. The war in Italy would eventually wind down to a stalemate.

If, one’s life flashes before your eyes when facing your demise, the battle of Cannae would loom disproportionately large. A masterclass in completely obliterating a much bigger army, military strategists with much greater understanding of such things than myself, still rate Cannae as one of the all-time greatest battles of history. The Romans outnumbered Hannibal and his allies by almost 2 to 1. They were slaughtered at a rate of more than 11 to 1 in the battle. Hannibal’s cavalry encircled the Romans from the outside. Within Roman ranks, a band of 500 ‘deserters’ revealed hidden short swords and cut them to ribbons. Death came from all directions. Pliny would write of 67,000 dead Romans, Polybius of 5,700 dead Carthaginians. In the aftermath, many Roman allies jumped ship. The Romans turned to guerrilla warfare, never again fielding a large army against Hannibal on Roman soil.

The Romans refused all peace treaties, enlisted all their men into military service, and carried on. Carthage’s oligarchs responded indifferently to Hannibal’s requests for the siege engines needed to topple Rome itself. In 202 BC Rome eventually landed a king hit, at Zama, modern day Tunisia. The Roman Scipio Africanus succeeded where Hannibal failed, and the oligarchs declared peace.


Hannibal must have cast his mind back to his middle age, as an avenging, populist politician. He limited the term an oligarch could rule from life, to two one year terms. He taxed them so they would pay their fair share. Just as his reforms were bearing fruit however, the accusation came from Rome that he was colluding with Antiochus III of Syria to overthrow the Roman empire. He would find himself exiled, forced to spend his remaining years on the lam, a soldier of fortune for whoever a. could afford him and b. would be willing to harbor him, knowing Rome could arrive at any time. Antiochus took him in for a while, then Artaxias I of Armenia. For a while he hid out in the pirates’ den which was Crete, before finding employ with Prusias I of Bithynia.

Bithynia would eventually succumb to the Roman yoke, and Prusias would betray Hannibal anywhere between 183 and 181 BC, though they were told to find him themselves. Roman soldiers would track him to his house and demand his surrender. One tale has it, in a ‘live by the sword’ moment, that Hannibal had recently injured his hand by his own sword, and the wound was sceptic. Another tells, in his final moments he downed a vial of poison. Whatever the case, the Romans entered the premises, cautiously, to a deathly silence. The old lion had passed, a note on the table read

“Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2)

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.

We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.

Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.


(theme music)


We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.

To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.


A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.

The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.

A family of homesteaders on their way to Nebraska.

In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.


By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.


With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.


Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.

1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.


The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.


For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.


Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.

Willie Nickell


Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.


The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.

Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.

I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone