Category Archives: War & Peace

…. Not Count Leo… yet anyway.

Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and public intellectual until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without so much as a trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

Ungern’s Army

Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.   


Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.

I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?

Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords – 

And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –

Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help. 

This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war. 

With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia. 

Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big. 

Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920. 

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army. 

For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch. 

Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about. 

He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.

Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol. 

In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.

Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force. 

Urga in 1921

Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?

Then, one night in February ….

Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.

The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa. 

They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety. 

As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds. 

The last Bogd Khan.

Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven. 

Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence. 

Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.

Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region. 

This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression. 

In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion. 

On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers. 

Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners. 

When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash. 

Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him. 

A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.

Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go.  Ungern mounted his horse and left.

He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.

In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.

They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture.
Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.

Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part Two)


Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back. 

This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. 

Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.      

Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort. 

Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass. 

This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably. 

Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party. 

In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage. 

At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself. 

The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.

In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
!”

Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention. 

Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.

In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons. 

In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “…  only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.” 

Enter Ron, in late 1945.

It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.  

From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast. 

Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife. 

When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”. 

Jack and Candy soon became an item. 

The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit. 

Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money. 

All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup. 

The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947. 

In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.

A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes. 

In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately. 

Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House. 

On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.  

On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt. 

Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist. 

Ok, one more thing. 

Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.  

Supplementary Info: Jack Parsons – Two Speeches

Hey all, apologies for the lack of blog post this week. The week has gotten too busy to string anything of worth together. The following document relates to the final part of Jack Parsons’ tale, set for next week. 

The following is worth perusal – though neither being central to the Tale. I’ve chosen to leave out of the main script for brevity’s sake. 

One: “…A Date Which Will Live in Infamy…”

This following is the script, provided by the Library of Congress – of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech following the attack on Pearl Harbour. 

“Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American Island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu…

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong: Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

But always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounding determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

Two: Aleister Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Pan’

Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan! Come over the sea
From Sicily and from Arcady!
Roaming as Bacchus, with fauns and pards
And nymphs and satyrs for thy guards,
On a milk-white ass, come over the sea
To me, to me!
Come with Apollo in bridal dress
(Shepherdess and pythoness)
Come with Artemis, silken shod,
And wash thy white thigh, beautiful god,
In the moon of the woods, on the marble mount,
The dimpled dawn of the amber fount!
Dip the purple of passionate prayer
In the crimson shrine, the scarlet snare,
The soul that startles in eyes of blue
To watch thy wantonness weeping through
The tangled grove, the gnarled bole
Of the living tree that is spirit and soul
And body and brain — come over the sea,
(Io Pan! Io Pan!)
Devil or god, to me, to me,
My man! my man!
Come with trumpets sounding shrill
Over the hill!
Come with drums low muttering
From the spring!
Come with flute and come with pipe!
Am I not ripe?
I, who wait and writhe and wrestle
With air that hath no boughs to nestle
My body, weary of empty clasp,
Strong as a lion and sharp as an asp —
Come, O come!
I am numb
With the lonely lust of devildom.
Thrust the sword through the galling fetter,
All-devourer, all-begetter;
Give me the sign of the Open Eye,
And the token erect of thorny thigh,
And the word of madness and mystery,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan Pan! Pan,
I am a man:
Do as thou wilt, as a great god can,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! I am awake
In the grip of the snake.
The eagle slashes with beak and claw;
The gods withdraw:
The great beasts come. Io Pan! I am borne
To death on the horn
Of the Unicorn.
I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan!

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part One)

Welcome folks. Sorry to do this to you – I really did want to start this tale out in the Mojave desert, following a magick man and his usurper. One chanting tribally to the God Pan, and the other pretending to see spirits so he could just go home – to the other’s wife… but we’ll come back round to that. The date is June 17, 1952. The location, the carriage house which formerly belonged to 1003 Orange Grove, Pasadena – a former stately mansion we’ll definitely talk about later. Pasadena was a neighbourhood in transition from a millionaires’ row of landed estates, to a collection of middle class ranch houses, condos and apartments. While the locals may have grown accustomed to the hubbub of diggers and graders, rollers and wrecking balls, at 5.08pm the neighbourhood would be shocked to attention by a soul shuddering explosion. 

