Tag Archives: 17th Century

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 Wreck of The Batavia (part 6 – Water, water everywhere…)

Hi all this is part six of a seven part series, to pick up anywhere along the way click onetwothreefour Five.

This week we’re going to stop and rewind a little. Much of Cornelisz’ actions were predicated on his assumption he was a dead man if Pelsaert and Jacobsz survived the 3,000 kilometer journey from the Abrolhos, up to Java, Indonesia. It was not a sure thing they would. 48 survivors were crammed into a 30 foot lifeboat meant to only hold a maximum 40 passengers, with only around six days’ worth of water. The sea was very choppy and a storm was on the horizon. The boat, overloaded as it was, only had around two feet of clearance from the water. Betting odds on Pelsaert v Ocean would easily favor the ocean. Today let’s discuss the journey aboard the longboat.

On 8th June 1629 the longboat sailed towards the coast of Australia, initially with a mission of finding more drinking water for the survivors. Once they had ferried several weeks’ worth of water back, the plan was to then head for Indonesia and arrange a rescue. From what little they knew for Australia, they knew around 500 kilometers north of Houtman Abrolhos there was a river which flowed into the sea – “the river of Jacob Remmessens” – probably Yardie Creek in Gascoyne, Western Australia. They could refill their barrels there, if they could locate it. This was a long way off however. They were desperately hoping they would come across something long before then. When they sighted the coast on the afternoon of the 8th June they were greeted with a vast wasteland. Beyond the high cliffs stretched an arid desert. To try to get any closer was to take your life in your hands, as a heavy surf crashed against the boulders. On they sailed, out to sea, where it was a little safer. The coast stretched in this way for hundreds of miles. Dangerous surf, cliffs reaching 750 feet, arid land.

On 9th June a violent storm came in, which threatened at once to swamp the longboat, and to dash it against the rocky coast. The sailors fought for their lives to steer the boat to safety. The storm seemed to follow the longboat for the following day and a half – leaving a worn down, heavily soaked crew shivering half to death in it’s wake. It was hardly like they could rest however – the sea was extremely choppy, and threatened to sink them if they didn’t constantly bail water from the boat. They had taken a smaller yawl, full of supplies and empty water barrels, with them. At this point the yawl had to be cut loose before it dragged them down. The boat continued north.

After a week of searching the coast for a source of water; their own supply of water nearly gone, and means of transporting water back to the Abrolhos at the bottom od Davy Jones’ locker, the crew of the longboat were becoming increasingly desperate. On 14th June, smoke was spotted somewhere inland, and there was finally some land where they could beach the longboat. The crew landed and searched for water, to no avail. Heading further north they found another beach the following day. This time, some way inland, they found a dozen pools of drinkable water and a discarded campfire – left behind, one would assume, by a group of Aborigines. Pelsaert and Jacobsz knew they had no way of collecting enough water to return to the Abrolhos with supplies – but they just might have enough to make it to the town of Batavia, Indonesia. After making all the passengers sign an oath of agreement – for this could be seen as dereliction of duty – they headed northwards towards Indonesia. For eleven days they sailed, through much calmer waters. This, all the same must have been an excruciating journey – making six days of water last nearly twice as long; the sun relentlessly beaming down on them. A little rain did fall in the final days, but when they sighted Java on 27th June the longboat had a little over a liter of water remaining. They found a waterfall where they could refill their water barrel, then sailed the final leg to the town of Batavia. On 3rd July the longboat touched down in Batavia – all 48 survivors having survived the arduous journey.



