Atahualpa’s Rook.

Chess and Murder during the Conquest of Peru.
‘No Captain, the Rook.’ Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s sideline advice to Hernando De Soto reconstructed by the author. Atahualpa wears his famous bat-skin cloak over a richly embroidered tunic based loosely on the All-T’oqapu Tunic. The Llawt’u and Maskapaycha are based on the contemporary description by Pedro Pizarro. Did this event seal Atahualpa’s fate?

The story of Atahualpa’s Rook is one of the many stories told about the imprisonment of the Sapa Inca Atahualpa. Chess, with it’s ancient ideals of nobility, is the game for which there is the most evidence of Atahualpa playing during his captivity, along with dice and cards. These stories quickly became common currency in Spanish America, told, retold and embellished into folktales within ten years of the real events.

Daughters of the Sun.

After the terrible massacre in the plaza at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 the lord of Tawantinsuyu was taken to the local Temple of the Sun on the outskirts of the the town and placed under guard. [1]

The heavily built, olive skinned strangers with their strange clothes, shining armour and hairy faces, came with their terrible snorting animals, dragging the Sapa Inca with them. They secured the temple quickly, ranging through it, issuing streams of commands in a flowing, sharp, unfamiliar language.

Previous to his arrival the devastating news of the disaster of 16 November would have come to the House of the Sun in sounds and survivor’s tales. The strange noises of gunpowder weapons echoed like the crack of heavy stones against a wall, the Castilian falconets like the thump of distant thunder and the neighing of horse’s like demonic laughter. Very few would have guessed that it was the sounds of the world being turned upside down, the dreaded Pachacuti itself.

When the prisoner was brought in, the inhabitants would have dropped their eyes or prostrated themselves as soon as they caught sight of the Llawt’u and Maskapaycha on Atahualpa’s head.

Atahualpa was in a way being held captive in his own house, for the semi divine Sapa Incas were descendants of Inti, the sun, and both were worshiped in this precinct. It is interesting that one Spanish account described the place being inhabited by royal virgins who spent their time spinning and weaving fine cloth. [2] 

This indicates that ‘the house of the sun’ at Cajamarca was or included an abode for ‘chosen women’, or ‘maidens of the sun.’ An acllahuasi.

The chosen women began their lives at the age of ten, when an administrator from the provincial capital visited their village and selected the most perfectly formed and brightest children for entrance to the provincial house.

Class was not a barrier and when they entered the acllahuasi the girls became wards of the state and expected to remain chaste for life or until an appointed time.

These places were clearing-houses for girls destined to go into the higher echelons of Inca society. Here their destinies were decided, and they were instructed in skills such as weaving, sewing, brewing, cooking and taught the mysteries of the Inca religion. 

Some would be sent to marry into the nobility, the finest of the crop would become wives or concubines of the Sapa Inca. Others would remain in the house making clothes for the state. In Tawantinsuyu any labour or skill was a form of tax. Smaller numbers of girls would rise to be priestesses, and others might be called upon to give their lives in sacrifice. [3]

Their presence is significant because where it not for a particularly interesting woman this story would not have caught my eye at all.

In the course of his work the 19th century folklorist and head of the Biblioteca National de Peru, Ricardo Palma came across a document  written by Juan de Betanzos.

Betanzos was a Conquistador and Spanish chronicler who wrote a history of the Inca empire from the perspective of his wife’s people. Betanzos interviewed many Peruvians and drew also on the singular advantage of being married to one of Atahualpa’s (and Pizarro’s) widows, Doña Angelina Yupanqui who was able to furnish him with a great deal of personal information.

Doña Angelina had been in Cajamarca in 1532 as the drama continued, but she was not called Angelina then. She was born in 1522, and was a niece of Huayna Capac, a previous Sapa Inca, who apparently named her personally, Cuxirimay Ocllo, ‘Lady who speaks good fortune.’ 

As a descendant of Manco Capac, a founder of the empire, any children she bore, boy or girl, would instantly achieve the highest status in the kingdom.

Even if a boy should be born by a different wife of inferior lineage, a girl born to a Capac woman would still be ranked higher. That being said there had never been a female Sapa Inca, nor would there ever be one.

More dubiously, due to the importance of keeping the line of Capac pure, Curiximay was also related to Atahualpa. Both their mother’s were sisters. In an ‘ideal world’ only those of Capac’s line could produce the next Sapa Inca and Huayna Capac had announced at Cuxirimay’s birth that his niece would marry his son, Atahualpa.

Cuxirimay’s family unsurprisingly sided with the Cusco faction loyal to her future husband during the great fratricidal civil war that was fought immediately before the Spanish conquest. 

In 1532, after defeating his brother, Huáscar’s army in Ecuador, the 30 year old Atahualpa sent for his 10 year old Capac bride to meet him as he marched south to claim his kingdom.It was important to him and his newly won place as Sapa Inca that he solidified a line of succession. Atahualpa also intended to have his captured brother paraded before him in servile disgrace to cement his legitimacy.

