Today’s tale begins on a flash forward to Monday January 21st 1985. The setting, a television set at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York. Phil Donahue, a television interviewer who cut his teeth interviewing everyone from presidential candidate John F Kennedy to the atheist Madeline Murray O’Hair was treading the boards, microphone in hand. Donahue was a pioneer of what then might have been called the Tabloid Talk show – where a panel of guests discuss an offbeat topic in front of a live studio audience. When you think of those kinds of shows today, no doubt the image of a host pointing a microphone at people to elicit comment comes to mind. Phil Donahue is credited with inventing that kind of audience participation. Other things might also come to mind, like fistfights between grown adults, secret crushes and lie detector tests. While there were questionable characters like Joe Pyne at the beginning of the genre, that era of ‘Trash TV’ was still two years off.
I don’t know exactly how Phil Donahue planned to handle his topic that day, gay senior citizens. One hopes respectfully? (One can but hope.) It’s impossible to state exactly how the show might have played out in front of a live studio audience.
What footage I can find is certainly something. Donahue leans towards a dark haired lady and asks “Yes ma’am, and…”
“And um, oh I’m feeling a little…” she replies as she holds her head.
Donahue replies “I know, I’ve felt that way many…” as the woman sank like a stone. Donahue grabbed for her, to cushion her fall.
Strangely, another audience member fainted soon after, and another, and yet another. Seven audience members fainted before the show chose to evacuate the audience – and carry on filming with only the crew, and pensioners present. Donahue afterwards blamed the heat inside the studio and participant nervousness. The following day the show issued a press release stating a lot of people were dressed for the winter weather outside, only to come into a heated studio. The heat of the room, and dehydration were the culprits.
On February 1st 1985 a man named Alan Abel came forward. The incident had been a hoax. A group calling itself FAINT – ‘Fight Against Idiotic, Neurotic Television,’ staged the mass swooning because television was getting worse and worse, and somebody needed to take a stand. This almost certainly would have been taken seriously by a large number of people, today’s television always sucks to the people whose own shows have been displaced by some new trend – but for the fact FAINT’s organiser used his real name – and was by then a well known prankster.
How do I know many would have otherwise taken the prank seriously – and thousands might even have become card carrying members of FAINT? Let me ask you one question…
Is a nude horse, in fact – a rude horse?
G. Clifford Prout was a man on a mission. On May 27th 1959 he appeared as a guest on NBC’s Today Show. He was there to discuss something outrageous – the level of nudity among the animal kingdom. One couldn’t take a ride in the country without coming across a naked cow, pig or goat. Why was it in such a god-fearing country, one couldn’t even walk one’s own neighbourhood without crossing paths with a dog, airing what God gave them for all to see? Oh the shame of it!
The Godly Mr Prout was the head of SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (who were in fact against indecency, but apparently SAINA sounded wrong to them.) Prout spoke of the society’s mission to clothe all animals everywhere if they were more than four inches high, and six inches long. In the following days thousands of letters flooded in to the address Prout had given as their headquarters. Many were supportive of the organisation.
This was the first of many interviews with the press. Prout would discuss the matter of animal nudity, stating “decency today means morality tomorrow.” Another catchphrase that took off was “A nude horse is a rude horse.” We’d discover the society had it’s own marching song, and that the Prouts were a noble family whose lineage could be traced back to 12th century knights – whose horses always rode into battle fully clothed. Otis Prout, Clifford’s forbear fought in the American Civil War, against the North AND the South as he believed so strongly in ‘decency.’ We were told Pickett’s Charge, the ‘high water mark for the Confederacy’ was ‘held up a full two hours as Otis insisted all horses be fully clothed.’ Otis later demanded ‘Give me decency or give me death,’ … so the Confederates shot him. Prout claimed SINA had 50,000 members, and he urged his followers to give out ‘SINA summonses’ to anyone they caught walking their pets unclothed on city streets.
I’ve already let the (naked) cat out of the bag – of course this too was a hoax. Thousands of people however, wrote in to the society asking to join up. Many sent cash donations – money the pranksters always returned to sender, as hard as that had to be sometimes. One woman in Santa Barbara attempted to donate $40,000 to the society. Perhaps it was the fact Prout kept showing up on serious television shows, and if you were being seriously interviewed by serious people you too must be serious? Whatever the case, a lot of people – even many who approved of a horse’s right to nudity – still believed SINA was a legitimate, if ridiculous organisation.
The pranksters remained unexposed – pardon the pun – until a 1962 interview with Walter Cronkite went badly for them. One of the crew recognised Prout as the actor Buck Henry. His second in charge at SINA turned out to be the brains behind the scheme – a man named Alan Abel.
Abel later stated he came up with the scheme at a crossroads in his life. He was a successful gigging musician who felt there must be more to life than what he was doing. He really wanted to try his hand at writing. Soon after he found himself caught up in a traffic jam that had been caused by a group of cattle who broke free of a paddock. There in the middle of the road, two cows were having sex, unsurprisingly without a stitch of clothes on. Abel looked around at the expressions of the other motorists, which ranged from shock to bemusement – and an idea was born.
Although SINA had been rumbled, they continued to send out newsletters to their thousands of followers for several years. The newsletters often contained sewing patterns for animal clothes. Buck Henry went on to co-create and write for the TV series Get Smart, to act and direct in a lot of film and television, and would be nominated for an Oscar for a screenplay he co-wrote – the film The Graduate.
Abel became a writer of books and prolific prankster. He developed a training programme to help executives improve their golf game through learning ballet moves. He created a ‘write in candidate’ for the Presidency in the 1964 and 1968 elections, named Yetta Bronstein. Yetta, a housewife and mother of one, promised a nation-wide bingo programme. She would also put a suggestion box up outside the White House if elected. He had an actor play Watergate leaker ‘Deep Throat’ to a room full of reporters – in the midst of the Watergate scandal. He once faked his own death and funeral, and punked several television talk show hosts by interviewing as ‘Omar,’ the headmaster of a school teaching begging.
