Sunday, 27 December 2015

"... On the feast of St. John the Evangelist, we arrived at the ordu of the great lord" - Prester John, the Mongols and William of Rubruck's Journey to Karakorum

27 December 1253, the Franciscan monk, diplomat in the service of Louis IX of France and explorer William of Rubruck reaches the court of Great Khan Möngke in Karakorum.

“Then first in her distant journey did Répanse de Schoie find joy,
And in India's realm hereafter did she bear to the king a boy;
And Prester John they called him, and he won to himself such fame
That henceforward all kings of his country were known by no other name.
And Feirefis sent a writing thro' the kingdoms whose crown he bore,
And the Christian Faith was honoured as it never had been of yore.
(And Tribalibot was that country which as India here we know.)”

 (Wolfram von Eschenbach, “Parzival”, around 1210)

Jacopo Bassano "Portrait of a Franciscan Friar" (around 1542)

Alexander III was a resourceful man. Basically, a useful trait if one has something of a talent to antagonise almost all of the crowned heads of Christendom. A third crusade might have been a political way out of the quandary, but after the disaster of the second one in 1149, none of the said crowned heads was keen on risking life, limb and especially money abroad and especially not to do Alexander a favour. However, with Nur ad-Din unifying the Faithful and threatening the Crusader States and, naturally, Jerusalem, the situation in the Outremer was tense. And the last thing Alexander needed politically was a collapse of Christian rule in the Holy Land. Thus, it was quite fortunate that a letter from a wondrous new ally appeared, the Lord of the Three Indias, descendant of one of the Three Magi, a faithful Christian King, ready to lead a huge army against the Mussulmen from the East if only the western Princes would support him. The legend of Prester John had begun in earnest, and even though a few lettered contemporaries might have noticed that Prester John’s epsitle quoted the Alexander Romances verbatim, the ones about the ancient Conqueror, not the pope, of course, and borrowed heavily from Herodotus and other sources, a dream had begun that would be dreamed well into the 19th century. However, Prester John and a third crusade remained a dream during Alexander’s papacy while he finally managed to checkmate the Holy Roman Emperor and King Henry II of England and relieve himself of most of the political pressure. The Third Crusade set forth in 1189, almost ten years after his death, without any expectations of a relief from Prester John. Another dreamer, however, St Louis IX of France, undoubtedly a pious man and an inspiring leader, but a walking and talking military fiasco, dug out the idea of an alliance with Prester John in the East while he ruined the last hopes of the Crusader Kingdoms during his stay in the Outremer before and after the catastrophic Seventh Crusade around 1250. By then, there actually was a vast empire beyond the Euphrates threatening Muslim rule, that of Genghis Khan and his successors. But they were not exactly Christian princes. 

Mongol warriors pursuing their enemies, from an early 14th century Persian manuscript 

is an old settlement centre in the valley of the River Orkhon, some two hundred miles west of Ulan Bator. The first Mongols that became sedentary might have farmed there, over the centuries, Old Turkic khans had their capitals by its banks and so did other peoples from the steppe. In 1220 then, Genghis Khan decided to found a residence on site, maybe he had more in mind than establishing yet another rallying point for his armies, but for the next decades, Karakorum, meaning either “black hills” or “black prison”, was little more than a huge yurt town until Genghis’ son Ögedei Khan made the place the capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen, a vast territory that stretched in 1241 from Poland to the coast of the China Sea and began to change from a rag rug overridden by plundering steppe nomads towards a political entity. When Genghis’ grandson Möngke became the fourth Great Khan in 1251, Karakorum already was made into a boomtown in a place that marked the Middle of the World for the Mongols and even if it lacked the pedigree of Babylon or Constantinople in the perspective of subjugated nations, it was indeed the centre of politics in Eurasia. There had been several missions from the Pope sent towards the courts of Mongol Khans before, ironically enough, while the Catholic Poles, Hungarians and Teutonic Knights fought them in Eastern Europe with tooth and claw and the admittedly Orthodox principalities of the Kievan Rus already were conquered and brought under Mongol rule. And, of course, various traders and merchants knew where to find the capital of the Great Khan and it was on their tracks that a Flemish Franciscan set forth from Constantinople to Karakorum on 7 May 1253, by order of St Louis, together with his confrére Bartolomeo da Cremona, a servant and a native guide, to negotiate an alliance, convert the Heathen and it wouldn’t do any harm if he would discover more about Prester John while he was out there. The two Franciscans didn’t travel exactly with the speed of dispatch riders through Southern Russia, past the northern shore of the Caspian and the Aral Sea into Transbaikal and, finally, into Mongolia, over 5,000 miles on foot and on the back of mules. It took them almost eight months to reach Karakorum and they were in for a surprise.