They two were married soon after she was brought to him, but due to her youth and the arrival of the Spaniards, all but one year later, it didn’t go much past the perfunctory ceremony which was little more than a verbal affirmation that she would be his principle spouse, she was a wife in name only. [4]

Atahualpa and the Conquistadors.

It is a well known part of the tragedy of Atahualpa that he promised Francisco Pizarro to fill a room of the complex with gold and silver. During the agonising wait for the porters to begin arriving with the loot, tension rose for the Spanish, who felt increasingly isolated as time passed. Some began to wonder who was the prisoner, Atahualpa or Pizarro.

The Spanish held all the cards but due to a lack of troops, intelligence and allies, they were unable to make their next move. They were constantly on the alert for trouble and unable to let their guards down, fretting for their life-changing loot.

It would be easy for arguments to break out in the tense atmosphere but diversions came where they could be found: in cups of dice, packs of cards or improvised boardgames.

The majority of the men serving under Pizarro were in their twenties, and most seem to have been between 20-25. A random selection of 13 men in Lockhart’s Men From Cajamarca reflected this, and of that group only one was in his thirties. 

The Conquistadors also defy modern identification. They were both soldiers, settlers and civilians all wrapped into one. Neither application suffices to describe them properly. In 16th century Spain a man would be expected to know the use of arms, and if they were from peasant stock, work in a trade or profession, but professional soldiers, or those who bore arms as their trade, were rare in the Americas. [5]

This is revealed when one chronicler specifically mentioned that there were those in Peru who had seen armies in the field, implying this to be a special trait.

A glimpse of the kind of man that had slaughtered the Incas in the square at Cajamarca can be gained from a letter written by a ‘footman’ in the Pizarro expedition.

Gaspar Gárate (he also called himself Marquina to identify his Basque origins) was in his early twenties, an illegitimate son who was nonetheless recognised and educated. Practically the only distinguishing thing about him was that he could read and write more than his own name.

He had however not used his education to seek work as a merchant or notary but gone out to America. The only reason young men did this was because they wanted to get rich quick and return home, or else be granted an estate with slaves and move on to plunder somewhere else. However the reality was tough.

Gaspar came out to Peru with some fellow Basques. possibly under the command of Hernando de Soto. He had heard that ‘Governor Francisco Pizarro was coming to be governor of this kingdom in New Castile.’

The young man had previously been adventuring in Nicaragua, and all of his military experience stemmed from service in the Americas. Suddenly out of work and penniless he was taken on as a page to Francisco Pizarro.

Which brought him, through sweat and toil to the blood and terror of the square in Cajamarca. ‘We attacked them’ he wrote of ‘the best people that have been seen in the whole of the Indies’, and ‘seized the lord and killed many.’ [6]

When the ransom came, Gaspar was to receive a 3/4 share in gold, a life changing sum worth 3,330 pesos. Gaspar was a nobody, who had made it big overnight before his 25th birthday.

Yet he would be killed almost exactly year later during the great Inca rebellion and is remembered only because of a single letter he wrote to his family from Cajamarca in 1533. This was the short, inglorious, brutal life of a typical Conquistador. 

While they waited, those in charge of Atahualpa got to know him. The Inca had been allowed to gather his household and make himself comfortable. A clique of royal women appeared, apparently in addition to the women of the temple and they saw to his every need. 

Everything from his wardrobe, to his routines and habits became a source of fascination to the Spanish. His richly embroidered tunics of alpaca and cotton were almost as dazzling as his jewellery.

When he appeared wearing a dark brown cloak one day, the Spaniards were awed by its softer than velvet texture. In answer to their curiosity Atahualpa told them it was made out of the skins of bats.

Atahualpa was well made, though small he had a typically well developed Andean chest. Pedro Pizarro remembered that he was a ‘well disposed’ man, ‘beautiful of face and grave in his fierce eyes’.

He seemed more athletic looking than many of his subjects, though his large head and bloodshot eyes lent him the unnerving expression mentioned by Pedro. 

With his subjects and even senior lords and administrators he was clipped, formal and severe. Few people dared look him in the face, and he rarely raised his eyes to anyone. He communicated to his handmaidens with unspoken glances which they interpreted effortlessly.

This formality was not evident with the Spaniards however, indeed he ‘showed himself affable, sometimes even indulging in sallies of mirth’ wrote Pizarro’s Secretary. [7]

Much more down to earth with the Spaniards than his own people it is tempting to explore the idea that the god-king, found a refreshing comradeship with the swaggering Christian’s who naturally saw him first as a man than a deity. Indeed Hernando Pizarro and Hernando de Soto, plus a few other Spanish captains grew very fond of him. 

This was in part due to his great wisdom, intelligence and refined, princely manners which the feudal soldiers of rural Castile’s impoverished noble houses responded to instinctively. He was described by Alonso de Guzman as ‘being so intelligent that in twenty days he understood Spanish and learnt to play chess and cards …’ [8]

Atahualpa’s Rook.