On January 1st 1739 the French ships Aigle and Marie were fumbling through the lowest, most inhospitable regions of the Southern Atlantic Ocean when they found something quite remarkable. Their captain, a young man named Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier had set off with dreams of wealth, fame and power. He believed that somewhere south of the Equator lay a massive continent. And Bouvet, well, he’d just found something no-one else had ever seen before…
At this point in time westerners already knew something of Australia. A small number of historians believe the Portuguese had sighted the continent as early as the 1520s, but evidence for this is questionable. In 1592, a Dutch sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten made his way to India, came across a group of Portuguese sailors in possession of the maps needed to reach the Far East, then stole those maps. These maps, with instructions on trade winds and the known hazards of such a voyage had, prior to this theft, exclusively belonged to the Portuguese. The Dutch were finding their sea legs at the time – and were soon to pioneer the modern corporation; and soon Dutch trading ships would regularly sail to the Spice Islands, and beyond. Why wouldn’t you when profits of up to 1,000% could be made from the cargo?
It took until 1606, for one of their own – Willem Janszoon, to sight Far North Queensland. The Spaniard Luis Vaz de Torres arrived just months later, and mapped out stretches of the North of the country – as well as a stretch of water later named the Torres Strait in his honour. In 1611, the Dutch adopted the practice of travelling along the ‘roaring 40s’ – a latitude where the wild winds helped cut travelling time considerably. This also put them on a path to hit Australia’s West coast if they misjudged their longitude (a regular occurrence.) Because of this more explorers were sailing alongside, and mapping parts of Australia’s West coast.
Notably there was Dirk Hartog; who found a place to land in 1616. He provided evidence of landfall to later settlers, by accidentally leaving a pewter dinner plate behind. Frederick de Houtman nearly hit an Atoll off the coast in 1619. At some time we needs must come back to Houtman himself, – his misadventures in Aceh – that atoll, and the 1629 wreck of the flagship Batavia on ‘Houtman’s Abrolhos.’ That will be a very long one, for now let’s put a pin in that – but note in 1629 a Dutch ship was in these waters. Very bad things happened on the atoll. Their lifeboat also sailed most of the length of the West Coast of Australia – and Australia received it’s first two European settlers.
There were several others besides. Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642 filled in much of the picture. William Dampier’s visit in 1699 is interesting for other reasons. He is someone else we’ll put a pin in for now.
Cook, Bass and Flinders (all mentioned in my previous post on Jorgen Jorgensen) would all come later – but by Bouvet’s time, Europeans knew of a land mass roughly as big as Europe was down there. Many of Europe’s great thinkers reasoned there had to be much more besides – if only for balance’s sake – there had to be as much land below the equator as above it in their considered opinion. Bouvet lobbied to go out and claim that land for France, and the French figured where was the harm in sending the young man? Bouvet left for parts unknown, believing if he found the fabled ‘Terra Australis’, the French crown would appoint him governor of Terra Australis. As Governor he would attain the fame and fortune he desired.
On December 10th 1738, Bouvet’s ships dipped below the 44th Parallel well into the ‘roaring forties.’ They sailed into a deep blanket of fog which took several days to pass through. As the fog started to clear, Bouvet was greeted by several massive icebergs. He wrote they were “Floating rocks which are more to be feared than land.” On New Year’s Day, the ships were as far as one could possibly be from human contact, when they discovered – “a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist.”
Bouvet was unable to circumnavigate the island, let alone land. It would’ve been one hell of a task to do either at the time. The seas were exceedingly rough, the air exceedingly foggy, and the sea full of moving ice blocks as tall as skyscrapers. The island itself was surrounded by steep cliffs that reached thousands of feet high into the air at their highest points. Just how inhospitable the island was would become apparent to later explorers. With 93% of the island covered by ice year round, you couldn’t grow any food there. The seas around the island made landing with supplies extremely dangerous. Add to that, those sheer cliffs are dangerous to climb, even with mountaineering gear – as they are highly prone to avalanches. Also, the island contains an active volcano that goes off every couple of years. South Africa sailed to the island in 1955, thinking it a good place to set up a weather station. They couldn’t find a flat plane large enough to set one up. Three years later, an American icebreaker stopped by the island, discovering it had grown an extension out the back due to a recent eruption. The island now had a significant flat area to set up that weather station. In the ‘Dog Days’ of a Southern summer, the island reaches an average of only two degrees Celsius. This does not take into account wind-chill. Winds of 50 knots are considered mild on the island. Wisely, Bouvet noted where he believed the island to be on the map – claimed it in the name of France, and moved on.
He sighted Antarctica soon afterwards, and attempted to land there for twelve days, before giving up on that too. By then a large number of his men were dying of scurvy, so the Aigle and Marie quickly made for the Cape of Good Hope.
Bouvet took down the coordinates to the island incorrectly – not that anyone else was in a rush to go there – but this was noted by other explorers – like the whaling ships who were venturing out into these waters at the end of the century. The Island was re-discovered in 1808 by a British whaler named James Lindsay. Lindsay named the island after himself, then too, promptly lost the island. Like Bouvet, he recorded incorrect coordinates. In 1822 the American adventurer Benjamin Morrell claimed to have landed there, and to have even scaled the island’s high cliffs. This is questioned by some, not least of all as he was using Lindsay’s co-ordinates, which were out by several hundred kilometres.
Correct co-ordinates were finally locked down by the British in 1825, but no-one was known to have actually landed on the island till a Norwegian ship arrived in 1927. They too claimed this inhospitable rock, and put two huts on the island. Both huts were found flattened by the winds when they returned two years later. Some time after that, Norway did put a weather station there, on the landmass that was belched out by the volcano in the late 1950s.
The Norwegians gave the island the name it is known by now. They christened it in honour of it’s original discoverer – Bouvet Island.
Although Bouvet Island is the most remote point on Earth – 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade route, another couple of hundred kilometres again to the nearest landmass (South Africa and Tristan de Cunha to the North, Antarctica to the South) – it has two short Tales relating to it I would like to share with you today.
First there was that lifeboat. I don’t think we need to spend more than two minutes on this part of the tale – but it certainly added to the island’s aura of mystery for some time.
In 1964 South Africa were still sniffing around Bouvet Island (this will be an ongoing theme), though they had not been back since 1955. This new extension was already christened Nyrosa (meaning new mound in Norwegian) and claimed sight unseen by Norway, but clearly South Africa were never too worried about who claimed to own this island. Besides the American Icebreaker, who never made landfall, no-one was known to have been there in the years since.
On Easter Sunday two ships approached the Nyrosa. They waited three days for the winds to die down enough to send a helicopter out to the island.
Onboard the helicopter, a British adventurer named Allan Crawford. He’s now best known for his work on the world’s most remote inhabited island – Tristan de Cunha – and his advocacy in returning the people of Tristan de Cunha back to their island years after a volcanic eruption saw them evacuated to England in 1961; but for our purposes, Crawford was a well thought of South Seas adventurer.