Audience with Möngke Khan, from a 15th century Persian manuscript

and Bartolomeo were prepared for all kinds of magnificence, they had read Prester John’s alleged letter from 1165 and the wondrous description of the palace there and indeed, Möngke Khan’s capital shone with splendour build overnight by artisans from all corners of the empire and beyond. One contraption especially caught William’s fancy: “… Master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another cara cosmos, or clarified mare's milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel. In the first place he made bellows, but they did not give enough wind. Outside the palace is a cellar in which the liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out when they hear the angel trumpeting. And there are branches of silver on the tree, and leaves and fruit. When then drink is wanted, the head butler cries to the angel to blow his trumpet. Then he who is concealed in the vault, hearing this blows with all his might in the pipe leading to the angel, and the angel places the trumpet to his mouth, and blows the trumpet right loudly. Then the servants who are in the cellar, hearing this, pour the different liquors into the proper conduits, and the conduits lead them down into the bowls prepared for that, and then the butlers draw it and carry it to the palace to the men and women.” And there already was a church in Karakorum, built by Nestorian Christians, along with mosques, Buddhist Stupas and what not. Möngke Khan practised religious tolerance in his capital, unheard of in Western and most of the residencies of the Near and Middle East. William was made welcome with all courtesy, Möngke attended various religious debates, was not very impressed and William was rather economical with proselytising anyway. Instead, he produced a first rate travelogue rather than the adventure novel Marco Polo wrote half a century later and returned with valuable information about the court of the mightiest man in Eurasia and his court and richer for the experience, but without any news from Prester John and sans an alliance to Acre in 1255. Records of William cease in Paris in 1257 and he was never heard of again. His travelogue, though, was one of the final nails in the coffin of the belief of Prester John and a Christian Empire in the East. Marco Polo still thought it to be somewhere northeast of the Chinese borders but pretty soon, the Age of Exploration began in earnest and European merchant adventurers set forth on their quest for the Prester in Africa and elsewhere.

A modern translation of William of Rubruck’s travelogue, his “Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratia 1253 ad partes Orientales” can be found here:

and more about William of Rubruck on:

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

"Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread" - Dostoevsky's Descent into the House of the Dead

22 December 1849, in St Petersburg the "new Gogol", 28 years old Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky, author of the novels "Poor Folk" and "The Double" and sentenced to death by Tsar Nicolas I for high treason, is put before a firing squad.

"You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary—why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!” (Dostoevsky, "The Idiot")

A sketch of the parade ground of the Semionovsky Regiment at the moment of the execution of the death sentence on 22 December 1849

There is a story that young Fedya saw a horse clubbed to death by a drunken peasant in one of the villages close to the estate of Darovoye where he spent several summers. The boy broke away from his father, ran to the tortured creature lying close to death in the mud, enfolded the neck of the horse in his scrawny arms and cried, quite like a German philosopher 60 years later, who was about to lose his mind in Turin. Fedya’s father, back then in 1832, was rather dismissive of his son’s existential grief, dragged him away, quite unaware that he just had witnessed a scene that would go down in world literature as one of the most gripping moments in the fictional biography of one of the most unusual heroes, or rather anti-heroes of an outstanding novel. Of course, he was far from suspecting that he himself would be clubbed to death by the peasants of the Darovoye estate a couple of years later and inspire another primal scene in the novels his son would write. When the latter heard the news of his father’s demise, he was struck down by an epileptic seizure for the first time in his life. Out of guilt over the repressed wish for his hated father’s death, as Freud himself interpreted the beginning of the condition that would haunt Dostoevsky for the rest of his life. And he hated his father and not only for forcing him into a military career. He dreamed of the dying horse when he travelled to Petersburg to join the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute, a year after his mother had died of tuberculosis, just as his first wife would and many of the key characters of his novels. He was a miserable engineer and a worse cadet, left the army never the less after being promoted to lieutenant and decided to become a writer. Fedya wrote a few social-romantic novels, a bit lachrymose, quite in the popular Western fashion and was celebrated by the contemporary star critic Vissarion Belinsky as the “new Gogol” for his debut “Poor Folk”, an epistolary novel about the relationship of rich and poor. Alexander Herzen thought it a major socialist work. Unfortunately, the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, the Tsar’s secret police, thought the same. Ex-Lieutenant Dostoevsky was under observation just as he began to gain literary fame.

Vasily Fiodorovitch Timm: "The Decembrist Revolt" (1853)

Naturally, the aspiring writer was a member of a reader circle. In Dostoevsky’s case it was a congregation of the brainy, socialist types the Third Section loved so well, self-styled successors of the Decembrists, a group of officers, “aristocratic revolutionaries” as Lenin put it later, who refused to take an oath on Tsar Nicholas and his reactionary regime. Their revolt was put down in December 1825, the ring leaders hanged and the rest went to Siberia, about 600 men and their families who followed them into the punishment camps and exile. Ever since, the Third Section was on the alert and especially suspicious of the types that made up the Petrashevsky Circle. Named after its founder Mikhail Petrashevsky, they were something of a socio-Christian group, read progressive texts, often censored literature and journals, in short, "the most innocent and harmless company", as the professional anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, certainly not a member, wrote to Herzen. It was, however, enough to get them arrested. All of them. One of their members was a mole and betrayed the Petrashevskys, Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail among them, to the Third Section in April 1849. Detained in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress like dangerous criminals, the brothers Dostoevsky, along with 14 other Petrashevskys were tried for high treason by a military court. Main charge against Dostoevsky: Having read Belinsky’s “Letter to Gogol” that criticised autocracy, serfdom and Orthodox religion aloud to others. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad like the others of the Petrashevsky Circle. On the day when the judgement was to be executed, they were driven to the parade ground of the Semionovsky Regiment, Dostoevsky was assigned to be in the second batch and had to watch Petrashevsky and two others in the first. They were tied to poles, got a sack over their heads, the orders “Ready!” and “Aim!” shouted by the captain of the firing squad and then everything stopped. The Tsar’s pardon had arrived, literally in the last second, the timing was orchestrated by Nicholas himself. In his own handwriting, the Tsar Nicholas had commuted Dostoevsky’s death sentence into 4 years of hard labour in a katorga, a prison camp in Siberia, and 5 years of serving as a line soldier in a Siberian regiment, little better than the katorga itself. And off he went, 28 years old Fedya, celebrated author of social-romantic novels and member of a socio-Christian reading circle, to the House of the Dead.