Batavia, Jakarta as it is now known, was very much the image of a Dutch town, from it’s European style architecture to it’s citizens, inappropriately dressed in the same heavy, woolen clothes they wore back at home. It did have a small sector in which the indigenous people lived that had a more Asiatic feel, but on the whole it was like someone had transported a small part of Holland to another galaxy. An enclave of the VOC, it was ruled over by the governor general. The governor general at the time was a rather ruthless and unforgiving man named Jan Pietersz Coen. Coen’s first term as governor had ended in an international incident, after having tortured and executed a group made up of British merchants and Japanese mercenaries. The men were wrongly suspected of espionage. Britain were livid, eventually settling for the removal of Coen from the colony. Back for a second term, under an assumed name, Pelsaert had no reason to believe he would be any less irascible this time. On 9th July Pelsaert was summoned to Coen’s office to explain how he had wrecked the VOC’s flagship, abandoned hundreds of survivors, and left somewhere in the order of 20 million, in today’s value in silver, stuck on a coral reef.

Pelsaert put the blame on the navigators – he kept asking where they were, they kept assuring him they were on track. They abandoned the other survivors out of necessity. He claimed he rescued the silver and jewels before they had left, and set out buoys in the sea, so divers could find the wreck later. Though thoroughly unimpressed, luckily for Pelsaert, Coen had nearly run into the Abrolhos himself, on his return voyage in 1627. He decided to send Pelsaert back to the wreck with a rescue ship, The Sardam. While there he was under orders to bring back as much silver, jewels and expensive equipment as they could salvage. Of course they were to rescue the survivors too. Coen made it very clear to Pelsaert, his future in the VOC depended on him rescuing the money.

He also shared his suspicions of the attempted mutiny by Jacobsz and boatswain Jan Evertsz, the latter of whom Creesje Jans may have actually recognized in the attack. On the 13th July both men were arrested. Under torture Evertsz confessed to the attack of Creesje. Evertsz would be hanged for his part in the assault. As far as the literature states Jacobsz was never charged, possibly never tortured – though he remained locked up for his part in grounding the ship. It appears he died in jail.

The Sardam left the town of Batavia on 15th July. By 10th August they were within 50 miles of the Abrolhos – though it would prove extremely difficult to locate the island chain. August rolled into September. We’ll come back to what Pelsaert discovered on 16th September, but suffice to say for now when we last left Cornelisz a war was brewing. Several people on his island – sometimes called Beacon Island, occasionally Batavia’s Graveyard – had managed to escape to the High Land. The escapees and the soldiers on the High Land had coalesced around a charismatic private, of which very little is known. We know he was probably from Friesland, and in his 40s. Resourceful, tough and highly capable, Wiebbe Hayes would prove the most formidable challenge to the heretic and his mutineers yet. Join us next week for the final installment in The Wreck of the Batavia.

The Wreck of The Batavia (part 5 – The Massacre)

Hi all this is part five of a seven part series, to pick up anywhere along the way click one, two, three, four.


Today we pick up where the first episode left off. If you recall, Jacobsz and Pelsaert had evacuated most of the survivors on to one of two islands in the Abrolhos. They seized a few days’ worth of supplies, then set sail in a lifeboat for Indonesia with a group of 46 others – mostly made up of the best sailors. We’ll check in on them later.

Meantime 70 men remained on the wreck of the Batavia itself. Sensing most of these men had turned on him, Pelsaert had shouted to them to make rafts and make their own way to the Abrolhos. The 70 would remain on the ship for nine more days, till 12th June – when the Batavia would finally break up and toss the men into the ocean. Some built makeshift rafts in the days leading up to the disintegration. Others attempted to swim ashore. Just 25 of the 70 would make it to the island in one piece. Jeronimus Cornelisz was the last survivor to make it to safety. He had clung to the bowsprit (the beam at the very front of a ship) as it broke loose, and managed to float to within earshot of the island. The people on the island were very glad to see him alive, carrying him to the camp and finding food and dry clothes for him.


Jeronimus awoke to find a population of 208 men, women and children on the Abrolhos. The final destruction of the ship had washed hundreds of gallons of water and wine ashore in barrels, but food was scarce – the survivors had all but killed off the sea lions which once inhabited the Abrolhos. The surgeon Frans Jansz had brought a council together to manage resources. Jansz had formerly been the highest ranked person on the island but Jeronimus washing ashore immediately changed the pecking order in Jeronimus’ favor. Jeronimus Cornelisz reign started well enough – it would soon descend into an unspeakable bloodbath.