What Crawford saw there puzzled the world for half a century.
Near the point where the helicopter landed, a lagoon had formed. A handful of fur seals had made their way up there, and were bathing in the water – next to a half-submerged life boat. On the rocks bordering the lagoon, two oars and a 44 gallon drum. There were no markings on the boat, drum, or oars to suggest who these items once belonged to. A search of the barren island yielded no further clues. No bodies were to be found. The crew having around 45 minutes to do a quick survey of the land, and to take rock samples – and to fend off a gang of enraged Elephant seals also on the Nyrosa – and not too happy to see strangers in these parts; their search was not exhaustive, but the men felt safe concluding there were no human beings, dead or alive to be found on the island.
For decades the lifeboat remained a mystery. The closest trade route lay 1,600 kilometres to the North, so if the crew of some ship mutinied and jettisoned their captain – like Bly on the Bounty – could anyone really row a lifeboat that distance, through the worlds roughest seas? If so, why? If it was flotsam washed ashore, and this goes with the ‘Bly hypothesis’ too – how did the boat make it up steep cliffs still several hundred feet high on the Nyrosa in one piece? It must have landed with a full crew to haul it up the cliff. If this is the case, where are the signs of a makeshift camp? Surely, if you have a sizeable party you leave a couple of people to set up camp while others explore and so forth?
If there were people who landed with the vessel, and then negotiated the steep incline, where were their remains? Were they all killed and eaten by a gang of 4,000 Lb Elephant seals? If they had landed there and gotten the better of any seals congregating there at the time till someone rescued them, where was the evidence of seal remains?
Had they explored further inland, and gotten buried by an avalanche?
If, rather than a mutiny, a shipwreck had occurred, surely someone would have noticed a missing ship between 1955 and 1964, right?
Ultimately, it appears the murkiness of the Cold War obscured the answer, to the west at least, for half a century. In October 1958 a Russian whaler named Slava 9 (not to be confused with their Slava class missile cruisers) was near the island, when they decided to make landfall. A group of men landed on the Nyrosa, but then the weather took a turn for the worse – these men were left to fend for themselves on the island for several days till safe to send a helicopter for them. I guess in this case the biggest mystery is why the men didn’t have the boat upside-down on land as a shelter – as Shackleton’s men did on Elephant Island in 1916, as their boss sailed for help on South Georgia Island (I know, put a pin in that one too)…
Our final Tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, an uninhabitable Island on the same line of Longitude as Oslo – which is to say it was also 3am on Bouvet Island. In the dead of night, a massive double flash was detected close to the island.
There are a few reasons we know there was a flash, and think we know what caused it. In 1963 most of the world’s nations agreed to a partial nuclear test ban. Signatories were no longer allowed to test a nuclear bomb above ground, in space or underwater. You could – and a number of countries continued to do this – test a nuke by digging a very deep hole in the ground then setting the bomb off down the bottom of that hole. This does not produce the signature double flash, a flash unlike anything else known in nature.
To look out for people testing regardless, the USA launched twelve reconnaissance satellites – The Vela satellites – which detect both that flash, and any increased radiation in the atmosphere.
In the wee small hours, Vela satellite 6911 detected the flash from it’s orbit. It was not the only device to pick up the incident that day. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast – a fast moving ionospheric disturbance was detected. The ionosphere being the layer of our atmosphere that sits between the air we breathe and the wilds of space – coronal mass ejections like the Carrington Event are the normal natural cause for such readings. This was no coronal mass ejection on or around 22nd September 1979. The US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, also picked up the heavy thud from the Vela incident, as it came to be known. The thud registered as far out as a device near Prince Edward Island, Canada.
In Melbourne, Australia, 9,100 kilometres to the East, high levels of iodine 131 radiation showed up in the thyroids of sheep. A relatively unthreatening side effect of a nuclear detonation (iodine 131 has a half life of 8 days and is even used as a treatment for thyroid cancers in humans.) The element is known to show up in the thyroids of grazing animals following a nuclear detonation. The sheep were on farms in South Australia on the day of the Vela Incident. The meat-works – unbeknownst to the public – sent monthly thyroid samples to the US Government from the 1950s to the 1980s.
This all added up to the high likelihood someone had detonated a nuclear weapon, on or near the most remote location on Earth.
So just what happened, and who are the most likely suspects? With much of the USA’s documentation still classified, officially we can only catch glimpses – such as a handful of comments left in notebooks by former President Jimmy Carter. These comments can be found at his presidential library. We’re also told US scientists were shipped out to Bouvet Island. They checked the scene of the alleged crime – They could say something like a nuclear device appeared to have been detonated there – but they couldn’t 100% rule out ‘other natural phenomena.’
There are currently two schools of thought. First, Vela 6911 – a ten year old satellite in need of calibration – malfunctioned after being struck with space junk. Or someone nearby, who as far as anyone knew did not have nuclear weapons, tested a nuke there. It just so happened one of Bouvet Island’s neighbours WAS secretly developing nuclear weapons at the time.
If one were to ask today, who are the nuclear armed countries; certain lists come up. The USA, United Kingdom, France and Russia of course are top of the list. India and Pakistan – Two neighbouring countries who have gone to war with one another four times since 1947 – each have a cache of nukes, worryingly. Another nation with border disputes with India (though when these conflicts break out, the weapons employed by agreement of both nations are limited to bamboo poles and rocks – I couldn’t make this stuff up) is China.
North Korea is now a member of this club, although a long time coming they most certainly were not a nuclear power in 1979. The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons in the Cold War era, but when the Iron Curtain fell, they handed those weapons back to Russia. Several NATO countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to nuclear warheads also.
There are almost certainly two other nations – one who has admitted to having nuclear weapons, and another who, to this day kinda-sorta deny having them – normally followed by a sly wink just to say ‘just kidding, of course we do – don’t even think of messing with us.’
The first is South Africa. From the early 1980s, it was known they were a nuclear power. Officially, they dismantled all of their weapons in 1991. With Apartheid coming to an end, their fear of invasion from another country lessened. From as early as 1961 we know South Africa began secretly enriching their own uranium deposits. In 1977 they went further, building a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country. IF a nuclear bomb was detonated near Bouvet Island it almost certainly has something to do with South Africa – but it can’t have been solely a South African enterprise. This is where that other country comes in.