Until a few days before his infamous trial, Atahualpa and several Spanish captains would regularly gather in one of the rooms of the temple and divert themselves with games of chess, dice and cards.

The chess boards had been made by the Spanish at Cajamarca and were apparently pretty rough, the pieces were made out of local clay.

At first Atahualpa did not play, and showed no sign that he understood what was going on, sitting on a low seat in customary silence until one game, when Hernando de Soto was at the critical moment of a match with Pizarro’s treasurer Riquelme.

It is significant to the story, principally retold by Ricardo Palma, who found a vague document in the archives by Betanzos, that these two Spaniards were playing the game.

Atahualpa had done his best to ensure he had some protectors in the enemy camp. He knew that some would think nothing of killing him when his usefulness wore out, one of these was the corpulent Riquelme, who seems to have despised the ‘Indian’ leader. [9]

As the game progressed, De Soto picked up a knight intending to play the piece, (unless atahualpa was a mindreader, De Soto must have at least touched it) but before he could commit himself, Atahualpa gestured and spoke to him in a low voice, ‘no captain the rook’, he said.

What was more stunning than the breach of protocol (it being bad form to coach chess players as a bystander, though it might be assumed that the Inca was copying how the Spanish both played and watched the game) was the foresight of the Inca’s observation, for de Soto reconsidered his move and played the rook, leading to an inevitable checkmate. [10]

Atahualpa had not only grasped the rules, but the strategy of one of the most complicated and culturally significant games played by the European and indeed eastern nobility. Atahualpa got so into chess that he even gave it a Quechua name, ‘taptana’, surprise attack. 

One wonders if he saw some parallel into his own situation when he thought up that name. But he did more than coach and invent names. Gaspar de Espinosa, another chronicler and Conquistador who came in the wake of the initial conquest was told that he played the game ‘very well’ and was both wise and insatiably curious.  [11]

Checkmate.

The murder of Atahualpa reads like a big coverup in some TV mystery series where group of people conspire to get someone out of the way and, mostly ashamed of it, try to brush it under the rug. Binding each other to strict secrecy, and as each of the culprits are killed or pass away, the truth becomes more and more difficult to reveal. 

The official story is that the Sapa Inca was put on trial for apparently encouraging military action against the Spanish. He was then charged with the murder of his brother and idol worship, and found guilty by his accusers.

Atahualpa had feared for his life when Hernando Pizarro left Cajamarca to bring the King’s share of the ransom back to Spain, moodily observing that if Hernando went away Riquelme would have him killed. 

Another key objector to the trial, De Soto, was sent on a scouting expedition to find the mythical Inca army of liberation, dreamt up by the regicides. He would return too late to help his doomed chess partner. 

In Palma’s retelling, Riquelme was so angry that Atahualpa had caused his embarrassment he argued all the more forcibly for the Inca’s death during his unconscionable ‘trial’ in the summer of 1533.

Indeed he goes so far as to suggest that Atahualpa’s days were numbered as a direct result of his interference. Critically, both Atahualpa’s protectors had left Cajamarca and while they were away, he was murdered.

At the time, the action was shocking. Unlike Cortés and Moctezuma, Pizarro could not plead an accident, the trial and the garrotte are irrefutable elements of Spanish judicial execution. Pizarro and the others shielded themselves behind the pretence of law. 

Yet Hernando De Soto, observed it would have been far better to send Atahualpa to Panama, or even back to Castile. Ruefully he told Pizarro that would have taken him personally.

Even the governor of Panama, (admittedly an enemy of Pizarroj), agreed that Pizarro had crossed a line twice over, and wrote angrily to the King. King Charles V, who was lover of proper procedure and a defender of the rights of kings, listened.

Charles V censured Pizarro in tones of dignified distaste for killing Atahualpa. Curiously, as a mournful Pizarro squirmed before the forthright de Soto, he blamed none other than Father Valverde and Treasurer Riquelme for inciting the deed. [12] 

Surely the greatest crime committed during the conquest of Peru wasn’t because of a lost chess game, or was it? 

Notes

  • 1: Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru, Folio Society, p88. MacQuarrie. K, Last Days of the Incas., p106.
  • 2: Zarate., p88.
  • 3: Bruhns, K.O., Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America., University of Oklahoma Press, pp150-51.
  • 4: Brooks, Jennifer, “Marriage, Legitimacy, and Intersectional Identities in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish Empire”. History Honors Projects. Paper 21. http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/history_honors/21, pp73-78. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  • 5: Lockhart. J, Men from Cajamarca., pp18 20
  • 6: Lockhart. J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies: Sixteenth Century., p5.
  • 7: Prescott. Conquest of Peru p258., citing Xerez vol iii p203. 8: Wood. M, Conquistadors., p141.
  • 9: MacQuarrie, p126.
  • 10: Palma. R, Peruvian traditions., pp247-248.
  • 11: MacQuarrie., p106.
  • 12: Markham. C., Reports on the Discovery of Peru Footnote 3., pp102-103.

Abbreviated Sources.