He fretted if Jacobsz and Pelsaert made it to Batavia, Indonesia; Pelsaert would report the attack on Creesje, leading Jacobsz to spill the beans on the plot to mutiny. Jeronimus knew if this happened he would be done for, unless he could gather a crew of mutineers ready to act when the rescue ship arrived. He also realized having so many survivors would deplete the supplies, making them too weak to mutiny when the ship arrived. To ensure he had no opposition on the island, and that they would be fighting fit, a lot of people must die. To complicate matters, by late June a rumor began to circulate that Jeronimus and Jacobsz were planning to mutiny, before the wreck.

By the end of June Jeronimus had gathered two dozen men behind him and his plan, many being original mutineers. This group included the German mercenaries Jan Hendricxsz and Mattys Beer. Lance Corporal ‘Stone Cutter’ Pietersz, Jacobsz’ friend Allert Janssen, and a young upper middle class kid with a nasty disposition called David Zevanck. Jeronimus gathered the mutineers into two tents, clear of the others, so they could freely plot. He stopped the ship’s carpenters from building rescue boats out of flotsam – and began planning to break the survivors into several, manageable groups over the islands. Having first sent a group out to scout the other islands for water, Jeronimus put his plan in place.


First the mutineers dropped a group of around 45 on an island they had named Seal Island. A smaller group to another island named Traitor’s Island. Days later Jeronimus announced his plan to send a group to another island they called the High land, with a mission to find water. The high land had been checked twice, without luck, for water already. A group of 20 men, mostly tough soldiers who were thought to be company loyalists were sent to the high land with instructions to set signal fires if they found a well or stream. This group included one Wiebbe Hayes.


The murders began in the first week of July. Two soldiers, Abraham Hendricx and Ariaen Ariaensz, were caught drunk on stolen wine. Hendricx was the actual thief, Ariaensz only crime was of consumption. Jeronimus insisted to the council both men should be executed. The other councilors felt execution was a fair punishment for Hendricx, but not Ariaensz. This was exactly what Jeronimus wanted, on the 5th July he replaced the councilors with mutineers and immediately had Hendricx executed. The same day Jeronimus accused two of the carpenters of trying to steal a home made boat, so they were executed too. The three men were run through by the mutineers sabers. The next day he sent several reinforcements out into the sea, allegedly on a mission to help Wiebbe Hayes on the High Land. He announced four men would be ferried across each day. Once clear of the island the men were bound, and three of them tossed into the water to drown. The fourth, cadet Andries Liebent, begged so convincingly for his life the mutineers spared him taking him on as a fellow mutineer. Two days later another journey was made in the direction of the High Land. It played out in exactly the same fashion; this time a young man named Andries de Vries was spared from Davey Jones’ locker.


On the 9th July something unexpected happened. Wiebbe Hayes’ party found water, lighting signal fires on the shore. This was a game changer. For one, when Jeronimus didn’t send a raft for Hayes it would be clear Jeronimus was up to no good. Second, a water supply on the High Land ensured the soldiers survival. Third, the signal fires caught the attention of the survivors on Traitor’s Island – who had built rafts and were now furiously paddling to the High Land. Seven of the mutineers were sent off in a flotsam yawl to stop them. The mutineers boarded one raft, causing four of the men to jump off in a panic and drown. The rafts, led by Peter Jansz, were ordered back to Jeronimus’ island. Once in the shallows Jeronimus came out to greet the party. In plain view of all he gave the order to kill. Jansz and his compatriots were immediately hacked to death. Four men did manage to escape the raft and wade ashore. They plead for Jeronimus mercy as Jan Hendricxsz and Andries Jonas caught up with them and ran them through. Three women, no doubt in deep shock, were left alive on the raft. Jeronimus ordered them to be rowed back out into the deep, choppy waters and thrown overboard to drown.