Israel are long suspected to have nuclear weapons also. One can understand why they feel they might need such a doomsday device. One hopes if so it is only as a deterrent. The story of the modern Zionist movement forming in the late 1890s, and their progress towards establishing a state in Palestine is a long tale – but suffice to say an Israeli state was in existence by 1948. That state fought five major conflicts with it’s Arab neighbours in the years since – the First Arab- Israeli War of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and in 1982 Israel pre-emptively invaded Lebanon. These wars have all been fought over Israel’s continued presence in the Levant. The moment they were rumoured to have a cache of nukes – and a plan of last resort if attacked code-named ‘The Samson Option,’ tensions in the region eased. There was another reason for that, and more on that in a second.
Israel had a nuclear reactor – The Dimona reactor – as early as 1956, built with French assistance. It’s believed they started working on building a bomb as early as 1966. On the other side of the ledger, when Egypt started hiring former Nazi scientists who had worked for the Nazi nuclear effort – it is alleged Mossad hired former Nazi super-soldier Otto Skorzeny to assassinate these scientists. Officially Israel ‘neither confirm, nor deny’ if they have nuclear weapons.
If they do it is almost certain they collaborated with South Africa. In 1977 South Africa swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel, for just thirty grams of tritium gas in return. Israel had no uranium deposits. Tritium gas is an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen that is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, but typically it needs to be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. This element had been a stumbling block for South Africa, as they had no nuclear reactor of their own.
So it probably transpired a joint Israeli – South African mission set sail from Cape Town to a mysterious, inaccessible island more than 1,600 from a single witness. If the USA discovered this at the time, why might they keep quiet about it?
If they did, and I am only speculating – it likely had something to do with Israel. Jimmy Carter had only just brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt a year earlier, at the Camp David peace accords. The fallout of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars hit western nations hard – after Arab oil producing nations struck back at them by ramping up oil prices – causing the OPEC crisis that persisted throughout much of the 1970s. Nations who backed Israel had to opt for carless days. Economies were hit by massive inflation. In New Zealand a questionable right wing politician who successfully became prime minister by smearing his opposition as ‘Cossacks’, reacted to the crisis with a bona-fide far reaching socialist program around oil, gas and power generation known as ‘Think Big.’
In 1979 Jimmy Carter was preparing to run for re-election against a mediocre, conservative actor who once was a CIA asset during the blacklist era. His opponent was almost as out of his depth in the role as Trump turned out to be, but elections are lost by one side through voter dissatisfaction more than they are ever won by the other through bright ideas – and Carter looked set to lose in a landslide regardless. If it were disclosed Israel had secretly built a nuclear bomb so soon after peace talks, it could have completely unravelled the peace process, doomed Carter to a one term presidency, damaged world economies – and sullied the president’s legacy. It isn’t inconceivable the man knew more than he let on to, and just chose to keep certain things quiet?
As with the tale of the lifeboat, will time reveal, or perhaps confirm what happened during the Vela Incident? Only time will tell.
The human history of Kenya, were we to know it fully, would certainly be one of the longer histories out there. On the continent’s East, below the ‘Horn of Africa’, certain simian ancestors of ours, such as homo habilis and homo erectus have been found to have thrived there. Fossil records in the region show an abundance of human apes as early as two million years ago. Pre human primates were there even longer – perhaps first settling in Kenya 20 million years ago.
As early as 300,000 years ago some species of human, possibly homo-sapien, were beginning to develop traits we think of as what differentiates us from the other animals – primarily they started to make and use tools – and possibly even traded goods with neighbouring villages. “Hey I’ve got several chunks of obsidian, wanna swap for some of those colourful pigments you’re hoarding?”
Over a long, Neolithic period, nomadic groups of humans came and went. Over time the weather changed, becoming wetter and more alluvial, and hunter-gatherers began to stay local, keep livestock and grow crops. Groups of Proto- Khoisan and Bantu tribes settled in the region. By the first century there were cities along the coast, famed in the region for their iron work. They traded with the Arabs, among others.
I mention this as far too many histories glancingly acknowledge there were native people on the land, but history truly starts when Arabs colonised the coast in the 7th Century – Or perhaps pick up from the Portuguese arrival in the 15th Century. The Portuguese almost immediately began warring with the Arabs for control of the land. Some accounts may start with tales of the explorer Vasco da Gama narrowly avoiding death at the hands of an unscrupulous Arab pilot. Those same chroniclers – my main source for this tale among them – are far less apt to tell how, in 1502 da Gama attacked The Mira – a ship laden with hundreds of Indian pilgrims on their way home from Mecca. The explorer set fire to the captured ship, immolating 300 innocent travellers. That tale is too deep a rabbit hole for today’s episode. My point however, not only is Kenya a land with a long long history, often poorly acknowledged by writers of a certain era – It is a place where, by and large, humankind thrived for millennia.
We do need to know, however, the British Empire showed up in 1888 and laid their own dubious claim to the region. In 1890 they set about building a railway through the land via Uganda. It was this task which brought Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson to Tsavo, Kenya in March 1898. Among his tasks – the construction of a stretch of railway through dense forest – and a bridge over the Tsavo river. No-one was expecting the sudden arrival of a pair of man-eaters days after Patterson’s arrival. For the following nine months the two lions, later named The Ghost and The Darkness, would prey upon the men building the railway.
Only days after Patterson arrived, the first few imported Indian workers disappeared. Late at night, while everyone was sleeping, a sole lion crept into a tent. Seizing a sleeping man by the head, the lion would drag the man kicking and screaming into the forest, where the leonine pair chowed down on the hapless victim. Patterson – not atypical of a 19th century colonial – ignored early reports from the workers on the encroaching lions. The coolies (his wording) – well paid as they were, must have fallen foul of bandits in a nearby town. This didn’t concern Patterson. If we’re to take Patterson’s account as gospel, the terrified men were convinced the lions were vengeful spirits of departed native chiefs opposed to the construction of the railway – all fairness to the man, he was right in doubting they were demons at least.
Three weeks after his arrival, an incident occurred that he could no longer ignore. A jemader – one of the supervisors – named Ungan Singh was seized by the throat as several other men looked on in horror. Singh attempted to fight back, but was nowhere near as powerful as the lion. The following morning Patterson, accompanied by one Captain Haslem – a guest of his – went out to investigate. Along the way they came across several pools of blood, where the lion possibly stopped to play with his meal. When they finally came across Singh’s remains, they were greeted by a large pool of blood, scraps of flesh, several bones and the more, or less intact head of the unfortunate jemader. This, especially the terrified look on Singh’s face, shook Patterson into action.