  • Wood. M. Conquistadors.
  • Brooks, J., Marriage, Legitimacy.
  • Bruhns, K.O. Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America.
  • Lockhart J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies.
  • Lockhart. J. Men from Cajamarca.
  • Markham. C. Reports on the Discovery of Peru.
  • MacQuarrie. K. Last Days of the Incas.
  • Palma. R. Peruvian Traditions. 
  • Prescott. Conquest of Peru.
  • Pizarro. P. (Ainsworth, Trans). Relation of the Discovery and Conquest of the Kingdoms of Peru. 
  • Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru
  • Hemming. Conquest of the Incas.

See you again for another Asventured in Historyland. Josh.

Book Review. The Scandal of George III’s Court. By Catherine Curzon.

In 1820 crowds and reformers clamoured in the streets demanding that Queen Caroline, the popular wife of the unpopular George IV’s, be granted her rights. The unfaithful husband wished to divorce her on grounds of infidelity, but she was determined to be queen. 

The events that followed were farcical, as the royal family’s dirty linen was put on full display and many thought the ongoing crisis might lead to a constitutional disaster. Petitioners, espousing the cause of the queen barred the Duke of Wellington’s way while he was out riding. They demanded he give a cheer for the queen. 

The private lives of the monarchs were no secret, everyone knew what the King and Queen had been up to, as if it had been a weekly soap opera. The Duke raised his hat and obliged, but added ‘May all your wives be like her’ as he rode on.

You honestly cannot invent more high profile scandal than what is contained in the history of the Georgian monarchy. The court itself was hardly a place of refined pageantry, it was a place of passions and intrigues, both petty and great. The court was a scandal.

This book is a slim, good quality hardback with a single image section filled with black and white portraits of the major players, captioned with simple identifying tags. There is an index, a bibliography and a notes section.

Not as dramatic or romantic as the Stuart’s, nor as institutional as the Saxe Coburgs the House of Hanover represent an ideal of monarchy that is both recognisably opulent and scandalous.

The appeal of any monarchy revolves around the daily life of its court. The rich and powerful have a reputation for excess and insanity that is more than borne out by this book.

You can have no better tour guide to the subject. Catherine Curzon’s sense of humour and eye for detail is eminently suited to opening a window of the court of the house of Hanover and peeking in.

(She is something of a whiz at the ins and outs of the Georgian Royalty you know) We of the online court know her better as the great brain behind the Madame Gilfurt blog and an all round good egg.

Her descriptions of important members of the royal family, their attendants, friends and retainers and the associated goings on offer a glittering, extravagant contrast to the typical Austin view of the Georgian and regency eras.

In this book she delivers on her promise to get to the bottom … I mean lift the petticoats … I mean tailcoats … untangle … She investigates allot of the most famous scandals associated with the various George’s and their queen’s.

Dangerous husbands, philanderers, and that surprising instance of the King’s son, the Duke of York (who went right up to the top of the hill and back down again), CinC of the army getting into hot water over his mistress and the dodgy sale of army commissions.

So have some snuff and a reviving gulp of brandy handy as the author takes those naughty caricatures from Gillray and Rowlandson and tells the story’s behind them. By the end you will wonder how any of the royal family managed to keep a shred of reputation.

Josh.

Book Review: The Pharaoh’s Treasure by John Gaudet.

  • Amberly Publishing.
  • ISBN 9781445689944
  • Paperback
  • 15 Jan 2019
  • 40 Images.

In the 1991 movie Black Robe, Ernest Schellenberg plays an Algonquin leader escorting a Jesuit missionary. One of the best scenes is when the priest demonstrates how writing works.

In 1532, when the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa was awaiting his fate, he would ask that words be written down for him so that he could learn Spanish. Not least so he, a man who knew nothing of writing could observe how the work of a scribe was performed.

Where would we be without paper? He asks typing on a touch sensitive screen, ordering pixelated keys to generate letters that will never be printed.

Like all good true stories The Pharaoh’s Treasure focuses on a something simple and uses it to expose greater truth.

Behind every royal library were scribes, and behind them were the people who made the materials that allowed the library to exist at all.

When so much is a trick of the eye, untouchable, generated and at the same time more accessible than ever the value of paper is all at once enhanced and diminished.

A handwritten note shows you care. It’s also a demonstration of class. What was once a commonplace gesture now speaks in volumes.

Already we think about paper much differently to what we did 70 years ago. Might we conceivably return one day in the distant future to looking at it as prized commodity?

When did it become so time consuming to write something with our own hand? He said ruefully staring at the image on his screen.

Waxing lyrical, or poetic about the timeless qualities of communication has already been done efficiently enough in this book for me to add anything.

Gaudet’s book is well written and full of fascinating detail. Not your average history book and very original. It is primarily concerned with the history of Papyrus. The Pharaoh’s Treasure.

A 4,000 year old history that can be written because of the medium it studies. That is special. It is what Papyrus has done best for longer than parchment & pulp paper put together.