So it was, in full view of the survivors, that the terror began. In all 50 survivors would be killed by the middle of the month. This included young Hilletgie Hardens. Hilletgie was the daughter of Hans Hardens, a German soldier turned mutineer in the wake of the Jansz killing. On 10th July, Jeronimus invited Hans and his wife Annekan to his tent to have a few drinks and a meal. He then sent Jan Hendricxsz to strangle Hilletgie. The following day a heartbroken Hans, all the same, swore an oath of fealty to Jeronimus. Andries de Vries, recently spared, was sent into the medical tent where eleven survivors lay gravely ill. He was given orders to cut their throats. Possibly in fear of his own life he did the bloody deed. He would be sent back a few days later to kill 4 more survivors who had since turned for the worse. On the 12th Jeronimus gave orders to kill Passchier van de Ende and Jacop Drayer on charges of theft – though both men were physically imposing, and thus a threat. Hendricxsz, Zevanck, Van Os and Lucas Gellisz were sent to dispatch the two men.

Two distinct camps had developed on the island. One, the mutineers – well fed, a little bored, propagandized by Jeronimus to believe their future held adventure on the high seas and great wealth. The other, everyone else, constantly terrified they may say the wrong thing – even look at someone wrong- and find themselves on the receiving end of a mutineer’s saber. By mid July the mutineers were also doling out vicious beatings on a whim.

Jeronimus then turned his attentions towards Seal Island. The Seal Island group was made up of a handful of men, pregnant women and mostly, cabin boys. Led by Cornelis Jansz and Corporal Gabriel Jacobszoon, the group numbered around 45. Jeronimus sent a group of seven mutineers over in the yawl to murder all the men and boys, but leave the women alive. They arrived on the 15th and began hacking and slashing away from the offset. The Seal Islanders had seen the previous killings and built boats in preparation of an invasion. Jansz, alongside 7 other men escaped to the High Land. 15 of the cabin boys managed to outrun the attackers and find hiding places for themselves. One young man on the island, Abraham Gerritsz, whom Pelsaert had saved in Sierra Leone turned mutineer, killing one of the cabin boys. The mutineers would leave with Gerritsz, only to return a few nights later to finish off all but three of the cabin boys, who again successfully fled. On a third trip back to the island, 24th July, the mutineers finished the job – capturing the final three boys. On the journey back one of the three threw the other two overboard to drown, thus taking the oath and joining the mutineers.

Jeronimus himself had yet to kill anyone, but desired to know the feeling of taking a life. His victim? a baby who had been born aboard the Batavia on the voyage out. His method? Using his apothecary’s kit he put a poison together. Surprisingly the poison failed to kill the infant, instead putting the child into a coma. A few days’ later he sent another mutineer who had likely joined him to avoid being killed, the clerk Salomon Deschamps, to strangle the child.

On 21st July Jeronimus turned his attentions to the family of the preacher Gijsbert Bastiaensz. Bastiaensz, you may recall, was travelling with his large family (he and his wife Mary were travelling with 7 of their 8 children) and were one of the VIP families who sat at the Head Merchant’s table. The family were looking for a fresh start after the failure of their mill, and had some worth to the VOC as a lay preacher. Bastiaensz’ eldest daughter Judick had caught the eye of a mutineer named Coenraat Van Huyssen. Van Huyssen was smitten. Judick didn’t want to die at the hands of a man who had killed half a dozen passengers already, so the couple got engaged. Jeronimus wasn’t aghast at their love story, and saw some use in having a preacher around – but decided the rest of the family must die. On the night of the 21st Judick and Gijsbert were summoned to Jeronimus’ tent for a meal and some wine, while a group of seven mutineers entered the Bastiaensz tent and stabbed Mary and the remaining children to death.