For many nights following, Patterson took to perching in one tree or another, a rifle and a shotgun by his side. Come hell or high water he was going to bag the lions. The Ghost and the Darkness, however, had the better of him. At the time, the men were split across several camps along the railway line. Whatever camp he was watching, the lions would attack elsewhere. Patterson would get himself settled in, only to hear a blood-curdling scream several miles down the track. Daytime excursions through the heavy undergrowth also came to nil, though a number of daylight attacks did occur. In one case, a travelling salesman narrowly escaped death when one of the lions took out his donkey – but got caught up in a rope the donkey was carrying. The rope tangled up with several oil tins. The din of the rattling tins as the lion tried to free himself spooked the lion – giving the salesman time to scramble up a tree to safety.
It would be a distraction to the tale to cover Lt Colonel Patterson’s atrocious refusal to pay the employees the sum agreed upon, or willingness to take workplace injuries for what they were in detail. He was utterly convinced the men were lying to him about their capabilities, and constantly swinging the lead. Patterson was always ordering them back to work, injured or not, for a quarter of their previously agreed wage. Workplace relations reached a low point when several men conspired to kill Patterson and leave his body for the lions. Suffice to say, intent to murder aside, he was not a swell chap to work for. Add to this the arrival of the lions was enough to send many of the men running for completely different reasons.
In an attempt to keep the workers there, and to make the workers feel safe, Patterson had circular boma – thick, thorny fences – built around the work camps. The lions were not put off at all by the fences and soon both lions took to forcing their way through the boma for a midnight snack.
For those who remained, the following few months were terrifying. The Ghost and The Darkness prowled from camp to camp. One night they raided the hospital. All the while Patterson spent his night in the trees, a couple of guns constantly at his side. At times he tied goats to trees, even left human remains where they lay, in the hope an easy meal would entice the lions. One night he recalled staking out a deserted camp only to hear screams from the direction of the recently relocated hospital. That night the lions leapt the boma, eating an unfortunate water-carrier in front of the man’s horrified colleagues.
This brazenness was yet another thing which could be said of these lions. If someone had a gun, and was nearby, gunfire, yelling, the clanking of anything metallic meant nothing to them. If they decided this was the spot they were going to enjoy their meal, no-one was going to disturb them.
The aforementioned attempt to mutiny and dispose of Patterson in September 1898 finally brought a little help. Those higher up in the organisation were called in to arrest the conspirators. Following the arrest, and punishment of the mutineers the top brass were suddenly far more interested in the goings on in Tsavo.
Patterson had, by this stage, built a cage – half of which held some poor railway worker or other as bait. The other half was a trap to contain one of the beasts. For several days the lions ignored the trap. They did burst through a boma one night, however, picked out a victim and dragged the poor man into the jungle. For weeks Patterson, now aided by several military officers, staked out several camps at once. The lions continued unabated – with increasing impunity. They had now taken to staking out the Tsavo railway station for a fresh meal. One night the railway inspector fired fifty shots at one of the lions, convinced he hit the animal.
The following morning men went out to track the beast down. A trail was left in the sand that resembled a dragging limb – had the conductor struck the beast in the leg, causing it to limp off? To their shock the trail was left by a human arm dragged along the ground as the lion strode off, carrying a half-eaten torso. Said torso had been discarded some way down the track.
Towards the end of the year, the railway employees finally refused to go back out, going on strike till the company built them lion proof accommodation. For three weeks work came to a standstill while huts were finally constructed. The district officer, Mr Whitehead, also arrived with soldiers to help hunt down the lions. Three weeks of strike was more than enough disruption for him. On his late night arrival at Tsavo station, Whitehead nearly fell prey to a lion. He escaped with deep, long gashes down his back from one of the duo taking a swing at him. The police superintendent arrived soon after to help also.
It would be Patterson himself who finally took down the lions. The first was shot and killed on 9th December 1898. Patterson bagged the second 20 days later – the latter requiring eleven shots to put down. At just shy of ten feet, nose to tail – both were on the large side – as the mane-less Tsavo lions often are. Lt Col. Patterson made several claims in his 1907 bestseller as to the death toll from “…no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives…” to 135 victims. Scientists examining their remains have more recently put forward a lower figure of around 35 victims of their reign of terror.
But what caused this reign of terror?
While the encroachment of the British into their territory to build their railway seems the most obvious answer, it ignores the fact locals lived nearby for millennia. Lions did occasionally eat a human, but generally they avoided people, and vice versa. The favoured meal of the Tsavo lions, was zebra, wildebeest or antelope.
One possible reason they turned man-eater relates back to Mr Patterson’s hero, Vasco da Gama. When da Gama and the Portuguese took notice of this region of Africa at the tail end of the 15th Century – subsequently taking over from the Arab interlopers. They were always on the lookout for slaves to import to Brazil. Brazil was their cash cow. Local slave labour was scarce. The Conquistadors brought European diseases, like smallpox, with them. These diseases went through native populations in the Americas, wiping out up to 90 percent of the population. Needing people to enslave and quite literally work to death in the plantations and mines, they imported millions of Africans to Brazil.
(Sidebar: I have covered some of this history in Njinga of Ndongo and Henry ‘Box’ Brown).
When the Sultan of Oman finally got the better of Portugal, expelling them from Eastern Africa in 1698, they continued the practice of selling slaves. On the island of Zanzibar, where Sultans would reign and continue to co-exist well into British times, a slave market flourished. 40,000 to 50,000 mostly Bantu people from Central Africa were brought to the island to be sold to wealthy Egyptians, Persians, Arabs and Indians. A third of the haul stayed on the Tanzanian island to replace the slaves worked to death that year in their own plantations. Many slaves also died on their way to the market, their bodies unceremoniously dumped on the way. One place which became a regular dumping ground was the Tsavo river.
The British allowed Zanzibar to remain a protectorate – free to govern themselves, with a handful of restrictions, throughout the 1880s and 90s. They finally cracked down on their slave trade in 1897. Did the start of the slave trade give Tsavo lions a liking for human flesh? Did the end of Zanzibar’s slave trade cut off the flow of The Ghost and The Darkness’ favoured snack, forcing them to look for an easy meal elsewhere?
Another possibility is the lions were simply following the principle of adapt or die.