An image of Dostoevsky probably from the late 1850s

“The testimony of Dostoevski is relevant to this problem — Dostoevski, the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life, even more than my discovery of Stendhal. This profound human being, who was ten times right in his low estimate of the superficial Germans, lived for a long time among the convicts in Siberia — hardened criminals for whom there was no way back to society — and found them very different from what he himself had expected: they were carved out of just about the best, hardest, and most valuable wood that grows anywhere on Russian soil.”, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his “Twilight of Idols” after reading Dostoevsky’s testimony of his time in Siberia. The autobiography “House of the Dead” was written in 1862, four years before his first major novel, “Crime and Punishment”, was published. He was released in 1859, arrived in Petersburg in 1860, penniless, still under police surveillance, with a keyed up, tubercular wife he had married in Semipalatinsk, together with her parasitic kin obviously, and "Because of her strange, suspicious and fantastic character, we were definitely not happy together, but we could not stop loving each other; and the more unhappy we were, the more attached to each other we became", Dostoevsky mentioned later. His life continued to be novel-like, self-imposed, more often than not, but it was as if he had gone through a crucible back there in Siberia, and young Fedya returned as the author of some of the greatest literary works in human history.
Read more about Dostoevsky on:


Sunday, 20 December 2015

Prelude to the Battle of St Vincent - Nelson's Action of 19 December 1796

19 December 1796, off Cartagena in the Western Mediterranean, Nelson, then commodore in the Mediterranean Squadron under Sir John Jervis, fought a tumultuous frigate action against the Spanish in a prelude to the Battle of St Vincent.
"You are, Sir, thoroughly acquainted with the merits of Captain Cockburne, that is needless for me to express them; but the Discipline of the Minerve does the highest credit to her captain and lieutenants and I wish fully to express the Sense I entertain of their Judgement and Gallantry" (Nelson in his report to Sir John Jervis)

Contemporary Spanish artist Carlos Parilla's imagination of HMS "Minerve" dueling with "La Sabina"

Decisive use of cannon driving the Allied fleet out of the harbour of counterrevolutionary Toulon and a whiff of grapeshot used against the Royalists on 13 Vendémiaire in Paris gave a once obscure Corsican artillery captain the political backing for a meteoric rise through the ranks. In March 1796, young Général Napoléon Bonaparte assumed command of the thus far rather sloppy led and equipped French Army of Italy, deadlocked somewhere in Lombardy. By autumn of the same year, Napoléon had outflanked, outwitted and outfought everything the continental Allies of the First Coalition threw against him. With most footholds in Italy either captured or threatened, the British position in the Mediterranean became precarious. When the self-styled Prince of Peace Manuel Godoy, Prime Minister of Spain, joined the war on the French side for rather unsavoury reasons in October, raising the number of now allied Franco-Spanish battleships of the line to 38 against the Royal Navy’s 15, it became simply untenable. The new commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Sir John Jervis, ordered his squadron to return back to Gibraltar, blockade the Spanish in Cadiz and evacuate the last British outposts on Corsica and Elba. In December, two frigates under the command of the newly appointed Commodore Horatio Nelson left the Rock for Porto Ferrajo on Elba to cover the retreat, take on board Sir Gilbert Elliot, viceroy of the rather short-lived Anglo-Corsican Kingdom and retrieve desperately needed naval stores. It didn’t come that far, though. Just a couple of days at sea, off Cartagena, two heavy Spanish frigates hove in sight. And Nelson, being Nelson, immediately ordered his brace of cruisers to close for action. Undergunned as in most of the engagements he fought, Nelson never the less directed “Minerve”, rated 42 guns with 28 18-pounders on her main deck, against “La Sabina”, equally equipped, while the smaller HMS “Blanche” with her 26 12-pounders as main armament would engage “Ceres”, like “La Sabina” of 40 guns.