Speaking of very dubious ‘love stories’; we have not checked in on Creesje in some time. If you remember she had been travelling with her servant Zwaantie Hendricx, and over the course of the journey had a falling out with Zwaantie. Married skipper Ariaen Jacobsz made a pass for also married Creesje, only to be rebuffed. Jacobsz then turned his attentions to Zwaantie – who was taken aboard the lifeboat headed for Indonesia with the skipper and head merchant. Creesje was left to fend for herself on the island. Well, technically she was one of a group of seven passengers who were in an especially precarious position. Seven women from the Batavia remained alive on the island – the pregnant women of Seal Island were massacred in a subsequent raid for the cabin boys. Judick Bastiaensz was one. As she was engaged to Coenraat Van Huyssen, the only unwelcome advances she had to deal with were from Coenraat himself. Five of the women, all wives of soldiers and sailors, were kept alive to serve the sexual needs of all in sundry. Creesje had been claimed by Jeronimus himself. Whereas the five soldiers’ wives were subjected to rape whenever a mutineer felt the urge, Jeronimus spent weeks wooing Creesje with sonnets and boozy meals by candlelight. Creesje kept him at arms length until, one night David Zevanck threatened to move her to the tent with the other five women unless she show Jeronimus some affection. That night she yielded to Jeronimus’ ‘charms’.


Throughout July, and into August the killings continued, at this point seemingly only to keep the mutineers entertained – as by now the island was providing enough food and rainwater to keep everyone going. A small handful of artisans were spared, as they were seen as necessary. Of course Jeronimus realized he had the problem on the High Land to deal with. Six weeks earlier he’d sent a large group of soldiers and other able bodied men over to the island to die, believing it contained no natural resources. This proved to be far from the case. Within a few weeks they had discovered two wells. There were birds aplenty to catch. A flourishing fishing spot lay just off the High Land, and a member of the wallaby family called a Tammar hopping round the island in large numbers. From the second week of July, Wiebbe Hayes and the occupants of the High Land were aware of Jeronimus’ mutiny, when escapees from Seal Island landed on their home-made rafts. Hayes began preparing for the inevitable battle with Jeronimus and the mutineers.


Hey all, I think we’ll need two more weeks in total to conclude this Tale – join me next week for the penultimate episode of The Wreck of the Batavia.

The Wreck of The Batavia (part 1 – The Wreck)

Today’s tale begins in all but uncharted territory somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, at around 3am, 3rd June 1629. Aboard the Dutch East Indies new flagship – the Batavia – two men are having a furious disagreement. Launched 211 days earlier in the icy waters of Northern Europe; sailing southwards around the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, then out towards the Spice Islands the Batavia had endured an epic voyage. Having withstood extremes of heat and cold, rough seas, and most recently terrible storms, the weather was just becoming temperate, the seas calm. One gets the sense life aboard the Batavia must have been hell. Historian Mike Dash, my primary source for this tale, states just how inhospitable ships of this era were. He states any fresh food they had was long gone by now, the water onboard had become a breeding ground for worms, and below decks would smell of a horrendous aroma of stale breath, unwashed bodies and urine. Knowing they were a month from their destination of Java, modern day Indonesia, had to be massively of comfort to all on board.


But, back to our two men. The ship’s lookout, Hans Bosschieter insisted he had seen white water in the distance – a sure sign they were at risk of running aground if they didn’t alter course. The other man was the skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz – a well thought of middle aged sailor, who had distinguished himself in several prior voyages east. Brilliant as he was, he was also a difficult and scary guy – quick to temper, and once he had made up his mind he would not be swayed. He was also quite lecherous towards female passengers, but more on that later. Jacobsz was convinced they were safe, as yesterday morning they were still 600 miles from known land. In his opinion that thin white line in the distance was nothing more than moonlight reflecting off the waves – so on they rolled.

Taken from a Swedish vessel…. but it sets the mood.


The Batavia would roll on for a few moments more, suddenly – violently – brought to a bone crushing halt. With a deafening thud, the bottom of the ship collided with a coral reef, just 15 feet below the surface. A second and a half later the bow of the ship struck the reef proper. Lurching forward and to port; Jacobsz, Bosscheiter and the others who made up the midnight watch were tossed across the deck like rag dolls. Below decks the 270 crew and passengers were in for a rude awakening, as overhead compartments rained down their contents on them. They made their way up to the deck to find the Batavia stuck tight on the reef; bow all smashed up, perched over, with all the weight on the front of the boat – the back half now raised out of the water. They were shipwrecked, in the dark, and so far off the charts they had no idea where they even were. Little did they know just how awful things would get for them soon however. Welcome everyone to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 11, The Wreck of the Batavia.