When scientists examined the teeth of the two beasts, it was noticeable neither had taken on a larger boned animal, like a wildebeest, in quite some time. The expected wear and tear simply wasn’t showing on their chompers. One of the pair however – for the life of me I couldn’t tell you if Ghost or Darkness – had three broken incisors, a missing canine tooth and an abscess under another tooth. The man-eater would have been incapable of bringing down a wildebeest or zebra, and was likely in constant agony. Some poor, slow moving human however, was manageable.
Patterson went on to do other things. He became a war hero in World War One, leading the Jewish Legion – five battalions of mostly Jewish soldiers, against the Ottoman Turks. He also discovered a completely new species of antelope – the eland – only after shooting one of course. He commanded a battalion of Ulster Unionists in Ireland, just prior to the First World War and saw action in the 2nd Boer War. Patterson was a prominent Zionist who argued for a Jewish state in Palestine. His final wish was to be buried in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, a fan of Patterson, facilitated this for both his and his wife’s remains in 2014.
The Ghost and The Darkness suffered a somewhat less dignified fate. They were skinned, their hides becoming trophy rugs of Patterson until 1924, when he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum. They were taxidermied and placed on display in a diorama in 1925. You can still visit the remains of these remarkable beasts today.
I want to start this episode with a confession that should surprise no-one – as a kid I was mad for anything remotely described as Fortean. From teleporting Conquistadors to raining frogs, the Devil’s footprints to spontaneous human combustion I loved all that stuff – dubious as much of it was. I was over the moon when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s ’Mysterious World’, years after the series first played on English television. For a while Sunday morning viewings of Mysterious World (and later Mysterious Universe) became a bit of a ritual for myself and my dad. One week was all about cryptids, strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more besides.
A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was being interviewed in some old file footage. In 1959 Van Lierde was stationed in the then Belgian Congo (soon to become Zaire) and was flying a helicopter in the Katanga region, when he sighted a massive snake winding through the jungle. An estimated 50 feet long, a shocked Van Lierde turned the copter round, so his passenger could get some photos of the monster. He buzzed the beast several times, before it reared ten feet up into the air, attempting to strike the craft. Van Lierde estimated the snake’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.
“I wonder if anyone went out hunting that snake” I asked my dad.
My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone did. That snake must have lived a long life to have grown so large. It didn’t appear to be bothering anyone. Monster snakes in the deep, dark jungle deserve a long life free of bother from gun wielding apes. Given my dad grew up near a forest, and often went hunting on a Sunday morning in his own childhood this seemed poignant to me then. Still does.
To date I’ve yet to come across another alleged sighting of this giant – though it’s fair to say all manner of strange beasts have been alleged to lurk in the forests of Africa.
One such beast allegedly lived near the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia around 256 BC. Our antagonists in this tale, a legion of Roman soldiers.
In the mid 3rd century BC the Roman Republic was in the midst of a long-running war with Carthage. In Hannibal in Bithynia we touched on the Punic wars a little. In Mussolini vs The Mob we also run through a little Sicilian history, if you’re looking for more on the conflict. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – at some point everyone wanted a piece of Sicily. Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC and were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well, their forebears the Phoenicians) had a colony on the island from the 9th century BC, and had largely ruled over the locals since. Over time the Doric Greek colonizers established a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian Greek city states remained small and disparate. In 485 BC, Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island. The Ionian cities called on the Phoenicians’ successors, Carthage for protection. Carthage did step in, fighting a series of wars against Syracuse till 306 BC. In 306 BC the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; and besieged Carthage itself. This was enough for Carthage consider a peace treaty, though Agathocles ultimately lost this war – to another power.
A strategic city in the war was Messana, modern day Messina. A port city near the border with Italy, it passed back and forth several times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries named the Mamertines to help. When Agathocles died, the Mamertines ignored orders to return home, and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning it into a Pirates’ den.
Syracuse then called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, to help rid them of the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome for help. When the dust settled on the Pyrrhic wars – Pyrrhus ultimately lost. Though his armies won several decisive battles, the cumulative cost of those victories crippled the nation state – something we now call a Pyrrhic victory. Rome briefly allied with Carthage – annexing the pirates of Messana, which they saw as the greater threat to them in the area. Rome then made overtures to their former foe Syracuse to form an alliance to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in 256 BC.
The momentum of the war then well in Rome’s favour, the Senate 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. They had Carthage on the ropes, but unreasonable Roman demands in peace talks led to Carthage hiring a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus to lead their army. Xanthippus thrashed the Romans at the Battle of Tunis. Only 2,000 Romans survived the onslaught. Now we have a little context, let’s talk dragons.
In 256 BC, Regulus’ army landed on a peninsula now named Cape Bon. From there they cut a path through the wild terrain. On their way to Tunis they came across a couple of unfriendly villages – cutting a path through them just as easily. They pushed on as far as the Bagradas river, setting up camp. A handful of men were sent to the river to collect some drinking water. Minutes later one of the men rushed back looking much worse for wear…In a mad panic he babbled that a monster had crushed and eaten the other men. Several armed men were sent to the river to investigate.
They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’, which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s monstrous jaws or crushing them with its long tail. Snake-like, the beast had no legs, though the beast was described as having a torso, and propelling itself along on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine.
The giant stood it’s ground as more men arrived – and continued to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless – their spears bouncing off of its scaly hide. Steadily, the beast continued to smash and bite it’s way through the legion. Finally, Regulus arrived with a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower similar in design to a giant crossbow. Regulus ordered his men to hurl large stones at the beast. Finally, a stone hit the mark, paralysing the beast. Once immobilised, the army moved in, hacking and stabbing the beast to death.
Under the blazing African sun, the corpse soon went off – the stench of the dead creature soon became so overpowering Regulus was forced to relocate their base. He did however send some men back the following day to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where onlookers marvelled over it 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 was born.
While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. At first I wondered if they had stumbled across a gigantic crocodile – but classical sources are adamant Roman soldiers at this time knew what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons can grow to over 25 feet long. African rock pythons as big as 20 feet long have been spotted in the wild by reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from our 60 foot long monster- and yes snake skins can be stretched to make the serpent appear bigger than it was. There are, however, a number of reports from classical sources claiming encounters in the wilds of Africa with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Then there are fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago. Though the Bagradas Dragon was almost certainly not a Titanoboa, evidence of such a monster proves it anatomically possible for a snake to grow close to such a massive extent.
a model of a titanoboa
Add to this, if the dragon was largely water borne – theoretically, some of the limits set on a body on land by gravity go out the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in the catchment area.