Another hard-fought frigate action: "Capture of La Minerve" off Toulon in 1795,
by Thomas Whithcome (1816)

HMS “Minerve” was originally a French frigate, launched just two years before, captured in 1795 off Toulon and commissioned into the Royal Navy. “La Sabina” was commanded by Don Jacobo Felipe Carlos Fitz-James Stuart y Stolberg-Gedern, 5th Duke of Liria and Jérica and Duke of Berwick after Jacobite reckoning, descendant of an illegitimate son of King James II on the paternal and Christopher Columbus on the maternal side. Certainly one of the most able naval commanders Spain had available at the time, he put up a fight against Nelson and “Minerve” that lasted for three hours and left the two frigates rather battered. “Minerve” had lost her mizzen, main and foremast were shot riddled, her rigging cut to pieces but she had forced Don Jacobo to surrender. “La Sabina” struck her colours, a prize crew of 40 men under “Minerve’s” 1st Lieutenant Thomas Masterman Hardy was rowed over to the Spaniard, while Don Jacobo was transferred to the British frigate. “Blanche”, in the meanwhile, had brought the larger “Ceres” to bay and fought her into submission. The British were busy securing their prizes when, in the wee hours, another Spanish frigate arrived on the scene, “Matilda”, rated 34 guns. Nelson ordered his flag captain George Cockburn to cast off from “La Sabina” and engage “Matilda”. Battered “Minerve” saw her off with a few broadsides, but “Matilda” was just the van of a larger Spanish squadron. When the sun came up, the 1st rate ship of the line “Príncipe de Asturias” of 112 guns flanked by two more frigates came in sight, odds that not even Nelson was willing to face. The general order was “Make Sail” and hasten east to Elba. HMS “Blanche” had come out of her engagement relatively unscathed, teeth-gnashingly abandoned her prize, turned tail and ran. “Minerve” limped to the east as well under her jury rig and then Hardy, commanding aboard the prize “La Sabina”, decided to sail her towards the Spanish squadron, fired a ragged broadside pour l'honneur de pavillon and struck his English colours. While now the Spanish busied themselves with retaking “La Sabina”, “Minerve” and “Blanche” made good their escape and arrived in Porto Ferrajo, Cockburn’s damaged frigate beating her companion to it by three days, arriving on Elba on 27 December.

“Príncipe de Asturias” exchanging broadsides with the British line of battle at St Vincent
(by an unknown artist*)

was exchanged for Don Jacobo on 29 January in Gibraltar, Nelson returned a week later, left the Rock immediately after “Minerve’s” 1st lieutenant had rejoined his ship and promptly lost a man over board. One of “Minerve’s” boats was lowered with Hardy in charge to recover her lost sheep when two Spanish ships of the line appeared, one of them the “Terrible” that had brought Hardy to Gibraltar. Obviously, the two lay in wait for just such an occasion, to intercept British frigates or at least force them back into harbour. Don José de Córdoba and a squadron of 24 battleships and 7 frigates had left Cartagena on 1 February, trying to break out into the Atlantic to either join the French at Brest or escort a large convoy intending to sail for Spanish America from Cadiz. The last thing Don José needed was a nosy reconnoitring frigate alerting Jervis and the British Mediterranean Squadron. Seeing the two battleships approach, “Minerve’s” captain ordered to abandon the boat and escape and Nelson, overruling him, cried: “By God, I'll not lose Hardy, back that mizzen topsail!" Hardy was fished out and the “Minerve” frigate escaped never the less. On 11 February, “Minerve” passed through the Spanish squadron undetected, Nelson did alert Jervis, hoisted his Commodore’s broad pennant on the seventy-four HMS “Captain” and the Mediterranean Squadron set forth to bring Don José to battle, ending in the victory at Cape St Vincent on 14 February. Nelson, Hardy, Don Jacobo and the “Príncipe de Asturias” would all meet again eight years later at Trafalgar. It was, quite obviously, a small world in the Age of Sail.

* The image of Príncipe above was found on:

Read more on:

Friday, 18 December 2015

“A brave black man is Molineaux” – British boxing, the Black Ajax and foul play at a championship fight

18 December 1810, at Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire in a not-so-clean fight for the English title, boxing champion Tom Cribb from Bristol accepted the challenge of Tom Molineaux, an ex-slave from Virginia, and defended his title by KO in the 35th round.

“On the eighteenth of December, of a fight I will sing,
When bold Cribb and Molineaux entered the ring,
With hope and expectations our bosoms beating high
While the rain pour’d in torrents form a dark low’ring sky” 
(“Cribb and the Black”, contemporary folk song)

George Cruickshank: "The battle between Crib [Cribb] and Molineaux" (1811)