The Pharaoh’s Treasure shows us why Papyrus was so special. It is a mundane but key note. It’s durability, sustainability & simplicity  was it’s success. 

Because of these key facets of its manufacture and use, Papyrus became a time capsule for the collected knowledge of the centuries.

Previous to its widespread use, information had to be imparted on clay & stone. Though Papyrus was more susceptible to fire it was easier to store in large quantities, so much of what we know is thanks to this treasured paper. 

All of the above make up a central point of John Gaudet’s book. This ancient story is at the heart of everything we think, and want to remember. 

Think about the last time your laptop crashed, or your phone went dead on you. Sometimes … indeed most of the time, the answer to our problems can be solved by a piece of paper.

Suddenly technology doesn’t seem as friendly as that notebook. Suddenly that long history of paper becomes very relevant. And this is why you’ll enjoy this book.

Josh

Book Review: Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough.

In reading this book I have learnt a super car game for long journeys, (spot the Viking place/name). And that Tolkein was hopping mad with Hitler for appropriating history.

Professor Tolkein wrote that ‘I have in this War a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolph Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, & making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit… which I have ever loved, & tried to present in its true light.’ Beyond the Northlands shaped up well.

The author, Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough is light and engaging. And good at rhyming as well! Her choice of subject matter matches the tone. Who indeed doesn’t like to read the marginal scribbles of scribes who have been working too long? 

It strives to understand what Tolkien called ‘that noble northern spirit.’ Creating a readable and understandable work of history that is at the same time uncompromising in its depth.

To do this the author has gone to the sagas and searched them for clues and messages that rebuild the world of the ‘Vikings.’

Understanding the old Norse (and Norwegian rather than other Scandinavian/Viking Countries is the focus here), sagas and voyages within their historical and cultural context is difficult.

With the great enthusiasm across the world for all things Viking and fantastic, this book is an extremely helpful guide to a very complicated and bewildering subject, that is at the same time deeply engrossing and mysterious.

Wonderfully illustrated and authentic to place and time, the author has written perhaps one of the ultimate works for those wishing a deeper insight, as well as those new to the study of medieval Scandinavia.

Josh.

The Free Traders.

This is the story of Samuel White and the men who tried to oppose the EIC’s monopoly on trade in the East during the 17th century.

By Josh Provan.

Servant of the Company.

The Capital of Siam.


Samuel White came to Siam by way of Madras as a pilot working for the East India Company (EIC) in 1676. He had left the West Country (where he was likely to have been born in 1650), to chance his fortune. Six years before, his elder brother ,George had traveled east with his business partner a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon and had become “Free Traders” in the Kingdom of Siam. 

The White’s were a family deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation, they disagreed with the EIC’s royally endorsed monopoly over trade in the east. Private enterprise was what they believed in and they weren’t afraid to challenge the Honourable Company to achieve their ends. 

To that end Phaulkon and George somehow managed to insinuate themselves into King Narai’s court at Ayudhya, largely due to Phaulkon’s previous experience in the EIC.

Here they could be covered from illegally poaching EIC trade routes by working under the flag of Siam, however for his part Phaulkon had other ideas. At that time Siam was the link between Japan and India, a vital mercantile clearing house for luxury goods and firearms. George White and Phaulkon saw “The Siam Trade” as a perfect opportunity to make good.

The only problem was that the commercial interests of Siam were largely controlled by the Islamic merchants, most of whom had ties to the Kingdom of Golconda, which controlled the island of Masulipatam and the port of Mergui.

A strategic spot that pretty much controlled the principal trade routes and thus the area. At the same time Siam was being courted by the French, yet Phaulkon promised to deliver the “Siam Trade” to the EIC and Samuel White would be vital in his plan to oust Golconda from the area.

By 1679, despite a pessimistic outlook from the EIC, things were looking hopeful. Phaulkon had manoeuvred his way into a position of influence in Siam, while Samuel worked hard to increase the EIC’s interest in the area. Then things turned foul.

Unsurprisingly Golconda’s governor in Tenesserim objected to the intrusion and actively tried to thwart and sabotage Samuel’s efforts. The hostility between White and Golconda now grew and would cause unforeseen results in the future.

After several mishaps and a fire that burned down a warehouse (possibly to cover up mismanagement) the EIC began to distance themselves from the project, they were already expanding in India and dangerously overextended.

In 1683 Phaulkon, who could see a vacuum effect starting, sold out the EIC by successfully getting the King to oust Golconda’s Muslim traders from Siam and replacing them with mostly European agents loyal to him.

Phaulkon was made a mandarin and put in control of foreign trade. George had since left for England but Samuel White was made Customs Official (Shahbunder) of the port of Mergui, and the EIC’s ex factor in Siam, Richard Burnaby was made governor of the town.

A move that surprised many Siamese unused to seeing foreigners in power. White dutifully resigned his post with the EIC, automatically forfeiting his stake in the companh by doing so, but he wasn’t too worried as he had bigger plans.  