While I feel fairly safe in claiming I don’t believe the Bagradas Dragon, was a dragon in the mythological sense of the word – I believe Regulus’ men may have run into a giant snake unlike anything they had seen before. In subsequent centuries international traders, slavers, ivory, rubber, cocoa, diamond, gold and oil thieves have explored as they plundered. Local tribes have come to know their land like the back of their own hands. Satellites have filmed much of the Earth’s surface. One presumes there are no snakes in the wild as terrifying as those seen by Van Lierde or Regulus anymore, if ever. All the same, the wide eyed kid in me wishes the world to be just that little bit stranger – and hopes if such giants still wind through the jungles – we leave them be.
Content warning, the following tale discusses xenophobic folk songs and pamphlets.
Today’s tale is set in Hartlepool – a seaside town in County Durham in the North East of England.. The date? … please, dear reader have mercy on me this week – I lost two writing days to a bout of food poisoning, then my old tablet died on me – I’ve dumped my proposed Tale this week for something I know well enough to pull together quickly – and unfortunately details are a little sketchy.
The date, has never been stipulated other than to say ‘The Napoleonic Wars’ – so any time between 1803 and 1815, most likely (taking into account the carnage at Trafalgar) 1803 – 1805.
A lone French ship – never named in the sources – has been scattered the length of the beach. Tempest tossed the night before in the merciless North Sea, it has been smashed against the rocks till split in two. Locals gather to see who has run afoul of the weather, what is onboard, and if there are any survivors. One could picture a nightmarish scene. Amid the piles of flotsam and jetsam are dozens of corpses, all sailors ultimately under the command of ‘Little Boney’, the dreaded Napoleon Bonaparte. The assembled rescuers, onlookers and pillagers knew this didn’t bode well for them. Were they a target for the French? Some way down the beach, a survivor crouched low on all fours, observing the scene. Short and excessively hairy, he appeared clad in a child’s uniform. Babbling in a language unknown to the assembled, the small man yelped at the locals, flashed a mouth full of canine teeth, then attempted to scarper. With considerable effort, the short man was eventually pinned by a couple of strong men, then escorted away.
The locals had no idea what to do next, and had a million questions for the strange man. Was the ship a vanguard for a larger, expeditionary force still on it’s way? Were they there to land a French spy? Why them? Hartlepool was yet to become the industrial centre it would soon become.
With a growing population just down the road at West Hartlepool – and a spa industry which brought in many tourists every year, a stranger could easily blend in – something which no doubt made the locals very jittery now.
An impromptu kangaroo court put question after question to the survivor – only to get answers back in an unintelligible gibberish. They were at war with France. The man was in a French uniform, seemingly having come from a French warship wrecked on the beach. When they asked him if he were a spy, he never denied it. This strange, hairy man seemed dangerous – incredibly agile, and considerably stronger than he looked. This was enough for the locals to condemn the man to death by hanging. A gibbet was constructed in the town square. The Frenchman was hung by the neck till pronounced dead.
Some time later it was discovered the hairy man was not a man after all, but a monkey – probably a ship’s mascot. The people of West Hartlepool, who considered the people of Old Hartlepool little smarter than the average chimp, mocked them mercilessly for the hanging. They might have regretted this as urban sprawl led to a conjoining of West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool into one greater Hartlepool. They were all ‘monkey hangers’ now, by British estimation. What does one do with such an embarrassing appellation? Lean into it.
In Hartlepool, where a statue to the poor, unfortunate monkey stands memorial to his unwarranted execution – many wear the name ‘Monkey Hanger’ with pride. Their soccer team, Hartlepool United are nicknamed the monkey hangers. Their mascot ‘H’Angus the Monkey’. In 2002, Stuart Drummond successfully one upped Screaming Lord Sutch and Count Binface by actually getting himself elected mayor. Campaigning in a H’Angus the monkey suit, Drummond ran on a simple promise of free bananas for all school children.
Later writers suggested there was something more diabolical at play in this hanging – children were often ‘powder monkeys’ aboard ships. Their job, to ferry gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the cannons. Did these locals mete out summary justice to some poor prisoner of war, then concoct this monkey tale to avoid a hanging themselves? –
Did this change the complexion of the legend for the locals? Well…. their soccer team are still the monkey hangers. Mayor Drummond presided over Hartlepool for three terms.
But did any of this actually happen?
Almost certainly not.
From 1803 to 1815 over 38,000 ships wrecked along the coast of the United Kingdom. Just fourteen of those were in, or around Hartlepool. It is a matter of public record that all 14 ships were English. No monkeys were hanged on any of them.So where did the Tale come from?
Enter Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan (1830 – 1865). Corvan, born in Liverpool, moved with his family to Newcastle upon Tyne aged four. At the age of only seven his father died, leaving Ned the man of the house. He was sent to work for sail makers, but having no aptitude for the work was let go. After this he took on any work he could find for Billy Purvis’ Victoria Theatre – a travelling music hall troupe, based in Newcastle – but regularly touring the North of England. Corvan soon went from gopher, to child star. The boy could not only sing, he could make up songs on the fly about whatever town they were playing in… In 1855 he wrote ‘The fisherman hung the monkey O!’, while in Hartlepool.
In former times, mid war and strife The French invasion threatened life And all was armed to the knife The fisherman hung the monkey O!
The fisherman with courage high Seized the monkey for a spy Hang him says yen, says another he’ll die The fisherman hung the monkey O!
Dooram a dooram a dooram a da Dooram a dooram a da
They tried every means to make him speak They tortured the monkey till loud he did squeak Says one that’s French, says another that’s Greek For the fishermen then got drunkey O!
He’s hair all over some chaps did cry He’s up to something cute and sly With a cod’s head then they closed an eye Afore they hung the monkey O!
Corvan’s song had precursors, which may have been sources for The Fisherman hung the monkey O! In 1825, an anonymous pamphlet, The Monkey Barber, was doing the rounds. It told a tale of an unfortunate Irish farm labourer come to Glasgow, Scotland to harvest crops. Having stopped at a barber’s shop, he found a hairy little barber waiting for customers, so he asked for a shave. I think you can guess the rest of this xenophobic tale, but if not, things don’t end well for the poor Irishman. There was allegedly another song in 1825, The Baboon – toasting a baboon who recently visited the UK with a party of Cossack soldiers. I couldn’t find anything specific about the song, other than several secondary sources mention it’s existence.