(Theme music)


Hi all just saying up front, this one is going to run over three podcast episodes, running to half a dozen blog posts. There is quite a bit of background needs to go into this tale to really make sense of it. In the first (podcast) episode I want to set the scene, and introduce the main characters. In Episode two we’ll look at the voyage, then in the third what happened to the survivors on the Houtman Abrolhos chain. I will also say up front that this is probably the most bloodthirsty tale I have told yet, either on the podcast or on the blog. I feel I need to mention this as I know I have some readers on the blog do follow for the quirkier character pieces, while some like the horrible history content. Believe me there is no offense taken if the Batavia is not your cup of tea.

That said I do need to cover off a few things before we start getting into background information, and pick up from before the theme music.


In the immediate aftermath of the crash, everyone on board would have been absolutely shocked and horrified. In the first instance all hands were on deck, tossing anything with any significant weight overboard, to try to stop the ship from snapping in half. Measurements of depth were taken from all around the Batavia to try and work out if they could manipulate her backwards off the reef. They hoped dangling their two heaviest anchors off the elevated stern of the ship might tip them back into the sea, and allow them to sail away. The water however was just as shallow all around them, no more than 16 feet deep. If at low tide they might have a chance later in the day. It turned out they had crashed, and plumbed the depths, close to high tide.


Their next concern was to try to stop the ship springing a leak. The sea was rough, and bouncing the Batavia up and down onto the reef with great force. Their mainmast was acting as a force multiplier. 180 feet long, made of one massive piece of Scandinavian pine – the mainmast ran through the middle of the boat through four levels, and settled atop the ship’s keel. Every time the ship hit the reef, the mast acted like a jackhammer on concrete. The decision was made to chop the mainmast down from the upper deck. Using an axe they chopped through the mast, which came down with a heavy thud, not into the water but straight onto the deck. No one was killed but they now had a tangle of ropes, damaged decking and sails to work around.

As the sun rose the crew could finally take a proper look at their predicament. They were on the southern end of a crescent shaped coral atoll. The only habitable land was at the other end, around six miles north. As rough as the sea was it did look possible they could lower one of the two boats onboard the ship and explore the reef. At around 7am Ariaen Jacobsz took a crew of men out on the yawl and explored their surroundings.

On exploration he discovered several of the northernmost islands shouldn’t disappear below the waves on high tide, giving a reasonable chance of saving the crew and passengers yet. Jacobsz first had to convince the ship’s upper merchant – and true head of the expedition – that this should be their first move. The upper merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, was a Belgian citizen with plenty of company experience, having worked for Dutch East India company in Agra, India – but little sailing experience. Less still of commanding a ship. While Jacobsz worried first and foremost about getting everyone to safety, Pelsaert insisted they first save the cargo, chests full of precious jewels and silver carried to trade for local goods. Common sense won out, Pelsaert was convinced by the reality he’d be murdered by the crew if he so much as moved a chest before everyone was safe. Thus they began the arduous process of moving the survivors through the choppy waters, to a flat, inhospitable lump of coral lacking cover, vegetation or water. A dozen crew tried to swim across, but were all pulled under and drowned by the currents.


Just as the first boatload left for the island, the Batavia finally sprang a leak, one which would prove too large to caulk up. By the end of the day 180 shivering souls were split across two coral islands; 150 pints of worm infested water, and 12 barrels of stale bread between them – and of course one casket of treasure – at Pelsaert’s insistence. Pelsaert had intended to go back for the rest, but weather worsened and a dozen chests of silver had to be left on the deck unguarded.