Fist fighting competitions are old as mud. Pankration of the Ancient World is actually one of the more recent examples. When this combination of boxing and wrestling was introduced into the Olympic Games in 468 BCE, they claimed it was invented by either Heracles or Theseus a long time ago and those heroes of antiquity learned it from an old caveman, in all probability. Fist and Price fighting never became such an integral part of cultural identity as it was in Georgian England, when beef, beer and boxing were the three things that constituted an Englishman. And while the rest of Europe, especially the French, goes without saying, found this to be a bit beyond the pale, the islanders wallowed in this state of affairs and thought that was why British soldiers won their battles. Because they were used to strip to the waist and batter at each other, with bare knuckles, stand firm and never give up. And, it’s hard to believe, but there was some art to it. In fact, bare knuckle boxing was known as the “the Art”, the “Science” or the “Fancy” and there was a set of rules drafted as early as 1743, usually accommodated on the spot to what the huge crowds wanted to see when they flocked to popular prize fights or just to a match fought at the local trade fair. As awkward and infective the pugilists’ “milling” appears today, and it has been ridiculed since 1867, when the Marques of Queensbury introduced the rules of modern boxing, they didn’t call it “science” for nothing. A lot more brutal and bloody, winners were determined either by KO or death. Quitting was usually not an option and prize fights could last for hours, until one of the combatants could no longer stagger unaided to the scratch, the box chalked on the ring’s floor by the referees, hence the term “not up to scratch”, meaning “almost beaten to death”. The pugilists usually were the heroes of their day, James Belcher, Henry "Hen" Pearce, the “Game Chicken”, Dan Mendoza, the first Jew who was allowed to talk to King George III, Gentleman John Jackson, called the “Emperor of Pugilism” by Lord Byron, Tom Cribb, naturally, the champion, and Bill Richmond, a “gentleman of colour” as Pierce Egan put it, journalist and publisher of “Boxiana” a magazine about "The Sweet Science of Bruising”, illegal in England, since prize fighting was actually outlawed. Cultural icon or not. 

"Cribb's parlour: Tom introducing the champion of England", from "Life in London", 1821

Charges were seldom pressed against prize fighters and the boxing community in Georgian times and the days of Prinny’s regency. Both he and his entourage were avid boxing fans, along with most of the rest of Britain’s upper echelons of society. And it says a lot about late 18th century England that society’s dregs as well as the Prince of Wales and the king himself, in the moments when he realised where and what he was, cheered a freed slave from Virginia who became a champion of illegal sporting events. While slavery was unsupported by English law on English soil, it was still legal in most of Britain’s colonies until 1807, and even if the abolition movement gained ground, there was still enough racial prejudice present, usually among those who’d never seen a black person before. Ironically enough, Bill Richmond, then a carpenters apprentice in York, started his career after he had trashed a brothel keeper, of all the people, who insulted Richmond’s white girl friend for dating a black man. A couple of years later, in 1805, Richmond was known as the “Black Terror”, a darling of the sporting crowd and challenged Tom Cribb, the All English Champion. And while they were songs sung that Boney could land in England all right, they’d just send Tom Cribb against him to show the Frogs what’s what, the announcement of the fight between the champion and Richmond made more headlines than the departure of Nelson’s squadron for Trafalgar. England’s honour was at stake in the ring, it was as if Bill Richmond had challenged John Bull himself. He fought in a bob and weave-like style not unlike Joe Frazier’s or Tyson’s. By modern standards though, the “Black Terror” was a welterweight. Tom Cribb would rate as a typical heavyweight, rumour has it that he could punch bark from a tree, bare-knuckled, mind you, but during the first rounds in the ring with Bill Richmond in September 1805, he couldn’t even land a blow. Then Cribb’s superior weight and ability to take punishment began to tell. In the 60th (in words: sixtieth!) round, Richmond couldn’t get up any more and Cribb had won. Richmond won the championship of hearts, though, he opened a boxing school on Leicester Square and the rich, the famous and their camp followers took boxing lessons from him, Byron among them, the former “Black Terror” was now in his forties, still a celebrity, maybe even more than before the fight with Cribb, well off, training his own stable of boxers along with the lounge lizards, still brooding over his defeat in 1805 and along came Tom Molineaux. 

George Cruikshank: "The Champion Triumphant" (1811)

Like Richmond, Molineaux was an ex-slave from Virginia, he called himself the American champion, allegedly he had won his freedom in a boxing match and now he was in England to challenge the cream of English boxing, Tom Cribb, undisputed master of the science. Richmond became aware of Molineaux in 1810 after he won a few fights against provincial notables. He trained him, showed him the finer points of the Art and recognised that Molineaux, a modern heavyweight, standing 5’8’’ tall with a fighting weight of fourteen stone two, 90 kg, and an immense resilience was just the man who would help him to get back at Cribb. Like Richmond, Molineaux had become the darling of London society during his time in the boxing stable on Leicester Square, although not quite with charm, wit and good manners, like his trainer, a behaviour that drove Richmond almost to tears on a regular basis. However, in Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire, the “Black Ajax” fought Cribb, who wasn’t at the top of his game either, for the English title in front of at least hundreds of spectators. Trained by Richmond, Molineaux proved to be a powerful and cunning fighter and the bets on Cribb winning before the 10th round were off pretty soon. In the 19th round then, Cribb didn’t look very good, Molineaux had the champion pressed against the ring in a wrestler’s hold, allowed under the rules of the day, the referee did not break the two apart and the eager crowd had it and stormed the ring, presumably led by Cribb’s followers and those who had their money on him. In the following hubbub, one of Molineaux’s fingers was broken, but the fight went on and Cribb didn’t seem to win it regardless. When he couldn’t make it to the scratch after the customary 30 second break in the 28th round, Molineaux was accused of carrying lead bullets in his fists. He didn’t, but meanwhile Cribb had staggered back to continue and after the 35th round in the icy December rain, Molineaux mumbled that he could “fight no more” and stayed lying down. “It will not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that it was Molineaux’s colour alone that prevented him becoming the hero of that fight”, Pierce Egan wrote later, and being American. Not English. Richmond and Molineaux challenged Cribb to a rematch, the champion didn’t like the idea one bit but was honour-bound to accept and while Cribb was brought back into shape with a rigorous training, Molineaux ignored his trainer, debauched himself with wine, women and song, so to speak, and was thoroughly beaten by Cribb in September 1811 in the return fight with 11,000 spectators watching in the 11th round. Richmond and Molineaux parted ways after that and the almost first black boxing champion died three years later in Galway from a liver failure at the age of 34.