At it’s epicentre, the basement lab in the carriage house – now a wreck of it’s former self. Two men and a woman, tenants, rush downstairs -surveying the damage and looking for the owner of the property – one Jack Parsons. After rifling through the debris they found him; horrifically wounded – he’d lost an arm. The remainder of his limbs are all badly broken. Most of the right side of his face is missing – yet he is still, barely, alive. An ambulance rushes to the scene, then tears off at break-neck speed with their patient. Parsons is treated at Huntington Memorial Hospital – where he would die 37 minutes after the explosion. Parsons’ wife Marjorie, aka Candy, couldn’t bring herself to view her husband in such a state. She would leave it to a friend to arrange the cremation. When Jack’s mother, Ruth, got the news of her son’s untimely passing – she took her own life by swallowing a bottle of barbiturates. 

While one may expect the sudden death of Jack Parsons to bring on a great mourning in the area – he was, after all a pioneering rocket scientist who helped win the war. Jet planes, missiles, the rockets which would travel to the moon all owe a massive debt to his genius. Platitudes gave way to gossip about his wildly occult lifestyle and speculations of suicide or even that he’d been killed by order of Howard Hughes. Stories began to emerge about the cult living at 1003 Orange Grove, the rituals and wild orgies. The Pasadena Independent would eulogise him thus

‘John W. Parsons, handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago … Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.’

John Whiteside Parsons, Jack to his friends is a largely forgotten figure now – but I think his tale is worth sharing. For the next two episodes let’s discuss the mad world of Jack Parsons. 

Jack Parsons was born Marvel Parsons in 1914 to Ruth (née Whiteside) and Marvel Parsons snr. When young, Jack’s father would desert the family to join the army – where he would distinguish himself in battle, move up the ranks, remarry and settle down – only to have a nervous breakdown in middle age – following a medical misdiagnosis giving him just a day left to live. From abandonment as a baby to Marvel’s institutionalisation, the two would only meet once. In his youth both he and Ruth, were joined by Ruth’s wealthy parents – who moved up to Pasadena – buying a home for them all on Orange Grove. 

Jack was a smart and imaginative child. Home-schooled till the age of 12, he read voraciously. He was an especially big fan of Jules Verne, and of the new pulp fiction magazines like the Argosy All-Story Weekly and Amazing Stories. In amongst the ‘boys own adventure’ tales of cowboys, adventurers, detectives and firemen – the science fiction genre blossomed in these periodicals. Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, for one example, were launched in these magazines. Parsons became enamoured with sci fi – especially anything to do with rockets and travelling to other planets. When he finally entered the system for high school he struggled. Many of his peers found him odd, and mocked him for looking effeminate. He made at least one good, lifelong friend in this time however, Ed Forman, the mechanically minded son of an engineer. With Forman’s father’s help, the two teenagers began making their first rockets together. They were a long way from building anything powerful enough to leave the planet or power an aircraft – but it was a beginning. 

I should quickly point out that while we take rockets for granted now – a select few companies build rockets powerful enough to put astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites in space. A handful of nations have caches of deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear tips that could end the world. Any army or large militia might have an array of deadly rockets which now leave the German V2 for dead – some even have rocket seeking rockets to shoot those first rockets out of the sky. 

A jet engine is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket…In the 1920s and 30s, hardly anyone was developing rockets. 

Those who were, for the most part, were amateur enthusiasts – often, like young Parsons, hobbyists with a love of science fiction. As aforementioned on Tales, the Chinese had rudimentary rocket-like devices – fireworks which could shoot a bamboo spear at you – and the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore used war rockets in battle. In the wake of their four wars in the latter half of the 18th century, a number of European armies built and used war rockets – but the technology was discarded as they were wildly unreliable. Other artillery – such as cannons, improved with the greater choice of available materials resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Rockets had their 15 minutes of fame, and were so last century by the 1920s. 

The Congreve rocket system based on Mysorean rockets

The Russian Nikolai Kibalchich was a serious rocketeer; writing a treatise which set much of the groundwork for future rocketry – but his work would go nowhere in his time.He wrote his treatise in 1881, while awaiting execution for building the bombs used to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II. Robert Goddard was another serious rocketeer – but he was publicly mocked out of public life as a crank by the newspapers in 1918. 