That evening the remaining crew still on the ship began to rebel. A gunner named Allert Janssen raided the officers’ liquor cabinet. Others soon joined, and – all having barely touched a drop for eight months – became violently drunk. A cadet named Lenert van Os broke open the chests of silver and threw handful after handful of silver coins overboard to spite the officers. Another sailor named Cornelis Janssen helped himself to rows and rows of knives and stalked the decks with his gleaming weapons on display. Another, Ryckert Woutersz, rifled through upper merchant Pelsaert’s belongings. The next morning several more survivors escaped to the island, leaving around 70 rebelling sailors still on the Batavia. Knowing he was risking his life going back for the silver, Pelsaert shouted orders to the men on ship to make a raft and make their own way to the island, and left them to it.


After a second night on the islands, Pelsaert and Jacobsz put their heads together and discussed scenarios. They were probably on an uncharted, but very occasionally sighted atoll known as Houtman’s Abrolhos, 2,000 miles south of Indonesia. They were miles from the west coast of Australia, but we are decades before anyone would add the lucky country to a map. Thirteen years earlier the adventurer Frederik de Houtman had almost wrecked on the Abrolhos. His story is one which bears telling sometime – but suffice to say for now, the guy was jailed by the Sultan of Aceh on Sumatra for two years. In that time he learned to speak Malay and Malagasy, gleaned much of their customs, and made several astrological observations then unknown to the Northern hemisphere. He didn’t pin down the exact location of the Abrolhos, but he brought a lot of other useful information back to the VOC. The two men made a prolonged search for water, to no avail. They then gathered a crew of 40, which included their best sailors, and began equipping their longboat for the 2,000 mile journey north.

Four days after washing up they set sail for Indonesia.


Meanwhile on board the Batavia several dozen desperate men remained. They honestly had to be desperate to set sail in the first place. The stakeholders of the VOC made a killing from Eastern trade, but the crew saw very little of that wealth. Furthermore, once you had signed up, the average life span of a VOC sailor was just three years. Sailors were often plucked from the criminal classes, or people who, for one reason or another, needed to abandon their former lives. All but one of the men still onboard were lowly ranked sailors, but the one officer which remained – the under merchant, second in charge to Pelsaert was a desperate man for his own reasons. A former apothecary lately out of Haarlem- Jeronimus Cornelisz paced alone with his dark thoughts. Though more typical of the class who sent men out to die on the other side of the world to make themselves wealthy, Cornelisz’ life had suddenly been thrown into turmoil. His business gone, he was possibly also a fugitive from the law back in Holland. I will discuss Jeronimus and his downfall next week, in episode two – The Heretic.

Sophxit

(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)

Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.

Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?


This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.


Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697.
This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.


Joining ‘The Firm’.

To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…

Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.

Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.


Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.

Countess Platen

The Konigsmarck brothers.
We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too.
Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level.
The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army.
Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.

Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall
Who ne’er would have miscarried;
Had he married the woman he slept withal

Or slept with the woman he married.”

Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin.
In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.

The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.

On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.

Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together.
The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.

So…. what happened?
Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.

What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.

Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.

Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.

Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?

Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.

Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.

Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.

By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.

How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.

Sabbatai Zevi- The Monty Hall Problem

The year is 1666, the setting Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. A middle aged preacher named Sabbatai Zevi, held captive since his arrival there, mulls over a difficult choice. Tomorrow he will be brought before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV and be told to make a choice, a Monty Hall problem if ever there was one – though in his case there is no ‘behind one door there is a car, behind the other two doors, goats’ option. If only there were goats. Every door, it seems had a ravenous tiger behind it- well figuratively. For close to a decade Zevi, a rogue Kabbalist rabbi, has been claiming to be the true son of God, and messiah. It is his proselytizing which has got him into this mess. Tomorrow he must choose instant execution, a trial by arrows or the turban. Before we speak a little on how he chose, first we should tell the tale which brought him here.