The image of Cribb's Parlour above was found on the wonderful blog "Richmond Unchained" on:

Saturday, 12 December 2015

"O Quam Misericors est Deus, Pius et Justus" - The Order of the Dragon, Crusaders and Vampire Tales from the Blue Danube

12 December 1408, the Societas Draconistarum, the Order of the Dragon, one of the last and certainly one of the most peculiar military orders of the Middle Ages, was founded by King Sigismund of Hungary, later Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife Barbara of Chilli.

“I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country.“ (Bram Stoker, “Dracula”)

The order patch of the "Ordo Draconum", usually worn stitched on the collar or the shoulder 

There was a somewhat inflationary use of the term “crusade” by the end of the late Middle Ages. By and large, every conflict could be termed a crusade if it was fought by Catholics against one of the numerous heretic sects, Cathars, Bogomils, Hussites and what not, or against Muslims, of course. Indulgence of one’s sins, one of the rewards for crusading, could even be obtained ex post facto if a warrior was able to prove that he took part in a fight against the Infidel. The idea of crusading into the Holy Land was never quite forgotten, but usually, there were more pressing matters at hand, such as smashing each others’ skulls first or those of the dissidents in one’s own neighbourhood. Things were a bit different in Spain where Muslim princes still ruled in the South and nearby North Africa, but when the backwash of the original crusades hit Eastern Europe with the Ottoman expansion, the Balkan principalities and kingdoms as well as Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian city states had the war on their own doorsteps. Or were engulfed by it from the start. Pretty much like the Muslim rulers of the Near East during the 12th century, the Christian rulers of Central and Western Europe did not even think of a united front against the invaders, nor were there any concentrated efforts to initiate a major crusade against the Ottomans, neither in the Morea, in French- and Venetian-dominated Greece, nor along the Danube. There were, however, campaigns that were dubbed “Crusades”. They ended in a catastrophe for the usually second-rate European princes who led adventurous and ignorant Western European nobility against the highly professional Ottoman armies, avoidable disasters if they just had listened to their Eastern European allies, the lords of Hungary, Serbia, Wallachia and Bulgaria, who knew how to oppose commanders like Sultan Bayezid but seldom had the means to. Nor could they agree among themselves and maintain a united front against the Ottomans. It was not unheard of that they fought as the sultan’s vassals and allies, either out of necessity or just out of spite to put the hurt to their neighbours across the Great River or the next mountain range.     

Hermann Knackfuss (1848 - 1915) - Sigismund, covered by his faithful vassal Hermann of Cilli, flees from the battlefield of Nicopolis to the Venetian ships anchored on the Danube and escapes his Turkish pursuers

While the locals thusly battled to maintain their identity and, more often than not, their very lives, the Westerners seemed to have perceived the affair as something of a light opera acted out along the banks of the Blue Danube. Even a new military order was founded, nothing like the Knights Templar or Knights Hospitaller, of course, rather a gentlemen’s club, the Order of the Dragon. Fathered by the later Holy Roman Emperor and then King of Hungary Sigismund, membership in the Order of the Dragon was a privileged affair. Members were ranging from the Serbian ruler Stefan Lazarevic and Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić, Ban of Croatia and Bosnia, to Henry V of England. Not quite as blue blooded as the other European princes, but equally proud of his membership was Oswald von Wolkenstein, one of the last minnesingers, maybe the last one of consequence. However, the order was not founded as a direct consequence and counter-measure of the disastrous defeat of a Crusader army at Nicopolis in 1396, where Sigismund fled from the battlefield, but after a punitive expedition against his rebellious Croatian and Bosnian subjects, allegedly to suppress Bogomil heresy. The campaign ended in a massacre of the local nobility, former allies who had fought the Turks, and the confirmation of Sigismund’s marriage to the daughter of his most faithful vassal, Hermann of Cilli, Barbara, who was crowned as Queen of Hungary a few weeks before Sigismund allegedly came up with the plan of founding a chivalric order. It might well have been Barbara of Cilli’s idea and with her, another, darker part of local folklore mingles with the “Blue Danube” atmosphere of the order’s foundation.