The EIC now looked with even more suspicion on Phaulkon and his associates. Despite their cordial congratulations to White, the deliberate posting of ex EIC workers to high commercial posts started ringing alarm bells in Madras.

Yet they were not inclined to write off White just yet and hoped to cultivate him in the future. Unfortunately for the EIC and Phaulkon Samuel White was about to show his true colours.

The Pirate King.

The Cunnjng Phaulkon.

Fast forward to 1685 and a dramatic transformation has occurred in Samuel White. Showing extreme ruthlessness, guile and vengefulness, White had first gained permission to force stubborn Golconda to trade with Siam. To that end he “enlisted” two of the many freelance captains hanging around the Indian Ocean hoping to make their fortune into the Siamese navy. Yes, he hired some pirates.

The plan to get revenge on the governor of Masulipatam, Ali Beague, turned sour after his permission was revoked. Yet he set out on a convoluted scheme to fraudulently order and then steal some ships from Beague anyway.

The plan ended up with his hired guns, Captain Coates and Captain Cropley, enlisting a third captain named Leslie and blockading the port and in addition to pillaging rice boats, they also looted two ships, one of which belonged to an Armenian merchant from Madras under EIC protection.

Though Coates was forced to give back the stolen goods (less £4,000 of rubies that he conveniently couldn’t find) and Samuel having to palm off Phaulkon with some excuses, his pirates seized a rich cargo lying off Mergui when they returned.

White now embarked on a campaign of organised piracy to extort the merchants of the Indian Ocean. By March 1686 White’s flotilla of 4 ships which had taken 7 prizes and their cargos.

The routine was simple; seize a wealthy ship and if necessary imprison its officers in a warehouse in the town without food or water until they promised to sign a paper that cleared “The Shahbunder” of any wrongdoing.

This plan was effective, though he is only known to have resorted to it once, extorting £3,063 in total, it is likely he used it a few times. Samuel seemed to know he couldn’t keep up these activities forever and was putting a defence together for a rainy day. It was wise that he did so, as his latest swindle was against yet more merchants from Madras.

The Great Escape.

Fort St George, Madras.

Before he founded the College, Elihu Yale was Governor of Fort St George at Madras. It was he who received the emissaries from Samuel White’s latest deprivation.

An angry letter was sent off to Mergui demanding restitution, but it went unanswered and as it was despite his anger Yale could do little more, for events were already proceeding that would resolve the issue one way or the other.

In a preposterous attempt to coerce the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb, the head of the EIC board Josiah Childs sent the largest military expedition yet to the east.

Its target was Chittagong, Bengal, 10 ships and 6,000 men duly went off on a disastrous campaign that ended in 1690 with EIC peace commissioners begging Aurangzeb on their knees for peace.

Had this expedition been successful its next goal was to punish Siam for her supposed crimes against the company. White heard about this as he was on his way to Ayudhya to explain his piracy to Phaulkon.

He misread the intention of the company and feared a descent upon the nearby island of Negrais preparatory to an attack on Mergui. 

A small force was sent to Negrais to claim it officially for Siam, and was just as hurriedly recalled by a perplexed Phaulkon early in 1687 who was increasingly losing his grip on power.

A recent revolt by the exiled Makassar’s, sheltering in the kingdom had destabilised things, Captain Coates had even been killed putting the rebellion down and the Islamic merchants were putting pressure on the king to remove Phaulkon and his cronies.

White saw the writing o the wall and began consolidating his holdings and distributing them in places of safety. Further to this he obtained a letter from the provincial council that he was working under orders, the paper was backdated 1685. 

Despite becoming embroiled with the Mughal’s the EIC also saw fit to make preparations for the coming war against Siam.

They procured a writ from King James II that ordered all English subjects to leave Siamese territory and demanded £65,000 in damages be paid by Phaulkon. In June 1687 two frigates arrived at Mergui to see that it was carried out. 

Things had been going bad for White recently, he had lost one of his ships in the Bay of Bengal and he had been drinking heavily.

He had told his reluctant American Secretary, James Davenport that he intended to cut everyone loose and escape as soon as possible. This option was now removed as Captain Weltden’s ships arrived and blockaded the port.

Luckily for him Weltden would prove a gullible and indeed rather crooked sort, and one that tended to press too hard. He apparently so offended the Siamese officials that they opened fire on him and sank one of his frigates.

On a tip from Davenport he then sized White’s largest ship to prevent his escape which prompted White to overreact and try to destroy his house.

The situation was resolved by the Siamese. The people of Mergui became terrified that the Europeans would bombard the port and rioted with the intention of killing all the English.

Captain Weltden only just escaped with his life, Mr. Burnaby was killed along with over 50 other English people and White fled to the Company ship for protection.

White’s run of luck then resumed. Mysteriously he was able to trick or get Weltden to let him sail off in his ship, and surprise surprise he sailed right home to England, with a fortune perhaps in excess of £30-40,000.

It then turned out that his large cache of coerced affidavits effectively blocked the EIC’s levelled charges when he challenged the Company’s hegemony in the east.