Rocketry really was a brave new frontier in these days – the way clear for clever autodidacts like Parsons and Forman. 

To sum up the rest of Parsons’ teenage years – he got suspended from his high school, attended another, where he fit in much easier (now seen as a macho bad boy who left his last school after blowing up the toilets), and went on to a semester of college. His university studies were interrupted in the wake of the Stockmarket crash of 1929 – which left Parsons’ grandfather, Walter Whiteside, broke. Walter died in 1931. His part-time job at the Hercules Powder Company – where he was handling explosives and other chemicals – soon became a full time role. In the early 1930s Jack continued to work on making bigger and bigger rockets with Forman, and communicating with other rocketeers overseas – including the German VFR. The VFR, which included one Wernher Von Braun, went suspiciously silent a few years after the Nazis took power in 1933. He also met and fell in love with Helen Northrup. The couple would marry in 1935. 

To make sense of Parsons’ life, one could look at the separate elements first… and how those elements collided with one another disastrously later. For one, his professional life took off like a rocket from the mid 1930s. The California Institute of Technology would loom large. Caltech had gone from a private college with strong ties to the Universalist Church of America in the 1890s to a teaching hub staffed by, and churning out, some of the USA’s brightest minds, by Parsons’ time. They were well equipped, and a source of great expertise. They also had some notable guest speakers. In 1935 Parsons and Forman attended a public lecture at Caltech by visiting rocketeer Eugen Sanger. After the lecture they got talking to a PhD student named William Bollay, and pitched their plan to build a liquid propelled rocket. Bollay passed on their invitation to join them, but did introduce them to another student, Frank Malina, who was very interested in their plans. In 1935 Malina convinced his doctoral advisor, Theodore Von Karman, to let him construct a rocket engine for his doctorate. He would work alongside the autodidacts Parsons and Forman. 

In the following years the group would gain a lot of attention for their wild, noisy experiments on campus. After one August 1937 experiment went awry – first a chemical spill killed the lawn, then an engine backfire filled the GALCIT building with hydrogen tetroxide – causing all metal surfaces in the building to rust over night – they were sent out into the desert – the Arroyo Seco – to experiment. They also picked up the name ‘the suicide squad’. The suicide squad took on several inductees, and gained a reputation for their parties – where cannabis and alcohol was freely available. Self funded, Parsons and Malina wrote a sci fi movie script they hoped Hollywood would pick up. Hollywood paid no attention whatsoever to their film script. 

The work of the Suicide Squad, with it’s loud noises and flame belching engines got plenty of attention from the local press however. As did Parsons himself in 1938. He was called in as an expert witness in an attempted murder by car-bombing case; the victim a private investigator named Harry Raymond. The perpetrator a police officer called Earl Kynette. Click here for the post I wrote on this case last week. This case turned Jack Parsons into a respected expert overnight. His clear charisma shone a spotlight on their work. By this point they had secured some funding via the mysterious Mr Weld Arnold, and were joined by a Chinese mathematician named Qian Xuesen. 

In 1938 the Suicide Squad began making commercially viable rocket engines. They were also joined by a Jewish refugee named Sidney Weinbaum. Weinbaum introduced several members of the Suicide Squad to a secret Communist organisation. Some of the members, like Malina, joined the party. Parsons attended several meetings – ultimately deciding Communism wasn’t for him. He did find another group at around this time, who he came to view as a surrogate family. 

The Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O for short, was then an occultist organisation centred around Sex Magick, yes the K is intentional – and very important to the O.T.O apparently. Established in the early 1900s, the group was taken over and reorganised by British occultist Alesteir Crowley. Crowley deserves a Tale in his own right, and in the least will pop up from time to time in others’ tales. On Crowley’s 1913 takeover, the order took on Crowley’s tenets from his religion of Thelema.

A crude summary of Crowley’s ethics in regards Thelema follows. Their laws can be broken down to…

  1. ‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law – a call to follow one’s own path without restraint. 
  2. ‘Love is the law, love under will’ – Thelema is governed by love magick – but love is always subservient to one pursuing their ‘will’ – or true mission. 
  3. Every man and every woman is a star – in other words, if you follow your true path in life, you are like a star. Aloof from humanity. Shining brightly for all to see.    