A contemporary woodcut showing Sigismund and his dragon knights

During the nascent Renaissance alchemy and Hermetic magic played a significant role as reputable sciences and it was perhaps quirky but not quite the sign of a conspiracy that Sigismund chose the Ouroboros, the dragon eating its own tail, one of the most important alchemical symbols, as trademark for his new chivalric order, along with various other alchemical signs and rituals. It was frowned upon, however, when a woman dabbled prominently in said arts and Barbara of Cilli was a reputed alchemist. Described by her contemporaries as witty and beautiful paired with considerable political acumen and influence she exerted on her husband, she played a significant role in creating a somewhat Quixotic order that was, in all probability, an instrument to bind the unruly Balkan lords together under her husband’s chairmanship as well as securing Western allies with membership in a flashy club. But it wouldn’t be a tale from the Blue Danube without the garnish of Barbara being not only an alchemist and occultist but a vampire as well. Allegedly, she stalked the street of Constance during the infamous council there ten years later, drinking the blood of the living. And another famous vampire tale sprang from her chivalric brainchild. One of the founding members was Vlad II, Prince of Wallachia, who called himself Dracul, the Dragon, in honour of Sigismund’s order. His house became known as the Drăculești and Dracul’s son Vlad III became arguably its best-known scion. Also a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad junior became known as Drăculea or “Dracula”, the Son of the Dragon, a name almost synonymous with the word vampire, at least outside of the old Order of the Dragon’s domains along the Blue Danube.

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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

More than just a beard - Sir Anthony van Dyck

9 December 1641, the Flemish Baroque artist and Charles I court painter Sir Anthony van Dyck died in London at the age of 42.
“Van Dyck's handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth” (Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover)

The mother of all Swagger Portraits:
"Charles I at the Hunt" by Anthony van Dyck (1635)

The devil will find work for idle hands, as the saying goes. And there were a lot of idle hands to be found among van Dyck’s sitters, at least in the opinion of those who sat in the infamous Long Parliament, assembled in the same year the artist died and marking the beginning of the end of his most illustrious patron, King Charles I. A portrait by van Dyck, however, is easily recognised by studying the hands of the sitter. Long, pale hands, spread little fingers, mannered poses, holding flowers, gloves or wearing modestly elegant jewellery, considering Baroque standards. Beautiful, aristocratic hands that never stirred a finger to do honest work. Idle hands. Along with the equally dressy and euphemistic depiction of the rest of the sitter’s likeness, van Dyck had laid the groundwork for the idealised aesthetic style that became the famous trademark of English Art 150 years later, the Grand Manner of Gainsborough and Reynolds, the Swagger Portrait, if done in full-length works. And swaggering or not, it was the already cushioned version of portraiture Rubens’ ex-disciple had done during his stay in Genoa. Heavily influenced by Titian’s colours and forms he did create something along the lines of Baroque demi-gods out of his local patrons, looking down on the viewer in great hauteur, gathered in a scenery that might have been envisioned by Vasari. But by finally becoming King Charles’ court painter, van Dyck toned down to an elegance unusual for the age. Ennobled and landed by the king whose likeness he painted about 40 times along with that of Mrs King, Henrietta Maria, in 30 sittings, not counting those done by his workshop, the monarch’s offspring and that of his courtiers of whom van Dyck certainly was the most formative before and after the outbreak of the Civil War a year after the artist’s death. And still, Rubens, his old master, was considered superior since he painted and excelled in what was regarded as the real Grand Manner, History, mythology and religious motives on large canvasses, done in oil.

Idle Hands - Anthony van Dyck's  portrait of Charles' Queen Henrietta Maria (1632)

He was the star pupil of Rubens’ workshop back home in Antwerp, an acknowledged master at the age of 19 himself and the darling of Flemish society. But they didn’t employ Rubens in the diplomatic service for nothing. While he tolerated the rise of a new star in the Flemish art world, the old master knew that painting the likenesses of the good burghers of Antwerp and becoming something of their mascot while the cash taken from the moneybags allowed for the extravagant lifestyle van Dyck cherished, he would never truly rival the master with something considered inferior art. Van Dyck painted fashionably while Rubens perpetuated himself with the plus-sized sujets of the Grand Manner. A well planned artistic offside trap and, in his vanity, van Dyck fell for it. And if it hadn’t been for King Charles’ patronage, it might have been the end of his career. Thus, van Dyck could not only eternalise an iconic beard style and cavalier costumes but paint a few pieces in the Baroque Grand Manner, even if they were not quite that what he became famous for. Ironically enough, van Dyck was sick unto death already when Rubens died in 1640 and even though the way was free for the arguably greatest Baroque portraitist to step out of the master’s shadow and follow in his footsteps towards the contemporary Grand Manner, alas, it was not to be. While young Rembrandt about the same time managed to step away from being committed to painting the likenesses of the upper crust and become, arguably, "one of the great prophets of civilization", van Dyck’s legacy is usually fixed on being first and foremost that of a dandy, a courtier and a court painter. Although he is, along with Holbein and his contemporary Diego Velázquez, to be considered one of the greatest and most influential of the genre. And nobody else would work out the peculiarities of pre-Civil War cavaliers and their king with a “totally natural look of instinctive sovereignty, in a deliberately informal setting where he strolls so negligently that he seems at first glance nature's gentleman rather than England's King" in a period when the place was yet to become Merry Old England.