Sultan Mehmet IV


Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, Ottoman Empire in late July or early August 1626. He was born to a Sephardic Jewish family; meaning his ancestors had been given a similar Monty Hall problem in Spain or Portugal, following the Alhambra decree of 1492. The Christian rulers, having finally ousted the Umayyad Muslims, then turned to the region’s Jewish citizens and offered them the chance to 1. Convert to Christianity and stay, 2. Remain Jewish but abandon their belongings and leave immediately or 3. Be executed. Sabbatai’s ancestors chose to remain Jewish, and moved to the other end of the Mediterranean.

Sabbatai was intensely religious, studying to become a Rabbi. In his studies he discovered a series of mystic Jewish texts called the Kabballah – you may recall this was the sect Madonna became enamored with in the early 2000s. While, by and large Jewish in their tenor, these texts were heretical as they claimed to give the practitioner a direct line to God. In 1648 Sabbatai claimed he had spoken with God, and God revealed he was Sabbatai’s true father. He had been born to lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Lands, thus bringing about the end of days, and eternal life hereafter. When it became clear to the Rabbinate of Smyrna that this charismatic young heretic was getting a following they sent him packing. Ultimately this would not stop him.

Over the next few years the charismatic Zevi gathered a large following among the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, known as the Sabbateans. Sabbatai was hardly the first claimant for the title Jewish messiah in history, and would not be the last. He did however have some backing in Christendom, for their own, eschatological reasons. As Zevi was building his following, increasing numbers of Christians – often referred to as Millenarians, believed the world was about to come to an end. The victory of Puritanism in the English Civil War- Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army deposing and executing Charles I in 1649 had been a sign. The next sign would be when the 10 lost tribes of Israel returned to the Holy Land. These Christians did not believe Sabbatai was the messiah, but thought his success would bring on the return of their messiah – so they got in behind him. Both groups believed 1666 would be the year it all happened.

On Jewish New Year 1665, Sabbatai Zevi made a public statement, surrounded by his followers. The messiah was ready to start the revolution. He would travel to Constantinople

“riding on a lion, with a seven headed dragon in its jaws”

His second in charge Nathan of Gaza upped the ante, stating Sabbatai would place the Sultan’s crown on his own head. Well…. Little did he know how prophetic that statement would be. The Ottomans caught wind of the speech, and kept a close watch for his arrival. On arrival Sabbatai Zevi was arrested. It seemed initially he would simply be left to rot in jail, but a few months after he was jailed, Sabbatai was caught trying to order a hit on a rival Jewish messiah from within prison. The Vizier of Adrianople, the Sultan’s top administrator in the city, had him brought before himself. This is when Zevi was given his choice.


Door one, the Vizier ceases all messing around with him, Sabbatai would be impaled. This, by the way is effectively what happens if he makes no choice at all.

Behind door two? Well, Sabbatai claims to be the messiah, and to have supernatural powers. Tomorrow he can prove it to the Sultan. Zevi is to stand before a company of archers while they empty their quivers into him. A son of God can surely stop all the arrows in mid air right?

Door three, since Sabbatai has shown such interest in the Sultan’s headwear, he will find one of the Sultan’s turbans laid out for him on a table. Put on the Sultan’s ‘crown’ accepting if you do you will be renouncing your claims to divinity, and your Jewish faith. In doing so you will be converting to Islam.

Well, maybe this option is more car than goat- or raging tiger. The turban comes with a fancy house, a big salary, and a job with very few duties.
Before you scroll down, dear reader- first, what would you choose? In Zevi’s place are your beliefs worth dying for? Second how do you think he chose?






Short answer, Sabbatai Zevi was no martyr, he picked up the turban, adjusted it to make sure it wasn’t crooked, then went into the next room to say hello to Sultan Mehmet IV, his new boss.

Sabbatai, wearing ‘the Sultan’s crown’.

Now there is a coda worth mentioning, as it relates to something in next week’s blog. I will explain it in that episode, but for now I mention it in passing. What happened to the Sabbateans? Surely there were mass suicides, riots, disavowals of the Messiah? Actually a large number of the followers also converted to Islam, adopting the name ‘the Donmeh’. Sects of donmeh are still around today.

Next week let’s talk UFOs – Simone