As best as I can tell Crowley’s beliefs were highly individualistic, and eschewed many of the conventions everyday folk felt compelled to follow. Their rituals contained a lot of chanting with roots in earlier Hermetic thinkers. Much of it not too dissimilar to the Eastern traditions people like Helena Blavatsky tapped into. They believed free love and drugs could lift one above the mere mortals, reach higher levels of magick, and get one on their way to their true mission. Crowley’s teachings also made a lot of numerology, and astrology. Yes, their philosophy feels a little Ubermensch-y. There are also clear influences to be seen in later groups.. but hell, this post is already set to run into two episodes. That conversation can wait for another day. In 1915 Crowley set up the Agape Lodge in California – returning to Europe after World War One. In January 1939, Jack and Helen Parsons got an invite by John and Frances Baxter – a gay and lesbian brother, sister duo who had become good friends with the couple – to join them at the Agape Lodge. They went.

Jack was intrigued by the evening’s proceedings. The group performed Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’. Afterwards, they mingled with the cult, including their leader, Wilfred Smith. The Parsons’ regularly attended O.T.O meetings. Although thoroughly infatuated with the group and their beliefs, the couple would take a little over a year to officially join up.

A group performing the Gnostic mass

In the meantime, Jack and Helen were joined by Helen’s half-sister Sara, also known as Betty. Betty was a minor, just 17 years old, when she moved in. This becomes important later. 

Also, in the meantime – as World War Two drew closer for the USA – the Suicide Squad approached the National Academy of Sciences committee on Army Air Corp research. If war broke out in the Pacific, the Air Force would suddenly need to land and launch big, heavy bombers from short landing strips on tiny islands. This would be difficult, unless they could speed the bombers up. What they needed was a ‘Jet propulsion system’ – that’s right jet planes. The suicide squad avoided the word ‘rocket’ for fear they would be labelled cranks and dismissed. The NAS committee thought they were anything but cranks – giving them the funds to develop these jet engines. After a number of tests run with mixed success – on one test a JATO engine blew up on re-entry, launching shrapnel everywhere. There were a couple of explosions on the ground. One time their test plane caught on fire – they eventually made a working model. Having ironed out all the bugs, the Suicide Squad suddenly had thousands of jet engines to make. Caltech was neither willing nor able to set up for industrial production – the Suicide Squad, now incorporated as Aerojet, went it alone.

A defence contract would come with all kinds of oversight. For one, the Suicide Squad and all those working for them would need security clearances. This meant the defence force going over their backgrounds with a fine toothed comb. The O.T.O had come to the attention of authorities in February 1939, when Anya Sosoyeva – a young dancer who had attended an O.T.O mass, was murdered on the grounds of Los Angeles City College. The O.T.O bore no responsibility for her killing, but reporters shone a light on the ‘sex cult’ living in the middle of an everyday neighbourhood. Wilfred Smith was at least afforded airtime to explain their philosophy, and masses to the public. 

Paul Seckler’s rampage was a whole other level of bad publicity, however. Paul and Phyllis Seckler were a couple who recently joined the O.T.O, having been recruited by Regina Kahle – a longstanding member who was Phyllis’ drama teacher. Phyllis would go on to become a high ranking Thelemite. Paul, who Parsons secured employment as a security guard at Caltech – would wind up serving a jail sentence. One night in 1942 he came out of a mass – possibly on a bad high, – convinced he needed to get away from an evil spirit. He hijacked a car, at gunpoint, from a young couple – and drove round the city till he came down. The connection to Parsons – now high up in the OTO, and having found Paul a job – did come to the attention of authorities. While he was not expelled from the company, the FBI was now looking closely at Jack Parsons and his sex magick cult. 

Sorry folks this one is going to run to two episodes. We’ll conclude the Tale of Jack Parsons next time. Next episode I’ll, probably, explain the misspelling of Babylon in the title while I’m at it – Simone    

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.

Women’s History Month: Njinga of Ndongo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imbangala warriors.

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

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

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

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

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