Anthony van Dyck, a self-portrait from 1640

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Friday, 4 December 2015

"Of all the unlucky vessels..." -The Ghost Ship "Mary Celeste"

4 December 1872, somewhere between the Azores and Portugal, the Canadian merchantman "Dei Gratia" sighted the Nova Scotia-built brigantine "Mary Celeste", slightly damaged, crewless and about to become the best-known ghost ship in naval history.

"Of all the unlucky vessels I ever heard of, she was the most unlucky." (David Cartwright, co-owner of "Mary Celeste")

"Mary Celeste" when she was still called "Amazon" in 1861

Worse things happen at sea. And since sailors have a lot of boredom to disperse on those long sea voyages and are reputed to be a superstitious lot anyway, tales of ghost ships have entered the realm of maritime lore since time immemorial. Basically, a ghost ship is a vessel found adrift on the high seas or beached on the shore, left by their crews or crewed by the dead, usually just one or two dead sailors. Usually, those unfortunates dying aboard a ship are buried at sea, their bodies committed to the deep until the sea shall give up her dead and in olden days, when plague might have wiped out whole crews, vessels found with no-one at the helm and no-one left living on board were not an uncommon sight. And then there were the stories of ships of the damned and their accursed master, most prominently Captain Willem van der Decken and the legendary Flying Dutchman, seen in the Southern hemispheres, East of the Good Hope, with red sails flying or bathed in a eerie red light, a portent of doom for those whose bows she crosses. Rich tales that not only inspired imaginative mariners, but professional storytellers as well, from Coleridge and Walter Scott to Hauff and Wagner and cohorts of 20th century journalists and pulp fiction writers. However, the origins of ghost ship stories did not ebb away when the early days of the Age of Sail were over. Far from it. While sightings of the Flying Dutchman are reported as late as the 1940s, ghost ships make the news every now and then to the present day. And the arguably best known case is that of the “Mary Celeste”.

 Golden Age of Illustration icon Howard Pyle's imagination of the "Flying Dutchman" (1900)

“Mary Celeste” never was considered to be a lucky ship. Launched in 1861 as “Amazon” in Nova Scotia, the brigantine had to delay her maiden voyage to London because her skipper fell ill. When she eventually sailed, she was damaged running into fishing equipment of Maine and finally making it to the Channel, the future ghost ship collided with a brig in the fog and sank her. Six years later, “Amazon” was driven ashore in a fierce storm off her native Nova Scotia and battered almost beyond repair. However, she was bought by an American shipping consortium, underwent a complete overhaul, was seized by debtors and finally set sail as “Mary Celeste” from Pier 50 on the East River, New York, under the command of one of her new owners, an old Atlantic hand, 37 years old Benjamin Briggs, of Wareham, Massachusetts, with her crew of 7, the skipper’s wife Sarah and his youngest daughter Sophie, two years old. “Mary Celeste” left New York for Genoa with a cargo of 1,701 barrels of undrinkable raw alcohol on 7 November, the last time she was seen before she became a myth. A week later, another brigantine, the Canadian “Dei Gratia” under her Nova Scotian master David Morehouse left New York for Genoa as well and about three weeks later, halfway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, “Dei Gratia” sighted a two-masted sailing vessel on an erratic course with some of her canvas flying loose and her rigging damaged. It turned out to be the “Mary Celeste”. The two brigantines closed and seeing no one on deck, Morehouse sent two men to investigate. They found nobody below decks either. “Mary Celeste” was abandoned. She had obviously been through rough weather, "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess“, as the mate of the “Dei Gratia” noted, her navigation equipment was missing along with her lifeboat and some barrels of alcohol she had loaded were discovered to be empty. All personal belongings as well as the food supplies were left untouched, but there was no trace of her people. The last entry in her log was made 9 days earlier off the Azores, nothing unusual was reported.

A contemporary newspaper illustration of "Mary Celeste" showing her in the state she was found in by "Dei Gratia" on 4 December 1872

Morehouse sailed “Mary Celeste” to Gibraltar and into a salvage court hearing there that ended with accusations of foul play in regards to insurance fraud against him and lost Briggs. Morehouse and his crew were acquitted of this and other charges and along with the idea of trickery committed by Captain Briggs, several other attempts to explain the fate of the crew of “Mary Celeste” came up, from piracy and mutiny to the kraken having plucked her people from the decks and other rather metaphysical ideas. Unsurprisingly, the myth of the Bermuda Triangle was brought into play as well, even though the “Mary Celeste” was traceably nowhere near the West Indies, let alone the Bermudas. None other than Arthur Conan Doyle saw to it that one or the other myth rather than a scientific explanation is usually seen at the base of the “Mary Celeste’s” tale. His short story “J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement” about a hence unknown survivor spawned a series of hair-rising tales and made “Mary Celeste” the best known ghost ship in naval history and admittedly, the events of late November and early December 1872 were never fully explained. Quite in contrast to the ship’s further fate. She was released after the salvage court hearing’s ending, sailed again under new ownership, retained her reputation as “unlucky ship”, naturally, and was finally sunk in January 1885 with a cargo of cat food and rubber boots somewhere off Haiti in an attempted and this time proven insurance fraud.

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