Then there was a tale, allegedly from Boddam, Aberdeenshire – Scotland. the date, some time in 1772. A ship washes up on the rocks, killing all on board. Local pillagers arrive to find a sole survivor – a pet monkey. Believing a shipwreck with no survivors fair pickings, the men murder the monkey – then continue to strip the wreck of anything of value. There is as much evidence for this case as there is for anyone in Hartlepool ever having executed a monkey.
A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears: She seemed a thing which could not feel The touch of Earthly years. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees. William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800.
Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.
Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.
Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.
The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.
A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.
In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.
By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.
A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.
At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the body back to the court. The attacks continued.
Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.
So, what was the beast?
There are a number of suggestions.
First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.
Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.
Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.
Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.
How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.
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
Hi all just a quick update across all the socials. The final episode of the Batavia saga has been waylaid by needing to move home. The house I’ve been living at for close to 12 years has recently been sold, although I do have a new house to move to in the coming weeks.
I’ve got a couple of tales set up in reserve, for next week Tuesday, and the week following. I’ll let those drop as planned, so there is a possibility Batavia part 7 may release the same day as one, or even later.
In the meantime, a short tale for this week. As many of you may know the man in the main picture today (sorry email subscribers, I know main photos get lost) was Andrew Jackson. To anyone unsure of who he was, Jackson was the seventh president of the USA. He fought in the revolutionary war, and it’s sequel – the war of 1812 with great distinction. He was a lawyer and land speculator. As president he brought a dozen spittoons to the White House, and a giant wheel of cheese. He fought duels. He was also a monster, responsible for the deaths of a great many native Americans, but that is a tale for another day.
Today’s tale is about an African Grey just like this beautiful creature, below.
On winning the presidency in 1828 Andrew Jackson bought a companion for his wife Rachel; an African Grey parrot called Poll. He would be especially busy. Being relative political outsiders, Andrew worried his wife would be a fish out of water and need some company. Poor Rachel, heavily stressed from the brutal presidential race, would pass from a massive heart attack before her husband took office. President Jackson took on the rearing of Poll the parrot himself. Thinking it hilarious, he taught the young parrot to swear like a trooper.
Old Hickory would stay in office till 1837. He would pass on June 8th 1845 of dropsy and heart failure.
His funeral looked to be a dignified affair, that was until a lone voice reverberated from the back of the church. Someone was volubly swearing up a storm. Poll the parrot, visibly distressed at the gathering, was escorted from the church, all the while swearing up a blue streak.
It is early in April 1815 on the island of Java, modern day Indonesia. Like much of the world Java had been caught up in the worldwide conflict of the Napoleonic wars. The Island passed from Dutch rule to the French, then back to Dutch again after 1814, via the conquering Britons, in 1811. On 13th August 1814 the Convention of London handed the Dutch their lost Indonesian colonies back – and just shy of eight months later they were in the process of taking control re-establishing themselves in the East Indies. While it must have been some relief to the Dutch and English alike that they no longer had Bonaparte to worry about, they realized the Dutch had some way to go to rebuild their powerhouse trading empire in the Spice Islands. When cannon fire was heard in the distance, the Dutch and British must have wondered who was up to mischief, where, and to what end? Soldiers were sent out to deal to whatever militia, rogue 5th estaters, or interloper was out to cause trouble. I don’t know how these soldiers, presumably British rather than Dutch, fared – I only really know Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore mentions them in his memoirs – but there was no interloper. Mother earth was about to king hit the region with a type of ferocity not seen for thousands of years.
On April 10th 1815, the supposed cannon fire was revealed as the prelude to the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia’s lesser Sunda Islands. To say this was a huge eruption is an understatement. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in at least 10,000 years. People talk of the neighboring Krakatoa eruption of 1883 as a big deal… well, it was, but it was a baby compared to Mt Tambora. Krakatoa happened at a time when telegraphs carried news around the world in the blink of an eye, at a time when greater democracy ensured an easier spread of news. Tambora was the real news story – at a time when technology simply was not equipped to disseminate information fast enough.
Let’s quantify this event. Though it continued to fume and spit out debris from 10th April till mid July, most of it’s payload was released in the first three days. In terms of pure power, Mt Tambora went off with an equivalent of 33 Billion tons of TNT, 2.2 million times the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. To go full on ‘Tales of science and Imagination’ for a second; in three days the eruption blew with 1.17 x 10 to the power of 20 joules – or if like me you’re not a scientist – approximately equivalent to 3 months worth of the whole world’s power consumption in our time (2019), over a space of just 3 days.
Via three massive columns of fire, a plume of smoke which reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere, and via pyroclastic flows moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, the volcano would eject 175 cubic kilometers of debris. If you collected all the ash in an area the size of Rhode Island, the pile would be close to 56 metres high – almost half the height of Providence, Rhode Island’s highest building, its ‘Superman’ building. Convert that – New Zealand podcast and all- to Auckland, we would be looking at a pile 161 metres high, just under half the height of our Sky Tower -as wide as our super-city. It went off with a big bang heard 2,600 kilometers away, and left a once 14000 foot tall mountain with a caldera, a giant indent – over a kilometer deep and a little over 3 kilometers across.
Did this cause widespread death and destruction? Very much so. It’s estimated 10,000 people died instantly in the blast, near the island and on the neighboring island of Lombok. The blast caused a tsunami, which rolled through the Java sea at a height of around 2 metres. Ash fell on islands as far as 1,300 kilometers away in significant quantity. Enough so that it would collapse roofs 400 kilometers from the blast with it’s weight. Acid rain fell on the region. Water supplies left un-drinkable. Forests, grasslands, and crops would be decimated – and all up perhaps as many as 80,000 further locals would die of famine in the wake of the eruption.
Now I want to be a little careful, mindful of the fact act one is all statistics. To borrow from Stalin – one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. This was 80,000 tragedies. A loss of life on a huge, traumatic scale – a tragedy felt for generations in the region. All up this tragedy is believed to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the region in the long run. But we have some ground to cover, and never enough column inches. One final stat I’ll share – while Mt Tambora threw a lot of ash into the atmosphere, it also released massive amounts of sulfur, chlorine and fluorine also. This lead to 1816 becoming ‘The Year without a Summer’ – and it drastically affected the whole planet. I leave the Indonesians with my love, to rebuild and move on – and turn our attention to other flow on effects of this tragedy.