Samuel died on 7 April 1689, the case was taken up by his brother in the name of Samuel’s nieces, and due to the great unpopularity of all things associated with the Stuart’s after the Glorious Revolution, it was won in 1694.

Ironically in the year of the revolution, 1688, another upheaval rocked Siam which cost the plotting Phaulkon his life. Though without a doubt Samuel’s activities in Mergui were deeply questionable.

When it comes down to it he acted no worse than the EIC did in its own dealings in India, which begs the question was Samuel White, the Free Trading Pirate, really the villain? You decide.

See you again for another adventure in Historyland.

Sources:

The English Gentleman Merchant at Work, Madras and London 1660-1740, Søren Mentz.

The Cambridge History of India, vol III.

Early English Intercourse with Burma, 1587-1743, David George and Edward Hall.

English Intercourse with Siam in the 17th Century, John Anderson.

Accounts of the Makassar Revolt, 1686, Michael Smithies.

A History of British India vols I-II Sir William Wilson

NOTE. This article fist appeared in 2016 on the Britannia Magazine Facebook Page

Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2018.

So many books, So little time. I can’t be more original than that. 2018 was a year of reviews. The generosity of publishers and authors allowed me to keep content running to the website while I focused on other projects. Words fail to express my gratitude, both to them and to every visitor. Here are my favourites.

Pursuit of Empire. By Davinder Toor. 

An invaluable and important cultural document, ablaze with colour and history. The rare, the well known, the strange and the familiar all easily combine in one of the most lavish and wonderful catalogues of Indian art ever put into binding. Lovers of art and history will love, indeed they will reverence this book.

The King and the Catholics. By Antonia Fraser.

The book is as compulsive, detailed and human as the most stunning political exposés. Not only that but it offers a surprisingly inspiring and positive story to what increasingly seems to be a jaded and angry world. It will keep you gripped to the final dramatic finish.

The Sultans. By Jem Duducu.

If you like your history epic but with a light touch, Sultans is the book for you.

Legion vs Phalanx. By Myke Cole.

Myke Cole has written an accessible, entertaining and detailed narrative of the development of infantry warfare in the ancient world. If as is suggested st the end, a military system is a representation of the society it comes from, then there is a lesson there.

Napoleon: Spirit of the Age. By Michael Broers.

Without an axe to grind nor a trumpet to play, Broers has written a truly even-handed and nuanced second volume. Perhaps it is still a little merciless to a newcomer but it is as gripping and thoughtful as it is interesting.

Happy Reading in 2019, Josh.

Book Review. Peckuwe 1780 by John F. Winkler.

‘the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.’

  • Author: John F. Winkler
  • Illustrator: Peter Dennis
  • Short code: CAM 327
  • Publication Date: 18 Oct 2018
  • Number of Pages: 96

https://ospreypublishing.com/peckuwe-1780

The Shadow War.

Along the western frontier of the 13 colonies a shadow war was being fought. While Washington fought the famous battles that won Independence for the United States, men like Daniel Boone were fighting in the wilderness in a much less clear cut war.

Faced by a wide array of Indian tribes, men like Boone and Clark were engaged in a fight on which depended the future of the western border of the new nation.

In dozens of unknown or forgotten ambushes, massacres and battles the border of the frontier that was to be won after independence was secured. Though the British gave what aid the could to these far flung wilderness campaigns, it was predominantly an Indian affair.

Since the beginning of the war the nasty business of bush warfare had been flaring up in the hotbed of the Ohio Valley. Settled by the British colonies after the defeat of the French it was still vulnerable to the Indian tribes who lived to the north and west of it.

Chalawgatha

By 1779, the Indians who were allied with the British, and those who fought the settlers, were raiding with impunity through modern Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois. Not to mention the devastating raids along the New York frontier. 

The State government of Virginia feared the depopulation of the Ohio and the onslaught of the hostile tribes. Money and munitions were fed westward into the hands of the legendary frontiersmen to combat them.

Colonel George Rogers Clark decided to lead a strong force of militia, regulars and woodsmen mostly from Kentucky and Illinois through the untamed wilderness to the Indian town of Chalawgatha and destroy it. 

Chalawgatha was an infamous base from which some of the most destructive raids of the war in the west had been carried out.

The various Indian leaders were outnumbered and poorly equipped, yet they were masters of wilderness warfare. Clark built a road from the Ohio to Chalawgatha in order to supply his men. Abandoning their town the Indians moved to a spot ten miles north of the town called Peckuwe on the Mad River.

Legends of the Old Frontier.

This was not a turning point in the American Revolution but it was a point of movement for the westward expansion that followed. I suspect that the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.

It also played a crucial role in forming the legends of men like Clark, Boone and Girty. As usual John F. Winkler brings methodical research, scholarly and entertaining detail and remarkable clarity to his work.

Illustrated with many fascinating photographs, detailed maps and double page Campaign series illustrations by Peter Dennis, (who has included many portraits into these paintings), this is a solid Osprey Campaign title. 

Book Review: Japan Story by Christopher Harding.

‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’

It’s difficult to write an original review about a book for which a review has already been written that I completely agree with. But that is how I feel as I set out to type this.

A New Take on a Familiar Story.

As Neil McGregor points out on the back of one of the loveliest dust jacket’s of 2018, there isn’t anything hugely different about this book but at the same time it’s unlike most of the history’s of Japan I’ve encountered before

Japan Story takes you on a familiar journey, but subtly guides you through it with a nonconformist perspective. The journalists who mocked the Meiji elite’s attempt to be more western than the west at the expense of Japan’s unique refinements.

The people who realised that they had not had a revolution but a restoration, agitators and terrorists desperate to find a way to make their voices heard.

The proponents of female suffrage who were at odds with the traditionally promulgated Meiji view that women stood as the ideal of home and society, and tellingly were therefore allegorised as a personification of Japan’s traditional values. 

If there had been a revolution the wheel of change had turned as truly a Samurai revolution. An eastern version of the Restoration of 1660, and indeed that is exactly what it was, a restoration. Here Samurai is to be taken literally, it had been a revolution for the already entitled.

There is a common perception that Japan embraced modernity with a wholehearted vigour. That the people followed where the modernisers led without qualm or objection. 

Japan Story blurs the edges of this neat perception of Japanese History, and shows us a more messy, conflicted and human background to it all.

Stories are how we Survive.

‘A modest Asian country rises rapidly and purposefully to a parity is sorts with the advanced seafaring empires of the west, briefly it descends into corruption and cruelty & is deservedly crushed; but then it soars again’ 

That is the nutshell story of Japan, a history that the author challenges. To give an example I will briefly focus on the part that I am most familiar with.

For about nine decades Japan could confidently assume that the eyes of the world are upon her. As a result the county put on the greatest mime show in history, which opened to rave reviews. But with that, the author observes, came a potent self consciousness quite opposed to the traditional view of self confidence.

Meiji reformers could not bear to draw condescending looks from the foreigners they had one made fun of, or in several cases literally tried to murder and burn out of house and home.

I’m more used to reading of Itō Hirobumi when he was a Chōsū rebel during the Bakumatsu. But in 1887 the one time arsonist threw Japan’s first masquerade ball in the lavish Deer Cry Hall (Rokumeikan).

It was a scandalous affair but the government and the upper classes wanted to look their best.

‘The tut-tutting of visitors … mattered. There were anxious calls for curbs on bathing naked in public or urinating in the street’.

Alright, that last one seems fairly sensible, but you get the idea.

These calls came not from outraged foreigners, but from the leaders of Japan. Put in this light, Harding reveals that for the average subjects of the restored emperor, everything was quickly turning transparent.

Japanese culture was simplified and sold to a very receptive international clientele, eager to prove the superiority of the western system.

As a case in point, he points out that the nationally accepted story of japan from the Meiji Era to the present is in itself inherently fabricated. Within that he points to the obvious and most recognisable legacy of Japanese history, the Samurai. 

In so doing he points out that even Samurai culture was packaged up and put on show, proudly advertised as a Japanese equivalent of Europe’s chivalric tradition.

To the disappointment of many a documentary filmmaker and pop culture fan, Nitobe Inazō’s bestselling Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (1900) was ‘published in English, for foreign consumption’, but then again, stories are how we survive.

The other side of the coin.

Through this book we can see that, rather than Japan being doily and resigned to its march to the future there was something of a clash of ideas.

While the great and good espoused western fashions and pastimes, traditionalists spoke of the waltz much as Europeans did 80 years before.

A Japanese journalist is even quoted as bemoaning, in excruciating detail, the the wanton effect dancing had on ladies: ‘when a woman reaches such a state, were is the innate modesty of the virtuous maiden’.

Worship and reverence for the emperor was real, but so was the practical side of devotion to a figure the average Japanese person found as almost too legendary to actually be real.

Even then we find that attendance was poor for Meiji era Imperial processions. Allot of work went into encouraging turnouts as a patriotic duty and the short term answer was to ensure children were brought to watch Royal events. Coming from a country that still has a constitutional monarchy, it sounds rather familiar. 

Because most of my reading and research has focused on 19th century Japan, it would be of no use to speak deeply of how the author treats the tumultuous events of the 20th century. However the same sense of moment and originality carries through the entire book. 

It would be difficult to be certain if the author’s confident opinions will be shared by everyone, such a thing would surely be impossible. However I was unable to take great exception to anything.

I got the impression that instead of opinions, any resolution based thereon was pitched in terms of thoughts and ideas. The reader is free to ponder and accept or reject as they please.

Japan Story also succeeds in begin generally entertaining and is scattered with all sorts of fascinating titbits, a good example being Japan’s overlooked role in WW1.

‘The imperial Japanese navy escorted hundreds of allied ships in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, while injured soldiers on the western front occasionally found themselves being tended to by nurses from the Japanese Red Cross’.


Moved along with an unhurried pace, never boring, always lucid and with some of the most fluid prose and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation.

Josh.